For Writer Lillian Ross, the Story's in the Details Author Lillian Ross talks to Steve Inskeep about her techniques and the subjects she has profiled for her work at The New Yorker, where she has been writing since 1945.
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For Writer Lillian Ross, the Story's in the Details

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For Writer Lillian Ross, the Story's in the Details

For Writer Lillian Ross, the Story's in the Details

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When the writer Lillian Ross welcomed us to her New York City apartment, it was after one o'clock in the afternoon.

Ms. LILLIAN ROSS (Writer): I stay up all night working, so this is morning for me.

INSKEEP: She was comfortably dressed in a blue sweatsuit. She gestured toward a living room pleasantly cluttered with books. The authors range from Leo Tolstoy to Lillian Ross herself. She's been writing for The New Yorker magazine since 1945, which is why we wanted to visit.

We've got a series of conversations that we call The Long View.

Ms. ROSS. Oh.

INSKEEP: Yes. We're...

Ms. ROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Not everyone is thrilled to qualify for these discussions, but...

Ms. ROSS: Well, I'm glad I qualify.

INSKEEP: We talk to people of long experience.

Ms. ROSS: Oh.

INSKEEP: And...

Ms. ROSS: Oh. Is that the idea?

INSKEEP: The Long View helps us to get a broader perspective on the news. And as we approach the New Year, it also helps to mark the passage of time. This morning we're visiting a writer famous for profiles of famous people. She watches for details that bring a person alive on the page.

Ms. ROSS: You know, I learned that early; out of loneliness you can learn that. You know, going to the movies as a lonely kid without friends. And you sit there and you watch the ones who have the friends.

INSKEEP: Is that the way that you have operated as a writer? In the same way that as a kid you'd go into that theater and look at the other people, you would go to a party?

Ms. ROSS: Always. Oh, sure.

INSKEEP: Read the books and articles of Lillian Ross and you discover that the writer Ernest Hemingway liked to talk in broken English, like an Indian in some old movie. You find the Hollywood director John Huston making conversation as a room darkens at twilight. He deliberately leaves off the lights, as if arranging a shot in his own film noir. And then there's the article that began this way...

Ms. ROSS: Charlie Chaplin has been spending a few days at the Plaza, and we found him in his suite there, handing soiled laundry to a maid. The first words we heard him speak with: Here is a very dirty shirt. He looked in fine shape - pink cheek, with pure white hair, bristling white eyebrows and freckled hands. The problem of the laundry left him slightly distraught, and as soon as the maid departed, he turned around once or twice in a sort of dance, then motioned us to a chair and lighted on the edge of a couch.

INSKEEP: When we lighted on the couch of Lillian Ross, she explained why she started the article with Charlie Chaplin's laundry instead of, say, his filmmaking technique.

Ms. ROSS: That's what he was. He was uneasy, uncomfortable in social situations. He didn't walk around with money. Using all these little what you call minute details really revealed the person.

INSKEEP: And I have to point out, a little self-consciously, that we brought this tape recorder in for this interview.

Ms. ROSS: Yes.

INSKEEP: This is something you would never have done.

Ms. ROSS: No. No, I don't believe in it. Everybody in the business uses tape recorders now. And I still don't like them. I'm still critical of the way people don't use their own listening to catch the rhythm and the true feeling. They leave it up to the tape recorder.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that if you bring in the technology, which is a big part of media today - if you're not recording for radio, you're recording video for television or the Internet - are you saying that technology actually gets in the way of paying attention to people?

Ms. ROSS: Well, I think people tend to talk to the machines rather than to the people.

INSKEEP: Do you feel like you're an anachronism?

Ms. ROSS: No.

INSKEEP: Lillian Ross has outlived many of her subjects. She has also outlived many colleagues and friends, like the cartoonist Charles Addams. One of his Addams Family drawings hangs on her wall. Yet she is especially proud of the time that she left her New York apartment building to write about teenagers.

Ms. ROSS: "The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue." I found out there's a little hamburger place up the street here at 92nd Street where the kids hang out. The prestigious, high-priced private schools are in this neighborhood - a lot of them.

INSKEEP: Can I get you to read a little piece of that?

Ms. ROSS: Sure. I love this story. Most of the tenth graders are in the habit of leaving home without eating any breakfast. Still in clusters, with 15 minutes to get to school, they pause in doorways. One girl in a cluster of five takes out a pack of Marlboro Lights - the brand favored at the moment - and each member of the cluster participates in lighting the cigarette - striking the match, guarding the flame, offering a propane lighter. They share. The lighted cigarette is passed from mouth to mouth. They all inhale, the girls twisting their mouths like tough pros; exhaling the smoke from the tiny corner opening on one side of the lips. One angelic-looking blonde beauty with raw, red nostrils takes a puff, inhales deeply, and says wearily, I've got like the (bleep) flu or something.

INSKEEP: It's almost like you're an anthropologist looking at some alien culture.

Ms. ROSS: Oh, sure.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should emphasize these are...

Ms. ROSS: Rich kids, a lot of them. Oh, yeah. Rich white kids and white kids who want to be rich.

INSKEEP: When 9/11 happened...

Ms. ROSS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...and you were in New York.

Ms. ROSS: Right.

INSKEEP: Working as a journalist.

Ms. ROSS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Why did you decide to cover that story by going to the nearest public school?

Ms. ROSS: Because I wasn't going to write a piece about the terrorists or what I thought of them or the politics involved. Again, I wanted to know what was happening with the human beings who were affected by this, especially the little kids.

INSKEEP: You end up talking to a school administrator who says...

Ms. ROSS: Yeah, the principal.

INSKEEP: A lot of kids don't understand death. They think people will come back. They want to put food in the coffins.

Ms. ROSS: Right. All this has to be explained to them. I like to see what's happening.

INSKEEP: Off to the side.

Ms. ROSS: Yeah. Always watching, you know.

INSKEEP: And as we got the long view from Lillian Ross, it became apparent that she was watching us.

Ms. ROSS: Why are you doing what you do? How'd you wind up in Washington?

INSKEEP: Oh.

Ms. ROSS: From Indianapolis?

INSKEEP: Oh, it's a long story. I was a sportscaster...

Ms. ROSS: Yeah?

INSKEEP: Yes.

Ms. ROSS: For NPR?

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: We'll be listening to more voices of long experience as we mark the final week of the year. On Monday, Christmas Day, Renee talks with the philanthropist, Eli Broad.

Mr. ELI BROAD (Philanthropist): I've always believed that great cities need great architecture. People won't remember cities or civilizations from their lawyers or accounts; they're remembered for their artists and their architecture.

(Soundbite of music)

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