Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 4)

ROBERTS You learned stuff from writing TV scripts that transferred into book writing?

MLODINOW Yes, I think you do. It’s odd because there’s in many ways very little similarity.  Pacing, for instance, is very different on a TV show and when you’re reading something but you do get a feeling for it and its importance. All those years of comedy writing certainly I think translate to having a real sense of humor, so there are certain things that do translate.

ROBERTS I think there’s one remarkable thing that makes your books different from other books. Your books give the impression that they want to be entertaining–the author, you, is trying to meet the reader halfway. When you’re writing a TV show, it’s got to be entertaining because otherwise people won’t want to watch it. They’re not required to watch it to get a job or to get a good grade in their class; they’re watching it because they enjoy it. So you’ve got to make it enjoyable. Whereas a lot of books written by professors seem to be saying, “Well, I’m so important and you’re going to read my book because this is an important book to read, so I’m not going to even try to make it interesting; I’m just going to do whatever I want.” Your books are more reader-friendly in that sense.

MLODINOW I think that’s true. A lot of people who are very serious about their topic have a hard time seeing why you need to make it interesting or knowing how to make it interesting for people who aren’t automatically interested in that topic. To me that’s one of the joys of writing. One of the satisfactions is when I go, ‘Wow, I made that really funny’ or ‘I made that really interesting,’ and then I get excited by that.

ROBERTS That talent–it really helped you to have written for TV because it’s kind of a fresh voice.

MLODINOW I think it helped to develop my voice, too, especially the comedy part, you know? And what my credits show is obviously a small part of what I write. For example at one point I was thinking that maybe I wanted to get on Leno or one of those late night comedy shows and we never really went that far with it, but I did spend some days writing stand up lines and pure joke writing to try to get some material together for my agent to show around.  Probably very few other science writers have gone through an exercise such as that. That all, I think, contributes to being able to write with a sense of humor. Of course, you have to have a personality that gravitates in that direction in the first place.

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4 Responses to “Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 4)”

  1. Andrew Gelman Says:

    Seth,

    I hate to keep bugging you on this, but . . . when you say, “Your books give the impression that they want to be entertaining–the author, you, is trying to meet the reader halfway. . . . A lot of people who are very serious about their topic have a hard time seeing why you need to make it interesting,” I think you’re completely missing the point. Everybody wants to make their writing interesting and readable; it’s just hard to do! As you and Mlodinow discuss, practice is important, talent is important, putting in the time is important. But it’s not like people are writing badly on purpose!

  2. seth Says:

    “Everybody wants to make their writing interesting and readable” and “It’s not like people are writing badly on purpose!” Thorstein Veblen wrote a whole chapter in The Theory of the Leisure Class saying the opposite: Academics write badly on purpose to show how important they are. Other writers must grovel and try to please others; they need not, is the subtext of their awful prose. Just as certain women had really long fingernails to advertise how useless they were. Hood ornaments were yet another example of “conspicuous waste”.

  3. Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » Leonard Mlodinow Interview Directory Says:

    [...] Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 4) [...]

  4. Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 3) | the Justin Owings page Says:

    [...] part 4 [...]