A Conversation with Studs Terkel
As an associate editor for Booklist, and as a book reviewer and critic, I had the profound good fortune to speak with Studs Terkel onstage and off. It was always a tremendous thrill and boost to converse with him in front of hundreds of his fans, I could feel the admiration, delight, and love rolling off the audience like a breeze over water. And the thunderous applause Studs received recalibrated one’s heartbeat. And no matter how prolonged the clapping, how enthusiastic the standing ovation, Studs would lean over to me and say, “How I’d do? Was it all right?” Half-teasing, but sincere. Studs was a giving and humble guy. He genuinely admired people, all kinds of people, and so for all his fame, he never put himself above anyone else.
I had the great honor and pleasure of celebrating Studs Terkel’s phenomenal contribution to American literature when nominated him for the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan
Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Named after the first president of the NBCC, the award is given annually to a person––a writer, publisher, critic or editor––who has contributed significantly to book culture over time.
As the NBCC states, “Past winners have included Pauline Kael, Studs Terkel, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Bill Henderson, John Leonard, Louis D. Rubin Jr., Jason
Epstein, William Maxwell, Leslie A. Marchand, Robert Giroux, Alfred
Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick and the Library of America. As you can tell
from the list, the award is truly ecumenical, seeking to recognize
outstanding and long-standing work from any sector that affects a book
and contributes to American art and letters.”
Studs took immense pleasure in this award. He loved books passionately, and read books with penetrating insight and receptivity. When I was asked to write an interviewing the interviewers piece for Bookforum in 2007, I just had to start with Studs Terkel. Bookforum published a brief excerpt of our conversation, and I would like to share the transcript with other Studs fans here.
Seaman: You’ve spoken with so many great writers over the years. Who do you remember most vividly?
Terkel: Jimmy Baldwin, when he first came back from his long self-exile from America. He had just come back from Switzerland and Nobody Knows My Name was out. Well, he was great, just back after a long absence. He felt high. So I thought, hell, I’ll lead off with some Bessie Smith, some blues, and that did it. He loved it. He was terrific.
And it was very exciting to talk with Margaret Atwood. You know, these are improvised conversations to a great extent. I read the book, or, lots of times, all the writer’s books, thoroughly. I know them inside out. I mark them up, I’ve really gotten into it, you know.
And then, well, invariably, I start with the author’s voice. I like to have the author read, maybe from the beginning, or a favorite passage, something to set the tone. This is radio, so you want that. Then what I aim for, what I hope for, is that we’ll talk about the book, absolutely, but more than that, we’ll talk about their outlook on life. How do they see the world? What are they curious about? What’s on their mind?
The thing is to be flexible. You’ve got to be open to the conversation. You’ve got to know your stuff, and you’ve got to willing go where they go. Flexibility with substance. Style and substance are related after all. Form follows function. I’m a Louis Sullivan man. I like it solid and ornate. Stone and life, you see. You need both the solid and the fluid. That’s how it’s done.
Another great conversationalist is Gore Vidal. Oh yes, he is very clear. There’s nothing wasted in what he says. The clarity is, oh, amazing. It seems so easy, and he says so much, so naturally. That really stays with you. That’s impressive, that’s exciting. Gore Vidal has really got it.
Seaman: Writers tell me how amazed they are at how obviously well-read their books are. I just spoke to Patricia Hampl, who said that you “munched” her book. That it was “manhandled.”
Terkel: Oh, yes. Everyone says that. I’m famous for that. Patricia Hampl, she’s great. There are so many great women writers. Fabulous writers. They’re really doing great things in new ways. Now I’m thinking about Toni Morrison. How I love Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye. Toni Morrison is brilliant. Such insight. Such stories. Wow.
And I love the nonfiction writers, too. Harrison Salisbury. Remember him? At the New York Times. A historian, knew it all about the Soviet Union, China. He was someone who could speak spontaneously but deeply. That’s an art.
Tobias Wolff is like that, too. So much at the ready, you know. He writes beautifully, too, both fiction and nonfiction. Yes, that’s really something.
And way back, before he started writing novels, Tom Wolfe was something. I liked his early works. Very adventurous. Smart. He was a master of the short takes, and a great talker.
Different worlds, fiction and nonfiction. They’re both important.
Of course, thinking about my hometown, I loved Nelson Algren. Oh yes. We would talk. Nelson, well, he was great. He could speak on any subject, which was a good thing, because he would wander away every time. You’d be talking about one topic, and then off he’d go, on to something else. And you had to stay with it. And it was thrilling. I’ll never forget Nelson.
Seaman: Are there any writers you wish you’d spoken with?
Terkel: Writers I wish I spoke with? John Steinbeck. Now that’s a shame. I did write a good long introduction when they reissued The Grapes of Wrath, the great American novel. At least I was able to do that. And I regret never talking with Saul Bellow.
The thing is, much as I love talking to writers, it is regular folks who say the most surprising and unforgettable things. Yes, people, ordinary folks––a paralegal, an engineer, a bus drive, waitress. Now they can talk. They can tell you things. They have stories. Regular people, they stay with me.