Malcolm Gladwell Adds to the Conversation

By Kay Kipling March 1, 2011

New York Times bestselling author (Blink, The Tipping Point) Malcolm Gladwell comes to Sarasota this month with fellow New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik to close out the Ringling Town Hall season March 21 at the Van Wezel. One of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005, Gladwell is acclaimed for making big ideas in the social sciences understandable to the average reader; call 925-1343 for any remaining tickets if you’d like to find yourself enlightened.

Q. You and Adam Gopnik have done this sort of thing before, right?

A. We’ve done it half a dozen times. Sometimes it’s a conversation; sometimes it’s a formal debate. He’s so effortlessly entertaining, anything works.

Q. How did you originally get started in journalism?

A. I fell into it by accident. I couldn’t get a job in advertising, and then I got fired from a job in Indiana. When I moved to Washington, D.C., I had a roommate who got me into some freelancing. The field of journalism is so open to the curious; people with different backgrounds can come at the job from different angles.

Q. Would you say curiosity is the most important trait of a journalist?

A. Curiosity is important for the inspiration. You also need doggedness and perseverance to get through those 15 drafts of a story. People underestimate how much sweat is behind every story. It’s the familiar paradox: The more successful you are, the easier it looks.

Q. How do you know whether a topic is right for just an article or can become a full-length book?

A. You never know. I just roll the dice. I look for a topic that will hold my interest, because it takes two years to finish a book. You want to be sure you don’t get bored or feel like you’ve exhausted the topic. You can write about anything, but the test is always, can you add something new to the conversation?

Q. What might spark a story?

A. I’m always accumulating little things. For example, today I was talking to my editor about at least two pieces that came from other stories I’d abandoned. I didn’t throw them away, I just came back to them. Part of being a working journalist is being a magpie, gathering things without knowing if or how you’ll use them.

Q. What are you working on right now?

A. I just finished a college rankings story, about what’s wrong with them. Now that’s been written about before, so it’s finding new ways to explore how deeply problematic it is to say one college is No. 15 on the list and another is No. 17. I hope I’ve added something to the equation. That’s coming out in The New Yorker in a couple of months. A couple of weeks ago I was trying to figure out what my next piece might be, and I think it will be a review of some books about innovation.

Q. What would you say your particular gift as a journalist is?

A. A lot of what I bring to it is my ignorance. Because I’m not an expert in the fields I write about, I can make connections that might seem crazy to someone on the inside. I don’t have the grounding or sophistication they do, but I see it with fresh eyes. And my readers are in my position.

There’s a great description about the difference between the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog knows a little about a lot of things, and the fox knows a lot about a few things. Obviously, I’m the hedgehog, writing about the fox.

Q. What interests do you have outside of your work?

A. I don’t draw a distinction between my work and free time, because my work is so much fun. But I’m a serious runner and a huge consumer of thrillers. Also a massive sports fan who’s wasted countless hours watching sports.

Q. I have to ask you about your hair. Is it a statement, an ongoing social experiment, or just the way you like it?

A. My hair is the way my hair was as a kid. In my early adulthood I cut it, trying to be responsible, but I’ve returned to what I feel is my normal state. It’s not consciously an experiment, but it does continue to surprise me the reaction I get about something that’s so trivial.

Q. Final question: What will your next book be about?

A. I’m just starting to think about that, toying with ideas, getting that itch to do a book again. It’s a lengthy process of gestation.

Filed under
Show Comments