Malcolm Gladwell: I wanted to be an academic but then I realised that academics are hedgehogs and I am a fox
Saturday 29 May 2010
Malcolm Gladwell is the New Yorker essayist who has also published three best-selling, non-fiction books: The Tipping Point, Blink and The Outliers, but not Jamie Does, which is by Jamie Oliver and is a celebration of food from six different countries. Wake up!
He lives alone in Manhattan, but is currently in the UK touring his live show called, perhaps not surprisingly: Malcolm Gladwell Live on Tour. So we meet at an Oxford hotel where I find him in the restaurant, sitting at a corner table. He is 46, quite geeky-looking, but in a fairly hot kind of way, and he has that mad, Sideshow Bob hair which, today, is cropped disappointingly short. He is eating a cheese toastie and drinking a cup of tea, most elegantly, with his little finger sticking out. I wonder why he is doing this tour.
Isn't it one thing, I say, for writers to do the book festival circuits, but to appear in the West End? What's it all about, pussycat? He says: "Well, it's pointless to put out books and not tell people you have put out a book, right? Otherwise, it's the tree falling in the forest." But you do realise, I tell him, because someone has to – Oh, why does it always have to be me? – that you'll never be a proper, full-blown celebrity until you start dating someone like, for example, Jennifer Aniston. You're never going to get your cellulite circled in Heat otherwise.
He says: "I think Jennifer is taken at the moment. Poor woman. I don't think she has a very pleasant life." Young man, I say. You're never going to even make it into Closer! with that attitude. He says: "I guess not, no." This is a shame, as I long to see Malcolm Gladwell frolicking on a beach in a bikini, as snapped by the paps. But you win some and you lose some, I suppose.
What is it that Malcolm Gladwell does, exactly? Oh, bugger. I knew you'd ask that. OK, I've read the books, and I've read the essays, so here is what I think he does: he illuminates new takes on the world, by either parlaying the obvious but unconsidered – why do people buy a variety of mustards but only one kind of ketchup (Heinz)? – into literary gold or by crunching dry, complex material into engaging, irresistible stories. He may be Bill Bryson, but more so, and with crazier hair.
I ask what his talk tonight, at Oxford's New Theatre, will be about. He says: "It's about two guys trying to come up with a drug for cancer." And will you be livening it up with... I don't know... magic tricks? He will not, he says. "I stand stock still behind a podium, and I talk. It is the least 21st-century kind of thing you can imagine."
His latest book, What the Dog Saw, is a collection of his New Yorker essays and covers subjects as diverse as hair-dye, kitchen gadgets, Enron, terrorism and my personal favourite, the 8,000-word beauty that is "The Ketchup Conundrum". Why do people only buy the one kind of ketchup? Because, Malcolm concludes, it pushes all five of the primal human taste buttons, and "has reached perfection".
Does this mean it can never, ever be Dyson-ed, so to speak? "Could it be re-invented? I suppose. But it would require... I'd have to revisit my thesis, wouldn't I?" Are you a ketchup man? "If you spend as much time as I do explaining why Heinz ketchup is perfect, then all of a sudden you have transformed yourself into someone who can only have Heinz ketchup. Since writing the piece I have taken my ketchup much more seriously."
I ask if he ever gets stuck for ideas. He says he is always ruminating on something or other. "A seed of something gets planted in you, and you think: I'm going to look at that. But it takes a while. Things have to germinate for a long time. A story is a complex creation of many different things so you are always accumulating. You might hear something and stow it away and wait weeks or months or years for some second fact to come along and make the first more useful." I say that if he does ever get stuck for ideas, I have a few. "Oh?" he queries, worriedly. Yes. And here is one: why, Malcolm, is the fluff in the tumble drier always grey, no matter the colour of the wash? "Actually, that is weird. I had never thought about that," he says. "Malcolm Gladwell, great thinker, my arse!" I say. He chuckles. He returns to his tea, pinkie in the air. He is very elegant generally, and moves with fabulous grace. He was a star middle-distance runner as a child – a 1,500 metre champion – so maybe that's it.
