posted Oct 19, 2010
Ben Greenman is a busy man. You gotta figure his day job at the New Yorker takes up a lot of his time. His fiction, essays and journalism have appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, and McSweeneys. In the meantime, he’s managed to author a half a dozen acclaimed books and maintain his familial obligations with wife and kids. Now this literary slacker has two story collections out—What He’s Poised To Do and Celebrity Chekhov—both of which aptly demonstrate his ability to dance the line between reality and the absurd, in meaningful (and often hilarious) ways.
Your latest work, Celebrity Chekhov, is a bit of an enigma—it’s a rather humorous literary experiment that has you reinterpreting classic Chekhov stories with the help of Justin Timberlake, Nicole Kidman, Paula Abdul, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bono, Conan O’Brien and others. In stories like “At The Barber’s” or “The Death of a Government Clerk,” did you find yourself matching the star to the story or the other way around?
Both happened. Sometimes a story would attach itself to an event. Sometimes an event would beg for a celebrity, and I’d have to go in search of one. Luckily, celebrities make spectacles of themselves all the time. When Tiger Woods experienced the Unpleasantness(tm), I went looking for a story about straying husbands. But when Mel Gibson went nuts, there was already a story in my mind that fit him perfectly.
You change the setting of “Choristers” from a church in St. Petersburg to the set of American Idol. Will the reader need to know this in order to appreciate your efforts here? (i.e is a familiarity with Chekhov and the original stories required?)
I don’t think so. The hope is that kids—I’ll say "kids" but I mean all people who are or were kids—will have access to the pathos, melancholy, wit, and psychological rhythm of these stories through the shift of setting to something more familiar. And then there’s the other effect, which is one of alienation and strangeness, which happens at the exact same time.
I imagine the difficult task in inserting modern day celebrities into a classic storyline is that you don’t know how much a reader will interpret said story via their preconceived notions of said celeb, or rather, allow the story to perhaps change our view of these tabloid stars. Just how would you like the reader the reader to read these stories?
However they want. I’m not prescriptive about how people read. I think, if I had to guess, that some will love them and some will hate them. But it’s a fairly layered process. To some degree, people read "Justin Timberlake" as a person they already know—though a celebrity is already a fictional character, one written by readers and by the public. To some degree, they will read "Justin Timberlake" as a young man in love. To some degree, the stories will remind people that our culture has become too preoccupied with superficial matters and gotcha information. To some degree, the stories will restore inner lives to celebrities that are denied them. Is that too many degrees?
I’ll say this: in a hundred years, when people don’t remember "Simon Cowell" or "Kim Kardashian" or (sad as this may be) "Jon Lovitz," my characters will be, like Chekhov’s characters, just characters again.
How much does Celebrity Chekhov speak to modern day American society? Does it? Or rather, does it make any interesting observations about, or draw parallels to, 19th century Russia?
It speaks to modern society, though people will have to decide what it’s saying
If Chekhov we re alive today, what do you think he would think of this celebritization of his work? More importantly, what do you think he would think of the verb “celebritize”?
He would vomit borscht.
Arguably, you’ve written the same book twice, twice… You “remixed” Superbad into Superworse, and, out of Correspondences, developed What’s He’s Poised To Do. Writers often rewrite because they feel a work needs perfecting. Just as often, they see, in a work’s ideas, characters, and situations, possibilities they hadn’t seen before. Which was it, in each case—or did you have other reasons to re-tackle both Superbad and Correspondences?
Well, one slight correction, and then I’ll answer. What He’s Poised to Do, is, to me, a separate book, at least more than Superbad and Superworse. It’s more than twice as long. It might even be four times as long. You could say that Correspondences was the blink that became the stare of What He’s Poised To Do. Superbad and Superworse, yes, well, those were fraternal twins. That’s a more interesting case, at least in terms of the literature. Superbad was meticulously constructed. The first story and the last story mirrored one another. The second and the next-to-last story mirrored one another. It went on like that. In the middle there was a story called “Notes To a Paper You Wouldn’t Understand” that was a skeleton key for the rest. Most reviews ignored this construction. They liked the comedy and they liked the serious works but they did not see the whole work. That bothered me. As a result, I made my fake editor, Laurence Onge, take a more active role in the paperback, and take readers to task for their failure to notice the construction. So it wasn’t too preachy, I also made sure he hated me.
