Joshua Wolf Shenk is an essayist, curator, and author—most recently of the book Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. When he’s not reporting or writing, he works with the storytelling nonprofit The Moth and Arts in Mind, a conversation series on the intersections of the creative arts and psychology. Before talking about the chemistry of great collaborations, he shared where he comes up with good ideas, what food should always go with french fries, and the day his life came right out of Die Hard in the Zócalo green room.
What literary character do you identify with?
I don’t know who the character is in the George Saunders story, but he says he wishes he could stop trying, could stop loving, stop feeling desire, and he says something like, “My heart is like this idiot fishing bobber,” which I love. Such a beautiful image—the way hope returns to us, both melancholy and full of earnest longing.
What food and drink make the perfect pair?
I don’t eat one half of this any more, but french fries and a chocolate milkshake. I don’t have the milkshakes anymore, though I could maybe do a SoCal milkshake with almond milk and cacao and coconut. Then I could have, like, organic potatoes, batch-fried in extra virgin olive oil. Now that you mention it, I’m going to try it. I know the dish better from Steak ’n Shake in Cincinnati, or greasy diners. You want to have the french fries in your mouth and then have a sip of shake.
What is the most unusual time, place, or situation that you came up with a brilliant idea? What was the idea?
I came up with the idea for this book out of a psychiatrist’s office. I was on a bus going down Fifth Avenue from the Upper East Side in New York City, riding all the way downtown—I can trace the progressions according to landmarks. I remember what I was thinking as I was waiting for the bus, when I got on the bus, when I got to The Plaza, and when I got to the New York Public Library. The book was more or less formed by time I got to the New York Public Library.
What profession would you practice in your next life?
I would love to be a carpenter or a car mechanic of the old school. In Danny, the Champion of the World—do you know the story by Roald Dahl?—the father is a car mechanic. He takes apart entire machines, and his son puts them back together. I’m clumsy in the physical world. Everything is about ideas in my mind. So, something very physical.
When did you last break a sweat?
In the green room. On Venice Boulevard, when thought I would be late to this [event] because of traffic. But the last good story about breaking a sweat was when I was coming home with my son from Colorado. He fell asleep on the plane, and I was watching Die Hard, and there was a conversation between my life and the Bruce Willis character’s life. I was convinced that my mission was to get off the plane with my sleeping son (who had spilled water on his pants, so we had taken them off and wrapped him in a blanket). It had the same adrenaline of Bruce Willis trying to save an office tower full of people. I heard the music in my head. I was like, “I’m going to get this boy off this plane, and I’m going to get to the safe car!” We didn’t have a stroller, so I had him over my shoulder. I had to get the phone out of my pocket and make a call. I had a Band-Aid on my thumb, ripped it off with my teeth, and spat it off. I got to the part where the escalators go off to baggage claim, and there was a big sign directing us to the next terminal to get our bags. By the time I got there, I was drenched. I don’t think my son even woke up.
What item would you bid for on eBay?
Every last thing. But the thing on eBay I keep intending to buy is this really ’80s Kermit the Frog phone. Kermit is lounging in a ’70s office chair, and as you pick up the cradle, he tilts slightly forward in his chair.
How do you pass the time when you’re stuck in traffic?
That’s a great L.A. question. I tell Siri to call so-and-so. Every artist or writer has their natural mediums, and some have more than one. I’m a decent essayist, not a very good writer of fiction, an aspiring playwright. I am a fantastic leaver of voicemails. I have three minutes, and I bring every bit of myself to it. So I will often leave serial voicemails while stuck in traffic.
What was your best voicemail?
My specialty is birthday voicemails. In this age, intimacy has been defined downward so that leaving a voicemail is the most touching, intimate thing you can do for somebody.
What do you love to hate?
Certain writers I will not name, who are uncomfortably close to what I do, but who I think of in the way hardcore liberals hate Rush Limbaugh. In the book I talk about the alignment of competition and cooperation. There should be a word for it: coopetition. Allure and intense anger.
What’s the worst TV show you will admit to watching?
When I was a kid I watched everything, including Three’s Company, and there was some sequel to Three’s Company that was even worse. I was later a huge fan of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. I never lived in West Hollywood [where Melrose Place was set], but whenever I see that part of the city, it still seems strange.