Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, and The Real Thing. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List.
Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC's Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine's architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.
From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called "The Imperial City" for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008). In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media.Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.
Big Think Interview With Kurt Andersen
Kurt Andersen: Okay. I'm Kurt Andersen, a novelist and the host of Studio 360.
Question: Can novelists today be both celebrated and subversive?
Kurt Andersen: Well, first of all, there is the problem of novelists being all that celebrated in America if they're very serious as a novelist. I'm not -- well, it's an interesting question. I think, as I read about in the introduction to this novel, I think the job category of voice of a generation or voice of a nation spokesperson and a household name novelists no longer exists. Subversiveness is a different issue but I think that probably makes it even harder. I think that to be extremely well known, sell a lot books, well regarded as a novelist, all those things are difficult and subversiveness in this day and age makes it even more difficult, I suppose. I guess you could say that Normal Mailer, on a certain level, for instance, was a subversive novelist, but I think the audience for subversiveness is a niche audience at this point in America.
Question: What is the most difficult medium to work in?
Kurt Andersen: Of the ones I've done a considerable amount of, I would say fiction writing is the most difficult and for that reason the most gratifying to throw myself into still and attempt to climb that mountain.
Question: Why is it more difficult?
Kurt Andersen: Well, I'm still -- although I've written fiction here and there for many years I've done it essentially quasi full-time for now thirteen years. So it's still relatively new to me and therefore I'm still figuring it out. It's also to create something that one is entirely in control of oneself is more difficult and scary because it's all -- the buck stops here always and to, in this day and age of short attention span and small bite entertainment and media to try to be interesting enough to keep people paying attention for many, many hours to your one thing is a high bar, so the stakes are high for writer and reader.
Question: How do you stay focused while writing?
Kurt Andersen: I'm fairly disciplined. I worked in an office for enough years before I was working for myself at home that the ritual of sitting in a desk and starting to type was engrained in me, so it's pretty much the same with non-fiction but all the preparatory work of non-fiction, the research, the interviewing, all that kind of stuff I find I'm able to do at midnight or three o’clock in the morning in a way that writing fiction I'm not able to do in those kind of off hours.
Question: Do you re-write?
Kurt Andersen: I re-write constantly. I mean, and to me, the great glory of the digital revolution and word processing and computers are that re-writing becomes so much easier than in the old days when we were typewriting and then re-typewriting. So yeah, I re-write as I go along. I re-write after a month of work or a week of work; I re-write after a year of work. With my last novel, I spent a year re-writing it after I was done. So yeah, re-writing is everything.
Question: Do you use an outline?
Kurt Andersen: No, I work from some version of an outline. Not an outline like you're taught in school of one, roman numeral one, roman numeral two, a, b, c; all that. But whether it's a piece of non-fiction or a piece of fiction, I have my notes and my ideas of this is the basic order of things and then of course as you go along I inevitably diverge from the outline and change the -- re-write the outline as I am writing from it. But yeah, I begin with some basic map, sketch of a map if not a precise outline.
Advice For Young Writers
Kurt Andersen: Write. Write and read and write, carefully and well. And if you don't have the patience to do that now, work for it and struggle to achieve the patience because I know that when I was nineteen patience – all that patience that's required to do good work, the patience to read carefully, the patience to write carefully, the patience to re-write; patience was in short supply in my life when I was nineteen. And so struggle to achieve the patience required to do the hard work required to be a good writer.
Question: Why do you think talented people are shying away from office jobs?
Kurt Andersen: Because they don't look like such a sure thing. Because they don't look so easy. There are fewer of them, suddenly, for one thing. And I think now for a whole generation or two of people to whom, "Oh, a job on Wall Street. Oh, a job at a bank; that looks like an easy way to make my pile quickly then get out and do what I really want to do." That, I think, in the last year has proven that that is not such an easy way to go and that indeed following ones passions is ultimately a surer bet, which isn't to say that people still won't -- I mean, people who actually like being in finance, great. They can still do that. But I think there are -- I know that there have been a lot of people over the last twenty years or so who went into those jobs simply because it seemed, and was, an easy way to make a lot of money.
Question: Where do you see the best and brightest going?
Kurt Andersen: Well a lot of the best and the brightest are doing things like Teach for America and trying to become teachers. I mean, in terms of metrics that are available to us, you can look at that and say, "My God, one in nine Ivy League seniors signs up for Teach for America?" Are they turning away several for every spot they have? So that in a more than anecdotal way is where you can say, "Yeah, there's a lot of best and brightest young people going there." But in terms of for this radio show I do, this public radio show I do, still do at “360,” we have, again, I would say ten applicants for every intern that we can take on. And we're paying them barely a dime. So I see best and brightest people going into the arts and in my little window on the world.
Question: Why do you feel this is happening?
Kurt Andersen: Well I think people are understanding, among other things, with the shake-out of the last year that nothing is a sure thing and that a truck could hit us tomorrow, a recession could happen tomorrow, God knows what will happen tomorrow. So let's really try to figure out what it is we love and gives us satisfaction and go for that because Lord knows nothing else is for sure.
