N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Malcolm Gladwell. I am a writer. I am an English-Canadian living in New York City.
I’ve already told you many times that I’m just a big fan of your work.
I want this interview to be based around writing and I think people really admire what you’ve done but they also admire how you do it, and we live in a world where everybody is sharing their opinions and their thoughts and there’s only a few that can do it really well. I want this interview to be based on writing and Stephen King wrote a book on specifically that. I’m just curious, Malcolm, what goes into your writing, where do you start and what gets you going before you start a piece or even a book?
I tend to start with a puzzle. Something that I don’t entirely understand or can’t entirely explain or some kind of story that poses a really interesting question. There’s many, many ways in to that. Sometimes the puzzle is sparked by someone you meet, someone you read about, something you read, some piece of research you stumble across.
Are you actively looking?
Yeah, you have to be. That’s the business I’m in. Part of my job description is to be on the lookout for things that fuel this exploration. But not to the point of having a notepad and scribbling notes but almost to that point. I mean, I’m consciously cataloguing things. I buy books by the truckload because I hope that they give some promise of having some of the tidbit in them that would be useful. Out of that steady, relatively unfocused gathering, sometimes you see patterns emerge and that’s when you know you can write something.
How are you recording and tracking the things that you read?
I’m very old school. When I read a book, I make notations in the margin and then I list all the page numbers that I’ve noted on the front flap and then I put that book in my library at home and my library at home is a physical representation of my memory. I can look at all these books. I can pull them off the shelf and I can see what I thought what was important in that book that’s been marked there. I’ve been doing that for years and years and years now.
Things that are digital are much easier to search but they are harder to find whereas I find something a lot more concrete and useful to have, like I said, a physical representation of my memory. I walk down my bookshelf and I look at a book and each one of those books represents a set of ideas and observations and things. I know where it is on the shelf. I know where to find it. I know what books are around it. For the same reason I spend a lot of time in libraries, in the stacks because what you get is not just the book you’re interested in but all the books because of the way the libraries are organized. There is a cluster of books around the book you’re interested in that can be just as useful.
You just might stumble unintentionally on something?
A lot of stumbling goes on. In fact I depend on the stumbling. One of the things I like to do in my writing is to put together things that are quite different in many respects but have a surprising similarity. I do that a lot. That is the direct fruit of stumbling on to things. It never would’ve occurred to you that X and Y had something in common but they do. I’m doing a piece right now which talks about the phenomenon of school shooting in the United States, the Sony hack and Wilt Chamberlain, a great basketball player’s inability to hit free throws.
How did you connect those?
It’s almost comically disconnected but they are connected, I would argue, or at least I hope as the article is finished, I would have convinced you they’re connected. I mean, this is even by my own standards a bit absurd.
Is it a challenge in itself for you?
It’s a fun challenge. The reader is supposed to enter into the challenge as well. I think that reading a good piece of journalism it should be a little bit thrilling. There should be a thrill. When I read something that’s really good that I really admire, there’s a point to which I stop and I just say, “Wow. I mean, I can’t believe you pulled that off.” The best pieces of writing are those that are listed in that moment of appreciation from the reader. These pieces, if I can pull it off, I hope that I could get that bit of appreciation.
Why do you think that’s so important? Why do you think it’s so important to take them on that journey?
Fun is the wrong word but unless there is some element of excitement and in exploring an idea, people won’t explore an idea. This is for example my diagnosis of why the idea, the global warming issue has such a difficulty gaining traction with the public. No one has found a way to tell that story in a way that seizes your imagination. It’s all this kind of gloom and doom hit you over the head sort of thing. Maybe unavoidably so is it’s such a dyer problem. You simply cannot engage people’s imaginations unless there is some kind of artistry, some kind of flair, some kind of flamboyance in the presentation.
An athlete for example, when they want to get better, they go to the gym. They go to the track and they run. That’s their routine. For you, how are you going better?
First of all, I hope I’m getting better. Maybe I’m not. I interviewed a chess player, Magnus Carlsen recently and an international grandmaster. He’s the world champion. He’s only 24. He knows so much more about chess than he did when he was 20 but he’s not sure he’s a better chess player which I thought was very poignant. How do I get better? I mean, by taking risks. I’ve just written my first screenplay and I’m not sure the screenplay is any good but I am sure writing a screenplay made me a better writer that it alerted me to themes, issues, problems, techniques that I was nowhere up before.
