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A one-on-one conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Rachman, author of THE IMPERFECTIONISTS

Friday, December 17th, 2010

gladwell_malcolmMalcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer with The New Yorker since 1996. He is the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), and Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), all of which were number one New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, What the Dog Saw (2009), is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. From 1987 to 1996, he was a reporter with The Washington Post. He was born in England, grew up in rural Ontario, and now lives in New York City.

Malcolm Gladwell: You and I, it turns out, have more than a few things in common. We were both born in Britain and moved to Canada as boys. Both our fathers are professors, and our mothers are therapists. We both went to the University of Toronto, and we both moved to the United States after graduation to work in the newspaper business. We’re the same person! Does this mean my love for The Imperfectionists is no more than a kind of displaced narcissism?

rachman_tomTom Rachman: I confess—we are in fact the same person. I hadn’t wanted you to learn this in such a public forum, but I am your double. Doppelgänger or not, I’m delighted you liked the book. And in a fruitless attempt to pretend we’re actually different people, let me ask you something about your early days in newspapers. When I left Toronto and entered journalism in the late 1990s, I had many notions about the news business, nearly all of them wrong, as it turned out. How about you? Was journalism what you expected?

MG: Oh, no. It was a complete surprise. I was stunned by the pace of newspapers: by the fact that something could happen at four o’clock in the afternoon and a reporter could make a dozen phone calls, track down every major player, and write 2,500 words on the subject—all by six o’clock. I spent my first six months at The Washington Post with my jaw open. What was it you found surprising?

TR: I had pictured journalism as I’d seen it in the most ennobling films, where the reporter battles for the truth, propelled by conviction, and is triumphant. There are journalists who fit that ideal. But in my experience, lesser drives were more commonly the engine: an urgent need for copy and quotes, the terror of enraging one’s irritable bosses, the desire for advancement or for prestigious postings. My own career started in New York at the Associated Press, a fast-paced news agency where we rarely had time for deep reporting. We might be expected to work on a dozen separate subjects in a week without error. One had time to cope, but rarely to excel. And although we were immersed in cataclysmic subjects, one’s day was more likely dominated by the mood of the person seated at the next desk. This was something that struck me from the outset—the contrast between the grand and the human—and it was a theme I tried to explore in this novel.

MG: I have to say that this was part of what I loved about The Imperfectionists. Anytime you read a novel or see a film that is about the world you inhabit, you’re always on your toes. (I know lawyers who roll their eyes at Law & Order, and the only cop show on television that cops ever liked—and I’m not making this up—was Barney Miller.) So I have to admit I was hunting for false notes. In particular, I was bracing myself for the kind of romanticization that inevitably creeps into books or movies about the newspaper business. But it never happened. And now I see why. But here’s what puzzles me. I still found the portrait of the papers—and the journalists—to be incredibly sympathetic on some level. Is that just me? And if not, how did you manage to make a portrait of, as you say, the “lesser drives” of journalism, so generous?

The Imperfectionists TPTR: That’s a paradox I’ve noticed, too: The news business held little romance for me, yet writing about it somehow stirred my affections. This applied to the characters as well. Several are tricky types, the sorts who, had I met them in a newsroom, might have prompted me to run. But on the page, I had fondness for them. It’s writing that did this. To form these characters, I tried to  conceive of their motives, resentments, disappointments; I watched them gazing unhappily into the mirror, or wincing at office slights. Writing (and reading) is a sort of exercise in empathy, I think. In life, when you encounter people, you and they have separate trajectories, each person pushing in a different direction. What’s remarkable about fiction is that it places you in the uncommon position of having no trajectory. You stand aside, motives abandoned for the duration. The characters have the trajectories now, while you just observe. And this stirs compassion that, in real life, is so often obscured by our own motives. What I wonder is whether any of this sympathy for fictional characters translates into greater sympathy for people in life. What do you think? Looking back on novels and stories you’ve loved, do you think they affected how you see people?

