Malcolm Gladwell, MIRACLE AND WONDER

Malcolm Gladwell, MIRACLE AND WONDER

Zibby is once again joined by Malcolm Gladwell, this time to talk about his new audiobook Miracle and Wonder which covers forty hours of interviews he conducted with Paul Simon. The two talk about why some people would be happy to just create art for themselves even if no one sees it and the lessons Simon’s career can offer younger generations. Malcolm also shares why he co-founded Pushkin to help enhance audiobook experiences, and what, in his opinion, is the secret to artistic longevity.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Malcolm. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Miracle and Wonder, all the things about Paul Simon I never knew and was excited to see and hear. Oh, my gosh, what an immersive, amazing experience.

Malcolm Gladwell: Thank you. It was super fun to do.

Zibby: I bet. It sounded like it. I wish I had been sitting there with him. Tell listeners a little bit about — it’s not really even a book. It’s only an audiobook. It’s an audio experience. I feel like this category needs a new name. Tell us about it more.

Malcolm: If you have a name for this category, please let me know. What is it? We began by, me and my friend Bruce, we just sat down with Paul Simon for almost forty hours, so ten sessions of four hours each. We just talked to him and played music. He played for us, sang for us. We just hung out, basically. Then we took all that tape and cut it down and wove a kind of argument around it, tried to explain what you’re listening to, why you’re listening. I had some theories about Paul Simon I wanted to both run by him and run by — then we put it all together into this thing called Miracle and Wonder, which is five hours. It’s supposed to be — the way I pitched it to him is the same way I would pitch it to anyone. Imagine you’ve never heard of Paul Simon. Your eleven-year-old comes to you and says, who is Paul Simon? I say give your eleven-year-old this. It will explain who he is, why he’s important. By the end, you’ll be in love with Paul Simon and his music. That’s the point.

Zibby: It’s true. I should give my kids this. I should have them listen to it next. That’s important. I’ll do it.

Malcolm: We can arrange that.

Zibby: We can arrange that. I know. It’s on my phone. I could just hand it over. They’re on my phone all the time anyway, so what’s the difference? One of the interesting things you said in the recording was that at an age when many performers slow down or don’t create as much anymore, Paul Simon’s ramped up in his production. Tell me a little bit about that.

Malcolm: One of the things that fascinated me about Paul is his longevity. We’re used to musicians who have this spurt of creativity in their twenties. Then they spend the rest of their career just playing the hits they wrote when they were twenty-five. That’s the model. That’s not a criticism. It’s really, really hard to write a pop song, to write more than one pop song. Along comes Paul Simon. He had his first hit as a teenager in the fifties. We interviewed a bunch of artists, other musicians, about Paul. David Byrne, for example, says that his favorite Paul Simon album is the album that Paul Simon made in 2013 called So Beautiful or So What. He’s made relevant music in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, aughts, and twenty-teens. That’s crazy. That’s sort of what we’re trying to get at in the book, is to explain, how is that possible? What it is about this person that allowed him to remain so creatively fertile for so long? It’s partly an unanswerable question, but I think we get close to at least describing a little bit of what makes Paul Simon so extraordinarily special.

Zibby: What is the secret? What is the secret to longevity?

Malcolm: One is that he’s an amazing risk-taker. Over the course of his career, he takes a bunch of incredible risks, some of which work out and some of which don’t. For example, he’s one of the top recording artists in the world when he decides to write a Broadway play, Capeman. He devotes two years of his life trying to master an entirely different creative form. Play comes out and gets a bad review in The New York Times. It closes after. Audiences stay away. Commercially, it’s a failure. To this day, Paul carries the wounds of that failure, but the same spirit is what leads him to go to South Africa in the early 1980s and make Graceland. Why not? Let’s try something new. The same spirit is what, after he breaks up with Art Garfunkel, to recreate himself as a solo artist. I could go on. Over the course of this book, we list all of these chances and risks and experiments that Paul Simon is willing to do. He was willing to do them even when he’s famous and comfortably off. Ninety-nine percent of people would say, after they’d done Bridge Over Troubled Water, I’m done. Do I need to do anything else? I’ve done one of the greatest albums of — he just keeps going and taking more chances. It’s much about his courage and his willingness to fail in the pursuit of something new that is incredibly admirable. That’s what I took away from my time with him. This is a guy with an appetite for risk and a curiosity that needs to be satisfied and a willingness to fail in the course of trying to find something new.

