Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Q&A Studs Terkel: Listen


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date Approximate)

A tape recorder, with microphone in hand, on the table or the arm of the chair or on the grass, can transform both the visitor and the host. On one occasion, using the play-back, my companion murmured in wonder; "I never realized I felt that way." And I was filled with wonder, too.
   Working

ST: I'm not gonna puff this cigar.

HB: Go ahead. I like secondary smoke.

ST: Nah, nah.

HB: I really don't mind.

ST: You sure? Because I shouldn't do it.

HB: Do it if you want to.

ST: They have no ashtray. I'll use one of these things. As for you, eat the Danish.

HB: I'm not hungry. Eating screws up interviewing. Can you interview on a full stomach?

ST: Nah.

HB: Know what I mean?

ST: I know what you mean. Sure.

HB: Lots of your vignettes begin with you talking to yourself. In Race you write, "As I walk down the street, mumbling to myself, I see an elderly black woman." In Working you write, "While riding the El, I was approached by a singularly tall stranger. Hearing me talking to myself (as I have a habit of doing), he . . . "

ST: I talk to myself all the time. I find the audience very appreciative.

HB: Do you disagree with yourself?

ST: Now and then, I wonder. Anecdote: It's a have/have-not neighborhood. I'm talking to myself and waiting for the bus. This couple, Neiman-Marcus clothes. She's got the latest Vanity Fair in her hand, and the guy's got the Wall Street Journal, naturally, and a three piece suit. I can't make conversation with them. They ignore me. The bus is late in coming.

I say, "Labor Day is coming up." That's all I need. Labor Day. He turns away. The bus is still late. "Oh we used to walk down State Street banners flying, solidarity forever. UAW, CIO, signs up high."

He turns to me and says, "We despise unions."

I say to myself, I got a pigeon here.

HB: You're enjoying it.

ST: I'm the Ancient Mariner. I fix him with the glittering eye. "How many hours a day do you work?"

He says, "Eight."

I say, "You know why you work eight and not eighteen?"

Meantime the bus is not coming, he's taking a step back, the girl's a little tremulous now. "Cause four guys got hanged in Haymarket back in 1886. They were fighting for an eight hour day for you." I got him pinned against the mailbox, he can't get away.

"How many hours a week do you work?"

He says, "Forty."

He's scared now. I say, "You know why you work forty, not eighty hours a week? Cause a lot of guys got their heads busted back in the thirties."

She drops the Vanity Fair. I pick it up and give it to her with a little bow. The bus comes.

There's no sense of history. What have they been told about unions? They know nothing about the thirties, the New Deal, nothing about the past. That's why the UPS victory was so telling.

HB: That's what you talk to yourself about? Unions, the CIO, the UPS strike?

ST: Sure, and about Mozart,

HB: Mozart?

ST: The opening of the Marriage of Figaro, where he's measuring the steps of the house. It's about the right of the first night, and Figaro challenges him. It's a Beaumarchais play, the French Revolution, challenging the right to the first night. That first aria. I talk about all that stuff. Amistad just opened in Chicago last Saturday night. Anything. The Sox.

HB: You're one of the country's grand interviewers. How did you start?

ST: My whole life was an accretion of accidents. I went to University of Chicago law school. So I dream of Clarence Darrow. My father was a mild socialist. Voted for Debs. Nothing militant. My mother and father spoke Jewish. But I forgot it long ago. My father was ill, so my mother was a seamstress. His sister married a pretty rich guy. He leant us money. So we bought a rooming house, and then a hotel. And that hotel became my college. The Wells Grand Hotel at the corner of Wells and Grand. The Wells Grand.

The hotel was near the Loop, the downtown theater section. I loved plays. Press agents would come to the hotel -- they were too lazy to go to the plays but they gave us tickets. I became a theater and movie and art movie fan. And soap operas were in Chicago, and radio soap operas.

