For many years, I worked for a publication that adored putting celebrities on the cover. Because I’ve always run my biz with a healthy sense of delusion, I was all, “Okay! I’ll get you some celebs!” and then I’d proceed to naively reach out to celebs to interview. Many of them ignored my requests. Happily, several of them agreed and I not only got to keep putting food on the table, but I also had some very interesting conversations with very interesting people.
At the very top of that list? Maya Angelou. She still ranks as my all-time favorite interview.
I wasn’t nervous. At first. But then her gate-keepers gave me a very long list of requirements for the conversation: I was to be sure to only address her as Dr. Angelou. I was to keep to a very strict 30-minute limit, not a single second more. I was only to discuss these very specific topics: A, B, and C. And so on.
Then I was nervous. Was Dr. Maya Angelou a diva? I’d interviewed Hollywood A-listers who came with fewer requirements.
I made the call. That instantly-recognizable, full-of-compassion-and-wisdom voice answered. The voice of someone when you instantly know, at your very cellular level, you’re in the presence of someone utterly remarkable and unlike anyone you’ve ever met.
Now I was really nervous.
I stuck to my pre-approved script. “Yes. Dr. Angelou. Thank you for talking with me today. I’d like to discuss–”
She gently interrupted me. “Where are you calling from?”
I told her the name of the town, which fascinated her. It’s about two hours east of her home. She’d never heard of it. I mentioned the town has a backstory — Civil War-era lovers — and she wanted to hear it. I eyed the clock. I only had 30 minutes. And the origin of my town name wasn’t an approved topic.
I told her the story.
She asked more questions; I answered. Now we were down to 25 minutes.
Then she asked about me and my writing.
What was going on? She was genuinely interested, and as we talked, I started relaxing. She told me about moving to Winston-Salem, about how, even though she grew up in the south and traveled around the world, she knew she was meant to be there. “Everyone has a place they’re meant to be,” she explained. “Everyone has a place that’s home to them, even if they didn’t grow up there. For some people, it’s the beach. For others, it’s the mountains. Me? I’m a foothill person.”
Eventually, we segued into the topic of my article, and naturally, she was amazing. I even got one question in — “You do everything from writing to acting and singing and such. Do you do these things to express something about yourself, or to learn something about yourself?” — that stopped her completely.
“I’ve never been asked that before,” she said thoughtfully. “What an incredible question.”
(Do I need to tell you that my head about exploded right then?)
At the end of the conversation, she said, “You should come visit. Bring your family. I have a pool.”
At the time, I thought she was being polite, and I thanked her for the offer. I assumed she was just being courteous.
Until the phone rang six weeks later. Read what happened next here.
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