MG: Absolutely. In fact, to me this is the great virtue of fiction—well, “good” fiction. One of the most troubling consequences of online communication, for instance, is that it is polarizing. That is, when you deal with someone in such a limited way, it has the result of either making you like them a great deal more than you would otherwise (this is the foundation of Internet dating) or hate them a good deal more than you would otherwise (this is the reason blog comments are so nasty). Because you get such a limited sense of the person on the other end, you fill in the blanks with your prejudices. Fiction is the opposite kind of experience. In a good book we get an intimate and nuanced picture of someone—to the point where our own prejudices are entirely displaced (or almost entirely displaced) by the world created by the author. That’s an extraordinarily important kind of social discipline: It reminds us that an important part of what it means to be human is to replace our snap judgments about people with the actual empirical evidence about themselves that they offer us. I feel that Lloyd, whom you open The Imperfectionists with, is a great example of this. If you were to meet him at a cocktail party, you would almost certain form an instant dislike of him: he’s a narcissistic loser, right? But after being exposed to him over the course of your novel, I developed a real sympathy for him—and I can’t help but think that maybe that will give me a little more sympathy for the Lloyds of this world when I meet them in real life. Here’s my question, though: Does writing about people in that way have the same effect? If reading fiction civilizes us, does writing fiction civilize us even more?

TR: I want to say, “Yes!” But I don’t know that I can. The biographies of writers are so full of misbehavior that it would be hard to correlate writing and morality. What is remarkable is how often writers and other artists produce works of moral depth, yet are accused of having been monstrous in private. Art itself can warp the artist, I think. The process involves a public exposure of what may be deeply private, and criticism can feel like a review not of mere work but of the artist’s inner life. This turns some into egoists or recluses or both. Yet while painters or musicians don’t necessarily have to understand others, writers of fiction must. For some, perhaps writing becomes a repository for their humanity instead of a source. They project a fictional world containing longed-for justice, resolutions that are rare in life, enemies they can punish, friends with whom they’ll never bicker. When such writers leave the manuscript for the evening, all their humanity may be inked on those pages. Yet I must add that creative work surely does affect us in edifying ways. It just feels so humanizing! In a way, this contradiction between a humane creation and an inhumane creator is something I tried to discuss in the book, notably in the Arthur Gopal chapter, when he goes to interview an ailing intellectual, Gerda Erzberger. She argues that it’s not necessarily grand motives that produce grand works, and that sometimes they are the by-products of drives, such as the hunger for status. This comes up again in the form of Rich Snyder, who bullies Winston Cheung, elbows his way through life, and is breathtakingly inconsiderate. Yet he sometimes ends up with amazing stories on subjects that ought to require a caring eye. I witnessed this in journalism: I had instances when I hugely admired a reporter, found his or her prose incredibly perceptive, only to meet a person who was consumed by ambition and seemingly insensitive to the material. Not that those who achieve great things are all villains—far from it. But what role, I wondered, does ambition have in our success stories, and what effect on our happiness? It’s a question I explore throughout The Imperfectionists. And it’s a matter, I believe, that affects so many people trying to balance personal contentedness and professional aspirations, often with difficulty.

MG: I’ll accept that. Yes, there is no necessary connection between the sensitivity that is required of the writer in his craft and whatever grace and sensitivity that he or she may possess as a person. Clearly there are some writers for whom the effect of being perceptive or insightful in their writing leaves little time or energy for that same quality in their own lives. But where does that leave the persistent feeling that readers have that they “know” an author after reading his works? I feel like I know you, for instance (our eerie autobiographical similarities aside), after reading The Imperfectionists. Is that simply an illusion? Or is it that what I think I know about you is your voice—which is, in the end, a very different thing than your character. I don’t think this is a trivial issue. A good part of the reason we read fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) is that, unconsciously or not, we want to satisfy our curiosity about the writer. My editor at The New Yorker always says of Adam Gopnik—whom I think is the gold standard for New Yorker writers—that when he explicitly writes about himself he actually tells you nothing about himself, but when he writes about something entirely different from himself he tells you everything. Hearing that made me go back and read some of my favorite Gopnik pieces again. Of course, it also made me shudder. Good lord: What on earth have I inadvertently given away about myself in my writing?