HB: PBS just aired its history of Vaudeville. You looked very happy, and were very eloquent, talking about Vaudeville.

ST: Friday nights at the Palace, well, that was exciting. My dream, my dream was to be a spectator.

HB: So how did you go wrong and become an interviewer?

ST: I don't know. I was in this acting group and this guy, he liked the way I talked, and said, want to do a radio show? Jazz, folk music? And that led to it.

And there was TV. TV was new, and I was one of the early pioneers. 1949, 1950. I gotta point out, the medium was brand new. It was not a sales medium, and therefore was in hands of the creative people, the writers, directors and actors.

HB: And it was live.

ST: Live and how. Three programs stood out. One was "Garraway at Large." The second show was "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie." The third show was "Studs Place," sort of an improvised show.

There was a critic named John Crosby, the preeminent television critic of the country, syndicated all over. And he said there was something called TV Chicago style, and mine was one of the three shows he meant. We improvised, and that very live quality was exciting.

But then, I got a big mouth. I talk and I sign petitions. I sign a petition against Jim Crow. I sign a petition for Friendship with the Soviet Union. I sign a petition against the poll tax. And now McCarthy time's coming, my names on all these petitions. And so I was attacked.

Head people in New York were seeing this program. Then it was suddenly dropped. I was visited by some of New York's NBC bigwigs, cause -- here's the phrase they used -- "you are a valuable property." They say, well, look, Studs, we gotta save this show. This petition you signed was started by Communists.

Maybe, maybe not. But I am anti-Jim Crow.

And then I get cute. I talk to myself and I get cute. I say, suppose Communists come out against cancer. Do we come out for it?

And they say, we don't think that's very funny. Finally, they say, Studs, these days you gotta stand up and be counted.

HB: Where'd you get "Studs"?

ST: My name is Louie. I was reading Studs Lonigan at the time. I was in Waiting for Lefty, and they started calling me Studs and it stuck. And I wrote a jazz book for kids in 1957, story of jazz from King Oliver to John Coltrane, and the editors said, good name, keep Studs.

It got me in trouble. A librarian wrote in from Georgia. She said, the life of a librarian down here is dull, but has its piquant moments, such as the one I just experienced. One of my volunteers, a fan of Jerry Fallwell, said, a request came in for a book of pornographic literature -- Working Studs, by Terkel.

HB: OK, you're in Chicago; you're getting knocked off the air.

ST: I'm not working. I'm doing little things, a lecture on jazz here and there, or a story about folklore for $50, $100, and then one day I was listening to a classical radio station, WFMT, and they're playing Woody Guthrie. I call and say, I would like to join you. And the owner of the station says, we'd love to have you, except for one thing, we're flat broke. I said, so am I, so we're even. That was 1952. And I've been there ever since.

HB: So it's 1952.

ST: And you want to know how I started interviewing.

HB: Right

ST: On this program, I play jazz, folk music, interview a writer or two. Suddenly a woman calls up and says, hey, why don't you do that more often? Do what? Talk to people the way you do. I wish you'd do more of that. It's real honest to god conversation. The others are processed food. When you do it, it's exciting.

HB: What kind of people did you interview?

ST: Jazz artists, young writers of books. But I'd still read short stories; I still do opera, tell the story, say, of Carmen -- about a tomato who loved not too wisely but too often -- in slang and then go into the actual recording. I'd do that, followed by Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues," followed by Burl Ives. Now I start to interview, in addition to all this.

I do a program on FMT for the past 45 years, an hour, any damn thing I want to do -- interview an activist in the neighborhood, read Flannery O'Connor or Ring Lardner or Chekov. One thing led to another. We're we're coming to the books. Oral history, so-called. One day Andre Shipre [spelling?] he's my publisher, Pantheon Books before he was forced out, when the billionaire took over, Newhouse, he called me one day, 1965, around there. I'm 53 years old. Born in 1912. The Titanic went down, I came up.