Zibby: Do you think those are things that can be taught? Do you think those are things that you can parent into your kids, this willingness to try and all of that, or do you think it’s just something you’re born with?

Malcolm: I suspect at least some portion of it can be taught. I think it’s very instructive — if you want to talk about parenting in this context, it’s incredibly useful for a child to see one of their parents deal gracefully with failure. Obviously, catastrophic failure is not good for anyone. If you were to lose your home and your job and your health and all that kind of stuff, that’s a trauma that is going to be — there’s a whole category of failures that I think could be incredibly useful. If you see someone deal, like I say, gracefully with them, learn from them, accept that life has ups and downs, find some silver lining, all those kinds of things, come back and show resilience, those are things — I think resilience is very much something that can be taught. You have to see someone rebound from a setback before you know that rebounding from a setback is possible.

Zibby: What you said about Paul Simon a minute ago, by the way, could easily apply to you. People could say, why would Malcolm Gladwell write another book after The Tipping Point, after Outliers? Why would he keep going? Why do you keep going?

Malcolm: Zibby, what would I do? I’d be sitting at home. I think the same is true — I don’t mean to put myself in the same category as Paul Simon. He’s one of the great musical geniuses of his generation. He likes writing music. He likes messing around with music. It just makes him happy. I don’t even think it matters to him whether the song he’s working on is a massive hit or not a massive hit. He just enjoys that. Yesterday morning, I did an interview with this cop — I was in Los Angeles — this eighty-two-year-old retired LAPD officer. It was two hours long. At the end of it, I was like, I just love the excuse to talk to people I would never otherwise talk to. If I didn’t have some project I was working on, I would never meet that guy. I would never have occasion to ask him questions for two hours. I would never have heard all these crazy stories. Do I know whether I’ll use any of that interview? I don’t. Do I know whether the product that comes out of that will be successful? I don’t. It doesn’t matter, though, because I had fun. He was this character. I now have a character in my memory and in my life that I didn’t have before. I feel Paul’s the same way. He’s seventy-nine years old. He has an album coming out in March. He’d like it to be successful, but I think he just enjoyed making it.

Zibby: Maybe that’s another one of the secrets. Maybe he’s thinking the same thing. What would he do if he wasn’t — sometimes these ways of expressing ourselves is how we live. You might as well. Some people’s can be more for public consumption than other people’s.

Malcolm: One of the things that was great about — we spent all this time with him, forty hours. He was enjoying himself. You know this, you interview people for a living. Sometimes when you interview people, it feels like work for them. They’re required to do it. They’re supposed to do it. They’d really rather be somewhere else. He never gave the sense that he would rather be somewhere else. He was just up for it because we were talking about music. I even joked to him once, and I can’t remember whether this is in the book, that his truest calling would’ve been as a music teacher. Though, he would’ve been the most overqualified music teacher of all time. He just wants to tell people about how to make music and how music works. The idea that we were going to come and sit with him for as long as all of us wanted to sit and he could just talk about how his mind works and how music works for him and we would be willing listeners, to him, he was psyched. That was fun. At the end of every session, he would always say, “Should we do this again?” He wasn’t like, are we done? He was always like, “Can we do this again?” We were always like, “Yes.”

Zibby: People love talking about what they’re passionate about. That’s why, what you were saying, people who, when you interview them, you can tell when they don’t want to be there, I feel like, and you interview people all the time, isn’t that my job to make them have fun and want to be there and chatting with me? Otherwise, I’ve failed. That’s my fault, then.

Malcolm: Yeah, I think that’s true. It’s funny. This is a tangent, but there’s a lot of people now who have podcasts, have taken up the job of interviewer. I think sometimes people don’t understand how hard it is. I would say for the first twenty years of my career in journalism I was not a very good interviewer. It took a long time, understanding how to find what’s interesting in another person. Sometimes people need a little help in locating — I think everyone is interesting, but a lot of us need help in finding what is interesting about our experiences. That’s what an interviewer does. They encourage you. They infect you with their enthusiasm. That’s not an easy task. It takes years to figure out how to do that.

Zibby: I guess. I don’t know. Are we having fun? Are you having fun? I hope I’m doing my job well.

Malcolm: I’m having a blast.