Question: What is the amateur spirit?
Kurt Andersen: Well I think even for all the craziness of the last twenty or twenty-five years and all the bad habits that we developed over the last fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years, one of the great things that we've seen is indeed a Renaissance of the Amateur Spirit in terms of the Web, the creation of the Web itself, the creation of all these digital tools so people can make music and public and make videos and make Web applications and all of these things that have been enabled is a revival of the Amateur Spirit which is really essential to the American spirit. Let's make it up as we go along; let's give full -- let's indulge our tinkering spirit. We can do it. That sort of went out of fashion in a big and profound way over the last hundred years or so and the Web and the digital revolution generally has sort of enabled it anew.
So I think if we are one of the things if we're able to write a story of wow, America turned the corner in the early twenty first century and got its mojo back, I think one of the big parts of that story will be that embrace of the Amateur Spirit, whether it's in entrepreneurial senses and the entrepreneurial spirit is all about the Amateur Spirit ultimately. But the unwillingness to believe absolutely that the experts know anything worth knowing is also part of the Amateur Spirit and certainly a too easy and too total and too complacent belief that the experts knew what was going on is certainly one of the things that got us into trouble with all these crazy financial derivatives that nobody understood on Wall Street.
So it's looking to oneself, as a citizen, as a potential entrepreneur, as an artist, as a whatever, to believe in ones own ability to know how to proceed and not simply trust it all to the experts.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Kurt Andersen: Apart from my own, how many days on earth I have left and my own children's and wife's safety and health and all that, I would say one of the things that keeps me up is the fracturing of the national political discourse into these echo-chambers where the left talks to the left and the right talks to the right and in their little echo-chambers everybody gets excited and believes they have an absolute purchase on the truth. The degree to which technology, the Web, 500 of channels on television, and radio God knows, has enabled that kind of echo-chamber discourse to the disadvantage of a national discourse where there's a sort of fair minded searching for the truth and civil discourse. That whole thing worries me, actually. And that people are believe they have the answers and believe they know the truth rather than some seeking of the truth. Again, I don't think it's entirely -- it's not an entirely new world that we're living in but I do think that these sort of -- this echo-chamber everybody preaching to their own choir and talking to the converted as a kind of replacement for a bigger tent of national conversation; that worries me.
Question: Are there any interesting national conversations going on now?
Kurt Andersen: Sure. Here and there. I mean, you know, I think there are still disinterest in fair minded seekers of the truth around that aren't necessarily on FOX News and aren't necessarily on MSNBC, but -- and not to -- there are also decent people even in those -- at the margins, and the left, and on the right. So yeah, I am not without hope but the trend of the last dozen years in this realm is a little worrisome to me.
Question: How do we get out of this?
Kurt Andersen: Well that's a good question. And I don't know the answer and we'll see because the tooth paste doesn't go back in the tube but I've also learned after my half century of life and my reading of history that it's also not necessarily correct to simply extrapolate from the data point where we are and say, "Oh, my God. It's all, it's over. We're never going to have a civil national conversation that gets us any place." I mean, the election of the President we have, we can all carp and criticize, "Oh, he's done this. He shouldn't have done that. He should do more." But Barack Obama does, to my mind, still, whatever else he represents, represents a commitment to empiricism, civility, looking at the facts, not name calling; all those things that, to my mind, are what we all, as Americans, as citizens of the world, want to try to celebrate and make be the way that a national conversation can happen. Inevitably, in -- with fits and starts and backtracking but I know it's a cliché but the very fact that this guy is our President tends to give me a little hope.
Question: What’s the biggest mistake of your career?
Kurt Andersen: I've never made a mistake in my career. Geez. I really do tend -- I have made lots and lots of mistakes but I tend to erase them from my mind. You know, every day I make a mistake, as I try to write a piece of fiction or as I try to write a story. In a larger sense, I make mistakes thinking, "Oh, I've done this kind of thing; therefore, of course, I can do this roughly similar, adjacent thing." It's the mistakes of hubris, I suppose. But to my mind it's better to make those mistakes and say, "No, maybe I can't tap dance even though I can tell jokes." It's better to make those mistakes, in the attempt to live the Amateur Spirit if you will, than to stick in one’s little silo where one has proven oneself. I think the errors of hackdome are more dangerous than the errors of over reach, and I've over reached. I will grant that.
Question: Is there a connection between alcohol and creativity?
Kurt Andersen: I don't know about alcohol and creativity. I think that the classic idea that, "Oh, look, all these great artists and great writers drank a lot; therefore, I better drink a lot." I think that probably has that desire to embrace the "id" supped up on alcohol is probably led people astray more than it's helped them. But I certainly am not going to tell people they should be tea-tottlers or never smoke pot or never take drugs; I have taken drugs and smoked pot and drunk too much in my life. Has it helped my creativity? No, but I think life has -- life must be lived in all of its -- with all of its bumps and ups and downs. But in the end, you need to be clear headed enough to actually do the work and the work of -- the creative work, it seems to me, in the doing of it, is not very enhanced by being drunk or being stoned.
Recorded on: October 13, 2009