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BEHIND THE SCENES with Neenah Ellis


What was your interest in producing a series of profiles about centenarians

It didn't start as a series about centenarians. The plan was to produce a series about the 20th century for the year 2000, a "peoples' history," but fairly soon after I started interviewing I realized that I was missing the story. The folks I was meeting were not interested in talking about the past as much as they wanted to tell me their plans for the future. They were healthy and active and engaged with something that gave their lives meaning. It wasn't what I expected

It turns out that the "old-old" group, as some demographers call them, is the fastest growing age group. The New England Centenarian Study at Harvard has estimated that at least 25 percent of hundred-year-olds have no major illnesses or dementia. They've been healthy all their lives. They age slowly. They often live independently and some are even still working. This discovery was fascinating to me and I wanted to know more about it. I have longevity in my own family (my grandmother will turn 100 this summer) and for some reason, I've always believed that I would live a long time. So, what started as a history series became my own search for how to live well at an advanced age

*How did you find centenarians to interview?

*The people came to me in many ways. I started with help of a TV producer in Los Angeles named Stephanie Jenz, who had worked on a documentary about the 100th anniversary of the motion picture. Also, in the year 1999 the newspapers were full of profiles of centenarians, so the Internet was useful. And once the series went on the air, listeners wrote in to tell me stories about "their" centenarians. It was actually quite easy to find people to profile. It turns out that there are possibly as many as 70,000 centenarians in the U.S. alone.

*I found Ruth Ellis in Ms. magazine, in an article about hundred-year-old women. It was her photo that I responded to. I saw a rare beauty and grace and modesty that I found appealing. Braggarts bore me. Ruth was not one.

**Did you take a different approach with interviewing people of this age than you would your contemporaries?***

**Oh, yes. I had spent years working on tight deadlines for NPR. I had learned how to show up in a city, gather material in a short time, and get it on the air quickly, but for this project I had to learn to sit quietly with one person for days on end. The interview with Ruth was a turning point for me in the series. Up until that time I was putting aside a day or two, at most, for interviews. But I spent five days with Ruth in Detroit. As a result, I saw her in many more moods and in many different situations. I met a lot of her friends and got a feel for her daily life. We went for drives together and she cooked for me. I had to allow myself to cross a line that I wasn't used to crossing, it was more like starting a friendship than an interview-subject relationship. I am always conscious of that very fuzzy line and I think that many interview subjects are, too, but the centenarians seemed not to be. They opened up easily and completely and quickly, which made them easy and fun to be around. With Ruth there was an added dimension. She had come to understand in her later years that her life was an example to young lesbians and gays, that by telling how she survived as a black lesbian in a hostile world she could help young people see and understand their own lives better.***

**When you do a series of profiles, how do you keep each one sounding unique and fresh?***

**This was a big issue for me. I tried hard to make them fresh each time. Part of the answer was to choose people with different experiences and to simply not use similar material even if the tape was really hot. It would have been easy to say to myself, "No one is going to hear all 12 profiles, it doesn't matter if I ask similar questions," but I produced the series assuming that people would hear all of them.***

**I push myself to throw out material I've heard before. Sometimes I don't even ask the obvious questions if I think they are cliches. For example, every newspaper article I read about the centenarians in 1999 ended with a question along the lines of "What is your secret to living this long?" I got so sick of that question because of course, there is no easy answer and in fact, most of the centenarians really have no idea how they got to be 100 years old. So most of the time I never asked the question. But the answer was always there in the context of their lives, in how they chose to tell their stories, in what details they left in or out.***

**To me it's the same principle that applies to good writing: do not use cliches. It's hard to do. I spend a lot of time taking the cliches out of my writing and out of my tape and forcing myself to find fresh ways to say things.***

**How did you prepare for these interviews? Did you pre-interview relatives or friends?***

**I did no special preparation for these interviews, but in retrospect I realize that I have been interviewing my parents and grandparents about the past all of my life. My folks grew up in Chicago during the Depression. I remember asking about that a lot as a kid.***

**I did have an interview experience that was similar to interviewing the centenarians -- talking with Holocaust survivors for the United States Holocaust Museum. Those were long and very emotional interviews that covered extended periods of a person's life. Out assignment was to try and help the person explain how surviving the Holocaust had defined the rest of their lives. An impossibly complex assignment, of course, but worth trying to do. Not unlike asking a hundred-year-old person about their own lives. Impossibly complicated but thoroughly enlightening in every way.***

**How did you approach the subject of death?***

*I must admit that I was nervous about it at first, but the centenarians I met were generally so pragmatic about death that it was easy to bring the subject up. When they were born, their life expectancy was only 48 years, so they have been ready to go for quite a long time. They are at peace with themselves. They have lost so many people in their lives -- death is no stranger to them. Studs Terkel talks about death in his new book Will the Circle Be Unbroken?* and says he found people actually eager to talk about death. I found that, too.***

**How many centenarians have died since your series? How did you feel when Ruth died?***

**I interviewed 20 centenarians for the series and eight have since died. When you reach 100 your life expectancy is roughly two years. When I first started the interviews, I didn't think about it much, but as I spent more time with people it grew harder and harder to say goodbye to them because I knew that chances were strong I would not see them again. Over time I think I learned to approach each interview with more care, more reverence.***

**When Ruth died it was hard for me. She had given me so much of herself in such a short amount of time. I felt compelled to share her story as widely as I could. In reality, I didn't know Ruth very well, I had just spent five days with her, but somehow it seemed that I had known her a long time. I think all of us who do interviews for a living have this sense, it's part of why we love what we do. We are given the chance to connect on a deep level with people who are strangers.***

**As a producer I've always felt odd about interviewing people and running away with their stories and making a living re-telling them. But with Ruth, and many of the other centenarians, I think they thought I was helping them live on into the future in some way, and because they are so near the end of their lives, this fills a need for them that the rest of us might not feel as keenly.***

**Tell us about the book you're writing based on the radio series. How does it differ and/or complement the audio work?***

**The radio series was meant to be about the centenarians, the book is my story: what I learned about being 100 years old, how it helped me to think about my own aging, and what I learned about listening.***

**Writing the book was very freeing. I often think of writing for radio as writing haikus: you have to learn so much and then condesne it so skillfully in order for it to have an impact. In writing non-fiction you are creating a reality too, but you have so much more to work with, so many more details to include. It's a bigger canvas, to put it in painting terms, and it's all done with words, there's no tape to involve. Writing the book made me realize in a new, deeper way how much exquisite detail there is in five seconds of tape -- maybe even an infinite amount of information -- and how many more words it takes to describe something. For example at one point in the book, I found myself trying to describe the sound of a thoroughbred coming around the bend on an empty race track at six in the morning. Just five seconds of audio tape could do it. And the sound of a hundred year old person's voice is amazing -- all that experience, that weariness, that particular kind of energy and sweetness. I think I gained a deeper appreciation for what radio can do, for what silence in radio is about. (I've always tried to leave the silence in when it has meaning and learned to make convincing arugments with editors about why it should stay.)***

One of the hard things about writing the book was the isolation. I had to learn to spend long stretches of time just sitting and staring and thinking and after many weeks I would get very lonely. I spent the entire year in 2000 traveling around the country, interviewing centenarians. When the series ended I sat down in my office and started writing. The change was a little startling and I missed the centenarians I had met and gotten to know. I eventually learned to take breaks and get away from the writing but it took me a while to find my rhythm. And then when I was about two-thirds finished came September 11, and I found the isolation really hard to take. It took a lot of discipline to focus on the writing. I wasn't successful every day. I had to learn to have faith that tomorrow would be better.