The NS Interview: Malcolm Gladwell

“It was good to be right wing at 15 – I couldn’t do any damage”

You have written about everything from class to ketchup. Was there, or is there, a plan?
I have a rough idea where I'll be on Tuesday, but beyond that it's a little vague. Plans are a way to feel better; they don't have any function unless you're a government planning bridges or roads.

Could planning in fact be detrimental to your style of journalism?
Yeah. Serendipity is a strong feature. The universe of things that you don't know is so much bigger than the universe you do know that there are benefits to not being on a linear path.

How does it feel to see your New Yorker essays together in a new collection?
It makes me feel old. It's good to see that they're still readable; some seem such a long time ago.

Which stories stand out for you? The piece about the trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan, seems prescient now.
Yeah, Nassim was way ahead of the curve, so that was a very lucky break. We just thought it would be fun. I have more difficulty with long stories like that; sometimes I get lost in them. But I like the fact that I did it, and I love Nassim.

There are so few places to publish long-form journalism now. Do you worry for its future?
That makes it more valuable, right? Storytelling is a fundamental human need. I don't worry about the New Yorker - I worry about other places. But it's just the business model. I'm more concerned about stores that sell videotapes, where there's no desire for the product.

In Outliers, you talk about society's influence on "genius". Does that reflect your politics?
I'm not very political - only in a kind of indirect way - but I'm interested in class.

How do you react to critics who argue that you simplify or steal academics' ideas?
Outliers very explicitly took a side in an ongoing debate, so the IQ fundamentalists think I'm all wrong. But that's fine. I think of myself as a PR agent for academic sociology and psychology. And that's a role I perform out of great affection. So maybe those critics exist, but no one ever comes to me and says they're unhappy.

You've written a lot about racial and cultural inheritance. Isn't that dangerous territory?
If you believe in culture, you have to take it seriously; you can't just ignore it. I don't think it's dangerous if you're using it to understand part of what makes people who they are. You have to be careful, but it's far more dangerous to pretend that culture doesn't exist.

Your own cultural background is Jamaican, English, Canadian and American. How do the elements of your culture influence you?
It's a lot easier to talk about race in America if you are part black, and it has increased my interest level. But my parents are quite similar: they are both products of educated, middle-class, evangelical, English backgrounds, one from a white family in Kent, the other an aspirational, Jamaican version.

Who are your heroes?
I have heroes, but they may not be relevant to my work. There are crucial academic influences. And I read lots of detective fiction - obviously, I'm in the storytelling business, but you can learn a lot from fiction writers, people like Iain Pears, Michael Lewis or Janet Malcolm.

Do you vote?
They won't let me vote in America. Which is outrageous, since I pay their taxes. But I would vote Democrat, of course.

Is it true that you had a poster of Ronald Reagan on your wall when you were young?
It is - I was a right-winger between the ages of about 15 and 19 or 20. Which is the appropriate time to be conservative, when I could do no damage. Canada was so resolutely left of centre then, it was my version of growing my hair long or being a punk.

What caused the swing back?
I grew up and came to my senses. The American right wing is so tiresome. It's more than the politics - there's a sort of meanness, a pettiness.

As in the Tea Party movement?
People say outrageous things about Barack Obama, who in Britain would be considered centre right. It's just phenomenal, the pitch of the conversation.

What would you like to forget?
I'm so forgetful. I once had dinner with a friend at a restaurant near my house. Then a week later, I took her to the same place, we sat at the same table, and I ordered the exact same thing. And I had no memory of the previous week. So whatever I want to forget, I've already forgotten.

Are we all doomed?
I don't think so. We are always muddling through. We made it through the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis . . . If we can dodge those bullets, we can dodge almost anything.

Defining moments

1963 Born in England
1984 Graduates from the University of Toronto with a degree in history
1987 Joins the Washington Post as a reporter. Later becomes New York bureau chief
1996 Joins the New Yorker as a staff writer
2000 His first book, The Tipping Point, is published. Blink and Outliers follow
2005 Named one of Time's 100 most influential people
2009 What the Dog Saw, a collection of 19 pieces for the New Yorker, is published