The Anne Ford interview

Anne.jpgDo you live in Chicago? It's cold already, right? Luckily for you I wrote a guide on Chicago winter culture you can enjoy without leaving your house!

Today's interviewee is a lady writer whom I like and respect very much, and she just happens to be reading at the next Funny Ha-Ha! Anne Ford's fascinating oral-history series "Chicagoans" has appeared in the Chicago Reader since 2010. She's also a radio journalist, facilitating stories for StoryCorps. She's written some fun pieces for the University of Chicago including this profile of a lady bodybuilder and a story about twins on campus. I was excited to work with her at SheKnows, getting her great essay about being a stepmom at school functions up on the site. She's the author of Peaceful Places: Chicago: 119 Tranquil Sites in the Windy City and Beyond. And she lives where I do!

What do you need to have on hand (beverage, music, special chair, etc) in order to write?
I can't write without coffee. (I was raised by Lutherans). The only other thing I need is some kind of generic background noise, like a fan whirring, or low-level coffee-shop chatter. If my workspace is too quiet, I can't concentrate. My brain needs something to push against. Fortunately, some genius has invented this web site, so I'm always set.

What, if anything, has changed about the way you interview people since you began your career?
I've gotten bossier. This is Terry Gross's fault. She often couches her requests for information in a general but imperative way: "Tell us more about your experiences with blah-blah." Or: "Say more about that."

The first time I noticed it, I was like, "I can do that? I can just politely order people to talk about a subject?" Yes! Yes I can! And when it works, it's great, because it helps people understand that I really do want them to relax and just talk, rather than robotically answer my questions one by one.

This doesn't always work with my subjects, however, because unlike most of the interviewees on Fresh Air, they are not used to talking about themselves a lot, and often need more encouragement/drawing out than that. Still, thanks, Terry.

What advice do you have for people who find interviewing strangers scary?
Interviewing strangers is totally scary! I am always scared! NOT KIDDING. You're going to feel awkward. You just are. The good news is that nervousness has a natural antidote: curiosity. Cultivate your curiosity, and the nervousness burns off by itself.

What do people who take part in StoryCorps need to prepare in order to ensure a free-flowing, honest and interesting exchange?
Don't prepare. I beg of you. Go in with nothing but your curiosity and maybe a single question to kick things off. Then listen really hard to that first answer, and I promise, the second question will present itself automatically. Do not think: "What should I ask?" Think: "What do I actually want to know?" This is also good advice for dating, by the way.

What is your general tack or philosophy for handling upsetting, sensitive or off-putting information you learn when interviewing people?
Well, it helps that I'm not easily thrown by sensitive subjects. Kind of the opposite. I saw something on Twitter once that went something like, "When people say 'TMI,' that's when I'm just getting interested." I relate.

That said, in my print work, if something extra-sensitive comes up, I do talk about it with the subject and really make sure they're okay with having the world know about it. I'm not Mike Wallace. I have no interest in anyone's life becoming harder as a result of talking to me.

What's a common misperception people seem to have about what you do for a living?
The most common one, which surely every single writer out there has heard, is that I write entire articles and then try to sell them, as if I were making handicrafts to peddle in the marketplace or something. Second most common is that since I work for myself, I'm always free to do whatever during the day. Also, since I got into radio, I have learned that most people think that if something is in audio form, it has to be on NPR. Like, literally there could be no other possible way for anyone to hear it.

We both live in Evanston, which, as has been brought to my attention very recently, really doesn't resemble the majority of the country in terms of makeup and general values. What's good about living in a place like Evanston? What are the drawbacks?
I will always love Evanston for curing me of chronic pain. I used to have really bad lower-back pain every day. Had an MRI, went to physical therapy, nothing helped. Then we moved here, and I started walking everywhere--doctor, dentist, library, grocery store, everything--and what do you know, the cure turned out to be getting off my ass. A medical miracle.

Anyway! I also love all the obvious things--how it feels like part of the city, its amazing restaurants (s/o to Taco Diablo and Lucky Platter), and its proximity to the lake. But I don't love how racially segregated it is. Welcome to Chicagoland.

What is a practical application to being married to an economics professor?
He has done a great job of getting me to truly accept in my heart that the value of my time is not zero. So, for example, I have finally accepted that it makes no sense for me to transcribe a recording myself when I can pay someone else to do it and use that time instead to do remunerative work.

Also, I occasionally find myself using words like "remunerative." Oh, also, not that I thought playing the lottery was a great idea before, but now I understand that you might as well take your money and set it on actual fire.

On the flip side, I can never ever win an argument by pointing to a study I've read about, because he's such a data ninja that he can usually demonstrate how said study is terribly flawed.

What are your favorite peaceful places right now?
We became empty-nesters this year, so I'm enjoying the peacefulness of home a hell of a lot at the moment. (Hi kids!) Otherwise, I love Intuit. It's a tiny museum devoted to intuitive and outsider art, and it's quiet but fascinating. There are works there by a guy who signed himself "Backward Jesus." Now there's someone I'd love to interview.

How does it feel to be the 425th person interviewed for
Deeply satisfying. 425 feels like such a tidy number. Ahhh.

Don't you want to learn more about Anne and see her in person? Come out to the show next week!