What drives Elon Musk?
Musk, the world’s richest man, has long been an object of fascination as the founder of the electric car company Tesla and the rocket maker SpaceX. But during the past few weeks, as he flirted with buying Twitter and then offered about $44 billion for the influential social platform, all under blanket media coverage, curiosity about what moves him has grown.
Several biographies dig into his life and work so far, including “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” by Ashlee Vance, which was published in 2015, and “Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century,” by Tim Higgins, which came out last year.
Another book, which Musk announced last summer — on Twitter — is also in the works, this one by the biographer Walter Isaacson, who has written best sellers on Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs. Isaacson’s longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, plans to release the book, which doesn’t yet have a scheduled publication date.
“I’ve always been interested in innovators and people who push the boundaries, and he’s pushing the most important and difficult boundaries,” Isaacson said.
This week, after Twitter accepted Musk’s bid, Isaacson prepared for a reporting trip that includes traveling with Musk and visiting people from his past. He has already interviewed about 200 people around Musk, Isaacson said, and spent days talking to him and shadowing him.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Isaacson spoke about the challenges of writing a biography about a figure who is constantly evolving and expanding his empire: It’s like “trying to take notes while drinking from a fire hose,” he said.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When did you first approach Musk about a biography?
We started talking about seven, eight months ago.
From Opinion: Elon Musk’s Twitter
Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the billionaire’s $44 billion deal to buy Twitter.
It wasn’t like I pursued him or he pursued me. We started talking about it, seeing if it would make sense. I have no deal with him, there’s no contract, it was just, “Will you give me access?” And he said, “I’ll do it,” and I said, “Yeah, I think I’ll do it.”
Ten minutes later he tweeted it out.
What do you think makes Musk such a fascinating and complex character, both for the public and to you as a writer?
I’ve always been interested in innovators and people who push the boundaries, and he’s pushing the most important and difficult boundaries, which are electric cars, solar, sustainable energy, space travel and robot and human computer neural link interfaces.
Most of your previous books have been about the lives of historical figures, and your Jobs came out after his death biography, so the arc of their lives and the scope of their accomplishments are clear. But Musk is still making daily news. How does that change your approach as a biographer?
Dealing with his life is like trying to take notes while drinking from a fire hose. It keeps coming fast.
I’m not quite sure how the story unfolds yet. I’ll be driven by events. The good news is, I can let events drive the book, I don’t have to force an artificial deadline.
How do you shape the kind of chaos that Musk creates into a coherent long-form narrative?
It is definitely going to be a challenge. This thing really is a movable feast. But the main thing is just to make it a clear narrative, from a troubled childhood in South Africa to becoming one of the most influential people on the planet.
What kind of access have you gotten to him? He hasn’t always been that cooperative with reporters in the past.
How Elon Musk Bought Twitter
A blockbuster deal. Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, capped what seemed an improbable attempt by the famously mercurial billionaire to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion. Here’s how the deal unfolded:
He’s been very, very open, not only him and the people around him, but he’s been very good at allowing me access to people from his past. I’ve had interviews with about 200 different people already, and I have spent, I would say, many days talking to him at length and shadowing him; I’ve been traveling where he goes.
What did you make of the news of his Twitter takeover? Did it seem like a move that was in keeping with your understanding of his character and his ambitions?
He’s always been fascinated by Twitter and deeply understands how it can be used and maybe how it can be improved. His fascination with Twitter doesn’t surprise me.
If his purchase of Twitter goes through, it will hugely expand his business empire and his sphere of influence. How does this news change the scope of your biography?
It adds a new subplot. The important thing is to tie it together into a narrative and show how these missions fit together.
Musk is famous for trolling, making explosive off-the-cuff remarks and reversing consequential statements. How do you handle that in a long form narrative, knowing that his positions could look very different after publication?
I don’t think he’s as random as he allows himself to appear. I think it’s much more thought through.
Does the fact that he’s constantly making news make it harder or easier to write a book about him?
The good thing about Elon Musk is everybody wants to talk about him and everybody’s got thoughts about him.
What are the respective challenges and obstacles of writing about a living versus a dead subject?
Well, it’s a lot more thrilling of a ride.