I know that for many people, the sound of a Terry Gross interview is part of the aural wallpaper of their day. And when Davies fills in, many of those same people turn off the show, feeling that the sound of his voice—and its staccato, self-interrupting rhythms—is a discordant intrusion into their routine.
But a long time ago Gross began to wear on me, thanks to three tics in her interviewing style.
My first complaint is her conversation-killing compliments, mostly presented to actors, comedians, and musicians. “I think it’s so great when you…” “That was really funny.” She may believe that flattery is an invitation for someone to talk more about themselves, but all too often it creates an awkward moment in the discussion¹, as a flummoxed guest tries to segue to something, anything else.²
Next is the conscious attempt by Gross to draw out moments of emotional self-reflection. She and her producers clearly believe that one’s upbringing and psychological development shape the work and career of creative people, and craft questions designed to pull the conversation towards the biographical portrait. When a guest isn’t especially interested in following Gross down that path, she seems unable or unwilling to take the hint, and keeps poking at the personal until her time is up.
Discussions of politics or current affairs are the worst. Gross seems to want her author or journalist guest to make an emphatic declaration or conclusion that is not expressed (or even fully supported) in the work itself. She begins question after question with “So you’re saying that…”, or “Are you saying that…?”, despite receiving demurral after demurral from the guest.
Drives me BATTY.
As I think about it, these latter two habits reflect an interviewer with an agenda, a preconceived plan for where the interview should go. And when guests don’t (or can’t) follow the plan, you can almost hear Gross tuning out from the discussion.
Davies, in contrast, asks clear questions designed to trigger the guests’ natural desire to tell stories. He latches onto a specific detail in a work, summarizes it crisply, and then asks “Why did you make that choice?” or “Where did the inspiration for that come from?” or “Tell us a little more about that.” His attention is focused on the WORK, not the life’s narrative.
While his style may seem more mannered and less conversational than Gross’, his interviews are to me always more interesting and informative, in part because he elicits good stories, and in part because he always seems GENUINELY INTERESTED in learning the answers to his questions.
As a listener I find his enthusiasm completely winning. His narrowly focused questions may not build the same narrative arc as a Gross interview, but leave me feeling simultaneously smarter and more curious about the subject or guest.
Is it a gender thing? It could be a gender thing. I’d like to think it’s not a gender thing.
Perhaps Davies’ limited appearances give him the time to read the books, to watch the movies, to identify the details he cares the most about. Perhaps he couldn’t sustain his specificity if he had his own show four or five days a week.
So once a week then. With a podcast feed and a website. I so wish someone could make this happen.
Continuing the chain of imaginary offensiveness to stereotypes, I plan to open a Babies R Us next to the gay bar next to the mosque next to Ground Zero. Next to the Babies R Us I will open a pornographic bookstore, and next to that I will open a police station. Next to the police station I will open a hip-hop recording studio, and next to that I will open an Applebees. Next to the Applebees I will open a TGI Fridays (those guys HATE each other) and next to the TGI Fridays I will open a methodone clinic. Next to the methodone clinic I will open a crack house, and finally, next to that, I will open a Catholic church adjoining a daycare center for attractive boys, adjacent to which i will just blow up whatever’s there so I can erect a memorial, and next to that memorial I will open a community center dedicated to a locally inconvenient ethnicity that I hired to blow up the original structure on the memorial site. Next to that I’m just going to put some condos.
My next band’s name will be: Ground Zero Applebees.