Author Archives

Jessica Gross
Writer in New York City.

An Interview with ‘Call Me By Your Name’ Author André Aciman

Andrè Aciman attends a screening of "Call Me by Your Name" during the 55th New York Film Festival in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Jessica Gross | Longreads | November 2017 | 20 minutes (4,900 words)

I spend the first day in any new place, particularly when I’m traveling alone, feeling massively out of sorts and wondering if I should turn right back around and come home. By now, I know that by the end of my stay that initial despair will feel almost unreal. But last summer, on a trip to Vienna, my sense of dislocation was so acute I didn’t know if I’d last. I’d spent the long train ride over from Paris re-reading my great-grandmother’s autobiography—as told to my grandmother—which details my Jewish family’s flight from Vienna in 1938. Arriving in the city so many decades later, I still couldn’t shake the sense of terror they’d described. No matter how much I tried to talk myself down, I couldn’t seem to stop conflating the cold stares of the Austrians I passed on the street with the fact that this country had wanted my relatives dead.

So: It was fraught. Until, that is, a friend sent me an essay by André Aciman. In “Parallax,” the epilogue to his essay collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, Aciman—a Jew and an exile from Egypt to Europe, who now lives in New York—writes of the dislocation that seems by now intrinsic to his personhood. He cannot, he writes, appreciate one place unless through the projection of another. “What we missed was not just Egypt. What we missed was dreaming Europe in Egypt—what we missed was the Egypt where we’d dreamed of Europe,” he writes. “Parallax is not just a disturbance in vision. It’s a derealizing and paralyzing disturbance in the soul—cognitive, metaphysical, intellectual, and ultimately aesthetic. It is not just about displacement, or of feeling adrift both in time and space, it is a fundamental misalignment between who we are, might have been, could still be, can’t accept we’ve become, or may never be.” I can’t remember whether reading this made me abruptly stop crying or, in the way that transcendent literature can, made me sob even harder.

Since then, I’ve read enough Aciman—a memoirist, essayist, and novelist—to know that dislocation is one of several central and vital themes. He also grapples with evasion of the present, and of pain; with ambivalence; and with desire. These last two are on particular display in his masterful novel Call Me by Your Name, which has now been adapted into a gorgeous film. Aciman expresses what it’s like to inhabit a human mind with more intricacy, subtlety and lyricism than almost any other writer I’ve read. We met at a café on the Upper West Side, where I tried to keep my reverence in check, and spoke about his distaste for realism, mitigating joy, trying to induce a sense of immersion in the reader, his respect for editors, and the new film. He began by telling me there was only one question I couldn’t ask: whether he thinks it did justice to the book.

Are there any other questions you absolutely loathe?

No.

How do you generally answer when people ask that question?

“I loved it!” Okay, now you’re asking the question. [Laughter] Okay, fine, I’ll answer.

As a writer, you have two choices. You can be very proprietary—in other words, you own the book, you own the story, and the movie has to follow, otherwise you get upset, you go crazy.

Or, you can say, “I’ve written the book. You want to make a movie, you want to make a play, you want to make an opera out of it? Do with it what you want. And if you want my opinion, I’ll give it to you; if you don’t want to hear it, I won’t give it to you.” I’m probably the easiest author to edit because I feel that an editor knows what they’re doing.  So if they say, “This sentence is horrible,” I’ll listen. I disagree one percent of the time. Read more…

Why Are Humans So Curious?

Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2017 | 18 minutes (4,600 words)

Astrophysicist Mario Livio worked on the Hubble Space Telescope for almost 25 years, until 2015. Throughout his scientific career, he has not only written hundreds of scientific articles and books on subjects ranging from the Golden Ratio to brilliant scientists’ big blunders—he’s also extended his creative reach to musical collaborations, including in his role as Science Advisor to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Livio’s latest book, Why?: What Makes Us Curious, is, by his own admission, the farthest afield from his usual subjects of study. But it’s no surprise that someone with as wide a scope of interests as Livio would want to know more about the nature of curiosity itself. We spoke by phone one Thursday morning in early June about what we know thus far about how curiosity works, the purpose it serves, and how to nurture curiosity in children. Livio also answered, with the patience and enthusiasm of an excellent teacher, my rudimentary questions about telescopes and astrophysics, and calmed the terror I feel when I think about how our universe is expanding into nothingness.  

I thought we could start with you defining what curiosity is and the way you came to understand it through researching this book.

It’s funny that you should ask this question because one of the things that I concluded in the book, and this was only after I did all the research and everything, is that when we talk about curiosity, it turns out that there are several mechanisms involved. There is a curiosity that we feel when we see something that surprises us or when there is something ambiguous and we want to understand that. But it’s a relatively transitory-type feeling. There is a curiosity that we feel when we cannot remember the name of the actor who played in this or that film. That is another type of curiosity. And then there is the curiosity that drives, for example, all basic scientific research, and that’s our love for knowledge.

So while you will see various types of definitions, like a state for acquiring information and things like that, those never quite capture everything that is involved. Had we known as much we know now about curiosity, we might have invented different words for these different mechanisms. Read more…

Becoming Estranged from My Family ‘Was the Best Thing for Me’

Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2017 | 20 minutes (5,000 words)

When Jessica Berger Gross told her parents not to call one summer day on a street corner in Manhattan, she didn’t know she’d never speak to them again. Seventeen years later, she remains estranged from the father who physically abused her throughout her childhood, the mother who stood by, and her two brothers, who minimized the abuse. In her memoir Estranged, which follows a much shorter Kindle Single of the same name, Gross—whose previous books include About What Was Lost, an anthology she edited on miscarriage, and the yoga memoir enLIGHTeneddetails these violent rages, and the bewildering way in which they were intertwined with love and affection.

Gross and I spoke by phone about the process of getting her history on the page, the intricacies of her family dynamic, Long Island (where we both grew up), being Jewish (which we both are), and, inevitably, the fact that we have the same name.

I’d love to start by talking about the title you chose for both your Kindle Single and your memoir, Estranged. It’s an interesting word, now that I’m rolling it around in my mind—it literally means you’ve become a stranger to your family. What does it mean to you?

At the very start of the Kindle Single, I had the definition of that word. And that is, becoming a stranger and becoming a foreigner and, in a sense, becoming strange.

When I made the decision to stop talking to my parents, I didn’t even have a word for it. I had done a lot of thinking about child abuse and I knew that that’s what had happened to me, but I didn’t realize when I said, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” that basically I was making a choice to become estranged. I had never met anyone who had done that, that I knew of. I’d never heard anyone talk about it. It’s such a strange thing when you take an action and it’s not till years later that you can name it.

As we’re talking, it’s occurring to me that it’s an odd word in a certain way—because the truth of it is that in some ways you were estranged even when you lived with your family, right?

Yes.

You only become estranged afterward if you feel like a stranger in your own home in the first place.

That’s so true! [laughter] My brothers would always say, “Oh, you were adopted, you’re not really a part of our family,” [though I wasn’t adopted]. But their idea was that I was different—and I really was. And everyone in my family really resented that I was different, and I felt that so strongly growing up. So, absolutely. I felt strange in my family and it was in leaving them and making my own family and the family of the larger extended family of my friends that I could no longer feel strange. Read more…

Literature by the Numbers

Photo credit: Sierra Katow

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,982 words)

 

If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?

This is just the opening gambit of data journalist Ben Blatt’s deep dive into the mathematics of literature. In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, Blatt examines the stylistic fingerprints of writers (which follow them even when they write under pen names in different genres), whether Americans are “louder” than Brits in their writing, the differences between how men and women write, whether books are getting simpler (yup), and many other curiosities.

Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.

* * *

I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?

So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.

In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.

For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.

Read more…

A Conversation With Ariel Levy About Writing a Memoir That Avoids ‘Invoking Emotional Tropes’

Photo Credit: David Klagsbrun

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 17 minutes (4,391 words)

 

When she was 22 and an assistant at New York Magazine, Ariel Levy, hungry for success and action, went to a nightclub for obese women and reported her first story. New York published the resulting piece with what Levy, two decades later, claims is still the best headline she’s had: “WOMEN’S LB.” Levy worked for New York until 2008, when she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. There, she has focused largely on gender and sexuality: she’s profiled comedian Ali Wong, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, boxer Claressa Shields, and Nora Ephron. She has traveled to Jerusalem with Mike Huckabee, to Italy to report on Silvio Berlusconi, to South Africa to report on runner Caster Semenya.

And she has traveled to Mongolia. In 2012—38 years old, married and in love, and five months pregnant—Levy got on a plane for what she felt would be her last big trip for a long time. But, while there, a pain in her abdomen grew and grew until, in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant, she had to rush back to her hotel room before the food came. On the floor of her hotel bathroom, an “unholy storm” moved through her body, and she gave birth to her son. Less than twenty minutes later, he died.

Levy recounted this experience in her first piece of personal writing, the essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, tells the broader story of her gradual realization, through trauma and loss—including divorce from her wife, who struggled with alcoholism—that our options are limited by nature.

Having read your work and knowing how adventurous you are, I was surprised to read about how fearful you become before you travel. I’m the type of person who, when I feel very fearful, often heeds that and runs away. You seem to do the opposite—diving headfirst into fear. What’s that about?

That’s just how I’ve always done it. I mean, you’re absolutely right.

If you’re an only child, you only ever talk to grown-ups; it makes you a very weird kid. So when I was a kid learning how to talk to other people my own age, I do think my initial problem was that I’d be really scared, and I’d come on so strong. People were like, “Who is that aggressive, terrifying child?” I was just overcompensating for fear.

That’s definitely how I deal. I hope I’ve gotten less weird socially, but if a story scares me, if a job scares me, I’m definitely going to dive in. I just didn’t like the idea of living a terrified life, you know? I didn’t want to go down that way. Read more…

Making Sense of Our Compulsions

Photo credit: Kayana Szymczak

Jessica Gross | Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (3,932 words)

 

Checking our smartphones every few minutes. Making sure every spice jar is in the exact right place in the rack. Shopping. Stealing. Working nonstop. Hoarding. “Compulsions come from a need so desperate, burning, and tortured it makes us feel like a vessel filling with steam, saturating us with a hot urgency that demands relief,” Sharon Begley writes in her new book, Can’t Just Stop. “Suffused and overwhelmed by anxiety, we grab hold of any behavior that offers relief by providing even an illusion of control.”

In a time of extreme anxiety for many of us, Begley’s book feels particularly relevant. In chapters that run the gamut from obsessive-compulsive disorder to compulsive do-gooding, Begley—a senior science writer for STAT, whose previous books include The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brainexplores how behaviors that range widely in both character and extremity can come from a common root. “Venturing inside the heads and the worlds of people who behave compulsively not only shatters the smug superiority many of us feel when confronted with others’ extreme behavior,” she writes. “It also reveals elements of our shared humanity.” Begley and I spoke by phone about what anxiety is, exactly; her own compulsions; and whether it’s possible to have no compulsions (not likely).

What is the definition of “compulsion,” as compared to addiction and impulsive behaviors?

This was the first thing that I had to grapple with. The first thing I did was go around to psychologists and psychiatrists and start asking, “What is the difference between these three things?” To make a long story as short as possible, they really didn’t have a clue, or at least they were not very good at explaining it—to the extent that the same disorder would be described in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association, using “compulsive” one time and “impulsive” the next.

So where I finally came down, after finding people who had really thought about this, is as follows. Impulsive behaviors are ones that go from some unconscious part of your brain right to a motor action. There is very little emotion except for that feeling of impulsivity. There’s certainly little to no thought involved.

Behavioral addictions—and this is where I thought it started to get interesting—are born in something pleasurable. If you’re addicted to gambling, it probably is because, at least when you started, it was a whole lot of fun. You loved it. You got a hedonic hit, a pulse of enjoyment. And certainly as things go along, a behavioral addiction like gambling can cause you all sorts of distress and destroy your life. But at least at the beginning, it brings you extreme pleasure.

Compulsions are very different. They come from this desperate, desperate need to alleviate anxiety. They’re an outlet valve. The anxiety makes you want to jump out of your skin, or it makes you feel like your skin is crawling with fire ants. And what compulsions do is bring relief only after you have executed the compulsion, whether it is to exercise, or to check your texts, or to shop, or to keep something if you’re a hoarder. And crucially, compulsions, although they bring relief, bring almost no enjoyment except in the sense that if you stop banging your head against a wall, then it feels good to stop. Read more…

A Conversation With Dan Ariely About What Shapes our Motivations

Photo Credit: May R.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | November 2016 | 14 minutes (3,711 words)

 

“It’s astonishing to me how some ideas endure even when it’s obvious that they are no longer relevant,” Dan Ariely writes in his latest book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations. A professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely relentlessly examines our assumptions about ourselves—and finds they’re often totally misconstrued. We think, for example, that money is our main motivator in the workplace. But not only are “a sense of connection, meaning, ownership, and long-term thinking” often more effective, it also turns out that monetary bonuses can work against us, undermining our commitment to the work itself. In one study, workers at a semiconductor factory were offered rewards of a pizza voucher, a compliment, money, or nothing on the first day of a workweek. That first day, the voucher and the compliment boosted productivity more than the bonus, but all three motivated people more than the control condition (getting nothing). But as the week went on, people who’d gotten the bonus that first day began to perform worse than people who hadn’t been rewarded at all!

Please excuse the exclamation point, but it’s hard to describe an Ariely finding without one. His work often so directly counters our common understandings that it’s startling, even funny. This also has a lot to do with Ariely himself. His tenacity as a researcher is matched by his commitment to sharing his ideas with the public, in plain language and often with a dose of humor. He’s written a slew of popular books, including Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, and given a number of TED Talks. (Full disclosure: I wrote about Ariely for TED last year.) We spoke by phone on a mid-October morning, and Ariely was professorial in the best way: no jargon, tons of examples, and committed to helping me understand.

Your field is behavioral economics. What is that, exactly?

There are two ways to explain it. The first one is in opposition to standard economics. In standard economics, we assume all kinds of things about people: that they know their preferences, that they always make decisions that are in their best interest, that they don’t have emotions or limitations of time and attention and thinking capacity. Based on those assumptions, economists go ahead and make recommendations on how to design our lives, how to do our tax and education and healthcare systems.

Behavioral economics just doesn’t start with any assumptions. Rather than saying, “People are perfectly rational,” behavioral economics starts by saying, “We just don’t know.” Let’s put people in different situations and see how they behave. And when you put people in different situations, people often behave very differently than most rational economists would expect. Because of that, the recommendations that come from behavioral economics are very different.

The second definition is that behavioral economics is really, for me at least, an applied field of social science that is designed to figure out how we actually make decisions and how to make things better. Now, not everybody is interested in the “better” part, but it’s an analysis of the true forces that influence us in our day-to-day lives and how we harness those forces to improve our ability to make decisions. Read more…