Malcolm Gladwell: Novel thinking

7th October, 2009

Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell, in Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

Malcolm Gladwell uses the techniques of a fiction writer to make his ideas persuasive, as he explains to Tim Harford

What the Dog Saw, your forthcoming book, is a collection of writing for the New Yorker. You describe it as an attempt to understand the contents of other people’s minds. What do you mean?
One of the great continuing source of mystery and excitement for human beings is the understanding we reach at a very young age is that other people’s minds are different from our own, and what we think is not what the world thinks. I think in one form or another the fascination that the world looks different through the minds of others continues indefinitely. In my writing I’m often trying to put myself into the mind of someone who has some kind of specialised perspective.

My favourite article is about Million Dollar Murray: it’s both an unforgettable story and a powerful idea about the statistics of social problems. When you’re writing this kind of essay, what comes first – the story or the theory?
In that case it was the theory. I had been chatting with homelessness advocates and came across this argument they were making that it costs more to neglect homelessness than to cure it. Now it seems obvious, but it had never occurred to me. Once I had that extraordinary fact it was just a matter of finding Murray. But since almost all chronically homeless have the same problems as Murray, finding Murray was no great feat.

You’ve become famous for your public lectures. How do the lectures and the writing influence each other?

The lecture is a great laboratory for storytelling. The lessons you learn fit beautifully in your writing. I recently gave a lecture in Glasgow and it didn’t quite work; then I gave the talk in Brighton and I fixed it. There’s no way that if you’re writing you can do that. If I was writing I would just have handed in the Glasgow draft and never had a chance to improve.

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