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Powell’s Q&A: Matthew Stewart

Describe your latest book.
Coming out of graduate school in philosophy, I fell into a job as a management consultant to financial institutions. I saw some strange and interesting things. My forthcoming book, The Management Myth, is in part an attempt to deal with that experience. Mainly, it is my effort to try to make sense of the world of management — the fancy business degrees, the lavishly compensated CEOs, the hyper-garrulous gurus, and, of course, those fresh-faced consultants who seem to have no relevant prior experience. Now that the financial markets have given us much new evidence with which to confirm assessments about the quality of all those expensive management services and their impact on the long-term health of the economy, I feel pretty good about the book.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
So my wife had a gig re-writing profiles for people on an online dating service, back in the early days of the internet. Only, sometimes she was just too busy to finish an assignment, so she would pass the case along to me. These were people who weren't getting dates or were getting the wrong kind of date, and the theory was that this would all change if they just found the magic words to conjure up an appropriately alluring online persona. Amazingly, the makeovers often worked. I felt like a cross between Pygmalion and a pimp.I felt like a cross between Pygmalion and a pimp.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
But writers never lie. I mean, at least I have never lied. Not while writing, anyway. Honest.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
My submarine-inventor hero, Narcis Monturiol, the subject of one of my books, wrote in his diary that he conceived of the idea for a submarine while sitting on a certain rock on the Cape of the Crosses near the town of Cadaques on the northern coast of Spain. So I went to look for this rock. (This counts as a literary pilgrimage, by the way, because my hero wrote a number of books and at least one poem — about his submarine, naturally.) It turns out that there are an awful lot of rocks on the Cape of the Crosses. Hundreds, in fact. It took quite some time and all my powers of intuition to decide exactly which one was the rock of inspiration. When at last I settled on the most plausible rock, I sat down, pulled the croissant and orange juice from my paper bag, and had the best breakfast of my life. (Do I get extra credit for answering two questions in one ("Describe the best breakfast of your life.")?)

What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, to what sign would you change and why?
Whenever I tell an astrologically minded person that I am a Capricorn, I get a concerned, thought-so grimace. This irritates me immensely, mainly because I don't know what it is that Capricorns are supposed to be. I can't really propose another sign, because I don't know what they are supposed to be either, and I suspect that I'd still be getting those faux-sympathetic nods anyway. So I will consider inventing a new sign, maybe one named after a supernova or a black hole discovered after astrology settled on its current configuration.

Why do you write?
To get to the other side? So that I don't have to talk? No, it must be because when I talk I never seem to be able to communicate with other people quite what I wanted to say. And because even I don't know quite what I want to say until I write it down. The writing self and its reading partners are so much more intelligent, expansive, entertaining, and informed than the rest of us.The writing self and its reading partners are so much more intelligent, expansive, entertaining, and informed than the rest of us. They live in a world that is not limited to a single moment in time or to single point of view. And they have some potentially useful things to tell us about life in our own world.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
I'm big on Ethan Allen right now. Maybe that's because he figures in the book I'm currently working on. Or maybe it's because I like the idea of standing at the head of a bunch of buckskin warriors and demanding the surrender of something or other in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress. And did I mention that he wrote a 477-page book of iconoclastic philosophy? How cool is that?

If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
I would be my daughter. Then I would know all the answers. Especially to questions about why I am so out of it.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
A boa constrictor. So it could eat them all. Really. I hate pets.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Autobiographies by People Who Have Done Amazing Things

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

My Life by Leon Trotsky

The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz

÷ ÷ ÷

Matthew Stewart is a former management consultant and the author of the acclaimed The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. He lives with his family in Santa Barbara, California.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Courtier and the Heretic:... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  2. The Management Myth: Why the...
    New Hardcover $27.95
  3. Long Walk to Freedom: The...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. My Life: An Attempt at an... Used Trade Paper $10.95
  5. The Confessions (Penguin Classics) Used Mass Market $3.95
  6. Infidel
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  7. The Conquest of New Spain Used Trade Paper $6.95

Matthew Stewart is the author of The Management Myth: Why the "Experts" Keep Getting It Wrong

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