Category Archives: Interviews

‘We Have to Resist’: A Conversation with Rebecca Solnit

Photo by Adrian Mendoza

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | December 2016 | 10 minutes (2,632 words)

 

It is difficult to define Rebecca Solnit. Is she an historian, a cultural theorist, a journalist, an activist? She cites reserved intellectuals like John Berger and Lawrence Weschler as influences, and she is also on the front lines of protest: she was an outspoken proponent of Occupy Wall Street; she was in Standing Rock, at the Dakota Access Pipeline, where protestors recently gained an unexpected victory; and she co-founded the Stop Trump project, which ideologically resists the U.S. President-Elect while uncovering the potential malfeasance that led to his election in the first place.

Born in Connecticut and educated at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley, the 55-year-old has been an independent writer living in northern California since 1988. She’s authored seventeen books, ranging in topic from art to politics to geography to community to feminism. She won the Lannan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she’s currently a contributing editor at Harper’s, where she writes the bimonthly Easy Chair column.

Her essay “Hope in the Dark,” which she gave away as a free ebook after Trump was elected, was written twelve years ago as an instructive piece on what went wrong with the Iraq War protests. Its relevance resurged after Trump was elected.

I spoke with Solnit about reclaiming the notion that political protest works, understanding the role of hope, the lessons of Hilary Clinton’s defeat, not ceding resistance, and whether Trump was even elected president at all.

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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…

The Trick to It All: A Conversation with Photographer Henry Leutwyler

The gun that killed John Lennon. All images by Henry Leutwyler.

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | October 2016 | 12 minutes (3,326 words)

 

Born in Switzerland in 1961, the portrait photographer Henry Leutwyler was told he wouldn’t make it as a photographer. He was rejected from a top Swiss photography school, and when he opened his own photo studio in Lausanne — photographing watches and chocolates and cheeses — he went bankrupt in a swift year-and-a-half.

But at age 25, Leutwyler moved to Paris and began apprenticing with the French photographer Gilles Tapie, who helped him find his stride as an editorial photographer. A decade later, in 1995, Leutwyler moved to New York City, where his portrait photography began to appear in Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Time, among others.

Since then, Leutwyler has photographed the top-tier of global talent, including Martin Scorsese, Michelle Obama, Julia Roberts, Misty Copeland, Tom Wolfe, and Rihanna.

In 2010, Leutwyler published his first book with the German imprint Steidl called Neverland Lost: A Portrait of Michael Jackson, following it with two editions of Ballet: Photographs of the New York City Ballet. This year, he completed his most extensive project yet. After 12 years in the works, Document was released on October 25, 2016, by Steidl and will be accompanied by a show at the Foley Gallery in New York City, from November 3, 2016, to January 8, 2017.

The one-of-a-kind project is comprised of 124 photographs of seemingly ordinary items whose history renders them extraordinary: the gun that killed John Lennon, Bob Dylan’s harmonica, Andy Warhol’s paintbrush, Julia Child’s madeleine tray, Charlie Chaplin’s cane, Fred Astaire’s tap shoes, Janis Joplin’s guitar, Michael Jackson’s sequined glove, a hand-sewn Civil War-era flag, Mahatma Gandhi’s cracked leather sandal, among many others — all of which Leutwyler managed to round-up and photograph on his trademark white background.

Recently, while Leutwyler was in Palermo, Italy, I spoke with him about the trick to portrait photography, the magic of inanimate objects, his laughs with Julia Roberts, his awkwardness with Helmut Newton, and how he manages to stay creative after decades of universally adored photography.

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Dancing Naked in Public

Courtesy: Jerry Saltz

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2016 | 16 minutes (4,104 words)

 

If the contemporary art world seems like a place of pretension, status-seeking, and giant checks being paid through Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, then it’s the critic Jerry Saltz who may be the last hope of bringing us all back down to earth. As Saltz once wrote: although contemporary art may not be of everyone’s taste, it’s still for everyone.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Saltz went to the Chicago Art Institute wanting to be a painter but dropped out; he soon became a long-distance truck driver, but after a decade of driving, he decided life couldn’t get any worse and that he might as well go back to his truest passion. So in the early-1980s, with no formal degree, he moved to New York and entered the art criticism scene, writing mostly for the Village Voice. Fast-forward to today and he’s now the senior art critic at New York magazine and has twice been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.

Howard Halle, the chief art critic at Time Out New York, calls the 65-year-old “America’s art critic.” And yet, Saltz, although perhaps an American icon, has hardly become a universally beloved one.

A few years ago, Saltz was briefly banned from Facebook for posting what Zuckerberg and co. determined, initially, to be pornography (Saltz maintains that posting ancient and medieval artworks depicting fellatio, cunnilingus, and circumcisions hardly constitutes pornography, and he continues to post these images on his re-activated Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, all of which boast, on aggregate, hundreds of thousands of followers). He also recently tried to pull the veil on the economics of the art scene—not everyone is making the big bucks—by posting a photograph showing his Chase checking account balance to be $3,832.16.

