All I Did Was Ask

a book by Terry Gross

In the introduction to a collection of her radio interviews broadcast on National Public Radio, Fresh Air host Terry Gross has a few words for potential skeptics: “You may be wondering what the point is of reading interviews that were meant to be listened to,” writes Gross, who has hosted Fresh Air since 1975. “But in going through transcripts in preparation for this book, I was pleasantly surprised that so many of the interviews I remembered as having been good radio also made for enjoyable reading. In reading the ones gathered here?and I probably shouldn’t admit this?I’ve learned things from them that went right by me in the studio.”

While guests on Fresh Air are often experts called in to comment on the news of the day, Gross’s book differs from the radio show in that it features interviews only with people from the arts. “Whereas ?timely’ interviews can become dated very quickly, the pleasure we gain from the finest books and movies and music stays with us. So does our interest in the people who create them,” writes Gross in the introduction. Beyond enjoyable reading, Gross’s compendium offers a window into the minds of nearly 40 writers, actors, directors, musicians, comics, and visual artists, and shows how their inner lives shape their public respective crafts. For example, comedian Chris Rock talks about why his struggle with being skinny forces him to work twice as hard as other stand-up comedians. Actress and former Lanc?me model Isabella Rossellini explains the connection between emotions and great photos, and actor Nicolas Cage describes why he thought it would be a good idea to chew a cockroach for a scene in Vampire’s Kiss.

Grossly Well-Prepared
No less interesting than the interviewees are the carefully and sensitively crafted questions posed by Gross, who is often praised for her meticulous pre-interview research for Fresh Air, a Peabody Award-winning radio show which is now broadcast on over 400 NPR stations to 4 million daily listeners. Gross’s conversations with the likes of Johnny Cash, Mario Puzo, Jodie Foster, Nick Hornby, and Conan O’Brien, illustrate Gross’s nuanced understanding of music, film, and fiction. She asks master jazz bassist Charlie Haden why he chooses to think in terms of melody rather than harmony. She discusses literature brilliantly with John Updike.

To be sure, not all of the interviews are equally exciting and the book sags a bit in the middle, especially in interviews with Jodie Foster, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, and stand-up comedian Albert Brooks, in which Gross fixates on their role in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, a personal favorite of Gross’s and co-executive Fresh Air producer Danny Miller. If you don’t share the obsession, the fixation is annoying.

But even if some readers aren’t interested in certain interviews they will be impressed by Gross’ masterful interviewing abilities–a fine art in and of themselves. In one instance, by daring to ask jazz bassist Charlie Haden about how polio ravaged his vocal cords and voice range, she actually played a part in encouraging him to start singing again after a longtime singing hiatus, something Haden himself acknowledged.

Art’s Spiritual Side
Gross’ book does not set out to be about faith, but it’s interesting how often the subject creeps into the conversations. In these 39 interviews a connection between a spiritual life and the arts is palpable in many forms. Writer Andre Dubus talks about praying for the driver who crashed into him on the side of a road and crippled him for life. Memoirist Mary Karr discusses her conversion to Catholicism, first inspired by her good friend, writer Tobias Wolff. Nicolas Cage, a self-described Christian, describes acting as an altered state. “I almost see it like channeling spirits,” he said to Gross. Children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, raised Jewish, shares his love of angels. “I’m not obsessed with angels, but I do adore angels,” Sendak said. “They do appear in my new book, primarily because so many people have died recently that I have populated my book with their spirits floating around. And they’re all reading The New York Times, because even up there, you’ve got to figure out what’s going on every day.”

Though Gross herself never reveals her own disposition toward spiritual matters, her book is filled with questions that seek to find a link between her guests’ art and their “inner life.” In a sense, All I Did Was Ask, is really a collection of creation stories from the makers of some of the finest contemporary films, books, and music. And regardless of what term she chooses to use, her boundless interest in exploring the “many ways there are of living an introspective, intelligent life” inevitably bumps up against mysteries for which there are no answers.