In part 3 of the Alternate Arts interview with Steve Turner, he discusses interview techniques, being a detective, and his upcoming book on culture.
INTERVIEWING INFLUENTIAL SINGERS AND MUSICIANS
Alternate Arts: If I could go a little bit into how you go about your particular profession. I’m just dying to know the answer to this. In your acknowledgements in The Man Called CASH: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend, you quoted Johnny Cash as saying, “In that book you told me things I didn’t know about people I’ve known all my life.” How do you do that?
Turner: He might have been referring to people like Jerry Lee Lewis, and maybe Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley. I remember interviewing Jerry Lee Lewis, and I asked him a question about Elvis and his religious background. He (Lewis) said, “Well, I don’t know cause I never talked to Elvis about that.”
I suspect that the whole group of them, even though they knew each other, and recorded for Sun Records together, they probably all had this quite similar Protestant Church upbringing. But I suspect they probably didn’t sit around and talk about it. I think that’s what he (Cash) meant. I talked to Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins and he (Cash) was reading this stuff maybe for the first time.
I do try to get extra things out of people and try to make them feel comfortable – make them aware that you’re interested in them. You’re thinking pretty quickly as the interview goes along, like “How should I deal with this?’ You can prepare for one sort of interview thinking, well here’s ten questions I’ll ask and then you realize you’re quickly kind of running out of things you were going to ask. And then you can get another kind of interview where you ask the first question and they just go on and on. And it’s not stuff you really want. And yet, the clock’s ticking. So you have to think fast in the situation, like, how am I going to get something of value from this person?
Alternate Arts: So that, in and of itself, is a skill?
Alternate Arts: I see. I really admire the way you handled your 1971 interview with John Lennon. It sounds like you approached it from an extraordinary balanced way. Looking back on that conversation you had with him, is there anything you would have added, based on the journey that the Lord has had you go through these past forty years?
Turner: I don’t know. He…I mean, he was about as blunt an atheist as you could get really. There’s some point where he was saying, “Well, what’s God like?” And I said, “You can’t really, you know, we can’t really understand God.”
He just said, “I can understand. Tell me, what’s he like? What’s he like?”
On the one hand he (Lennon) didn’t like the wooly vicars that we had in this country who would conceal everything behind talk. I think he hated that. But, if you were to be more specific, he’d probably knock you down and say, “That couldn’t be true.” I honestly don’t know how I would do it.
(The interview with Lennon) was in 1971. In 1970 I’d been at L’Abri with Francis Schaeffer. And I’d been there in ’71 as well, not many months before I did that interview. I think I was operating more from the way that Schaeffer dealt with people, which was, rather than present what you believed, you would kind of whittle away at what they believed. So if you say this, then surely you would believe that, you know. I don’t know whether I would take exactly that approach now. I might combine it with other approaches. Because, when he said to me, “When you die, that’s it, and you just mold. And if you’re reincarnated it’s only in the sense that your body becomes part of the soil, and the soil produces some other form of life.” When I replied, “(In that case) life is meaningless,” he said, “Yeah, so what?” That was his answer, “All you can know is you are here and that’s it. That’s all you can know.”
THE CRAFT OF JOURNALISM
Alternate Arts: How do you view your gift? I think it was Muggeridge who channeled Augustine and characterized his journalistic profession as being a ‘vendor of words’. You’re a fine writer and you love words. Judging by the quality and quantity of your writing over the years, it’s clear that you, in a very good way, work at it. How do you view your calling, your gift?
Turner: I’ve met people that know associate me with children’s poetry, and then they say, “There’s a guy with your name who wrote a book on Van Morrison.”
I say, “Oh, that is me,” and they reply, “I find it surprising that you would do two things.” To me, it’s all writing. It’s communicating ideas and, I suppose, making sense of the world – making sense of myself, looking inwards, and then making sense of the world out there.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a detective for many, many years. There’s been many times since then that I’ve thought that’s what I ended up doing. I’m a detective, but in a different way. If I’m writing a travel story or a biography, I’m a detective doing research, making phone calls, etc.
When you write poetry, you’re much more of an interior detective, going inside yourself, trying to make sense of all the contradictions within yourself.
In order to be a communicator, words are the tools you use. What distinguishes a great writer is a command of language. Command is a really good word because if you command something, you’ve got control of it. Most people don’t have control of language – language controls them. The less words you have, the more controlled you are by the words that you’ve got. You can’t really express yourself because you’re just limited to this handful of words. Really good writers get the exact words for the thing they’re trying to describe. If my writing’s become better, it’s probably in that way.
Alternate Arts: How do you decide on your subjects?
Turner: I think, in some ways, the subjects decide on you. Sometimes you literally get picked, like when I did the Johnny Cash book. That was somebody calling up. I recently did a book on the musicians on the Titanic, which was a similar thing. I did the Van Morrison book because somebody recommended me.
