Fran Stoddard does something for a living that nobody else around here gets to do. Lots of people talk politics on TV. She talks about art -- with people who make it. For four years the Williston resident has been the producer and host of "Profile," the half-hour interview show that airs Monday evenings at 7:30 p.m. on Vermont Public Television.
Stoddard has sat across the table from such creative luminaries as novelists Russell Banks and E.L. Doctorow, Vermont State Poet Grace Paley, New Yorker cartoonist and Brookfield resident Ed Koren and musician Bruce Cockburn. This month, we thought we'd turn the table on Stoddard and ask her the questions:
SEVEN DAYS: You're an award-winning producer/ director of educational and public-relations videos. How'd you get into the talk-show business?
FRAN STODDARD: My first shot at an interview show was at Channel 22 in the early '80s. There was a five-minute interview program I did for a while, and a Sunday morning half-hour I hosted a few times. I was a commercial producer, but at that station you could do just about anything you put your mind to. By the way, I don't consider myself a talk-show host. It's a different form where there are usually several guests and a "personality" at the helm. I'm just an interviewer, or interview show host.
SD: When did "Profile" debut, and who was your first guest?
FS: It debuted in October 2001 with the very gracious Paul Winter, who had no idea it was my first live-to-tape half-hour interview in decades.
SD: How do you select your guests?
FS: The original mandate for the show was to choose guests who have made a significant contribution; whose names are likely familiar but not available in a more personal way. An important part of the way I choose guests is in their diversity, so I don't get tied into one type. I work on a diversity of gender, race, occupation, issue and geography in the region. I also choose a few from outside the region who I think would appeal to our audience.
SD: How many interviews have you done now?
FS: For "Profile," 142.
SD: You interview all sorts of artists. Does one type tend to make a better guest?
FS: Poets offer a wonderful interview. They have such deep and fresh views of the world. Writers in general usually make very good guests because they are in the business of articulating ideas and feel comfortable talking about them.
SD: Who are some of your favorite guests so far?
FS: Guests who reveal a lot of soul; who are clearly wise as well as smart. Katherine Paterson's depth of spirit and palpable grace were striking. Jamaica Kincaid [and] Grace Paley . . . are wonderfully feisty, alive women. I have interviewed quite a number of remarkable elder treasures in our community -- Big Joe Burrell, Ruth Stone, Blanche Moyse, Phil Hoff . . . I am grateful to guests who have no agenda and generously take the time to share their stories with us anyway. Wolf Kahn, Ed Koren and [NPR "Weekend Edition" host] Liane Hansen come to mind.
SD: What's the most difficult interview you've done?
FS: Last year Steve Goldberg was having a retrospective of his plays and his wife, Rachel Bissex, had just put out a CD. It seemed that her cancer had retreated, but she went into a serious relapse a week or two before the interview was scheduled. They decided to go ahead with it, and I asked them if they were willing to talk about coping with a potentially fatal illness. I didn't want to be exploitive, but I knew they were capable of offering experiences most of us have not had to deal with. It was difficult for all of us, but also very powerful.
SD: If you could interview anyone in the world, who would it be?
FS: I almost got Bill Moyers. I have so much admiration for him. That would still give me great joy.
SD: Who's been the most unlike what you expected?
FS: Tim O'Brien and Jamaica Kincaid and E.L. Doctorow had reputations that could put fear into the heart of any interviewer. My experience with them was delightful . . .
SD: Who do you think is the best interviewer out there?
FS: There are many good interviewers. I admire interviewers who come from a place of knowledge. I don't like the current, aggressive, let's-find-their-weakness, let's embarrass-and-see-where-it-goes style. I don't shy away from hard questions, but my interest is in finding out what makes extraordinary neighbors tick. How are they viewing the world? How do they work, find inspiration? That is much more valuable information to me than the so-called entertainment of seeing someone knocked down.
SD: Have you ever thought about getting a trademark gimmick, like the way Barbara Walters makes her guests cry?
FS: No. If there's any trademark, it's that I do a lot of research and I actually read an author's books. I like to look at the scope of a person's life, not just the latest thing they've done.
SD: Why do you think there isn't a national arts interview show?
FS: It's a good idea, though not particularly marketable in today's media environment.
SD: Has anyone ever refused to answer one of your questions?
FS: No one has ever refused outright, but I have stumped some people or they have skirted questions and, in a live-to-tape situation, you can only try to come back to a question two or three times in innovative ways. Journalists can badger the heck out of people to get the bite they are looking for, but it doesn't play well on live TV.
SD: If you could work for any national show or broadcast outlet, which would it be?
FS: I like being affiliated with public broadcasting. I like what they represent, and I am, of course, appalled that they are under attack.
SD: Were you unusually inquisitive as a child?
FS: More adventurous than inquisitive . . . As I grew older, I grew more interested in people and what makes them tick. I have a Master's degree in psychology.
SD: Do you recall the first question you ever asked as a kid?
FS: Upon bringing home a new 2-year-old beagle, I asked, "Why does the dog have to stay in the garage if he's the new member of our family?" I was the same age as the dog.