Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1998, where she’s written about all kinds of people, from Barack Obama to Noam Chomsky to the Badeau family (who become known for their adoption of twenty-two kids). Reading her profiles often feels like slipping suddenly into the minds of her subjects, in the best way.
But if MacFarquhar has a beat, it might be “do-gooders.” She’s written extensively about people who are determined to live as ethically as possible—not just people who hold noble jobs or moonlight as activists, but people who push themselves to abide by extreme moral codes.
These kinds of do-gooders were the subject of her 2015 book, Strangers Drowning, recently released in paperback. In it, she profiles people like Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist priest who dedicated his life to counseling suicidal people, and Aaron Pitkin, who devoted himself to fighting for what he saw as the most oppressed of all creatures: chickens. The series of profiles are broken up by sweeping sections of research and analysis, focused mainly on the question of what motivates do-gooders and why, for the rest of us regular folk, extremely moral people are so often thought to be boring, simple, or even repelling.
Recently, MacFarquhar and I spoke on the phone about fiction, journalism, morality, and whether, in the big scheme of things, writing matters. (To find out, you’ll have to read on; I can’t spoil the ending.)
The Rumpus: In your book, you wrote quite a bit about fiction. Were you ever drawn to writing fiction? Or were you always more interested in nonfiction?
Larissa MacFarquhar: I definitely was interested in writing fiction at one point. I think almost anyone interested in writing starts out being drawn to fiction because for most of us, when we’re in school and even college, the writing that is interesting as writing that we’re exposed to is fiction. There are some colleges, like Princeton, that have wonderful nonfiction writing programs that introduce their students to nonfiction as literature. But I did not have that experience. It wasn’t until after college that I came to realize the possibilities of the form.
Rumpus: I also was first introduced to writing through fiction and my desire to become a writer was always tied up in my love for fiction. I only later realized you could write nonfiction in ways that are interesting.
MacFarquhar: Absolutely. I still read a lot of fiction. I love it and also I think that a lot of the formal experimentation in how to tell a story goes on in fiction. It doesn’t have to, but that’s just the way it is because most people who are interested in writing as such tend to go into fiction. But I no longer have what I used to have, which is the feeling that I should be writing fiction. That fiction is a higher form inherently.
Rumpus: Yes, I think the idea that fiction is an inherently higher form is embraced in a lot of circles. When did you realize that you wanted to write nonfiction?
MacFarquhar: It really wasn’t until recently that I realized exactly why I find nonfiction so compelling. I was having lunch with a friend who is a novelist, but who was working on a book of nonfiction. He’d just gone on a reporting trip. And because he is a novelist, he, in embarking on this project, had conceived of the world that this book would portray.
He had a sort of vague idea of the people he would find and the things that they would say to him and the stories that he would tell. He went on his reporting trip and he found that people did not say what he imagined them saying. The people were different and the stories were different than the ones he had thought of in his head. And he found that somewhat frustrating.
I thought: Oh, this is why I am a nonfiction writer and he is a novelist. I could not do what he does, which is conjure up a whole world out of sheer imagination. But on the other hand, I have never been frustrated to discover that people say things other than what I imagined. In fact, that is the core of my delight in nonfiction: meeting people who say things that I never would have imagined and hearing stories that had never occurred to me existed.
And even the manner of speech. I always try to record interviews because I find that if you take notes on what someone is saying, you’ll get the gist of it, but it won’t be precise. It’s not so much a matter of precision for its own sake, though I think that’s also very important. It’s also the joy of hearing that person say something in a way that you would never have said it. Every person has a way of speaking that’s all their own. It may not be entirely their own. It may be a function of the region or the family they grew up in. But that to me is thrilling and a huge part of why I love what I do.
Rumpus: One of the things that distinguishes your nonfiction is your ability to get inside of the minds of your subjects and then confidently convey what they think. What is your process for getting inside the minds of your sources?
MacFarquhar: There are two aspects to it. One is very simple. The best way to find out what someone is thinking is to ask them what they’re thinking. Not all people, but most people, most of the time, want to tell their stories.
A marvelous thing about interviewing is that the interview itself can be a genuine revelation not only to you the listener but also to the person who is telling the story. You’re asking them questions they may not have considered for decades or may never have asked themselves before. Such as: Why did you choose this path? Do you regret going down this path? Even if you know someone very well, you don’t usually talk about this stuff in conversation. You ask them whether their leg feels better. You ask them how that vacation went. You ask them questions that are important this week but will be forgotten in the grand scheme of things. So it can be a very powerful thing to sit down with someone and talk about the course of their whole life. And I don’t think any special technique is required.
Rumpus: And the second aspect?