Zibby: Wait, so tell me a little about Pushkin, the way you’ve reconceptualized books. This is a huge, amazing thing that you’re doing. I want to make sure everybody understands how cool it is. What you’re essentially doing is you’re taking what could be a book, and everything is enhanced and more interesting. When I listened to The Bomber Mafia, it started there with the clips and the airplanes and the actual news clips, and now here with literally just listening to Paul Simon perform as you guys are chitchatting. It’s so cool. How did that whole thing come about? What’s coming next in all this cool stuff that you’re doing?

Malcolm: We thought that audio, audiobooks in particular, were just people — you’d write a book. Then they would sit you down in a studio for three days, and you would read the book into a microphone. That’s always struck me as a total waste. Why would you squander all the potential of audio just by sitting in a closet and reading for three days? For example, if you interview somebody — I did this with Talking to Strangers. I started with that book. Everyone I interviewed, I taped them. Then in the audiobook, you heard them, not me, reading their words. You heard them in their words. Then you realize, oh — have you ever watched an early movie that doesn’t have a soundtrack?

Zibby: Yes, actually.

Malcolm: It’s bizarre how bad it is, right?

Zibby: I was in a sound studio with my brother, who’s a producer, while they were trying to get the sound right. They would show us the clips with nothing. Then they would show us, and here’s what it sounds like when the door locks. I’m like, oh, my gosh.

Malcolm: So much better, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Malcolm: Then I thought, well, audiobooks should have soundtracks. They should have theme music. There’s all these things that just can add to the emotion and make the experience so much more captivating. Now when we do an audiobook, we have these brilliant musicians who score it for us the same way you would a movie. For Talking to Strangers, Janelle Monáe had this unbelievable protest song that she wrote about all the police shootings. I called up her manager. Talking to Strangers began and ended with the story of an encounter between an African American woman and a — I called up her manager. I said, “I have to have that song. That song belongs in my book.” She was like, “Absolutely.” You hear that song throughout my book. That’s because with audio, I can go to a genius like Janelle Monáe and I can say, can I borrow a little bit of your genius to help my book be more moving and powerful? There’s all these opportunities. Same thing with the Paul Simon book. We could have written a print book about him, but then you don’t get to hear Paul Simon. You can hear him play and mess around on the guitar and tell funny jokes and just be his beautifully weird, wonderful self. I wanted you feel like you’re in the room with us. You can do that with audio. You can’t do that on the page. That’s part of what we’re trying to do, is to create a kind of intimacy with the listener.

Zibby: Why didn’t you make it a documentary?

Malcolm: Because once you add cameras, everything gets a hundred times more expensive and a hundred times harder. I think people get shy around — not shy. I think sometimes the camera makes people self-conscious, particularly musicians. Paul’s not an actor. He’s a musician. He wants to be heard. He doesn’t need to be seen. That dimension’s not important. I don’t know if anything would be added. I think sometimes as well, images can be a distraction. For certain kinds of stories, they are not a distraction. They are the story. For a book about a musician and his genius, images are a distraction. I want you to listen. I want you to close your eyes and listen. I don’t want to show pictures of a guy with a guitar. That’s not the point here. The point here is to train your ear to appreciate the genius of this transcendent artist.

Zibby: It’s so cool. I was already a Paul Simon fan, but it’s hard to listen without even having a renewed appreciation.

Malcolm: Aren’t you the — wait, let’s talk about this for a second.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Malcolm: No, no, no. You’re kind of the quintessential — you grew up in New York.

Zibby: I did.

Malcolm: Did you grow up in Manhattan?

Zibby: Manhattan.

Malcolm: Your parents and grandparents would be roughly the same age as Paul. There’s a whole group of Paul Simon fans for whom Paul was, he was one generation older. They grew up on his — when you were ten, I’m sure somebody played “The Boxer” for you.

Zibby: We had Graceland in our permanent — you know the six-CD thing that slid out? We always had it in there. We would bring it with us on vacation and then play it there.

Malcolm: You’re of that generation that, as a kid, his music was all around you. As a New Yorker, I always feel there’s a special bond between — Paul Simon was such a quintessential New Yorker. There’s something about that. His song “American Tune,” one of his most beautiful songs, it’s a song, really, about the immigrant experience in America. If you were the child or grandchild or great-grandchild of immigrant to this country, there’s something about that song and him that just connects. If your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents came over at Ellis Island from escaping whatever to this thing called America, that song can bring you to tears. There’s a bond there between — my point is, I’m not surprised that this book spoke to you.

