When you first sit down at an interview, how do you start out?
There’s no one way. What is it I want to find out? Let’s say it’s a book about the Depression, right? Well, I gather that this person doesn’t like bananas. Why don’t you like bananas? “Because during the Depression my poor family, we’d get the rotten bananas tossed off the trucks. Ate rotten bananas—I can’t stand them.”
There’s no one rule. There’s no one way to open it.
With all your experience interviewing, do you run into people where it’s hard to get them to open up?
Some people you have to give up on. People are not all the same … I see this woman, she says, “You know who you should see, you should see Florence, the woman three houses away from me. See Florence.” I say, “Why do you want me to see Florence?” “Well, you see Florence, you’ll find out why. See Florence.”
Now Florence is like she is. Both are working class. Both have little education. Both are the same religion. But Florence happens to have a certain kind of insight. A certain kind of articulateness. And she said what that woman feels but can’t say.
There’s no one way. I’m what I am—you know, this guy who goofs up. And they feel good about that. I have no written questions. I know [them] in my head. That then makes the conversation easier. And also, I’ve got to listen more, see?
[He remembers interviews from many years ago, before the tape recorder had become a common device.] These people had never been asked about their lives before. It’s the first time they were talking. [There was] a woman in a housing project that was integrated, I can’t remember if she was white or black. She was light-skinned, very pretty, skinny, and [had] bad teeth because [there was] no money for dentists. But she had three little kids running around, kids 4 or 5 years old. She’s talking and the kid says, “I wanna hear mama, I wanna hear mama”—they saw the machine.
And I say, “You be quiet and I’ll play it back.” So I played back the voice, and the kids are hollering, “That’s mommy’s voice,” and laughing. And she’s listening to her voice. She puts her hand to her mouth—”Oh, my God.” I say, “What is it?” She says, “I never knew I felt that way before.”
Bingo! That’s fantastic! That to me is the most exciting moment. I’m kind of a fellow traveler, and it’s a trip we’re taking.
What are you? A writer? “The world’s most famous interviewer,” as you were once called? Some-one who knows how to pick good storytellers? What do you think is your main talent?
You know what a whatnot is? Look it up. I’m a whatnot. A whatnot’s a piece of furniture—you put everything in it. Checks, bills, love letters. I’m a whatnot. I was a disc jockey—it’s true. Journalist? I never went to journalism school; I went to law school. But I write now and then, a thing here and there, an op-ed piece. I was an actor, a pioneer, you might say, in television. I don’t have any talent; I’m a whatnot.
Is it ever frustrating that you mainly do oral history, where you’re transcribing and condensing and holding a mirror up to what people are saying, versus a writer, who is more of sculptor?
Am I a writer? Yeah, I’m a writer. If you read some of those introductions to my books, you know that I can write. I did the introduction, for example, to the 50th anniversary issue of Grapes of Wrath, and [John] Steinbeck’s widow wanted me to do it. She said Steinbeck didn’t know me but if he did, he’d want me to do it. I wrote a long introduction. I did a book called Talking to Myself, which is basically writing. But talking is the thing. Even in writing, I’m talking.
How do you go about condensing your interviews?
I compare myself to a gold prospector—1849, gold discovered in California, here come the covered wagons, Oh My Darling Clementine. The guy finds a piece of soil, he puts his spike in it. That’s my gold. Now comes the digging, and he digs up a ton of ore. Now comes the effort to transcribe—40 pages. He filters; I edit. He has a handful of gold dust; and I edit it down to about 10 pages.
Now, the editing is the key. How do you edit? Well, there you have to know, what does this person want to say? You make it almost like a soliloquy; you cut yourself out of it as much as you can. Now you’re like a brain surgeon—you take pieces out and there it is. And so it’s not simply the truth; it’s highlighting the truth, almost like a playwright would do.
How do you cut people out? That’s the worst part. You’re like the director of a play—you’ve got two guys, and they’re both good.
You try to make your interviews like a conversation.
That’s it. Absolutely. Oh, conversation is what it’s about. Now and then I say a few things—”Yeah, I know that.” If I know it’ll help the other person, I might say, “You know what happened to me?” It’s conversation.
Now what about telephone interviews? There you’re trying to get information, or to get people to tell a good story over the phone. What advice would you have for them?
There again. Did a couple telephone interviews with some New Deal guys in Hard Times. Same principle applies, pretty much. It’s just a conversation you’re having with a friend.
Where do find your subjects?
I don’t know—just around. They’re around. I hear a word here and there. This woman in the book Division Street America—great woman, she was wonderful. I didn’t know her, but I did this radio show and there was a listener and she didn’t like what I said—it was about race. It was early ’60s, late ’50s. “Awwww, you’re so righteous. You’re full of crap. You remind me of my mother.” I said, “What’s your mother’s phone number?” And so I see her mother. Elizabeth Chapin is her name, and she’s wonderful in the book. I would never have known about her if I didn’t get bawled out by her daughter.
A better one—shows people are not quite that simple: This is Appalachian Chicago, an Appala-chian grocery store. Raining like hell. A cab pulls up, luckily enough, and I get in and I got this tape recorder, heavy one, around my shoulder. And the cab driver, young guy, says, “You a journalist or something?” I say, “Well, sort of,” He says, “Did you see the movie Lord Jim?” About Joseph Conrad’s novel. I said, “Yeah, with Peter O’Toole.” He said, “Well, that movie is about me.” What do you mean? “It’s about a coward who finds courage.” I said, “About you?” “Yeah, that’s why I joined the John Birch Society” [the ultraconservative, anti-Communist organization]. I’ve gotta see this guy.
Next two, three days, we meet, and he tells me the story of his life. And it’s not quite that simple, you see. John Birch Society—it’s crazy, these guys will kill anybody they call red, and then they’ll go to heaven—it’s a reversal of Bin Laden, same thing, only American.
And so he says, “You know, the reason I joined was because I was a big shot. I could knock off anybody. But you know what, I was a jail guard for a while and I got fired.” Well, how come you got fired? “I fraternized with the inmates, most of them black.” I said, what do you mean? “Well, one day this inmate says, ‘What time is it?’ I say, ‘Why, you in a hurry? You got a plane to catch or something?’ ” (He’s in for the next 20 years.) “And suddenly I walk away, and say, ‘Now why’d I do that? This guy’s here for 20 years. Why was I being that cute?’ I go back to apologize [in a roundabout way]. Next thing I know, I say, ‘I’ll tell you a secret, I’m John Birch but I would trust a black guy more than a white guy.’ ”
Next thing you know, I’m talking to [neighborhood activist] Florence Scala, the first woman interviewed in the first book, Division Street America, one of the heroines of Chicago—Florence Scala tried to save a community, where Jane Addams was. And Florence was fighting the syndicate, fighting the mayor, fighting the bankers, the aldermen. Guess who her stalwart was [her biggest campaigner when she ran for alderman]? This guy. And Florence says, “You know, Studs, these poor guys are so lost that there’s something in them. They hear something horrendous, and they want to be part of that, you see. To be something.”
So how did I wind up with him? Accidental—it was raining.
Did your latest book change you in any way?
No, I don’t think it changed me. It gave me solace. That’s the thing. I’m a skeptic, an agnostic. At the same time, I have an urn with my wife’s ashes there and keep the flowers fresh—the daisies [her favorite]. So there you are.