MacFarquhar: Yes, one half is just asking them what they think. The other half is how you represent what they’ve told you. And there is a matter of technique here. I believe that one way to give the reader a feeling of being inside someone’s head is to remove the information that reminds the reader they are not.
Rumpus: Like what?
MacFarquhar: For instance, physical descriptions. They can be wonderful devices that bring a person alive in a piece of writing. However, as with almost any technique that you use in writing, you gain something and you lose something. What you gain is a vivid sense of the physical person. What you lose is a sense of intimacy with their mind because you are reminded, albeit unconsciously, that you are watching that person, you are outside them, you are different from them.
Similarly, you would think that a quote would be the most intimate way of conveying a person’s thoughts because, after all, it’s coming straight from their mouth. But in fact, if you quote someone, that quotation is an implicit reminder to the reader that you are separate from that person. If instead of quoting “I felt at that point that I just wanted to die,” you write “he felt at that point that he wanted to die,” it’s a much more intimate way of rendering exactly the same material.
Rumpus: So, speaking of asking people questions that they may not regularly be asked, I’m curious about your interest in moral philosophy. When did you become interested in philosophy and the people, from academic philosophers to do-gooders, who choose to live by certain philosophical beliefs?
MacFarquhar: I’ve always been interested in these kinds of questions. Questions like: What is a good life and how stringent are our moral obligations to one another? But I didn’t take any philosophy courses in college or graduate school. I really am only acquainted with one strain of Anglo-American moral philosophy that has to do with the question of demandingness. That’s the unbeautiful philosophical term for the question of “how much is required of us? How much must we do to live decent lives?”
I became really, really interested in that question. And in the service of this book I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library that gave me a wonderful nine months to work there. I ended up going down a rabbit hole of pursuing these moral philosophical questions because they had access to JSTOR, which was completely addictive. I would read an article and then it would refer to a number of other articles. A few keystrokes and those would come up on my computer, and then the next one and the next one. I became completely absorbed in it.
Then the New Yorker asked me to write a piece about Derek Parfit, a moral philosopher at Oxford. This gave me the chance to read his book, Reasons and Persons. It was an electrifying book. Every page was thought experiments and questions that had never occurred to me and I felt like my head was exploding every day. It partly addressed questions of demandingness but it also addressed much broader questions of moral philosophy. That got me thinking about similar questions and it was a huge thrill. But philosophy is not something I know a lot about. I wish I knew more.
Rumpus: So you never considered becoming a philosopher?
MacFarquhar: Just as I realized why I’m a nonfiction writer not a fiction writer, in discussing this book with moral philosophers, I realized: this is why I’m a journalist and a not a moral philosopher. At one point, I gave a talk at a university and a moral philosopher was asked to respond to the talk. He was very funny. He said, “you know, I find it so annoying when a reviewer of a book says, in effect, ‘I’m going to tell you how I would have written this book.’ But I’m going to do exactly that.”
And what he said was that, basically, my book doesn’t count as a book. That it’s not okay to just pose a question and then leave it hanging. From his point of view I’d written half the book. I posed this question, I introduced all these illustrations, and then I hadn’t done the work required to write a proper book, which was to conclude: here’s the answer. Here’s my answer. Here’s the solution to the question of how much we must do for others.
But that is exactly what I did not want to do. I think many people wrestle with the question of “Am I doing enough?” But I don’t think that it’s often brought up as a genuine puzzle.
I wanted to write a different kind of book, a book that forces the reader to think about the question, rather than give the reader an argument that he can engage with as a completed thing. Both of them are perfectly legitimate types of books. But that was the point at which I realized, ah, this is what I’m doing. This is what I want to do.
Rumpus: Have you ever considered living your life in the way that some of the people you profile do? The do-gooders?
MacFarquhar: I admire these people tremendously. I ended up doing something that I love, which is writing, but I don’t by any means think that that is the most defensible life choice. When I was in college it occurred to me that the most moral thing to do would be to graduate and earn a ton of money and give it all, or as much of it as I could, to charity.
I did not end up doing it. Not because I had a superior moral realization. Just because I was so drawn to writing. Of course, writing and journalism have done enormous amounts of good and I do think writing is incredibly important. But I can’t claim that’s why I did it. I did it because I love it.
Rumpus: I have more questions about that, but I wanted to ask you first about the do-gooders you profile in your book. Maybe I’m not well read enough, but I haven’t read a lot of journalism on people like this. Perhaps there’s not a lot of journalism done on this subject in general. Would you agree? And if so, why do you think that is?
MacFarquhar: I think there are a lot of books about heroic people. But what I hadn’t read was a book that asked the question: is it possible to be too moral? How much is asked of us?
