Book Review / Curiosity didn't kill this cat

STUDS TERKEL: A Life in Words by Tony Parker, HarperCollins pounds 18
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
To make a living as an interviewer requires, you'd think, an ability to a) listen and b) work a tape recorder. Think again. Studs Terkel has perforated eardrums and hearing problems as the result of a childhood bout of mastoiditis, and is proudly incapable of operating the simplest mechanical device. Yet he's known as one of the world's great interviewers, both as a radio presenter at WFMT in Chicago and as the author of half a dozen stupendous works of oral history.

How does he do it? How did he get into it in the first place? And how satisfying a career has it been? That's what Tony Parker (widely regarded, until his death last year, as Britain's nearest equivalent to Terkel) set out to discover. True to the genre which both men have helped to create, the book consists largely of interviews, some with Studs himself, others with friends and colleagues. In effect, it's oral biography.

It makes frustrating reading at first, partly because the only witness to the early life is Terkel himself, who has a wonderful memory for people he has talked to down the years, but not for his own past. In fact, he admits that everything up to the age of 12 is "an almost complete mental blackout". His parents were Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, father kindly but ill, mother cold and mean. Life at home was tense, but the Terkels weren't poor: a rich uncle leased them a hotel, which they ran for him. It was thinking about the guests in their different rooms that kindled young Studs's curiosity in people.

He wanted to be a lawyer, defending the oppressed. But he struggled to pass his law degree (it was all torts and malfesances, not noble causes) and having qualified he worked instead as a civil servant. His big break came through the acting he did on the side: after playing a role in Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty: he was offered radio parts, then his own talk show. That was in 1947. Apart from a lean spell during the McCarthy era, when he was blacklisted and couldn't find work, he has been performing the role of genial radio host ever since. It's been, as he puts it himself, "one of the longest runs in the history of the theatre". He will be 85 this year.

Everyone who knows Terkel pays tribute to his affability, generosity, loyalty, professionalism, honesty, firmness of principle, etc. Tony Parker admits to finding this frustrating: he'd have liked a few disparagements here and there to stem the tide of hagiography. At the back of the book he prints an amusing letter from an acquaintance who was delegated to trawl through cuttings in the hope of turning up jibes and insults, but who ruefully concedes that, sorry Tony, he can discover "only a chorus of hallelujahs". A further appendix assembles eight mild criticisms of Studs - offences that include retelling other people's stories as if they were his, failing to make passes at pretty women, and talking to himself a lot ("Oh sure I talk to myself," Terkel once admitted, "it's because I'm such a good listener"). It isn't much to hold against the man.

But hints of a darker side do emerge. There have clearly been troubles in Studs's relationship with his son Paul, who felt pressurised by his father's celebrity and no longer uses the name Terkel. Then there's Studs's own admission that he has never been able to say "I love you", which must be hard on his wife of many years, Ida, even if - as is obvious - he adores her. She, incidentally, is the one person who calls him by his given name, Louis; to everyone else, he's Studs, after a character in a novel by James T Farrell.

If the book just about succeeds in showing that there's more to Terkel than the white-haired, check-shirted, cigar-smoking, straight-talking "great guy" of legend, its greatest contribution is the insights it offers into the art of interviewing - insights that Tony Parker, because of his own mastery of the form, brilliantly teases out of his subject. What's fascinating, and gives the exercise a tinge of nostalgia, is that the Terkel-Parker principles of interviewing are so little esteemed these days, adversarialism with attitude being the first requirement of any would-be Jeremy Paxman or Lynn Barber.

Terkel situates himself in the "Tell me some more about that" rather than "ah yes but" category of interviewer. He thinks of his task as conversation rather than interrogation, exploration rather than inquisition - he's not the FBI. He doesn't enjoy interviewing politicians or actors, because they spend so much of their time pretending to be different people that they don't know who they are; ordinary folk usually give better value. If it's an author he's interviewing, Terkel adopts the unusual strategy of reading the book first.

Even more unusually, indeed heretically, he backs off when he senses the interviewee becoming embarrassed or discomfited: "You didn't ask if you could interview them for the purpose of causing them pain," he says: "You don't want to expose them to prurient curiosity." He never interrupts, and has learned that certain pauses are a prelude to revelation, not a dead end.

Writing questions down in advance is a bad idea. But being curious is essential: "Curiosity never killed this cat" is what Terkel would like as his epitaph. The great thing, he says, is to put your subject at ease, which means avoiding being nervous yourself. Sometimes, chameleon-like, he unconsciously adopts the accent of the person he is talking to. An impression of ineptitude - easy enough when you can't work that damn machine, for instance - also proves an asset, for who'd be afraid of an interviewer unable to operate a tape recorder? Hardness of hearing may be another disadvantage Terkel has turned to good effect: it has made him a keen and patient listener. A line from Thomas Hardy - "This man's silence is wonderful to listen to" - is one of his favourite quotations.

For books, rather than radio shows, other skills come into play. Ruthless editing, for instance: only a tenth of the words usually survive, and "you start thinking like a jeweller who's making a necklace, polishing the stones, grading them, comparing them, matching them". But whatever the form, oral or written, the interviewer must have, or affect to have, what Keats called "negative capability": you're not there to express your own opinions.

In fact, Studs Terkel is a man of very decided opinions, just as Tony Parker was, and many of their beliefs coincide. They do not always manage to conceal the pacifism and socialism that drive them on. But their first rule is a respect for what other people have to say, and in their genial presence the tongue-tied loosen up. Now Tony Parker isn't there to put the questions any more. But he has left this fine tribute to Studs Terkel and to the art they shared.