You’ve written extensively about music, and have under your belt not only Please Step Back, a novel about a funk-rock star who’s a lot like Sly Stone, but also the ghostwritten autobiographies of Gene Simmons and Simon Cowell. So rather than tell us what writers have most influenced you, can you say which musicians have had the biggest impact on your work?
There are so many: Sly Stone, obviously, in the sense that everything he did was both idiosyncratic and somehow spoke to the heart of the mainstream human condition; Prince, because he’s prolific, and reworks his own work (see above), and moves ahead no matter what else is happening in the world; Mary Margaret O’Hara, because no one has even been less afraid to be herself; Vic Chesnutt; Sam Cooke; Sam Phillips; Jerry Lee Lewis; the Pretenders; the Feelies; Moe Tucker; Todd Snider; Frank Black; Frank Sinatra; Rhett Miller. I wouldn’t know where to stop.
A bit more about music: if you were to liken your writing to the work of a particular group or singer, who would you choose? And whose music would you most like your writing to resemble?
Well, I think I’d say Prince, because he’s prolific, and reworks his own work (see above (see above)). I also think that he has, for most of his career, been unafraid to do both serious work and jokey work. He can write a drop-dead-beautiful earnest love song and put it right next to a weird little thing about the history of the Minneapolis scene. In the same vein, I’d pick Public Enemy, and not just Chuck D, but the yin-yang of him and Flavor Flav. In terms of the actual writing, I think every writer who thinks about this looks for some kind of unholy mix of Leonard Cohen, Iris DeMent, Dave Bartholomew, Aretha Franklin, Nick Lowe, Harry Nilsson, and James Brown.
And because we, too, love Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks almost more than life itself: You’ve put together a number of interesting playlists to accompany your books. In a blogpost about the playlist that goes with A Circle Is a Balloon and a Compass Both, you wrote that "a world without [Sparks] would be a poorer world, maybe even a horrible one." If pressed—a gunman, your study, an absurd demand—would you more readily give up your favorite books, or your most cherished records?
I’d give up the books, because the records are on my iPod. But if you made me live either without music or without reading, that would be tougher. I think I’d probably keep the music. But would I be allowed to write? I can write after listening to music. But I need to read something. If I wasn’t permitted to write, then I’d keep the books.
You clearly take great joy in playing with form, as evidenced by a number of your works, most notably Correspondences and What He’s Poised to Do, in which you tell a series of stories via letters written by characters. Did you launch into writing these epistolary works because you were interested in the formal exercise, or because you saw letters as an apt vehicle for addressing the myriad ways in which people try—and fail—to communicate?
The latter. I was thinking often about the ways that I am moving away from some of my closest friends—and one friend in particular—even though we communicate all the time. We talk on the phone. We email. We text sometimes. And yet, there’s a distance opening up. Some of it is changes in our lives, but some of it is that the initial excitement of being able to talk all the time, in all ways, has leveled off, and now there’s a kind of void at the center of what we’re doing. We have less face-to-face time. Difficult issues aren’t raised. Conflicts aren’t really processed. There’s just chatter and busy interaction all the time.
Email—an acceptable substitute for letters, better than letters, or the harbinger of the end of meaningful correspondence?
Oh, certainly it’s an acceptable substitute. I was in Minneapolis this summer for the book. I did Minneapolis Public Radio in the morning. Lots of people called into the show and defended their email practices as letter-like. One woman said that she and her mother write one another email each week, and that the way they do so is very epistolary. With that said, though, email is also much easier to misuse. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have missed a friend or a sibling and sent out a stupid email as a feeler that says something like “What is that movie again?” That’s not forthright of me.
What about IMs, texting, and Twitter—do you share Rick Moody’s belief that a micro-messaging format can be used to convey a substantive narrative?
