GRAHAM: The book seems brilliantly non-hierarchical. Does its juxtapositional pluralism enact what may be a political ideal as to reconciling part and whole, individual and collective? In this sense the structure of the book seems an exemplification of democracy or at least a model for co-existence?

MENAND: Well, there is always conflict in cultural production. Goods are competing with other goods, and there is social and political pushback. That is normal. We have it today. People complain that we’re heading in some terrible direction, but it has been like that forever. It’s one of the ways cultures develop. What you do see in this period, as you say, is a gradual letting down of barriers, an expansion of cultural appreciation, an understanding that there are different strokes for different folks, as they said back in the day. Taste becomes more catholic. I am in favor of that.

GRAHAM: Did your own sense of what might be an ideal national or international order shift as you encountered all of these strongly held and argued expressions of how to live?

MENAND: I started writing about 10 years ago, but I began to feel that this story is illuminating for Americans today because it’s about a time when the United States was actively involved in world affairs — in good ways and bad. We have just (I hope) emerged from under the shadow of isolationism and nativism, and we have the sense that a fresh start is possible. That is something a lot of people felt at the end of the Second World War. It is instructive to look back and see what they made of the opportunity.

GRAHAM: Was the order of the book and its story established from the start — outlined in your mind — or were characters and players discovered in process? Did any barge into your research or narrative unexpectedly? Did the story and connections change over the decade of this writing? When we appeared to veer culturally and politically, did it take your book by surprise? Did events affect what you foregrounded?

MENAND: Yes to all, pretty much. As I said, I began at the beginning with a certain end in mind, and then just followed the trail of breadcrumbs. In all writing, you are shooting an arrow over the hill and then trudging up to see whether it hit the target. I obviously had certain figures in mind I wanted to get to, but I tried to allow the story as it unfolded to dictate my moves. You can’t begin a book like this with a thesis or an argument you have decided on in advance (which is why I discourage dissertation students from spending too much time on the proposal). You need to let the material tell you what you need to say next.

GRAHAM: You have now undertaken two life-altering projects — “The Metaphysical Club” and “The Free World.” What’s brewing in the back of your mind? What do you imagine you need to explore next in order to help us understand what’s coming and how to survive?

MENAND: Each of those books took me 10 years to write, so part of me never wants to write a book again. But I feel there is one more piece to the story I started to tell here, and that is Vietnam. We’ll see.

GRAHAM: Sounds perfect. Get to work. We’ll be waiting!