Although Malcolm mostly grew up in Canada, he was actually born in Kent to an English father – Graham, a civil-engineering professor – and a Jamaican mother, Joyce, a psychotherapist. His father, he says, is very English. "He's a man who likes dogs, gardening and walks. How much more English can you get?" The family left when Malcolm was six but, yes, he still feels at home here. "It is very familiar to me." I wonder if, as a mixed-race child growing up in the Britain in the Sixties, he found it hard. He says it wasn't hard for him, "but for my mother? I think so."
His mother has written a memoir, Brown Face, Big Master, which was first published in 1969 but has been reprinted many times – I highly recommend it; you can get it from Amazon although you may have to wait a while – and she writes about the racism at that time. In one incident, she is standing on her front door step, waving Graham and the older children off as they set out on a walk – baby Malcolm is in her arms – when a boy rides past on his bicycle and shouts "Nigger!". "Quickly, I glanced at Graham and the children, hoping they hadn't heard," she writes. "And then I turned indoors, my heart and mind in turmoil. A poisoned arrow had found its mark... the picture I had built up of an accepting community vanished."
I ask Malcolm how his mother has influenced him. He says he wouldn't have become a writer if it weren't for her. "Writers were abstract things until I read that [the memoir] and realised the person I loved most in the world could be a writer and produce a book." Were you curious as a child? "All children are curious," he replies, "and I don't think I was any more or less curious than the next child. My father read to us as children. He would read Dickens. You have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to be transported listening to Dickens. And we had this big set of illustrated English history books, and I do remember liking those and spending many hours with them, but mostly I spent my time playing with Lego."
Lego has yet to be toppled, hasn't it? Is Lego the ketchup of toys? "Lego went though a crisis and it had to transform itself from non-representational to representational. This is an interesting thing going on. Kids require more of Lego today than they did in my day." You mean, we were happy just messing around with the bricks, but you now have to be able to build a Star Wars model? "Yes, so it's quite a different thing than the thing I grew up with." A worse thing? "No, it's just different. All children will apply a layer of imagination on whatever they are doing. I don't think you change the fundamental nature of a child's brain just by changing the nature of the toy."
The family moved to Elmira, a tiny community in rural Ontario famous for one thing and one thing only: it is the home of the Blackberry. And is Malcolm a Blackberry man? He is. "My loyalty lies with the Blackberry and will always do so," he says, "as I come from the town that invented it." So you haven't been tempted by an iPhone, then? No, he says. I say I wouldn't want to have been the person who told Blackberry about the iPhone, just as I wouldn't have wanted to be the person who had to tell MySpace about Facebook. He says mobile phones are a greater advancement than the internet. I tell him I recently read the opposite, and that the changes the internet has brought about are up there with the changes brought about by the industrial revolution.
"I don't believe that," he says. "A lot of what the internet does is allow us to do a bunch of things that we used to do faster and easier, right? Google saves me, as a writer, a bunch of trips to the library, and that's essentially what it does, whereas a cellphone has transformed the way ordinary life is lived. Let me put it this way. If I had to choose between the internet and cellphones, which one would I choose? I'd choose the cellphone." Obviously, Malcolm does not fritter away endless hours researching the expensive Italian villa holidays he will never go on. If he did, he would know that the internet is terrific for this, and may even be invaluable.
Surprisingly, Malcolm was never a star academic performer at school or college. How so? "I left high school very early and went to college very early so forfeited my chance... I just wasn't a consistent student. When I was interested I did very well but when I wasn't I didn't do well at all. I had a patchwork record. I had thought I wanted to be an academic but then realised that wasn't appropriate. Academics are hedgehogs and I'm a fox."
He arrived at the New Yorker via the American Spectator and the Washington Post. Do you recall your first day at the New Yorker? Was it scary? "In my first week on staff a woman was beaten in Central Park and [the editor] Tina Brown wanted a story on it. She told me on Thursday and it was due on Monday and I wrote 6,000 words about neurosurgery over the weekend, but once I got over that it was fine." What are you frightened of in life? "Everything from death to heights... the usual human gamut of scary things," he says.