He had just published a book by Jan Myrdal, called Report from a Chinese Village, which is what happens to this Chinese village as a result of the revolution. How about you doing a book, he says, about an American village? Meaning Chicago. I say, you're out of your mind. How can you compare a small town in China with something going on right now in Chicago, with Civil Rights, cybernetics, automation? He says, why don't you try it?

It became Division St. America. Next thing I know, critics like it very much. So Andre calls up a year later, and says, what about a book about the depression?

And that's how the books began. Because he had read some of my interviews in a magazine.

HB: How do you edit when you're going from the spoken interview to the written word?

ST: Right. It winds up 30 pages, single spaced. I've got to give you eight pages. Now comes editing. I compare myself to a gold prospector, a gold prospector in 1849 who heard that gold was discovered in California, and goes out there in a covered wagon.

I hear about somebody. I go.

The prospector starts digging. We're talking and talking. He comes up with all this ore, tons of it. And I come up with all these pages. Now comes the question of sifting. The prospector sifts and winds up with a handful of gold dust. I do the editing and I wind up with my handful, the 8 pages. It's still not a book. Just dust. You got to make a watch out of it, a tiara out of it, a necklace. So you connect this interview with all the others to make a book.

HB: The books don't always retain the interview format. You edit yourself out.

ST: That's the point, how do you make it flow as a soliloquy? The key thing is this: in no way do anything that will alter what that person has in mind.

Do you change the sequence? Of course, I change the sequence. I'm talking to you now. We could have started a million ways. Nothing's in stone. Any interview is flexible but you do it to be true to that person and get the essence of it. You don't tell the truth, You highlight the truth.

HB: You write: "I realized quite early in this adventure that interviews, conventionally conducted, were meaningless . . . The question-and-answer technique may be of value in determining favored detergents, toothpaste, and deodorants but not in the discovery of men and women. It was simply a case of making conversation."

When did interviewing, as we practice it, begin?

ST: The Year One. Pre-Genesis. Oral history, a storyteller.

HB: When I listen to a story, I shut up. But when I'm interviewing someone, I don't shut up.

ST: You're still listening to a storyteller. The interviewer is encouraging the storyteller. I'm encouraging C.P. Ellis the former Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan to explain what happened to him, how he was transformed to something else. I'm seeking something from him; I'm encouraging him to say it. They're the storytellers.

When Alex Haley wrote Roots, the first thing he did was go back to the land of his ancestors, Gambia in West Africa, to meet the griots, tribal storytellers.

HB: So interviewing is a form of storytelling.

ST: Interviewing is a form that encourages storytelling.

HB: interviews are quite a vehicle in our culture right now. How do you tell story about a vampire? Interview a vampire. How do you learn about the Holocaust? Interview peasants, as Lanzman did in Shoah.

ST: Right. Marcel Ophuls, The Sorrow and the Pity.

When I got that Lifetime Award a couple of weeks ago in New York City, I had to make a speech. My opening line was, "There's a touch of irony to this present occasion. I am being celebrated after a fashion for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated."

So I come back to why I may be successful at doing this, because these people, who may be shy, who haven't talked before, who wonder why I'm seeing them, see me as vulnerable. When I goof up on the tape recorder -- oops, wrong button -- some people accuse me of deliberately doing it, but I don't. I'm just no good mechanically.

HB: A bit of a klutz.

ST: That's right, and they see that, and that makes them feel pretty good. Because they realize I need them. I'm not a big shot, The opposite. We're equal.

HB: Are you a good listener?

ST: I'm a talker. But when I'm with that person, I become another person. When there's a pause, why did that person pause? Maybe there's something hurtful here. You let it lay, and come back later on. "By the way, on that matter you were talking about . . . "

HB: You've interviewed well-known people and unknown people

ST: Now you're hitting on another aspect of my life, the double dimension. On the radio, it's Andre Segovia, or John Cheever, Simone DeBeauvoir. Whereas in the books, it's the non-celebrated

If I do another book, it will be this other aspect, how my life's been affected by artists, even movies, the fantasy world. I've got a title for it: The Spectator.