I think Rick did a fine job with it, and certainly it can. I support all endeavors in this direction, be it Electric Literature or Japanese textnovels, or whatever they are. But you can write a meaningful work of narrative on a touch-tone telephone, or with alphabet soup. That doesn’t mean that those are rich and wonderful vehicles for narrative; I think that they are essentially novelties.
Does the explosion in micro-reading portend changes for reading, and writing, in general—and how can fictionists take advantage of those changes?
There’s a middle length we’re forgetting about, right? That’s just the traditional short story. We keep hearing that short stories will come back. They’re on their way back! People have less time than ever! They need to have a fifteen-minute narrative experience! What is the print equivalent of a webisode? Well, it’s a short story. And then, at the same time, we hear that the short story is endangered. False prophets should get their stories straight.
One thing that’s striking about What… is the reappearance, or at least the seeming reappearance, of certain characters in multiple stories. This touch gives the reader the sense that the stories are linked, without them needing to follow on one another, to form a continuous narrative. Did you set out to make these links, writing certain stories with this goal in mind? Or did certain characters simply stick in your head as you wrote, and you found yourself needing to let them reappear? And if the latter was the case, what kept them in your mind—what was particularly compelling, for example, about the woman who appears in both "Her Hand" and "What He’s Poised to Do?"
I set out to link the stories. I was always impressed by authors who create their own world, across books. Faulkner, say. But I was also struck by the opposite, by the artificial walls between stories in a “normal” short story collection. Story number one would have a suburban couple named, say, John and Diane. Story number two would have a similar couple, but they wouldn’t live in the same place as John and Diane, or know John and Diane, or know anyone who knew John and Diane. That struck me as strange. Some of the characters from one story wouldn’t just walk through the background of another story? There was an article in the news recently about a couple about to get married. The man was looking through the woman’s family albums, and there was a picture of her, as an infant, at Disneyworld. In the background there was a man, and the young man, the husband-to-be, recognized that man as his father. So the couple had encountered one another, in a sense, as children. This was reported as an amazing coincidence, but it seemed to me that it was just the way the world is. Fiction should reflect the way the world is, at least in part.
For a collection whose installments are postmark-dated, many of the What He’s… stories cover long timespans. With the characters often reflecting upon their lives and times, loves and losses, did you ever have to fight the urge to have them sentimentalize—or over-dramatize—their own pasts?
Sometimes they do. The man in “Country Life Is the Only Life Worth Living; Country Love is the Only Love Worth Giving” has no sense of how he is treating his estranged wife. The man in “What We Believe But Cannot Praise” has a kind of precious, sepia-toned view of his own college years, even though he’s hardly ancient at the time of the story. The most interesting case is in “A Bunch of Blips,” when the main character, a woman who is having an affair with a famous French critic, cannot remember anything about her recent past with him. She loses the ability to retain details about their romance or sex life.
The title story of What He’s Poised… is a quintessential example of your non-telling approach to storytelling. Acts of love, lust and betrayal are detailed but not explained. Do you do this because you worry about your stories seeming too plotty? Because you like to give your readers space to complete the narratives themselves? Or do you have another reason for so often taking this tack?
Initially, that story was explicitly an opportunity for readers to complete the narrative. Correspondences came packaged with a postcard, and we invited readers to write those postcards themselves. But it comes from a broader suspicion of plot. When I was younger, I wrote stories that were heavily plotted. Much happened. But life—real life, as lived by you and me and everyone we know—has long stretches of unspectacular nonevent. You can argue that it’s not the job of art to reflect those moments accurately, that art is supposed to turn our heads away from the gray patches toward brighter colors. But you can then argue that art doesn’t just have one responsibility.
In "Seventeen Ways to Get a Load of That," everything central to the story, narrowly drawn—the characters, their relationships—is utterly "normal." As in, recognizable, by your readers, as of a piece with their own everyday lives. But one aspect of the setting—the main male character lives on the moon—gives everything a fantastic feeling. Yet you treat this as no more odd than, say, a protagonist having red hair. Did you set out with the idea that this "fantastic yet mundane" world would be your subject—or did you mean to write a story about a man who has a tough time dealing with his father, and you put him on the moon simply to emphasize the distance between them?
