In 2015, John Leland wrote a revelatory series of articles for The New York Times about the city’s oldest residents—those eighty-five and up. The profiles upended conventional notions of aging, revealing the late stages of life as unexpectedly rich and the elderly as incomparably wise, and the series became so popular it regularly attracted half a million page views. Leland was so moved by the relationships he developed with his subjects as well as by the ardent following the series attracted that he decided to write a book: Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old, now a New York Times bestseller published by Sarah Crichton Books. Crichton, who first edited Leland at Newsweek magazine twenty-seven years ago, checked in with him recently to discuss what he’d learned from his elders.
Sarah Crichton: John, old friend, it’s been a joy working with you on your wonderfully inspiring book. But I also have to laugh, because if you had told me back in 1991, when we first worked together, that someday you, of all people, would write a book celebrating the lessons you had learned from very old folk, I would have said, Get outta here. I mean, you were a very au courant pop music critic.
John Leland: It seems like yesterday, though I think a difference is that I’m much smarter about accepting and being grateful for your edits. I mean, they always made my work better, but when I was younger I felt threatened by the idea that my writing could use some improvement. Plus, when you were hiring me, you asked my former employer what I was like at four in the morning, which probably raised an eyebrow.
SC: I was asking because we often had late closes at the magazine, but I’ll grant you that even in those days, it wasn’t an appropriate question to ask. I’d like to brush it off and say, Well, I was young; I didn’t know better. But I probably wasn’t all that young. How old were you? How old was I?
JL: I was thirty-one, with a two-year-old at home. You must have been thirty-six, soon to give birth to your first child. Another of our old Newsweek colleagues was teasing me recently because we both graduated from the same university, only me fifteen years before her. But compared to fifteen years ago, I’m much happier, more patient and grateful, less impulsive or destructive, less confused about love and sex, more the kind of person I’d like to meet. So I teased her back: “There’s hope yet, don’t despair.”
SC: You know, as I get older, I no longer believe the old G. B. Shaw quote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I think it comes at the perfect time—when we can keep crazy hours and still go to work, when we don’t know enough to resist falling in love with dumb things or dumb people.
JL: You’ve given that up? I envy you. I still fall in love with dumb things or people, but now I have sense enough to recognize my folly. Usually. On the other hand, I’m reading Twentieth-Century Boy, a compilation of Duncan Hannah’s notebooks from the ’70s punk world, and recognizing that some people have led more eventful and interesting lives than I. But somehow, mine hasn’t bored me.
SC: Maybe that’s because you’ve had so many disparate chapters. For many years you were a leading music critic; when we first met, you were heading down to Florida to testify on behalf of 2 Live Crew at their obscenity trial. Then you shifted gears and focused on editing, and then headed to The New York Times, where you’ve written variously about George W. Bush’s work habits and the contents of Julia Child’s refrigerator. You reported on life in Iraq.
I’ve always felt that people have more than one note, which might seem incompatible or dissonant, and that this complexity is a good thing, not a neurosis.
JL: I’ve always felt that people have more than one note, which might seem incompatible or dissonant, and that this complexity is a good thing, not a neurosis. I enjoy movies and books that don’t resolve. My father was committed to never judging other people, and I think I’ve inherited some of that, even though I was kind of a hard-ass as a critic. I like a mess more than a tidy room. So many of the characters in my earlier books—on the history of “hip,” or my Kerouac book, Why Kerouac Matters—were self-destructive or depressed. Whereas the elders in Happiness Is a Choice You Make are models of resilience, gratitude, and purpose, even in the midst of what are often pretty hard lives. I have a place for both. But this book is also much more of an emotional experience for me, and that’s even more unfamiliar than the subject matter. Writing the first two books, which were analytical, made me a little smarter, I hope; writing Happiness helped me grow as a person. It’s a start, at least. I still sometimes annoy my friends.
SC: That was a brilliant idea—to profile the six people in your series in the Times. How did you get interested in older people?
JL: Not my idea. Some years back I was asked to join a pilot project at the paper in which two reporters each took on two mini-beats to explore how Americans live now. Amy Harmon said she wanted to do health and technology. Done. I said I wanted to do gay life and the “creative class,” which was much in the news at the time. The editor said, “Perfect. You do religion and retirement.” Present company excepted, it was the best gift an editor ever gave me. Both those topics, aging and religion, cut right to the heart of people’s emotional lives. Then in 2015, when I got approval to write a yearlong series about people over age eighty-five—one of the fastest-growing age groups in the country—I expected to write about the hardships of old age: the aches and pains, the physical and cognitive decline, we all know the script. But it felt too familiar, so finally I proposed just following six people and letting their lives dictate the articles. A very hands-off approach, made possible by a gutsy editor. And it paid off. The elders had the hardships I imagined, but none of them defined themselves by those hardships. Only other people did that. And the series took off from there. It took me most of the year to learn how to write about what they were showing me, and then another year to turn what I was learning from them into a book. And that took another gutsy and smart editor.
The elders had the hardships I imagined, but none of them defined themselves by those hardships. Only other people did that.
SC: As your editor, I should cut that line. But I’m not going to. My doctor called me the other morning to rave about your book. She called it “phenomenal” and “biblical.” “It’s so full of wisdom,” she said. “I’m reading it slowly to savor every page.” It made me very proud. But the truth is, as you well know, I didn’t really see at first that your profiles could be the basis for a book. We had lunch and you said, “Do you think it’s a book?” And I said, “I’m not sure it is.” But then you said to me, and you glowed as you said it (truly!), you said, “But I’ve been changed by this experience. It’s made me a different person. And I really want to write a book that shares what I’ve learned.” And I could see that that was true, and that you had something important to say.
JL: What I remember is that I was the first writer in history who went to lunch with an editor and picked up the tab. Lucky it wasn’t dinner! Best money I ever spent. You helped me see the value in lessons we may have heard before, and in connecting to them viscerally—as lives we can live, not aphorisms we can put on our refrigerators. My next book is called Waste Not, Want Not. Free for lunch next week?
SC: You bet. I’ll pay.
John Leland is a reporter at The New York Times, where he wrote a yearlong series that became the basis for Happiness Is a Choice You Make, and the author of two previous books, Hip: The History and Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of “On the Road” (They’re Not What You Think). Before joining the Times, he was a senior editor at Newsweek, editor in chief of Details, a reporter at Newsday, and a writer and editor at Spin magazine.
Sarah Crichton is the publisher of Sarah Crichton Books.