HB: Do you know Anna Devere Smith's work?

ST: I'm in the one she's doing now. She's trying it out in Washington, there's a vignette with me in it.

HB: When I first saw her Crown Heights and Other Identities, I thought this is like Studs Terkel except, instead of it resting on the page, she's assuming each identity.

ST: Ah! You see that!? That's interesting.

HB: Do you ever get angry with people you interview?

ST: I want to bring that person out. Like I'm talking to Jerome Dirgin, now dead. He says, I'm the inventor of society photography. In Hard Times, he says, "There are no hard times. People can work if they want to. I was with the beautiful people, people like Babs Paley. We never discussed ugly things, like people not working or lazy bums. We never even discussed the 'Negro Question.'"

I want to strangle the guy. But I need him! I want him to talk, even though I loathe what he says.

HB: You have a very divided mind on technology. A lot of your work relies on the tape recorder. If it wasn't for television, you might not have got your start. You've been on radio for decades.

ST: I'm an ungrateful wretch. I had a quintuple bypass about two years. Technology, if it weren't for that machinery I might not be here. And here I am, a Luddite.

There's great possibility. But there's a great danger. You go to a newspaper city room, it's like a tomb. In the old days, there was noise, people talking, human voices. Today, you got young reporters right next to each other looking in that machine. They're miles apart. That's the part I find frightening.

There's a danger in it. It's like onanism. You're not connected with anyone. But like you say, without the TV, the radio, the tape recorder, I'd be a clerk in a hotel, or a concierge.

HB: You'd have been a good concierge.

ST: I gotta tell you about this. The hotel, the Grand Hotel, has the word "Grand" in it. And it's not a flophouse. These were retired railroad men, firemen, carpenters. But the name. I'm fourteen or fifteen. So I start writing letters to the Plaza in New York, the Drake in Chicago: I've worked at the Grand Hotel, and I should like to apply for the job of concierge. I got letters from all of them saying, we'll let you know.

I'd have been some concierge.

HB: How would you feel if I called you the great concierge of radio?

ST: Not bad.

HB: When you talk about your life, you talk about your interviews, the people you met, what they told you. They were the company you kept, as much maybe as family or friends.

ST: Sure. To an extent that's true. The heroes and heroines of these books. The man who invited the young minister from Atlanta to come to Montgomery; that minister was Martin Luther King. Or Florence trying to save a community when the power brokers wanted to make highways out of it. These are people I know.

HB: It reminds me of the way you write about race. You're saying, let it out. Don't repress it. Let's talk about it.

ST: It's the silence that drives me nuts, the not talking about it. The hotel lobby, for example, played a role in my life. Arguments, the guys get drunk, they'd argue, some would fight. There were strong union men and Wobblies there. There was argument and discussion, that was exciting. When you have a dead silence, someone who says he'll never talk about sex, never talk about politics or religion, you know that guy's a fraud right there.

That's about the ticket. I'm running out of steam.

HB: Great, I've got an interview. But sometimes, when the interview's done but the tape recorder's still on, it's the best part. So I'll keep the recorder on. We're done. I'm leaving. That's sometimes when it happens.

ST: Most of the battle is that way. This old guy, this black guy and I are talking -- this is for the first book, Division St. He's telling me about the race riots in Chicago and three big surprises in his life. He names two of them, and the third one -- I'm unplugging it now, it's finished -- he says, wait a minute, don't, the third big surprise is you, you coming to see me. What have I got to say that means anything? I got something to say? That's the third surprise.

Bang!! That's what it's all about. They'd never dream someone would ask them about their lives. And I say, you've just told what I would have got nowhere else, what it was like to be this black guy in 1919.

That's the biggest surprise of all. I got something to say.

HB: If you had once bit of advice for an interviewer, what would it be?

ST: Listen.

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