Although one wonders how much of his “everyman” appearance is an act (he maintains that it’s not), Saltz’s lack of pretension has been a burst of fresh air in the often-stodgy art criticism scene. Who else but Jerry would compliment Morley Safer’s painting of a hotel room after Safer unconvincingly tried to tear apart the contemporary art scene in two 60 Minutes segments? Or, even more surprisingly, who might say of George W. Bush’s paintings—in which the former president depicted his view of himself in the bathtub and while taking a shower, his back turned, only his face reflected in a small mirror—“I love these two bather paintings. They are ‘simple’ and ‘awkward,’ but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways”?

Not everyone is on board with the Saltz movement. The Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr called Saltz “the class clown” in an interview with Yale Radio, adding, “the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world… all of these things are about Jerry. And it’s too bad.” Storr even clumped in Saltz’s wife—Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic of The New York Times—saying, “They are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness but there are no principles, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.”

But Saltz doesn’t mind it. He’s endlessly quotable and his optimism and energy for art has led to an engagement with the art world from the most surprising of sorts—irritable Twitter users, suburban teenagers, essentially anyone with an opinion. Saltz has, in effect, de-localized art criticism, taking it from students at the Courtauld, writers at Artforum, the galleries and museums in New York and London, and instead placing it online, where anyone with even a modicum of interest in art can share their thoughts with both Saltz and one another.

Saltz and I recently spoke over the telephone, and we discussed, among other topics, where the art world is heading, how it can reorient itself, the current trends (good and bad) in contemporary art, and what the roles of critic, artist, and viewer are and could one day be. Read more…

I Want to Know if Love is Real: Springsteen on His New Book, Born to Run

Photo by manu_gt500 (CCBY SA 2.0)

Springsteen may today be a man who splits his time between a horse farm in his native Monmouth County, a second home in New Jersey, and luxury properties in Florida and L.A., but Born to Run is an emphatic refutation of the notion that, as a songwriter, he can no longer connect to the troubled and downtrodden. Especially in its early chapters, the book demonstrates how honestly Springsteen has come by his material. Cars, girls, the Shore, the workingman’s struggles, broken dreams, disillusioned vets—it’s all right there in his upbringing.

“One of the points I’m making in the book is that, whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you,” he said, expanding upon this thought with the most Springsteen-esque metaphor possible: “I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”

At Vanity Fair, David Kamp interviews Bruce Springsteen on his upbringing, depression, and the seeds of his upcoming book, Born to Run.

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The Invisible Forces Behind All of Our Decision-Making

Photo: Deborah Feingold

Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2016 | 16 minutes (4,137 words)

 

Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at Wharton, has spent more than 15 years investigating social influence. In his 2013 book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, he explains how and why certain products and ideas become massively popular. In his new book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, Berger focuses on the immense sway others have over the choices we make—whether we’re imitating or differentiating from them—often in ways we aren’t aware of. Berger and I spoke by phone about the often surprising findings he draws on in the book, the tension between fitting in and standing out, and how social influence can best be wielded.

How did you first become interested in studying social influence?

I’m from the D.C. area originally, and have a friend who’s a lawyer there. I was talking to him, and he was complaining that all D.C. lawyers drive BMWs—when they make it, they go out and buy a BMW. He said, “Look at how D.C. lawyers are all conformists.” I pointed out that he had actually himself just bought a BMW. And he said, “No, no, but I bought a blue one. Everyone else buys gray ones.”

What I thought was really interesting about that story was a few things. One, he saw everyone else as influenced, but not himself. Sometimes we recognize that social influence is out there, but we think only other people do it. We don’t see it in our own lives. And yet, here was a great, amazing, powerful example of someone’s own life being shaped by what others are doing.

But also, influence isn’t a simple thing. It’s not just doing the same thing as others. Often, when we think about influence, we think, “If someone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?” But influence is actually much more complicated than that. Influence is actually like a magnet: sometimes it attracts and leads us to do the same thing as others; other times it repels and leads us to do the opposite thing. And sometimes, like with this example of the BMW, it actually leads us to be similar and different at the same time, so that we’re optimally distinct. We end up being similar on one dimension and different on another.

And so what I wonder is, when do these different things happen? When does influence lead us to be the same? When does influence lead us to be different? When does it lead us to go along with the group? When does it lead us to be more independent? How do others motivate us? How do others de-motivate us? And how can we use all this science to live happier and healthier lives? Read more…

Bringing Bach to the Public

Photo: Michelle Ross and 'Discovering Bach'

Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2016 | 15 minutes (3,866 words)

 

In December, I stayed in New York City while its residents flew away and visitors flooded the streets. I treated the quiet time like a vacation, searching for little adventures. On a Tuesday shortly before Christmas, this little Jew put on her most respectable NYC-adventuress outfit—a green-and-gray-plaid skirt, black heeled ankle boots—and went to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Several days prior, scouring the detailed schedule of the (insanely beautiful) Cathedral, I’d seen a mysterious listing for a Bach pop-up concert. I knew little about what I was headed to, and hadn’t seen this concert advertised anywhere. When I showed up, only a smattering of people filled the seats in the grand cavernous space.

It is hard to describe a completely transporting musical experience; all the most accurate words feel cheesy. But here it is: this experience was transcendent. The woman playing Bach on her violin created a trance in which we were all held captive. It felt ludicrous that there were not more people there to witness it. When the performance ended, I blinked and smacked my hands together, wanting more.

She announced she’d be playing again shortly, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street, so I dutifully followed. It was a different space—crowded with patrons, small, the sound loud and close. But I was entranced yet again. I beamed a gaping smile at the strangers around me, less cool adventuress than extremely uncool sycophant, but I couldn’t help it: this was pretty euphoric.

Afterward, I introduced myself to the musician. Her name was Michelle Ross, and it turned out this was the culmination of “Discovering Bach,” her 33-day project playing Bach’s entire solo violin cycle in public spaces throughout New York City. She kept a blog throughout, but hadn’t promoted the series anywhere; she wanted to create an authentic communal experience, not do a publicity stunt. Ross is young and extremely accomplished: she spent over a decade training with the  legendary Itzhak Perlman, has played on famous stages all over the world, curates a classical music festival in Utah, and even composes her own music. We met up a couple of months after her mesmerizing performance to discuss “Discovering Bach” and what it means to perform classical music in a public space, to let it be raw. Read more…

How to Report on the Life of a 13-Year-Old

wash-post-13

There must be few journalistic feats more difficult than getting inside the head of a teenager. But with “13, Right Now,” Washington Post staff writer Jessica Contrera joins the ranks of reporters who have skillfully chronicled the lives of children and teens, including Susan Orlean (read her classic Esquire piece, “The American Man, Age 10”) and more recently, Andrea Elliott, whose “Invisible Child” for the New York Times in 2013 documented the life of an 11-year-old homeless girl named Dasani.

Contrera’s story focuses on Katherine, 13, whose life has been upended by the death of her mother, and whose world seems to increasingly exist inside her phone—through apps like Instagram and Snapchat. (As an #old myself, seeing Katherine’s life revolve around her social networks is shocking only in the way it mirrors the screen addiction of the American grown-up. It practically begs for the return of the “I learned it by watching you” meme.)

I spoke to Contrera about her story, which is one in an ongoing series (“The Screen Age”) that the Post will publish throughout the summer. Read more…

Mark Haddon: ‘Ultimately, There Is No Narrative Without Death’

Photo: Rory Carnegie

Jessica Gross | Longreads | May 2016 | 15 minutes (3,709 words)

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was Mark Haddon’s first novel, and the one that made him famous. Told from the perspective of an emotionally limited young man named Christopher, the book has sold millions of copies and is now being performed on Broadway. But Haddon was writing long before Curious Incident, including many books and picture books for children, and has been just as prolific since.

Haddon’s new short story collection The Pier Falls deals largely in darkness. The descriptions, soaked through with detail, often verge on the grotesque. In the title story, a pier collapses, bringing many lives with it, a process Haddon details with excruciating exactitude. In “Bunny,” we witness the effects of the protagonist’s obesity, while in “The Weir,” a newly separated middle-aged man saves a young woman from a suicide attempt, yielding an unlikely friendship. Haddon and I spoke by phone about the infusion of death and destruction in his work, his writing process, and his fascination with writing about fatally arrogant men. Read more…

An Exegesis on Spanking Fetishists

Jillian Keenan ap1

Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 2016 | 23 minutes (5,803 words)

 

In 2012, Jillian Keenan came out as a spanking fetishist in a “Modern Love” essay for The New York Times. It marked the beginning of not only her involvement in the spanking community, but her freelance career as well. Since then, Keenan has written a series of controversial polemics—a case for legalizing polyamory, an argument that spanking is a sex act—as well as reported from countries across the globe.

In her new memoir, Sex With Shakespeare, Keenan examines her own relationships with both spanking and love through the lens of her longstanding obsession with Shakespeare. His characters, who appear in dialogue with Keenan, have as forceful a presence as the people in her life. I visited Keenan at her home in New York City, where we spoke about the difference between fetish and kink, her view of her fetish as innate, and her firm belief that spanking children is an act of sexual abuse.

This book struck me as such an empathetic text. I feel like sometimes, in our current cultural climate, there’s a lot of anger at and dismissal of anyone who’s ignorant about a topic, and I really appreciated that you treated the reader who didn’t know anything about fetishes with a lot of respect. Was that something you thought about as you were writing it? Or is that just how you feel, and it came out naturally as you were writing?

It’s not something I thought of consciously, but I’m thrilled to hear that’s what came across. I was conscious of the fact that, in my opinion, there’s nothing unique about the experience of feeling isolated. Whereas maybe most people don’t feel ashamed or isolated because they think about spanking all the time, I think that probably everyone has something in their lives—whether in their sex lives or in another part of their lives—that they feel insecure about or ashamed of or fearful about.

I didn’t want to act as if the experience of feeling lonely and ashamed is something that I needed to explain to people. I think that everyone already knows what that feels like. I was just trying to tell a story about the specifics of why I felt that way, and how I worked through it to the extent that I did. Read more…