More the latter than the former, though both are in play. This aspect of the story has unnerved plenty of people. They read the story and then they recoil visibly from the fact that it takes place on the moon. My initial thought was that a lunar setting creates a certain kind of spacey displacement. I’ve used it before, in a story called “Black, Gray, Green, Red, Blue: A Letter From a Famous Painter on the Moon" (you can hear me read it here). But then, because of the specific theme of this collection the moon became even more important. Because of email, no distance is any greater than any other distance. Letters used to take longer to get from, say, Las Vegas to Leningrad than from Minneapolis to St. Paul. Now it’s about the same. The only way I could think of reinstating some of that extreme distance was to move everyone very far away.
Reading certain of your stories strikes us as akin to assembling an intricately constructed jigsaw puzzle. "Seventeen Ways…" is one such example, with each section filling in a bit of the picture of the protagonist’s relationship to his family, and the ending—which we won’t reveal!—completing the image. Do you, when you start writing a story, tend to have a clear sense for the direction its plot will go, how the characters will develop and relate to one another, and so forth? That is, do you have the "completed puzzle" in mind, and only need to work out how you should have the reader assemble it? Or is writing, for you, more a matter of exploring a story and its characters, with the ending and preceding developments only coming to you as you work?
It’s a matter of exploring. Sometimes I’ll know the end. Sometimes I’ll know the middle and the end. Usually I’ll know the beginning. But if you—and by you I mean me—know everything, it’s less exciting. There has to be some pleasure in the process, for me, or else it’s less art than craft. Which isn’t to deride crafts. It’s just that if I am making a vase, I know pretty much the shape it will—and will have to—take, and then along the way there are many possible pleasurable detours. With art, the detours have to overwhelm the plan. Or rather, I should say, with my art. I’m sure there are painters and sculptors and composers and even writers who would disagree with me. We would come to blows.
And, because we’re slightly obsessed with the story—indeed, it’s our favorite of yours—why 17 ways? The specificity—this exact number of ways—suggests there’s a reason, but we couldn’t discern it ourselves.
It echoes that kind of arbitrary exactitude that I love in art. It’s in Wallace Stevens, in “Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird.” And then once I saw a business book called something ridiculous like “Twenty-two Ways of Improving Team Leadership.” Twenty-two? Really? Why? The fact is that this kind of behavior is all around us. There are at least forty-one varieties of false objectivity. I did a piece once called “Great Figures in History, Rated.” I just attached numbers to them. “Descartes: 6; Napoleon: 4.” Right under the title of the piece it said “explanation available upon request.” That made me laugh, which is one of the ways a piece can begin: just the idea that artists necessarily designate certain things as true, or complete, or orderly, or rational, and that audiences, for the most part, have to accept those designations.
You’ve been a New Yorker editor for some time—when reading and revising your own work, do you draw on your experience at the magazine? Or do you find yourself needing to read your drafts in a different way than you do manuscripts you encounter in your day job, and from a different point of view? And has the relationship between your editing and your writing evolved over time?
I have always worked as a journalist—as a critic, or a reporter, or an editor—and there are two major, related ways in which it has affected my fiction. First, it has made me mindful of deadlines. I finish pieces because finishing is part of the process, not because there is necessarily an ideal form that arrives and hovers over my head, broadcasting that Close Encounters alien melody. Sometimes, you have to let the work go, and not cry about how it moves into the world, and how it’s received, and so forth. The related phenomenon is multiplicity of voices. Any journalistic product has many voices in it—many reporters, many columnists—and in fact each piece has many voices in it, from the writer who gets the byline to the editor who demands certain things of that writer to the copydesk people who polish the work to the new fact-checker who discovers a missing domino that, when restored to the line and toppled, makes everything fall differently. That has helped me to sometimes achieve a certain impersonality/objectivity in my work—not about my work, but actually in it, a kind of neutral voice that in turn helps bring more subjective moments in stories into sharper relief.
© 2010 failbetter LLC · all rights reserved