The Robert Greene Interview, Part 1
About two months ago Mark Ebner, of Hollywood, Interrupted, called me up. He was either smoking or out of breath, and I couldn’t really understand what he was saying until I heard this sentence:
Ebner “Do you know who Robert Greene is?”
Tucker “Are you kidding? He’s one of my heroes, I read his books like they are scripture.”
Ebner “He wants to a do a website, you interested in talking to him about it?”
I’ll be honest: I nearly shit. Starting with 48 Laws of Power and culminating with his new book, 33 Strategies of War, Robert has had as much influence on my life as any other writer, living or dead, and here I was, not only with the chance to talk to him, but maybe even publish his site. Mark gave me Robert’s email address, and I immediately spent something like three hours crafting an email to him, and began the process that has culminated in this site.
I sat down with Robert at a coffee shop in Santa Monica and did this interview over dinner, not as a reporter or as the publisher of this site, but as a fan. If you have read any of Robert Greene’s books, when you finish you are probably left asking yourself, “Who is the guy who wrote this book? What kind of mind thinks like this? What is he like?” That is what I tried to explore with this interview; more about the man behind the books that are so influential to so many people.
Tucker Max: 48 Laws of Power has sold over 700,000 copies and continues to sell well [ed note. It was published in 1998, and still stands as one of the top 100 selling books on Amazon]. The Art of Seduction sold 500,000 copies and still moves units, and 33 Strategies of War has sold 200,000 copies [ed note: numbers updated for 2011]. What does it feel like to sell over 1 million non-fiction books, an almost unheard of feat for a modern writer, especially considering that you don’t have some other PR vehicle like a radio or TV show, and don’t get all that much mainstream attention?
Robert Greene: It’s a little bit unreal and a little bit abstract because its just a number, so I’m not completely impressed by the numbers. I am impressed when I go on the internet and see a lot of young people who’ve been influenced by the books, or I meet someone who tells me how it has changed their life. To me, that is much more real than sales figures. When I discover that the books have seeped into the culture and are having an effect, that really excites me. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and what seems bad at first might in fact be something of a blessing. The fact that I have had so little mainstream coverage, not a single real book review for 33 Strategies of War for instance, means that the book spreads by word of mouth, not hype, or the ephemeral tastes of some critic. One person reads the book, and cannot help telling a friend. That is vastly superior to any kind of advertisement, or clever magazine article. That is also the great power of the internet, where people share their opinions without the annoying screen of the media, and so much of the presence of my books has come from the Internet. It’s a new era, a new form of war, and I embrace it.
TM: Beyond mere sales, your books–especially 48 Laws–are constantly referenced in other texts and across the spectrum of media, from hip-hop to business to high culture, and have become must reads for an entire generation of successful people. Do you ever wonder about your impact on society or your place in history? Do you ever stop and think about the fact, like the way you reference great thinkers in history, that people in the future can potentially treat your books the way you treat someone like Machiavelli? What does it feel like to know that the next generation of writers, myself included, are growing up on you?
RG: My greatest wish is that a certain way of looking at the world, a way I show in all of my books, gets into my readers’ heads, and slowly alters their perception. I wrote about this power in chapter 30 of the WAR book, in dissecting the influence of Machiavelli. Such an impact is impossible to measure, but it is there, and it is the reason I write. The ideas get under your skin. I am honored and deeply excited by the thought that the next generation of writers, or whomever, are influenced by these books. I often daydream about the future, thinking of the world in 100, 200 years, imagining what it looks like, feels like. I hope that my books are like ghosts that will inhabit this future.
TM: How did you get into writing about power, seduction and strategy? Is this something you’ve always been obsessed with, or did it come about accidentally and you just went with it?
RG: If you met my mom you’d know that I’ve been doing this since I was about five or six years old. There were two things going on: on the one hand, when I watched sports or read about war, I tended to focus on strategy, on why somebody won, how was that pitcher psyching out the batter, etc. On the other hand, I was keenly aware that so much in life is appearances, that many people pretend to be something they are not. I got a pleasure out of examining what they were really up to, what was their game, as opposed to what they said they were doing. I loved being ruthless in my analysis of people, as ruthless as Ali would be in the boxing ring. So strategy and these subjects have been a life long obsession of mine. Then in 1995 I met this guy, Joost Elfers, the future producer of my books, and he asked me if I had any ideas for a book and I recognized that this was my grand opportunity in life, because Joost is a real smart person and a man who gets books published. I pitched to him an idea about the timelessness of Machiavelli which ended up turning into the 48 Laws of Power. It was a mix of luck and seizing the moment and now once the 48 Laws happened I have been able to write about the other things that interest me like seduction, like war, etc.
TM: I have read your newest book, The 33 Strategies of War, and I loved it. In fact, I read it three times straight, where I would literally finish and turn right back to the front and start again. My copy is all underlined and worn out already. I cannot recommend it highly enough to people, and I even think it’s the best thing you have ever written. How do you think 33 Strategies holds up against your other work, and what has been the general reaction to it?
