It is 2:30 am and the smell of cigars lingers on my breath and clothes while my office rocks with Carly Simon singing, "Let the River Run." I sit in front of the computer as my wife silently sleeps. I want to sleep but know that I am too wired to even consider going to bed. I have just spent four and a half hours interviewing the legendary Studs Terkel-a person who has interviewed over the years more than 8500 people for his books and articles. The interview had three venues: the Historical Society of Chicago, a small Italian restaurant, and his home over cognac and cigars. And there I was in front of my computer with hours of transcription to do. Recorded on two micro cassettes were Studs' reminisces covering much of the 20th century and the early part of this new millennium. We talked about his early work and his most recent book, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and much of what was in between.
How was it possible for an unknown writer like me to get an interview with a Pulitzer Prize author? After all, not everyone that I asked to interview has consented. I have had my share of rejections. Some time ago, I decided that I wanted to prove to myself that I could interview the best. The question was who could give me a run for my money? I don't know of any writer that has made it a career of interviewing the great and the not so great of the world other than Studs Terkel. Once the decision was made to interview him, the real task began-getting in contact with him.
I started like a cop investigating a missing person. Where was the person last seen? Several weeks before, I heard Studs interviewed about his new book on the local NPR station in Chicago. It was there that I began the lengthy process of tracking him down. I called the station and was transferred to a handful of answering machines and a couple of people who wanted to help but who said that Studs comes and goes without anyone really knowing his schedule. I guess at eighty-nine, I would set my own schedule also. Someone suggested that I call the Chicago Historical Society; a witness said that he spends a lot of time there. When I called, I again got transferred to several voice-mail systems.
I couldn't wait for my recorded pleas to be answered. I decided impatiently to become a 21st century Sherlock Holmes. How could I get Studs' phone number? I'm embarrassed to recount how long it took me to come up with a new approach; it was elementary my dear reader. I called directory assistance. Duh. I knew that he probably wouldn't have a listing that read: Studs Terkel. But I hoped for one like-S. Terkel. I firmly asked the operator for the number for Studs Terkel or perhaps for a S. Terkel. Five nanoseconds later, the operator said that she had one for a S. Terkel. Bingo! I knew that I was ordained for great things in the literary world. I thought the problem out and came up with a solution. The operator offered to dial the number for me, but I chose to save thirty-five cents dialing the number myself-I haven't made it big yet and must still watch my money until then. Someday though, I'll have the operator connect me when calling.
I dialed the number. Ring. Ring. A man answered, and I had a very lovely conversation with Steve Terkel about Studs. He too admired him but wasn't a relative and had no idea how to reach him. Apparently, my ordination as a literary genius would have to wait a while longer. I couldn't spend anymore time being Holmes because my sociology class was awaiting one of my inspiring lectures. However, when I returned home after class, I got a call from a live person that could help me.
The voice at the other end was a woman named, Sharon, a colleague of Studs'. She said that she would convey my request but not to get my hopes up too much. "He only does interviews in which he is personally interested." I can still recall how my stomach felt with that sobering warning. Why would Studs have an interest in me? I'm not a name that crosses the lips of many in literary circles. Sharon said that she'd get back to me as soon as she conveyed my request to him. I didn't hear anything from Sharon for what seemed like three months. I checked my calendar, and it was actually only three days. So, I called her again. She was pleasant over the phone, but she was probably rolling her eyes at my call. She hadn't gotten back to me because Studs hadn't been in, and I felt badly that I had bothered her.
After we hung up, I e-mailed her a combination thank you and apology note. I told her that it was important for me to get Studs for an interview or else I would have to continue interviewing animals. I sent her a link to an interview just completed with a Tibetan yak. I told her that I would have to resort to another animal if Studs wouldn't give me an interview. I knew that my attempt at humor ran the risk of Sharon writing me off as a nut case and not getting the interview, but I was determined. Fortunately, Sharon gave me his unlisted number figuring that it would be easier for me to catch him at home than when he comes to the office.
As I stared at the number, my hand trembled and so also did my resolve. What if he says, "Thanks for thinking of me, but no thanks?" Finally, I said, "Goddammit, call him, Campbell. If he says, 'Yes,' great. If he says, 'No,' at least you know that he doesn't want to do an interview with you. Deal with it and go interview a raccoon or some other animal." I steeled myself and dialed his number. Ring. Ring. Suddenly, there was a voice at the other end. It was Studs. I began nervously but pulled myself together and told him what I wanted. His response was "Sure." And the rest is history.
While the interview was unbelievable, the journey that I went through to get the interview was a trip. Persevere in your journey; it is half the fun.