Zibby: Okay, phew. I didn’t know where you were going with that. All right, so Paul Simon, this project is done, out and about and now into the world converting more Paul Simon fans. What are you doing next? Aside from the policeman, what are your next couple projects? What’s your big vision?

Malcolm: There is a project. There’s a big thing I’m working on now, my next book, which does involve Los Angeles. It’s a Los Angeles story. I’ve been hanging out in LA a lot and talking to people like eighty-two-year-old retired LAPD officers. That’s something I’ve been working on for the last little while. I have “Revisionist History.” Season seven comes up this summer. I’m just about to start work on that. I’m in that stage where I’m desperate for ideas. I wake up at three in the morning in a cold panic and think, what if I don’t come up with enough ideas for this year? Then at Pushkin, we got a bunch of really cool things. We’re doing another similar book project with the comedian Steve Martin. We thought it’d be really fun. Comedians also, you want to hear them. That’s something else we’re thinking about.

Zibby: That’s exciting. It’s true, there is this immediacy with audio that is not the same. Basically, it’s literally immersive. You’re putting the sound into your body directly like an infusion as opposed to the separation, obviously. Those sound great. Amazing. Do you have any advice? Let’s say if people want to record the best audio experience they possibly can, what should they do? Aside from getting out of a closet, what can they do to enhance? A lot of other people get assigned audiobooks to read. They don’t have this opportunity. What can they do to make it better? Is there anything?

Malcolm: Sorry, I lost you for about ten seconds there. The question is, do I have advice for people who want to create audiobooks?

Zibby: Yeah. What can they do to make it really great?

Malcolm: The thing about audio is that it’s intimate. It’s emotional. Anything you can do to enhance that part of it is super, super important. Like I said earlier about that feeling of being in the room with someone, that’s what you want. In Miracle and Wonder, this Paul Simon book, we deliberately included little bits of our conversation that were casual. Some of the chapters begin with little bits of tape. What you’re trying to do with that is to give you a sense of the informal, intimate Paul Simon. When you’re being interviewed, you put on your interview hat. You answer every question clearly and precisely. It’s a formal process. With an audiobook, you have an opportunity to do something different, which is to make it just feel like you’re chitchatting with somebody. You’re just hanging out, so anything you can do to enhance that. That means being comfortable with a certain kind of imperfection sometimes, being comfortable with things where the purpose of including something is not necessarily to make an argument or a point, but to create a feeling. In a print book, you don’t do things to create feelings. You do things to make your argument, to prove a point. In an audiobook, you really want feeling. There’s a moment in this book where Paul talks about the fact that his mother — he told us this at least three times. His mother once said, when he was very young and just starting out with Art Garfunkel, “Paul, you have a good voice, but Artie has a great voice.” He still remembers that. It really hurt his feelings.

Zibby: I bet.

Malcolm: It’s really important for you to hear how he says that and to feel the idea that even someone as ridiculously accomplished as this still carries that little bit of hurt, not because he’s fragile. He’s the opposite of fragile. He’s an insanely resilient guy. His mom said something that wounded him and then also spurred him on, that he’s used as a driver of his ambition and his creativity. It’s just really, really, really important to hear how he says that.

Zibby: Now I’m like —

Malcolm: — I know what you’re thinking.

Zibby: Right? I’m like, great. I say one thing to my kids, and it’s going to be…

Malcolm: If your kid turns out to be as famous and as accomplished as Paul Simon, then that’s probably a very useful thing to have said.

Zibby: Yeah, but then he’s going to talk about what I said that made him feel bad. I’m going to look like the mean person after all his success. It’s a lose-lose.

Malcolm: Forty years from now, you’re listening to your son being interviewed. He says, and then my mom said…and I’ll never forget. You’re like, daggers, daggers in your heart.

Zibby: Totally, oh, my gosh. I’ll use the next forty years to steel myself against that eventual hurt. Malcolm, thank you so much. Thanks for chatting today. I had fun.

Malcolm: So did I.

Zibby: Thanks for sharing all of your feelings and everything. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Malcolm Gladwell, MIRACLE AND WONDER

MIRACLE AND WONDER by Malcolm Gladwell

Purchase your copy on Amazon!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts