Monday, November 3, 2008

Talking to Studs

Telling Studs Terkel a story was not a relaxing experience. He listened really hard. And what he heard was what you would have said, had you been a more expressive and insightful version of yourself. Your job was to rise to his estimation of you. If this was an unnerving prospect, Studs was ready to pitch in and help. His magpie imagination was ever on the alert for stray bits of meaning and chance strands of connection.

You might find yourself absently mentioning a random detail that seemed to have no particular point or place in the narrative. Studs would seize on it, hold it up to the light, and marvel at how brilliantly it illuminated the theme you were developing. “There was something you said earlier,” he’d say, and rewind the tape and show you what he meant. “Listen to this,” he’d say. “You see? You see?”

Studs liked to call himself a guerrilla journalist, but I think that is exactly wrong. Journalism demands a consecutive habit of mind; Studs was much too non-linear for that. He always took the scenic route. And guerrilla implies stealthy tactics, which was never Studs’ way.

It suits most interviewers to distract their subjects from the tape recorder. Just ignore it, they will say, secretly hoping that they can steal off with some juicy morsel the interviewee never meant to reveal. Studs, on the other hand, deliberately drew attention to his mechanical beast, using it to create a sense of theater, the auditory equivalent of a proscenium arch.

The self-consciousness that lesser interviewers try to finesse with their tiny, unobtrusive recording devices, Studs used to raise the bar on his subjects. There was no way, talking into his lapdog-sized reel-to-reel machine,* that you were likely to forget it was there. Instead, he made it feel as though that you and he were going to use the bulky instrument to create something, and that together you would settle on its meaning.

Of course that was only part of the story. The several thousand words of mine that begin on page 43 of American Dreams: Lost and Found were culled from a 50-page interview transcript. As Studs described his method, this “rough, unexpurgated material” was panned for gold, molded into a narrative and given a title. I was “The Wanderin’ Kid,” in his book, and my interview appeared sandwiched between “The Travelin’ Lady” and “The Indian.”

To be honest, it’s embarrassing to read “The Wanderin’ Kid” today. I sound young, which I was, and eager to expound on my every thought. I’m touched that he captured my struggles to reconcile my happy childhood memories of Army post life with the larger meaning of the world I grew up in. The distant boom of guns, artillery practice, sounded like a lullaby to me. But I’m slightly mortified by the undercurrent of resentment Studs detected. My political awakening seems to have been fueled as much by pique that on Army posts men got all the attention as by any misgivings about American imperialism. I told Studs, “The feeling I had was that these men who got to lord it over others, just because they jumped out of airplanes, were macho. My only weapon was to make fun of it.”

Was this my truth, highlighted, as Studs once called the edited oral histories? I might not be eager to admit it, but I imagine that’s what I was thinking in those days. Studs just listened so hard that he got me to say it.

*Later, Studs switched to a smaller, but still dictionary-sized Sony.