Writing a script, this was a television screenplay and writing a story to a prescribed length. It’s enormously useful than instructive exercise. I think that’s how you get better. There was a time a couple of years ago when I decided to take narrative a lot more seriously to really, really try hard to tell better stories, to have more completely formed characters in my books. That has changed. David and Goliath is a very different book than Tipping Point as a result of that. Is it a better book? I don't know. It’s different book. It goes about it’s task in a very different way.
It’s embedded in stories more.
Way more stories and less theorizing.
Would you do that more or was just appropriate for that book?
No. I’m more interested now in storytelling than I am in theorizing or at least I understand that the upside telling a great story is greater. 5 or 6 years ago, I became very interested in the writing of Michael Lewis. I became convinced he was he was the great non-fiction writer of my generation and tried to be more like him and he’s someone who is the man. He can explore a very complicated issue entirely through a story which is a real feat which I can’t do and I’d like to be able to do.
How will you get there?
It’s practice. He chooses people or events as his topic and I don’t. I choose ideas. I’m not really doing exactly the same thing as him. I would like to try his way once and see what happens. There are several of his books that I feel are way better than I’ve written and I would like to see if I could move more on his direction.
Let’s say you have the challenge of taking somebody off the street and turning them into a great writer and you have 6 months, what would you do?
We can’t do it in 6 months. It can be 6 years. There are a number of things I would do. It really should be 6 years and not 6 months. Some portion of that time I think would be spent in something similar to a newspaper job. It’s how I got started. I feel it’s really invaluable and that learning how to write quickly and to remove your insecurities and ego from the process is exceedingly important otherwise you just can’t. There’s a certain kind of volume of writing you have to do at a pace that you have to work at in order to get anywhere. You can only do that if you’ve at some point been forced to just write and stop worrying.
It takes me ages to write.
It used to take me ages and then I worked for a newspaper for 10 years and I was cured of that. Then I would spend a lot of time teaching them how to ask questions because asking questions and being curious about things is crucial obviously to the writing process and it’s not easy. It seems like it’s going to be easy but it’s not. Knowing how to find the story in someone is a trick. It takes some doing. It’s not obvious. I think even the most interesting people, some of them I just interviewed, Magnus Carlsen as I was saying. He’s the greatest chess player in the world right now.
You would think, “Oh, the world’s greatest chess player. It should be an easy person to interview.” You have to think about having some experience in figuring out for an audience of people who don’t know much about chess. What is the story you want him to tell? He can’t just talk about his greatest games. Maybe he can but he can’t have the conversation he can have with a room full of chess grandmasters. Also, he is someone who he’s not like. If you interview a writer, their job is to express themselves so it’s a relatively easy task to get them to be open, but he’s not in a job that requires that. You got to find it. I always spend a lot of time on that, on forcing people in situations where they had to strategically think about how they want to interview someone.
Is that a lot of prep that you do before hand or is it just when you’re there, you’re trying to find it interesting?
There’s a fair amount of prep, not to the point necessarily of writing all of my questions. I usually know before I go in what the first thing I want to know is you can never predict everything because if you want to leave the interview open for serendipity. They have to be certain things that you are explicitly looking for and that has to correspond with the story you think you want to tell about them.
They say writing is in the editing. How do you go about editing?
Like most serious writers I know they many, many, many, many drafts.
How many are we talking?
If I’m writing a 6,000-word New Yorker piece, I will probably spend 6 weeks just writing it and I might do at least 4 or 5 or maybe 6 or 7 serious drafts whether I’m changing substantial amounts and even in the final, from the second last to the last draft, I might be making quite significant changes. I have an expectation when I’m writing that it’s all going to change. There’s no necessity of getting it right first time. In fact the first drafts I write are often not just in terms of the sentence a long way from where I end up but the arguments as well. I expect the arguments to change. I’m getting a version of the argument in place and then when I think about it, I adjust it as I go because the process of writing an argument and the process of formulating an argument, I think happens at the same time. It’s not a matter that you figured it all out than you write it down. I think as you’re writing it down, you’re figuring it out.
