Tag Archives: interviews

Ijeoma Oluo Has the Last Word on Rachel Dolezal

In The Stranger, Ijeoma Oluo traveled to Spokane, Washington to sit at the kitchen table with Rachel Dolezal, who is jobless and living in a month-to-month rental, hoping her new book will start something, anything, to get money coming in.

Oluo thinks the meeting may have been a bad idea, (“I was half sure that this interview was my worst career decision to date”) but the result is a master class in confrontation, in which the hard questions are asked, answers are pushed, and frustrations laid bare.

There was a moment before meeting Dolezal and reading her book that I thought that she genuinely loves black people but took it a little too far. But now I can see this is not the case. This is not a love gone mad. Something else, something even sinister is at work in her relationship and understanding of blackness.

There is a chapter where she compares herself to black slaves. Dolezal describes selling crafts to buy new clothes, and she compares her quest to craft her way into new clothes with chattel slavery. When I ask what she has to say to people who might be offended by her comparing herself to slaves, Dolezal is indignant almost to exasperation…

“I’m not comparing the struggles, okay? Because I never said that my life was the same. I never said that it was the equivalent of slavery, of chattel slavery. I did work and bought all my own clothes and shoes since I was 9 years old. That’s not a typical American childhood life,” she says. “I worked very hard, but I didn’t resonate with white women who were born with a silver spoon. I didn’t find a sentence of connection in those stories, or connection with the story of the princess who was looking for a knight in shining armor.”

I am beginning to wonder if it isn’t blackness that Dolezal doesn’t understand, but whiteness.

Read the interview

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Cheerful Novel of Climate Change

Kim Stanley Robinson is the rare sci-fi novelist that deals in utopias, rather than dystopias—government scientists are often the heroes of his novels, and their quick thinking and bureaucratic efficiency often save the day.

His latest book, New York 2140, takes place not at the moment of catastrophe—in the year 2100, sea levels rise and flood New York so that a majority of the city is 50 feet underwater—but 40 years later, as most city-dwellers do what they’ve always done, and simply gotten along with it. At New York Magazine, Robinson talks with Jake Swearingen about why he made a novel about climate change with a positive outlook.

I was expecting this very dystopian, grim novel. But it’s remarkably cheerful! It’s like one of Dickens’s happier novels, or Les Misérables where it’s this exploration of a city from the sewer system up, through all these different characters.

I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, or perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.

But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts. So I wanted to convey that as part of the vibe of this novel.

Read the interview

Literature by the Numbers

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’

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

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…

The Intelligence, Intuition, and Sex Lives of Octopuses

In an interview at National Geographic, Sy Montgomery, author of the book The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, reflects on the uncanny intelligence, intuition, and surprising sex lives of octopuses.

The fact that three-fifths of an octopus’ neurons are not in their brain, but in their arms, suggests that each arm has a mind of its own. All of these things make it very hard to measure the intelligence because, we only have four lobes in our brains, while octopus have 50 to 75, depending on how you count them. It’s hard to take the measure of the mind of somebody like that.

I heard one story about an octopus in a home tank, who would get out, cruise around the house, take knick-knacks and drag them back to its tank. Like a dog! They’re so smart that there are octopus enrichment handbooks so you don’t bore your octopus. I’ve seen them play with Legos, Mr. Potato Head, you name it!

…the female whooshed into the male’s arms. They enveloped each other and turned colors with their emotions. There was a lot of wrapping around and afterward they turned white, which is the color of a relaxed octopus and they lay literally in each other’s arms, holding each other, for hours. It was lovely.

Read the story

Paul Auster: ‘I Feel Utterly Astonished That We Could Have Come to This’

In a candid interview at the Guardian, author Paul Auster — who turns 70 next month — discusses his breadth of work over the decades, American life and politics in the age of Trump, and his new novel, 4321, which he refers to as the biggest book of his life.

“I’ve been struggling ever since Trump won to work out how to live my life in the years ahead,” he says. And he has decided to act: “I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself.”

In 4321 the young Fergusons react to landmark events of 1960s US history: the civil rights movement and JF Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam war and the student protests at Columbia University in 1968. I ask Auster if there any connections to be made between then and now. “Tumultuous as those times were, they weren’t as depressing as what’s going on today,” he reflects. “How little has changed in American life since then. Race is still a very big problem. Stupid foreign policy decisions are still being made. And the country is just as divided now as it was then. It seems as though America has always been split between the people who believe in the individual above everything else, and those people who believe we’re responsible for one another.”

Read the story

A Conversation With Dan Ariely About What Shapes our Motivations

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…

Dancing Naked in Public

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…

The Invisible Forces Behind All of Our Decision-Making

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…