Death of a Legend: Studs Terkel
Sometimes one gets influenced by a writer even though he comes from a completely different background, indeed even a different country.
Studs Terkel was one of the writers who influenced me, because of his ability to tell the stories of ordinary people. Terkel died last Friday at the age of 96. He had become legendary for his interviews with ordinary people throughout the United States on all kinds of issues, including race, which was of course where I drew my inspiration from for my book, Race.
Dr Robert Coles, a Harvard professor of psychiatry who was also a friend of Terkel, was quoted in the LA Times as saying that Terkel was “the most extraordinary social observer this country has produced”.
His modus operandi was to walk around with a tape-recorder on which he recorded hundreds, if not thousands of interviews, many of them with ordinary people.
Terkel’s books were often quite long but they were always interesting, giving an insight into the American psyche.
I learnt a lot from his writing and it inspired me in doing the research and interviews for my book. Like Terkel, I set out with a tape-recorder and while I only did 15 major interviews for my book, I had the opportunity to do what Terkel probably did best, and that was to speak to people and get them to open up on an issue that still makes many people feel uncomfortable.
One of the people I interviewed said to me after reading my book that he could not believe that he had told me all the things I quoted him as saying. I am sure that that was often the feeling of Terkel’s subjects.
He would make them feel at ease and get them to open up completely. Unfortunately there are not many people who can do that today.
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