Which is very different from the education system they say you create the plan first, and the points you want to make, which is very linear.
I even start writing before I finish my reporting, like the piece I’m writing now. I’ve interviewed one person. I will probably end up interviewing 10 or 15 but I’ve already written a quarter of it. But I just go back and change as I get new stuff. Just getting on something on the page, clarifies my thinking a great deal.
What are you changing typically?
I might be adding examples. In the early drafts, I’m flushing out the argument with stories that I’ve gathered, colored details and then some of the later stages I’m tweaking the arguments, sometimes overhauling the argument, sharpening or getting it. Then I’m also adding and subtracting in the middle stages. If you write a 5,000-word article for the New Yorker. There will be whole kinds of riffs you’ll do that don’t work or that you realize very late in the game two words need to be added. I think of writing as being very modular. You don’t have to start at the beginning. It’s a series of pieces that you knit together and if you don’t like one of the pieces, you just get rid of it but the other stuff should be able to stand on their own.
Almost like chapters.
I never think of a piece of writing as an organic whole ever. To me you’re building a building out of Lego blocks and if you don’t like 3 of those blocks, you just take them off and put different ones in this place.
Do you feel the pressure of being a prolific writer like I need to make another hit? Almost like Kanye West or Drake?
Their audiences more demanding or at least more fickle than mine. I would not like to be in Kanye West’s shoes for a number of reasons. But pop music is such a lightning in a bottle. It’s capturing a very specific sensibility at a moment in time and there’s this incredibly poignant thing. I forgot in which a rock singer said in his 30’s. I can still write music. I can no longer write hits. I don't know whether that’s true of writers, in the same way non-fiction writers. I think our audiences are quite stable and their genre doesn’t append it’s rules every 3 years the way that music does.
I can read a work of non-fiction from 20 years ago and it wouldn’t seem dated at all. If I listen to Tears for Fears, it’s sounds absurd. Even not just bad pop acts from the ’80s but almost anything from the ‘80s, you’ll know it’s from the ‘80s but if you read writing from the ‘80s, if someone didn’t tell you when it was written you wouldn’t know. The rules for music is much closer to fashion I think than it is to literature.
When I think of Malcolm, he has to bring a new perspective to something and that’s not easy to do.
I don't know. Maybe I should feel the pressure. I don’t. Every day, I’m running across something that strikes me as worthy of exploration. It’s never the case that the things I’m writing about are new to all readers. They’re only new to a portion of readers. If I had to come up with something that was, all the time that was new to everyone, that’s hard but no it’s just a matter of finding something that most people probably haven’t heard that much about, that’s a much, much lower bar. My definition is always what do I want to know more about it and I have the conceit of my writing has always been that the same things that I find interesting will also be found interesting by my audience. As long as that’s true, I’m okay. I have almost never written about something because I thought others were interested. My only task is dos this strike me as being novel and cool.
What has your attention now? Are you working on any books or any ideas?
No new book at the moment but I am doing this piece that I mentioned where I’m trying to talk about foul shooting and Sony hack and school shootings.
You’re smiling as you’re telling me.
Yes. It’s slightly absurd but it’s all about riots. I’ve got really into riots. I read a paper 40 years ago by a famous sociologist about riots. It struck me as very interesting. The point of the piece is a lot of things. The riot is a wonderful metaphor for all kinds of social behaviour. The way it makes sense of the way the media handles the Sony emails is that they were engaged in a riot. Riots are weird. In a riot, lots of people participate who would not otherwise be in favor of violence and obstruction. There are these moments where we do things despite the fact that they’re not in agreement with our values.
Out of character.
Yeah, out of character. That kind of out of character activities. School shootings are part of that out of character activity on the part of many kids who do them. These are all virgins of a very interesting problem which is what happens when we act out of character and why. I’ve been mulling about it for quite some time and I’ve written a part of this piece months ago and just had to decide because I did a big piece on New Orleans and now I’ve come back to it.
There’s no hard deadline?
