New Yorker Writer Larissa MacFarquhar on “How Do You Get People to Talk to You?”

Tyler Cowen interviews New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar—some interesting insights into writing.

COWEN: What do you do to put people at ease when you’re interviewing them?

MACFARQUHAR: I don’t have any tricks. It’s funny, people will often ask me, “How do you get people to talk to you?” There’s no trick involved. When I am interviewing someone, I’m interviewing them because I really want to hear what they have to say, and I’m incredibly interested in their life and how they describe it and how they came to have the ideas that they do and why they love them.

I ask them, and I think most people just like to tell the story of their life and enjoy the feeling that somebody is intensely and unfeignedly interested in what they have to say. If I’m lucky, it can be a really extraordinary experience for both of us. Obviously, I don’t know the person very well. I just met them, or even if we meet multiple times, I don’t know them nearly as well, in many senses, as their friends or their family. Of course, that’s obvious.

But at the same time, for the most part, even people you know and love the best, you don’t talk about your life as a whole. They don’t say, “Well, why is it that you . . . Where did you start out when you were 10? What did you want to do when you were 10, and why did you at 20 take this path rather than that path? And why did you give up on that thing that you wanted to do desperately when you were 24 and now can barely remember it? How did that happen? How did you come to forget that thing?” Those kinds of questions.

And if you have a two-, three-, four-hour conversation, where you go with the person, prompting them over the course of their life, it can be revelatory for them too because you just don’t talk about that stuff usually. You talk about what you did last weekend or what movie you’ve seen or what book you’ve read or what you had for dinner — stuff like that. You don’t talk about these longer-term movements in your life.
Cowen: In these dialogs, we often have the segment, overrated or underrated. Shall I ask you a few questions?

Kenneth Tynan, overrated or underrated?

MACFARQUHAR: Underrated!


MACFARQUHAR: I am so glad you asked. No one seems to know who he is. He was such a figure of his time. It’s very interesting. Kenneth Tynan, he was a — I should say because no one knows who he is — he was a theater critic, started as a theater critic in England in the ’50s, and then in the late ’60s I think, early ’70s, came over to America and started writing for the New Yorker.

And a very interesting thing happened to his writing. I don’t know to what extent it was a result of the New Yorker, or whether it was just him getting old, but when he was a young man, his writing was electric and baroque. The adjective-to-noun ratio was so high. Every sentence was encrusted with adjectives and adverbs, and there was no sentence that was just getting from A to B. It was so — what many would say overwritten, but I thought was so . . . It was just exciting.

COWEN: They were incredible essays.

MACFARQUHAR: So exciting. And then —

COWEN: Under-read today.

MACFARQUHAR: Yes! But an interesting thing happened, and I wonder which you prefer. Because as he got older, his writing got plainer and calmer, and it stopped jumping about, trying to arrest your attention.

COWEN: I only like the earlier Kenneth Tynan.

MACFARQUHAR: You know, I do too. But I think there is something about taste today that prefers a clearer, more limpid kind of prose. While I understand that sometimes overwriting can be annoying, sometimes it’s just lazy. You read early Kenneth Tynan, and you realize people aren’t trying hard enough. You can’t just say “cup.” You have to come up with . . . I’m not even going to try to imitate him, but suffice to say people should read him more.
COWEN: Your next book is on why people leave American small towns and general issues of geographic mobility. Why has American cross-state mobility fallen so much since the 1980s?

MACFARQUHAR: You could probably answer that question better than I. I think a lot of the reasons are economic. It used to be that, in general, people moved to places with more jobs because they were looking for jobs, which sounds perfectly logical. Now people are often moving to places with fewer jobs because housing is cheaper, which is a sort of pessimistic and depressing fact.

But I’m glad you asked about this because I know we’re both interested in this question. One of the things I want to think about in this book is how people who stay are not necessarily staying because they’re stuck.

There is a dominant American mythology that the smart, ambitious, interesting people move. They leave — not just small towns, but anywhere — they leave their homes, and they go somewhere else, partly because they’re restless, partly because they’re curious, and partly because what they want to do is so big, it can’t be done where they are. And that leaves the people who stay looking dull by comparison. But I really want to question that.

The lodestar of this project, at least so far, is the great economist Albert Hirschman’s essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which I’m sure you know. He argued that if you’re discontent with where you are or what product you’re buying, discontent with something, you can do two things: You can exit, which means you can either leave a place or stop buying a product. Or you can exercise voice — you can complain, you can try to change it.

I think this is extraordinarily important when thinking about issues of mobility because if everyone left, if everyone’s response to a bad job or a bad home was to leave, then nothing is fixed. It’s the people who say, “No, actually, I don’t want to leave. This is my home. There are many things wrong with it, but because I don’t want to leave, because I feel attached to it for other reasons, I’m going to fight.”

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