Malcolm Gladwell on Talking to Strangers and how podcasting changed his approach to writing
Sandra Bland. Brock Turner. Larry Nassar. Amanda Knox. For his first book in six years, Malcolm Gladwell is digging into some of the biggest news stories of the last decade, all pertaining to one central problem: how we make sense of people we don't know.
With five New York Times best-sellers to his credit, one might assume Malcolm Gladwell would see no reason to switch up his formula. And while Talking to Strangers, Gladwell’s first book in six years, does offer his signature social-psychology pithiness and well-selected historical anecdotes, the stories he’s picked to dig into, and the way he presents them, create a slightly different flavor than his previous writings.
Gladwell attributes this largely to the work he’s done on Revisionist History, his acclaimed podcast that launched in 2016. On each episode, the author examines some particular person, event, or artifact from the past and reassesses it, to illustrate why and how it’s been misunderstood.
“A podcast is such a more emotionally immediate form,” Gladwell tells EW. “It just reorients the way you think about telling a story, and the kinds of stories you want to tell. If I had not done Revisionist History, had not been doing it for four years, I don’t think I would have written this particular book.”
That meant examining and reconsidering some of the most high-profile — and devastating — news stories of the last decade: Amanda Knox, Brock Turner, and Bernie Madoff, just to name a few. Gladwell looks at all of them from a fresh angle, trying to get to the heart of one central problem: how we make sense of the people we don’t know, and why that process so often goes awry. Uniting it all is a close look at the death of Sandra Bland (the 28-year-old black Texas woman was found hanged to death in a jail cell after being arrested during a traffic stop; while officially ruled a suicide, her death sparked protests and allegations of police brutality, even murder), which opens and closes the book.
Ahead of Talking to Strangers‘ release (it arrives Tuesday), EW spoke to Gladwell about putting it together, why it’s a perfect book for 2019, and how podcasting changed his approach to writing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, I just want to ask, why the long gap between books?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: The podcast takes, at minimum, six months out of every year. So instead of working full-time on the book, I was working half-time on the book. So it just took longer. And also, I don’t think you should write a book on a schedule; I think you should write a book when you have something to say. And this book, I didn’t really figure out what I wanted to say until Sandra Bland.
Is that where the book started, with Sandra Bland?
Yeah. It was really that case and [those] two long summers of those police violence cases. I found myself, like many people, so drawn to and angered by those cases. Then it started to make me think that maybe this is something I could write about in the book.
And how did it grow out of that?
Well, I simultaneously discovered Tim Levine‘s work, which is a huge part of the book. [NOTE: Levine is a professor and psychologist known for his research on how humans detect, or don’t detect, dishonesty and deception.] And I really saw the connection between what he was getting at, which was the inherently problematic nature of the way we make sense of each other, and what was going on in cases like Sandra Bland and Amanda Knox and Bernie Madoff and those kinds of things. I had long, long discussions with him, and that was in the back of my mind, even before I was writing a book, that this is just something super interesting. And I just made a connection in my mind between Levine’s work on deception and these high-profile cases in the news, which I realized were sort of versions of the same problem. They were about these fundamental misunderstandings that occur between strangers.
In terms of your process for constructing this book, how did you select the specific examples and anecdotes that you wanted to dig into?
Well, I wanted this book to be topical. In previous books, I’ve kind of taken examples from all over the place, and this time around I wanted to, not entirely, but I wanted to heavily draw on things that were very much a part of our contemporary world. And so I just started with Bland, but then once you start with that, you start thinking about, well, Madoff’s a version of this. Amanda Knox is a version of this. Then you start going down the list. Jerry Sandusky is a super complicated version of this. They’re not identical, but they’re all circling around this central problem. And I think that if you’re writing about a case with a certain amount of moral urgency, which is what the Sandra Bland case is, I think you help your cause when you draw on other contemporary cases. I wanted to give the book a kind of feeling that it was being written in 2019 for a reason. Not a book that could have been written at any point.
How has working on Revisionist History impacted your writing?
Well, the podcast medium is so emotional, right? It’s so intimate and emotional. And if you’ve been spending your life writing prose, you’re not used to that. You’re used to being something with a little more distant, analytical perspective. And so doing Revisionist History, suddenly you’re telling these stories and you hear people’s voices, and you really feel like you have a part of their lives in some way. That, for me, was a pretty powerful lesson. And it got me interested in new ways of telling stories. I started my career as a newspaper person, then I was a magazine writer, then I was a book writer, and now I do a podcast. I’ve always tried to kind of find new ways to tell stories, and so this seemed like the next chapter.
With the cases and issues it addresses, the book seems poised to potentially incite some controversy, particularly sections like the Brock Turner chapter. (Turner, a Stanford University student, was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault and received a six-month jail sentence — which received widespread public criticism — of which he only had to serve half.) What sort of reaction are you expecting?
You know, there’s [a few] levels of reaction. There’s a kind of reaction you get from people who haven’t, and won’t, read the book. And that reaction is, of course, meaningless. But nonetheless, it can be quite loud. And then there’s the reaction of people who are just unwilling to change their mind or rethink things. And that’s not terribly useful either. So I’m interested in the third kind, which is people who read it, are thoughtful about it. If they’re willing to do those first two things, I’m quite happy with criticism from [that] certain set if I feel like it’s honest.
The Brock Turner chapter, I’ll tell you, you can imagine, I worked on that really hard. I wrote many, many versions. And I thought, who are the kinds of people most likely to feel very strongly about this topic? And it’s young women. College-age women. So I had college-age and women [in their early twenties] read that chapter, a number of them. And I took their responses very, very seriously. And it’s a much better chapter as a result, I will say. So there are things in here that are complex, and I’ve done my best to anticipate those. But, you know, I invite controversy and comments. I think it’s a good thing. I think these are all topics that we ought to have open, honest discussions about.
Your critics tend to accuse you of generalizing and over-simplifying complicated issues and concepts. How do you respond to those criticisms?
Well, usually by asking for examples. I find a lot of these criticisms along those lines are incredibly vague. I’m slightly baffled by that. I guess I need somebody to be very, very specific about, what is the thing that I have generalized and how, and then I can respond to it. But I don’t think I do it. Or if I do, it is a necessary simplification in the name of making something accessible to a broad audience. That’s what journalists do.
Can you talk more about that process, of translating these ideas into something understandable for a wider audience?
You’re always, as a journalist, walking this fine line between faithfully representing the complexity of the thing you’re writing about and retaining your readers. The finest piece of journalism in the world is of no use if no one reads it. And getting people to read it requires compromises and sacrifices and all kinds of things. It is very hard to get it perfectly right. But I feel like over time, most good journalists, I think, do a pretty good job of balancing those things.
Also, in my endnotes and footnotes to this book, there are some complicated things where I take the time to explain it in much more detail for those who have that appetite. And I clearly explain where I got some of these ideas so people can go to the literature themselves. There are nuances in some of the lines of work that I don’t represent, but you know, I have references to them and they’re easy to find on the internet. If you want more, you can find it. The internet has in some way made this whole problem a lot easier. Because now if someone thinks that there’s something missing, a nuance missing, they can literally go on Google and read for themselves. Whereas, you know, a generation before they would’ve had to go to an academic library. Google is a silent companion to all these kinds of books. It allows readers to reach their own level of complexity.
So if this book is read substantially, what do you hope its impact will be?
Well, being specific, I really, really, really hope it changes the way we think about policing. And the way we think about preventing suicide, and the way the criminal justice system functions, with respect to people who are unconventional in the way they represent themselves.
But on a kind of broader level, I would like people to be a little more cautious and humble in the conclusions they reach about strangers. I mean, it’s just a matter of slowing down and kind of easing up on the pressure we place on each other to make sense of people who are in front of us. I think it’s fine to say that we don’t fully understand someone. It’s fine to be wrong about people. It’s fine to take your time in coming to a conclusion about someone. You know, I think we should be more forgiving. We shouldn’t be putting university presidents in jail because they don’t see deep into the heart of retired members of their faculty. Right? There’s a point where we’re getting a little bit crazy in what we’re asking of each other when it comes to strangers.