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Steve Jobs’ biographer describes a ‘real artistic genius’

In the days preceding his death in October, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs met or spoke with selected friends and associates.

Among them was Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ biographer.

Jobs told Isaacson that he knew there would be material in the book he probably wouldn’t like.

“He said, ‘I want it to feel like you talked to both my enemies and colleagues,’ ” said Isaacson, whose book appeared Oct. 24.

Isaacson, who spoke recently to The Star, is scheduled to appear twice in Kansas City on Tuesday.

Q.

You had more than 40 interviews with Jobs, many of which appeared to be conducted during long walks.

A.

We walked through his childhood neighborhood, to his grammar school, his high school, the house he was raised in. I tried to convey a sense of him telling his life story.

Q.

Readers quickly get used to you as a character in the book, as you detail just when and how you spoke with Jobs.

A.

As I was writing, I realized that I should be as transparent and honest as I could be. The fact that Steve Jobs was standing in front of his childhood home and touching the fence that he built with his dad makes it more interesting than just writing, “He built a fence with his dad.” I tried not to insert my own opinions, but sometimes the clearest way to transmit the information was to be upfront about how he told it to me.

Q.

Have you noticed any media backlash since Jobs’ passing?

A.

I found that right after his death, there was an emotional response to him as an icon and then — very quickly, even before my book came out — came the backlash. In my book, I try to connect both the petulance and the perfectionism of Steve Jobs to show that they were woven together — that he may have been petulant but that it came from his passion for perfection. I hope my book can serve as a synthesis for saying, “No, he wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t just a petulant person, he was a complex person with contradictory parts of his personality.”

Q.

You describe how Jobs sometimes had a habit of staring without blinking. What was that about?

A.

He had a very intense stare that he perfected when he was a teenager.

Q.

Were you ever on the receiving end of that?

A.

A couple of times. On one occasion, he told me that he didn’t like the cover images for the book. He told me that he wanted the book to be an independent book and not an “in-house” book. But he said, “I don’t want the cover to look ugly.” I said, “Fine.”

When you were with him, you realized that he cared intensely about making great products. There was no in-between, and that intensity (toward perfectionism) was reflected in his way of dealing with people. He could be inspiring but very impatient.

Q.

You’ve also written biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Where does Steve Jobs rank in that group?

A.

They were all smart, but what set them apart was not their intelligence but their ability to think differently, to think out of the box. Einstein wasn’t the most accomplished physicist in 1905 — he was only a patent clerk — but he could think differently when it came to the speed of light. Likewise, Steve Jobs had an artistic passion that he was able to connect to his engineering.

Q.

What is your opinion of Jobs today?

A.

I found him inspiring, a real artistic genius, and I learned to respect how his petulance was connected to his passion and perfectionism. That’s the narrative arc of the book. Early on you think, “Boy, he is petulant,” but by the end of the book, I hope, you are inspired by the fact that it is part of a passion that leads him to create great products.

Q.

Were you intimidated, as a reporter, by the technology aspect of the Steve Jobs story?

A.

I used to be head of new media for Time, Inc. So I liked the technology. This wasn’t as intimidating as doing Einstein.

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