Interview: Paul Ford

Paul Ford is a writer (this is one of my favorite pieces), a programmer, a teacher, and a lover of ephemera. He brought Harper’s Magazine’s 160-year archive to the web, commentated for NPR, and now builds global media platforms. This interview was conducted via email. Thanks to super-duper Nga for the connection.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?
I basically react to the current situation. I write when people ask me to write; I teach when people ask me to teach; I manage when there’s an opportunity for me to help a group of people achieve their goals; and I program computers when I need to understand a concept for myself.

What kind of ideas get you excited?
All of the ideas get me excited, but the ones that matter the most to me are things that blur or jump over boundaries that people have put in place. Such ideas are uncomfortable, often hideous, and seem impossible. But they are the best ideas.

When the creative well’s gone dry, where do you head?
The creative well going dry is usually a symptom of too many ideas, not too few. You can get locked up and frozen because the number of failure states in front of you is so massive. In this case I usually feel really miserable for a week or month until finally I can get my head into a place where the work can move forward.

What keeps you moving forward?
Guilt, basically.

What’s important to look back on?
All human effort is worth preserving if possible. That is one of the great things about living now is we can see more of what makes humans humans than ever before. I love ephemera, things that are extracanonical: Old want-ads, old newspapers, old and forgotten radio shows, things that no one particularly cared about at the moment.

Is there a widely accepted convention we should stop accepting?
That you’ve failed somehow.

How do you handle fear?
Poorly.

What’s your advice for underdogs?
Be kind to other underdogs. Also, stand as close to successful, happy people as they will allow you to stand. If you want to be rich stand next to people with money. If you want to be a good writer stand next to the best writer who will tolerate you. Also allow yourself to have ambition and learn to separate it from jealousy. Also you should have a ten year plan or even a 20-year-plan. Also stop complaining, even to yourself, that no one acknowledges your genius, although I know how hard that is.

Which Neil Diamond song is your favorite?
“Cracklin’ Rosie.”

What’s the best kept secret of adulthood?
That the boundary between childhood and adulthood is infinitely permeable in both directions.

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