I thought that this is something I can do as a journalist that philosophers don’t do. These are not questions best asked only in the abstract. These are questions that requires thinking about and engaging with actual lives.
Insofar as most people think about morality, they often think about what’s bad. Or about the difference between bad and good. But as Toby Ord, one of the philosophers who I mention in the book, puts it: All the action, really, is not there between good and evil. Because most of the time we know the difference between good and evil. Most of the time we’re not asking ourselves, jeez, is it right or wrong to kill this person? The real action is on the good end of things, where we’re asking ourselves, well, is it okay to just give twenty dollars to this charity or ought we to give way more?
Rumpus: Wow. I had never thought about it that way.
MacFarquhar: So, certainly the writing about people who are extraordinarily good and heroic is not particularly unusual. But it’s my impression that most people think that goodness is boring and simple and evil is complex and fascinating. I think that’s completely wrong and certainly that was part of my intention in writing this book. To persuade people that goodness and good people can be just as complex and fascinating.
Rumpus: That reminds me of what I thought was one of the most fascinating chapters in your book. In it, you wrote a kind of literary critique about how do-gooders have been portrayed in fiction, observing that there aren’t many serious, complex do-gooder characters in fiction. I’m curious when you started to notice that and how other people have responded to that part of your book.
MacFarquhar: It occurred to me because fiction is such a touchstone for me. For the book, one of the first things I did in addition to reading philosophical treatments of goodness was go to fiction to help me think about it. I thought that reading about fictional versions of do-gooders would help me conceptualize what kind of person I was looking for.
I started by going to the novelists who I knew were interested in moral subjects: George Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Iris Murdoch, Marilynne Robinson, and a whole bunch of others. It was very striking to me, when I read them again with this question in mind, how in fact the character that I had in mind did not really exist in fiction. And, moreover, there was something about fiction that seemed to resist such a person, to push against it. There seemed to be something in fiction, some kind of implicit ethos, according to which moral ambition was either ridiculous or actually despicable. There was something about fiction writers. They were so drawn to human flaws that it was as though they were repelled by humans who aspired to rise above those flaws.
Rumpus: What was the general reception of those observations?
MacFarquhar: I’ve talked to a bunch of novelists and one playwright who said to me, “I am working on a book or a play with such a character and it’s not working. I can’t make it work.”
There’s something about a morally ambitious character that doesn’t work in fiction. It’s not a huge number of people that I spoke with, but they’re all very experienced. It’s not like they’re struggling with fiction as such. And they said, “there is something there. It’s not working and I can’t put my finger on why.” It was helpful for them to think that it wasn’t their own personal struggle but something about fiction and morality that didn’t work. I found that incredibly interesting.
Rumpus: This book seems to be a culmination of a lot of work that you’ve done over the years. But it sounds like there are a lot of people and ideas within this topic that you would still like to write about. Where do you see yourself going next? Do you want to write another book about a similar subject or are your interests changing?
MacFarquhar: Oh, I’m still so gripped by these questions. If I could, I would just write the same book all over again.
Rumpus: I would read it. I’ve personally struggled a lot with the question of whether it’s selfish to pursue my love for writing or if, instead, I should work directly on social issues that I care about. In many ways, your book helped me rethink those ideas.
MacFarquhar: My husband and I were teaching writing at Stanford last semester. I expected people to say to me, because people have always said this, “oh, don’t study a humanities subject because it’s impractical. You need to make money.” That I knew about. But what I didn’t expect was a version of what you’re saying now. A couple students said to me “I feel it’s morally wrong to study a humanities subject because if I want to change the world I ought to do something practical like engineering.”
And I was just dumbstruck. I was so saddened by that. Changing the world is not just an engineering problem. It’s also a problem of information and it’s a problem of persuasion and convincing. All of these things are to do with writing. And writing and journalism have done enormous amounts of good. If you think about the important movements of the twentieth century, so many of them have been sparked by writing that either revealed an abuse that nobody knew about or made urgent a situation that people did know about but somehow weren’t feeling the urgency of.
Of course, writing’s not the only way. But the idea that writing is and the humanities in general are irrelevant is so staggeringly wrong. For any issue that you care about, I would say it’s as or more helpful to write about it and spread awareness as it is to be one person involved in direct service. Both are necessary. But there’s no way in which writing is unhelpful.
Better writing is better than worse writing. I don’t know if you ever read the direct mailers that are sent to you by charities, but it makes a big difference if they are clumsy and crude or if they actually make a convincing and vivid case for the problems they’re trying to alleviate. A good paragraph can be revolutionary and transformative. A bad paragraph does nothing.
But it’s not like just because you study writing and do it well then that’s automatically a good life. You’ve got to write about things that matter, of course.
Author photograph © Philip Gourevitch.