Festival of Books: Malcolm Gladwell discusses fame, writing and three strikes

'Writing is a constant lesson in empathy and listening,' Malcolm Gladwell says at the Festival of Books

Author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell sat down with Times' film critic Kenneth Turan at the inaugural Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange on Sunday during the Festival of Books at USC.

In typical Gladwell style, they discussed a variety of seemingly random topics that weaved into a cohesive conversation, all centered around his latest bestseller "David and Goliath."

"The whole process of my writing has been an exercise in delaying the moment in which I draw a conclusion about someone," Gladwell told Turan.

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The goal of the Ideas Exchange is to engage bright people in an enlivening conversation. More events will be held throughout the year in a series of ticketed lectures.

Here are some highlights of the exchange:

On fame’s effect:

"I think it becomes very hard to be a good person after a certain point. Or at least it’s not impossible, it’s just harder to work. Just as, in 'David and Goliath,' I talk about what it means to be, how hard it is, weirdly, to be a wealthy parent, how much more difficult it is to raise a child if you are very wealthy as opposed to middle class.

"It’s not impossible, but it requires more of you. There’s that whole thing I have about the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” That saying no to a child of the middle class is very easy because you just say, “We can’t.” “You want a pony? Look around you! Where would the pony go? Look in the bedroom; is there room for a stable?”

"Of course, if you’re a billionaire, you can’t use 'can’t,' you have to use 'won’t,' and 'won’t' is really hard. 'Won’t' requires you to give an explanation, right? And in the same way, when you get, when you’re living a kind of normal life, being empathetic comes naturally. When you’re successful, you have to work at it."

On the two projects of being a writer:

"Writing is a constant lesson in empathy and listening… it forces you to do those, and I think of those as the two hardest things that any human being has to do, and both of those things become hard as you become successful."

On whether he likes writing or researching better:

"Well, there’s a moment when you’re doing a story when you realize it’s a great story, and there’s almost nothing that beats that moment, and that’s long before you’ve written it. Because writing is often anticlimactic. So I suppose it’s kind of that discovery of something."

On whether he does all his interviews:

"My problem is that I’m a bad interviewer.... Unless I can come back, and I can’t always do that, I often don’t get as much out of the interview. So sometimes, there are very specific instances where I realize going in that I’m not the guy for the task, so on a handful of occasions I’ve recruited people to interview people for me."

On whether he has time to read for pleasure:

"I do. I just finished last night 'A Deniable Death' by Gerald Seymour. He’s fantastic. He writes this sort of literary, military thrillers, and they’re really long, and they’re really kind of gripping. They always end up being about the kind of strange nobility of the lower-class English, you know, journeymen from Yorkshire. That’s his thing. And I find that, I mean, what’s not to like?"

On the section in “David and Goliath” about California’s three-strikes law:

It "was an abomination. Absolutely an abomination. When you had in the state of California an incarceration rate that was seven times the incarceration rate of Canada or western Europe, you’re dealing with …

"It’s unbelievable that it was allowed, so I wanted to write about it, and the thing that interested me about it was that things like that happen from the best of intentions, not the worst of intentions.

"It’s not that a bunch of really, really evil people set out to ruin as many lives as possible and squander as many billions of dollars … in a short period of time, which, that does happen, by the way … but understanding that the root of it was a man who lost his daughter, and this was an expression of his grief.... The story deepens in a really kind of profound and moving way."

"So I met with this guy … his daughter was murdered in ‘92 and started this crusade for three strikes and three strikes wins. The interview I had with him was one of the most difficult I’ve ever had. It was incredibly painful. He still carried all that anger and grief with him in the expression of something good, which was he wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else.

"So he did something that was wrong and had no appreciable effect on California’s crime rate; in fact, many people believe California’s crime rate would have been lower in the absence of three strikes.

"And in the meantime, countless families, communities, individuals had their lives ruined … And then I got interested in, well did he have an alternative?

"So this led to a story … this woman in Canada, who, the exact same thing happened to her. She lost her daughter in an unspeakable crime and she did the opposite thing. She chose to forgive. And just going back and forth between the two of them, it was incredibly moving. And realizing that she was the courageous one and how infinitely hard it is -- she stood up a week after, before they even found the murderer, her daughter was found dead and she stood up and said ‘Whoever murdered my daughter, I forgive him.’ "

On why his writing tends to be counterintuitive:

"I want to be counterintuitive in the sense that I have always believed and think, anyone who is a thinking person believes, that the more you learn about something, the more likely it is for your mind to change. Knowledge only rarely confirms what you thought you already knew. Most of the time, digging into something just makes you realize how dumb you were before."

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