For 50 years, Studs Terkel has created in books and on radio his rough draft of our times by talking mostly to ordinary people—at least 9,000 of them, to be exact. In 10 books of oral history, the voices he has recorded and condensed have told a tale of struggle in 20th-century America—of the things that divide and unite us, of war and peace and Depression, of the way the races get along and don’t get along, of growing old, of the kinds of things we do all day at work.
The latest book from Terkel, who turns 90 this month, is a compelling book about death and dying called Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a New Faith (New Press). The book is not as forbidding as it sounds, and, in fact, is every bit as absorbing as his strongest work, which includes the Pulitzer Prize-winner “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War Two (1984) and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974). As Terkel put it during an interview in Milwaukee, “Who wants to talk about death? Everybody. It’s the most alive book I’ve ever done.”
It is not hard to see why people might open up to Terkel. He comes across as the type of engaging, grandfatherly figure who is feisty and full of opinion, yet unthreatening and always ready to lend an ear. Before they know it, they find themselves having a genuine conversation with this diminutive man in the red socks and red-and-white-checked shirt, and sharing, in the case of the latest book, some of their most painful memories and privately held religious—or irreligious—thoughts.
Being interviewed by Studs “is like having the intimacy of a therapist’s office,” says Sydney Lewis, who has transcribed the interviews for a number of Terkel’s books and is herself the author of three oral histories. “You feel like you’re cocooned by his interest. He listens really hard. He makes you feel wanted.
“I have typed so many interviews of his and part of me is studying the process while I’m doing it,” she adds. “I’ll be typing along and all of a sudden there will be a moment when you can feel that the person has completely opened to him, and it’s nothing Studs said. It’s this gift he has. I think it comes from his immense respect for all human beings, and his incredible deep and genuine curiosity—a real hunger to know, a certain nonjudgmentalness. And there’s just something gleeful about him that makes you give him what he’s asking for.”
Studs, a man who loves to talk, draws plenty of revealing talk out of his 60 subjects in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Among the voices are police officers and firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses, a former gang member, a woman who was in a coma for two years, a parent who lost his son to violence, people remembering their combat or near-death experiences, a few famous figures like bluegrass musician Doc Watson, who lost a son, and Kurt Vonnegut. While full of sad or harrowing tales, the book also offers life-affirming stories of healing and hope, and a variety of candid reflections on the afterlife and even reincarnation.
Studs clearly knows how to put his subjects at ease. A physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory tells him, “I believe that there are things beyond science … . My conclusion is, there are layers and layers and layers and layers of articulation and organization in this world that go far beyond anything that you and I can either perceive or understand.” A retired Brooklyn firefighter remembers trapped colleagues in the basement of a burning grocery store crying for their mothers. A social worker describes living through the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima that killed her mother. A Chicago paramedic recalls: “About 48 hours before [my father] died we were at the hospital … and something happened where emotionally I knew this was it: my dad was going to be dead in a day or two, and I’ll never see him again. It just ate me up inside and I broke down and cried and cried for about a half-hour. It was a terror inside of me. It dawned on me that this is it, and the daddy I had when I was a little boy, the smells, the feel of his clothes—the smell of the T-shirt he wore, even with the nicotine on it—that’s what I identified with him. All the memories.”
One of the most powerful interviews is with Mamie Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, the black Chicago youth who was murdered in 1955 while visiting relatives in Mississippi, because he supposedly whistled at a white woman. His death helped catalyze the civil rights movement. Mobley’s de-scription of examining her 14-year-old son’s battered body when it arrived back in Chicago is not soon forgotten. (“That was incredible, of course,” Terkel says of the interview. “All you could do is listen and sit there.”)
A poignant footnote to the book is that shortly after Terkel began working on it, his wife, Ida, his companion of 60 years, died after heart surgery. She was 87. (Her cardiologist is one of Terkel’s interview subjects in the book.)
In our talk with this master interviewer, Terkel had some simple but important things to say about an essential task many readers of The Writer face in developing their own articles and books: talking to people.
An interview so often involves two strangers talking to each other. How do you get past that strangeness?
Well, first of all, you appear as yourself, not as someone from Mount Olympus, or it might be Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes or Dan Rather. No, you appear as yourself, as someone who’s going to listen to them. This is not a celebrity, not a celebrity—this is an “average person.” (I hate that phrase—”ordinary people” are capable of extraordinary things; I know that. Throughout all the books I’ve celebrated the ordinary person.)
And so I’m a guy, a stranger, but I want to know about this person—his experiences during the Great Depression, or the Great War, or how this black guy feels in the white society and the other way around. Or growing old—what it’s about.
And so I sit down, and sometimes I have a tape recorder but I have trouble with the tape recorder. You see, I’m not good mechanically. I’m very inept, and sometimes I goof up on the tape recorder. And that person sees me as a flawed person, as someone who’s no different than he is or she is, and the person [says]—”Look, your reel’s not right [when it was reel-to-reel], it’s not working.” I say, “I pressed the wrong thing, I’m sorry.” Immediately, that person feels pretty good to feel needed. Suddenly, he feels, “This guy needs me as much as I need him. He needs me.” And so that helps a lot. People think I deliberately do it, you know. Mike Royko, the [late Chicago] columnist, said, “You bastard, you deliberately do that, don’t you?” I said, “No, I’m inept, you know I am—I can’t drive a car.” So that’s one thing.
The other is listening—listening is key. The person may suddenly do something strange—suddenly stop or go off the subject. Why’d that person stop? Come back to it.
Every now and then you hear a black guy laugh when recounting a moment of humiliation to himself. I had a friend named Big Bill Broonzy [a famous country-blues singer]. Big Bill, many older black guys, were grandsons of slaves, skilled craftsmen, jacks of all trades—could be a mason, an electrician, a carpenter. Could do all these things. Big Bill knew welding. He says, “I taught this white boy how to weld, and as soon as I did, they fired me.” And he chuckles. Now why’d he chuckle? And you realize it’s a safety valve.
There’s a blues line, “laughing to keep from crying.” (Or you could say, “laughing to keep from raging.”) It’s a safety valve. I once asked Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] about that. And I said, why is it, the laughter? He says, “It’s essential. Without humor through adversity, we’d never make it.”
But mostly, it’s listening. And that’s pretty much the key.