TR: That’s funny. And you’re right about the feeling that one “knows” writers. It’s their sensibility we’re absorbing, I think. Their humor, curiosities, manner of speech, perspective, even when these are embodied in characters who are radically different from them. This is the case in my book. I’m sometimes asked which of the characters in The Imperfectionists was based on me. None was, yet each contains aspects of me. This might seem impossible, given that the characters are
so different in profile both from me and from each other: a young redheaded woman, a dissolute old cad, extroverts and introverts. There’s not one type. Yet in each there are flickers of me— features that are perhaps tiny in myself but that I magnify in the novel, dropping them into personalities that are sharply at odds with mine, and watching the effects. Only, please don’t ask me which features are mine! You see, I’m a private person. Perhaps like you, I shudder at the thought that my inner life might be on view. On the other hand, presumably this is one reason why people write in the first place: to declare—albeit in ornamented, storified fashion—their prospect on the world. The great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said in an interview, “The truth is if Tolstoy would live across the street, I wouldn’t go to see him. I would rather read what he writes.” As an admirer of Singer, I feel like I know him already. And would I cross the street to see him? Yes, absolutely. But I know what he means: The part of a writer that is available for public viewing is what’s on the page. This is the truest version of themselves. Truer, in a way, than they might appear if you met them. These days, literary events, readings, interviews, and the Internet tend to thrust forward the personality of the writer. I wonder, is this sort of personal exposure a good or bad thing?

MG: You are being a tease, Tom. Just give us one little example of something of yourself that you buried in a character!

TR: I guess I opened myself up for that question! Well, the Winston Cheung character shares not only my fascination with primates but also how shipwrecked I sometimes felt in journalism, when I realized how unprepared I was for an assignment and how much was expected of me. It’s a feeling you often have at a new job, I think, and you hang on till you gain competence. But if you’re a reporter, the fear is particularly acute since you may be expected to write knowledgeably about something you know little about, and are expected to be correct in every detail and to be so in public for anyone to check and critique, publicize your errors, even sue you if you mess up. It’s a fearful position for a young, inexperienced journalist. That fear of impending disaster was seared into me, and something I depicted in a comic key with the Winston character. Other traits of mine in the characters are harder to tease out. For example, the affection that Arthur Gopal has for his daughter—I feel that’s my affection for her, and yet I have no children. Or the loneliness of Ruby Zaga—I feel that’s mine without it having been mine, without her life or her personality or her responses or situations having been mine. What happens, I think, is that you separate off a potential in yourself—perhaps even just an emotion—and place it in the petri dish of this other character and watch what becomes of it. That’s why these characters feel like parts of me, though they’re not in any recognizable sense me.

MG: That wasn’t so hard, was it? Although I realize that it is the question that novelists always get, so I feel a little sheepish about having forced you into it. Thankfully, those of us who write nonfiction never have to answer that one (although we have our own version: Where do you get your ideas?). I sense we are close to the end, Tom, but I wanted to ask you one more question, which might sound a little odd. But do you consider The Imperfectionists to be a success? I don’t mean a financial or even critical success. I mean that now, when a significant amount of time has passed since you wrote it and that you have heard from all kinds of readers and that you have, no doubt, moved on to write something new, do you look back on this book and feel content? Or is there some sense in which you wish you could do it—or at least parts of it—over again? I’m guessing that the answer to that question has as much to do with your personality as it does with the book itself. (And I’ll let you guess which of the two positions—the remorseful or triumphant—I tend to take.)

TR: I’m a fairly self-critical person, so I’d expect to have regrets about the book. But I’m satisfied with The Imperfectionists. It’s the book I intended to write, and that is all I could hope for. Writing can so easily take the upper hand over the writer, I think, gaining its own shape and momentum, and pulling in unintended directions. That can be good; at its best, it’s creativity. But if it derives from laziness or laxness, then it’s a disaster. It means that the words only approximate what your mind contained. And what could be worse for a writer! I battled with this book, worked on it until I was exhausted. Finally, it was as close to what I had conceived as I was able to produce at that point in my life. Certainly, The Imperfectionists must contain many imperfections. But they are the best imperfections I had in me at the time! For that, I am contented.

The Imperfectionists will be available in paperback on January 4th, 2011.

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