No. I tend to write pieces that don’t have a direct immediate news hook and I work for a publication that doesn’t care as much as others about whether something has particular resonance in the moment. We should probably care more. That gives me a lot of freedom that I just take my time.
What do you like about the New Yorker? Why the New Yorker?
There’s no where quite like it. You’ve got an audience that’s incredibly sophisticated which allows you to write a certain way that you can’t write elsewhere and to write out of lengths. You can’t write elsewhere. No one else is going to let me write 6,000 words on riots. I might be able to write for another publication 1,500 words on riots. They’re amounting 4 times longer than I would otherwise. That sounds very self-indulgent and part of it is but you can do things in 6,000 words. You can’t do a 1,500 so instead …
Isn’t that the essence of a good writer being able to …
Be as brief as possible.
No. Sometimes good writers are people who permit you to explore something in depth that you’ve never otherwise have the patience to do. When you find yourself reading a book, it’s 400 pages long and a topic. You thought that you had only a limited appetite for it then you’re in a presence of great writer. I think the New Yorker ties that. It lures you in and shows you what can be done when you give writers freedom to express themselves.
Is there a template to your writing? Do you have a formula?
I try not to have one but I’m sure I do. I’m probably just blind to it. People make fun of me every now and then. I think it’s in part because they see a pattern more clearly than perhaps I do. You like to pretend if you are a creative sort that there isn’t a pattern because it makes you feel better by yourself but I’m sure there is. There’s a rhythm to my arguments that’s common but it’s not the same as pattern. I think of that as being less of a pattern, less obvious in a pattern but I have, what I was describing my articles are modular. They have these sections, these little chapters. You can very often pull one of the sections out and the piece would still stand. That’s a distinctive and I think common feature.
What do you think great writers have in common apart from being good observers and having empathy, what else do they have?
They’re self-critical. They’re capable of doing 10 wraps or something if necessary. They’re self-aware. You have to be on speaking terms with your flaws and you have to know what you do badly and compensate for it. You can’t be blind to holes in your repertoire because people are going to lose patients with you. You have to know what you can’t do and work around in some way.
Why are you obsessed with success? What lures you to that?
It’s a good question. I would say we all are but maybe I am more than most. I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
Do you feel like an outsider?
I mean, I did for a long time, less now but you are always a kind of a creature of the anxieties in your own things when you were 11. When I was 11, I was very conscious of being someone who was out of the mainstream, far from anywhere important and was desperately curious about what it would take to be in the middle and in the center of things. I suppose I’ve carried that fixation with me into my adult years.
For those that want to get into writing, but write in front of an audience because anybody can write and post it on a blog but to have that audience, what does it take?
I got my start very randomly. I was a freelance writer in Washington DC for small magazines but I really got started as a newspaper writer which is a very forgiving place to begin. Expectations are fairly low and you’re fairly anonymous in a newspaper. The paper gets blamed more than you get blamed if you screw up. You get lots and lots of chances to do something right in a newspaper. If you’re covering a story you might right 10 stories on it. You don’t have to get it right all at once. You can take your time. You can get it right on the fifth day or the sixth day. That’s a much easier way to begin than to jump on to the main stage right away being anonymous for my first 5 or 6 years in journalism is really crucial to allowing me to develop and make mistakes without major repercussions.
What kind of mistakes?
You make all kinds of mistakes. I still do. You misconstrue someone’s argument. You miss a key point. You’re lazy and don’t do this bit of reporting or this bit of reporting. There’s many number of ways in which particularly in the beginning, you just misunderstand about what it takes to produce a piece of journalism and it takes a long time to figure all those things out.
What is it that you would want to leave the audience? For those that want to write better, communicate better?
I don’t think you can always communicate what you mean or believe or want people to pick up in one go, it’s an on-going process. I think a lot of what makes a writer effective is that they have previously won the trust of their audience. If you think about that, it’s not about one successful piece, but each piece of literature are linked in time, bits of writing to previous bits of writing. They’re in a community of words and understanding the power of that community of words is crucial. I’ve used this phrase more than once, to lower expectations when starting out. I can’t accomplish everything right out of the gate. It takes time. You just need to be patient and build a case for yourself as a writer, very slowly overtime.