I think overall I try to make sure the things I do build on each other so that there’s some logical reason why I’m doing it. I could go do a book on gardening or baseball, and I might be able to do it with complete integrity, but it would confuse the picture of who I am. The people that I’ve written about, they haven’t all been Christians, but they’ve all been people that ask the big questions. I would be far less interested, if not completely disinterested, in somebody that never asked the big questions at all.
If you’re fortunate, you get somebody like Johnny Cash who you feel is on your side. But I’d be as happy to write about somebody like Hugh Hefner, for example. He’s somebody that’s asked a lot of questions. He’s come up with completely opposite answers to the ones I’ve come up with, but at least I could deal with that. The person that asks no questions at all is the most difficult for me to think about writing about.”
Alternate Arts: How do you do research?”
Turner: I start with what’s already been written in book form, then go to contemporary newspapers, and things like that. If it’s for someone like Johnny Cash, you try to find all available product: recordings, TV shows, everything he’s put out there. And then you start talking to people that they’ve known, worked with, family members. It’s all long interviews, which I transcribe. By the time you come to actually writing the book, the writing’s fairly easy because you’ve talked to maybe three hundred people by then and typed it all up, so you know it very well. I’ll have it all (transcriptions) printed up and put into folders and files. That person said this about drugs, and that person said whatever, and you quickly know your way around this material and pull out all the good quotes. But you’ve had to fight for every paragraph in a book because every paragraph contains information that you didn’t know before you did the book. Particularly, the Titanic book (The Band that Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic.) All that was available about those musicians on the Titanic before I did my book was maybe ten pages. So, everything there I had to find out through documents, records, libraries, archives, and to actually visit places and take photographs. That’s how I do it.
Alternate Arts: Was Marvin Gaye challenging for you? He was such a fascinating individual, especially where he combined spirituality and sexuality. Just an incredible talent but…
Turner: I suppose he was challenging in the sense that he was a black American and I’m a white English person. It was more a kind of a reach out of my culture into his. There were a number of difficult people that you had to deal with, with a book like that – some fairly unsavory people. But in the end I didn’t have trouble getting all the information together. I was happy with the result.
Alternate Arts: Has there been a particular subject that was challenging for you, perhaps surprisingly so?
Turner: They’re all challenging in different ways. But, the bigger the challenge, the better it is. One of the reasons I liked taking on the book about the Titanic musicians was because it was a challenge. These guys went down with the ship, they lost their lives, but we really don’t know much more about them. I didn’t even know if there any people around who were part of that family (like third generation or whatever.) That was the challenge to me. There were eight musicians and I had to build up family trees for all of them and try to find living relatives. And that can be difficult even with your own family.
The book I did on Amazing Grace was also challenging – going back to 1725, when John Newton was born. We were digging really deep into history and going into ship’s logbooks. The harder it was to find stuff out, the more exciting it became for me. I get quite obsessed by a fact that seems to elude me, and I just keep pressing on.
Alternate Arts: You mentioned earlier about your current project being somewhat of a follow up to Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. Would you mind just maybe giving me a little bit more about that?
Turner: The first book (Imagine…) was about the arts; this one’s about popular culture, although it slightly crosses over in some ways. In my new book I deal with journalism, film, fashion, the internet, and comedy.
The first three chapters set up why we should bother – what is popular culture anyway and what are the Biblical parameters we should be thinking about? Then I go into the subjects.
The two exceptions are: a chapter about sensation, which isn’t about a particular art form but about this trend towards producing experiences for people, whether it’s in shopping, or holidays, or adventure sports, or whatever. I also did a chapter on romanticism and the romantic movement in literature, art, and music – how something that’s over two hundred years old effects us even now, the way we think about artist, the way we think about art. It just shows the power of ten or twelve people who we now look at as a movement but they didn’t think of themselves as part of a movement at that time. The lingering effects of their work shows you how powerful art can be on culture. For example, the whole idea that art is about expressing emotion, which the romantics were very big on, you will see things like TV talent shows where the judges will say, “You really put yourself into that. It was really raw and it was passionate.”
We just take it for granted that it is a commendation if you spill your guts in a painting or a piece of music. But prior to that, I don’t think people would have praised it for quite those reasons. It’s just become an accepted part of our understanding of art. I wasn’t saying right or wrong. These ideas actually come from somewhere. They’ve been widely accepted and they’ve been taught in universities and they’re part of the way we look at things. It serves us well to look at the way we look at the world and wonder at where some of our ideas came from and test them every now and then.”
Alternate Arts: Do you have a time frame for publishing this, Steve?
Turner: I just handed it in this week. They send it out to readers and they’ll get back to me in a couple of months. It’ll be next year I’m sure.
Alternate Arts: Do you have a title?
Turner: My working title was Culture Explored, but I suspect they’ll (the publisher) come up with something else.
In the church that I go to they were running courses called Christianity Explored, which is an introduction to Christianity. And they did a course called Discipleship Explored, which was taking people a little bit deeper. I was thinking that it would be interesting if you did a course called Culture Explored. How do we (Christians in general) read the newspaper, or watch TV, or evaluate movies? So that’s how I envisioned it.