RG: Well, it was the hardest of the three to write. I wanted to create something new and to say something profound about strategy, which to me is a really exciting subject. And so, I would read about a campaign of Napoleon over and over again, and I would say to myself–what is the essence of Napoleon’s mind? What made him brilliant? What allowed him to think in the moment, to outsmart his enemies? And those are the answers and the secrets I believe I supply in WAR. In ways, it is kind of the source for the other two books, even though it came afterward. It is like the master recipe of strategy, from which power or seduction flow. And what I wanted to capture was these timeless patterns in war that reveal something about our psychology and character. The counterattack, for instance, a strategy that I find incredibly beautiful if executed correctly. What is the essence of the counterattack? Why does it work so well? And how can you use this brilliant strategy in your every day life? The book, as you know, goes beyond military war, to talk about your mind and the war going on in your head. True genius, in strategy or anywhere, lies in self-control, self-mastery, presence of mind, fluidity of thought. I analyze that endlessly in the book. And of course, I arm the reader with endless strategies on how to face off with all the a-holes, passive aggressors, and manipulators who populate this world. The last part of the book is a primer on unconventional, or dirty war.
Nothing makes me happier than to hear from readers that they think this is the best of the three, because it was such a bitch, such a mind puzzle, and I worried that I was not making myself clear enough. The reaction from readers has been even more positive than the other two. The reaction from the media is hard to gage. Very little coverage in the press. The book is too weird and different for many. But like the other books, over time, it will seep into the culture and something will take root. In any event, the book is selling real well. I don’t care what the press says or writes, I only care about my readers have to say. And I hope that in this forum I can hear from you directly and exchange ideas.
TM: Power, Seduction and War is your first serious foray into the internet and the world of blogging. Why did you decide to start a site? What will you be writing about?
RG: To me, so much about life and power comes down to control. The problem with the mainstream media is that they control the game and to play on their terms you end up at their mercy. What I like about the internet, what I see there is that its much more democratic. I have much more control, and if what I write is liked by the public, I have immediate feedback. There are so many things I want to say–about events in the news, politics, the gamesmanship and manipulations I read about, thoughts that occur to me about the power game, advice, on and on. But in the past, every time I wanted a forum to do this, outside of my books, I had to jump through the hoops of the media, and beg for their attention. This is my chance to bypass all of that and go straight to my readers, interact with them, share my ideas directly and apply my ruthless perspective on the world in a more immediate format.
TM: One of the main critiques that people make of you and your work is that it is either amoral, immoral, or both. How do you respond to these critiques?
RG: The book isn’t immoral, I say that it’s amoral. I think that power is beyond good and evil, as is seduction, as is warfare. They can be used for good or bad purposes. We happen to live in an era that is incredibly wrapped up in notions of political correctness; everything is seen through the lens of politics. But being political and politically correct is just another way of fighting, another form of power and strategy, an insidious means of manipulation. Everybody in life is struggling for power, and some people use morality and righteousness as a weapon, while others use different means, even passive aggression. From a distance, we are all fighting, and I am looking at this from a distance.
The reason I think some people like my books is that I tell it as it is. They recognize that some of their colleagues and rivals are shifting for power, being manipulative, even deceptive. It has been that way forever. Let us not moralize about this, or try to wish it away. It is human nature to want power and to try almost anything to get it. Let’s be adults and analyze it. This is the power game, what you are going to encounter in Hollywood, in the work world, in the music world, in politics, in the office. Here it is, you can do with it what you want. One other thing I wanted to mention is that the people who whine the most about the immorality of my books are often the most manipulative people I’ve ever met.
TM: The other main critique I have read is that some people say you contradict yourself in your books with some of the laws. What is your response?
RG: Yes, I hear that. For instance, in the 48 Laws, there is a chapter that says court attention at all costs. Then I have another chapter that says use absence to create honor and respect. An apparent contradiction, only if you think in terms of strict formulas for getting power, advice that tells you to do this and do that. But I adhere to a much higher form of strategy that asks you to think in the moment, to adapt what you are doing to the situation. Sometimes, especially when you are starting out in life, it is more important to court attention at all cost, following P.T. Barnum’s idea that no attention is bad attention. But if you are powerful and already famous, that strategy might make you look weak and desperate. Sometimes, for a leader in the public eye, it is best to disappear a little, to create some mystery around you and get people to talk about you because of your absence. People who want everything to be consistent and formulaic never get far in life. Such a way of thinking is so mechanical and rigid, the opposite of my approach.
TM: I know if you are anything like me, you must deal with a lot of misinterpretation of your work.
RG: You can’t really help the fact that people are going to bring their own weirdness and insecurities and issues to what you write. There’s nothing you can do about that and you’ve got to let it go, you can’t take it personally. I’ve noticed that the people who get the most upset about the 48 laws really have something going on in their past. A parent or lover was very manipulative to them. Or they are people who want power but cannot be honest about this to themselves so they operate unconsciously. They bring their own issues to my books and project all kinds of evil things on them that are not there. I can live with that.
TM: The basic structure of all three of your books is that you take the wisdom and experiences of the great thinkers through history, and distill them into easily understandable ‘laws’ and ‘strategies.’ Do you consider your books to be works of original thought, works of synthesization, or somewhere in between?
RG: I consider my works original thought, for better or worse. Yes, I am building upon the great wisdom of the past, but there is more to it than that. There is this knowledge and understanding from writers such as Machiavelli, Gracian, Nietzsche, Musashi, on and on. Such thinkers have come upon elemental truths about human nature. I use these as building blocks. But I am also changing the context, reinterpreting their ideas, making them relevant, making these writings of the past come to life in the present. I don’t ever copy what they are saying. A chapter in 48 Laws on the Mirror Strategy, or in Seduction on Effect a Regression, or in WAR on applying the death ground strategy to life, these are completely my own creations.
Part Two of the The Robert Greene Interview is here