He seems quite emotionally detached – remote even. I don't think feelings interest him very much. His writing certainly isn't interested in feelings. Perhaps his mother always looked after that side of things for the family. Have you been influenced by your mother's work as a psychotherapist? "My mother's personality," he says, "is very interesting to me." That's not much of an answer, Malcolm. What have you learnt from her? He waits a while then says: "My mother is a very, very good listener which, I now realise, is a very difficult and rare gift, but a crucial one for a psychotherapist and a crucial one for a journalist." Malcolm absorbs, I think, but does not get involved.
His first book, The Tipping Point, which explored how small actions spread and evolve into trends, was first published in 2000 and then spent seven years on the best-seller lists, while his follow-ups, Blink, about the instant decisions we all make, and Outliers, which investigates successful people, were also global hits. He says he had no idea that The Tipping Point would become what it was. "It just never went away. It never exploded. It didn't have its own tipping point. It just trundled along for years. I keep expecting it to vanish and it doesn't. It's the cockroach of publishing."
Sometimes, his books can seem a little heavy on anecdote and light on thesis – Ooo, hark at me! – but they are immensely satisfying all the same. And they must have made him very rich. What's it like, being very rich? "It's all very abstract. My life is not materially different from what it was 10 years ago. I might eat in a nicer restaurant than I used to, and I have more money in the bank, but I rent my apartment... My family isn't interested in the kinds of things money buys. I didn't grow up in a culture where materialism was rejected, but there was an indifference to it, and on some level I am indifferent to it. I don't really care very much." So you've never put yourself on a waiting list for a £10,000 handbag? "Now that sort of thing," he says, "is just silly."
I wonder what he does in his down time, seeing as he has no wife or kids to distract him. Movies? Books? Call girls? Movies are OK, he says, "but they seem to be getting longer. I pay my $12, and they then demand three hours of my time." Books? "I like detective novels and spy novels and thrillers. I don't read literary authors much. One of my favourite writers is Iain Pears. He's at the high end. And then Lee Child." I don't know about call girls. I don't dare ask. Instead, I go for: would you say you had a hobby at all? "I still run, but if your job is basically reading and writing and talking to people, it's not as if you need a hobby. What you do is sufficiently interesting."
Do you have a gift, would you say? "You mean, if someone worked really hard could they write like me? Yes. But it's a bit like saying, if someone worked really hard they could have your personality. My writing is who I am. Is good writing available to a larger group of people than we think? Absolutely. But the amount of work that goes into my writing... The last piece I did was 12 drafts, and if you write 12 drafts, I guess it's going to be a pretty good piece, but how many people will do 12 drafts?"
Frustratingly, it seems we're only just getting going, but now he has to go. He has to "tweak" his talk for tonight. He then has to meet some relatives for tea. He leaves and is gone, although, being so dreamy and detached, I'm not sure he was ever really there. Still, I am sad. I am sad because I now know I'll never see him frolicking in the surf with Jennifer Aniston, and because I still have no idea why the fluff in the tumble drier is always grey, no matter the colour of the wash. Actually, do you think there might be a book in that? One draft only, though. I've got Italian villas to look at. Honestly, if it weren't for the internet, how would anyone ever know about all the Italian villas out there?
'What the Dog Saw' by Malcolm Gladwell is published by Penguin, £4.99
Tipping pointers: The wisdom of Malcolm Gladwell
On writing: "Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone's head."
On success: "Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder."
On job satisfaction: "Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying."
On cultural baggage: "Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behaviour that we cannot make sense of our world without them."
On friendship: "It is quite possible for people who have never met us and who have spent only 20 minutes thinking about us to come to a better understanding of who we are than people who have known us for years."
On understanding: "The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter."
On happiness: "My earliest memories of my father are of seeing him work at his desk and realising that he was happy. I did not know it then, but that was one of the most precious gifts a father can give his child."
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