Letters, Characters, and Ten-Degree Shifts: The Rumpus Interview With Ben Greenman

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Ben Greenman’s fiction is elusive stuff. His is a body of work that’s equally at home rooting narratives in history or playing textual games with the reader. Even his more historically-based work delves into unexpected societal corners, including post-Cold War Russia and the funk-rock scene of the 1970s. His recent collection What He’s Poised to Do provided the impetus for this conversation. Organized around the motif of letter-writing and with moods ranging from playful to scholarly, from sentimental to metafictional, it’s a fine introduction to his fiction.

This conversation (a followup of sorts to an earlier one) also delves into his funk-inspired novel Please Step Back, the music of The Replacements, and his upcoming collection Celebrity Chekhov.

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The Rumpus: I wanted to start out talking about your use and treatment of history. You’ve talked about Please Step Back‘s protagonist being inspired by Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield; when dealing with a fictional character inspired by real people, is your process of addition or of subtraction? Alternately: do you begin with a blank slate and add details taken from history, or do you begin with an existing figure and alter their life as needed?

Ben Greenman: I’ve used both approaches. So much depends on how familiar the history is. For Please Step Back, I took the real Sly, definitively – it started out as notes for a biography – and then shifted most of the details ten degrees to the right or the left so that it was a plausible alternative universe. After that, of course, there’s a long process of adding and subtracting – building in a private life, building away from the idea that you’re just seeing a documentary through a prism.

But the other approach is just as interesting. A few books back, I wrote a story called “In the Air Room.” It was in Zoetrope, accompanied by a very nice William Eggleston photograph. Anyway, in that case, I had the idea of doing something about a misunderstood artist who creates a wonderfully intricate work for an ungrateful and capricious patron. The idea was in my head because of my dealings with publishers, and my own temper issues, and I started to sketch it out. Then, as the story was marinating, I found an article about James McNeil Whistler and this art room he made, The Peacock Room, for Fredrick Leyland, a British ship magnate and art collector. In that case, I had my little vessel, this vase of a plot, and I immediately started to put flowers in it from real life.

Rumpus: Is more traditional biography — or historical nonfiction in general — a form that you have an interest in returning to at some point?

Greenman: I don’t think I have the temperament to write a traditional biography. When I was writing about a fake Sly Stone and basing some of my invention on the real Sly Stone, I frequently ran up against two phenomena. First, that when the research trail petered out, I would just invent something. Second, that when I found information that reflected poorly on the subject, who was someone I loved, I started to feel defensive on his behalf, and wanted to protect him from exposure. Neither of those is a good trait for a biographer.

Rumpus: In terms of the Peacock Room article that you found — did you come across it while doing research for the story, or was it more serendipitous that it crossed your path?

Greenman: More serendipitous. I was doing research on early aviation, pilots and dirigibles, and I stumbled across the Peacock Room story, which resembled (or maybe I should say completed) a picture that was coming together in my mind.

Rumpus: Moving from there to a larger canvas: The What He’s Poised to Do story “Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That” is primarily set on a lunar colony; “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy…” has “Australindia” as its postmark. How much of the histories and points of divergence of these worlds did you need to determine?

Greenman: You mean how much reality has to be in unreality? I’d say that it has to be mostly real: what is extraordinary about those locations, about those times and places, have to fade away pretty quickly so that they seem like normal places. The strangeness of them remains, of course, and hopefully it gives the stories a certain quality: alienation, oddness, a face glimpsed in a funhouse mirror. In those cases, I don’t spend a huge amount of time with the internal consistency of those imagined worlds. I don’t draw intricate maps. I don’t design Australindian currency. But I know that those things – maps, currency – exist.

Rumpus: Similarly, in Please Step Back, did you have a sense of how the artists you’d created might have affected existing bands’ music in ways that deviated from the historical record? (Or, thematically, does Rock Foxx’s nature as a character in a novel mean that, ultimately, his pursuit of creating era-changing music would always be futile?)

Greenman: That was one of the best imaginative exercises hanging off the side of Please Step Back. The interesting thing is that it’s a world without Sly Stone. He’s the only major artist I subtracted. In that world, James Brown exists. Marvin Gaye exists. Smokey Robinson exists. The Beatles and the Stones exist. So they are all influenced by Rock Foxx, my fictional funk-rock star. There’s an important exception to this rule that explains the rule. When George Clinton came along, when he established and presided over the Parliament-Funkadelic empire, he was heavily influenced by Sly Stone, obviously. In my book, I wanted to imagine that younger generation of funk band, to think about how that younger band would have inspired or drained the older funk pioneer. To do that, I couldn’t just have Rock Foxx meet up with Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Glenn Goins and other funkateers, so I invented a band called Anchor, and made them a near-copy of P-Funk, just as I made Rock Foxx and the Foxxes a near-copy of Sly and the Family Stone.

That’s the peek behind the curtain. The message on the curtain is something like this: Yes, fake things influenced real things.

Rumpus: What He’s Poised to Do takes as its epigraph the opening lines from The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” What influence does music have over your writing that doesn’t necessarily address music directly?

Greenman: Rhythm, sequencing, energy, knowing when to stop, knowing when to drop your foot on the gas, accepting leaps of illogic that work because they have a perfect ring to them, a poetry that defines (and in fact evades) plain old reason. Also this: it always seemed unfair to me that a pop songwriter could go directly to the heart of a listener and stay there so much more efficiently than an author could with a reader.

Rumpus: And am I reading too much into things if I inquire about a possible connection between Pleased to Meet Me‘s “Alex Chilton” and the Letters With Character project?

Greenman: Yes. I mean, maybe. It’s possible there is one, but not consciously. You mean between the idea of being in love with a song as some kind of synecdoche for being in love with a musician, and then transferring that to the reader/character/author relationship?

Rumpus: I do indeed. How long is the Letters With Character project intended to last?

Greenman: Forever. I imagine it will ebb and flow, but the plan is for it to outlast the Internet.

Rumpus: Did your process of writing the stories in What He’s Poised to Do mirror the process of the characters’ writing their letters within the stories? Specifically, I’m thinking about the differences between writing something on a computer and writing something by hand — the differences in these two methods of putting words onto paper, and how they can affect the text.

Greenman: Yes, but no, but yes. I didn’t write longhand. I don’t write longhand anymore. But I use the notepad function on the iPhone, or snippets of voice memos, to catch phrases that I like, particularly dialogue (overheard or invented). And then there’s a more conventional, protracted kind of composition where I block out a paragraph and polish that monkey-fighter until it shines.

Rumpus: Where does the upcoming Celebrity Chekhov fit in to all of this?

Greenman: It fits in there, like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle, though it has brighter colors. It explores some of these same issues, of course. What is the real historical record? What is the relationship between celebrity and art? Between reality and fiction? It’s a little different from Please Step Back, at least in conception, in that it comes at this problem from the other direction. Rather than saying “Here is a pop-culture phenomenon that deserves permanent enshrinement in high literature,” it says “Here is high literature that deserves to be fueled (and sometimes overturned) by celebrity.” The project here is two-fold, at least: it’s to see what happens to these timeless, invincible stories when celebrities are inserted into them, and to see what happens to these celebrities when they are filled by the content of these timeless, invincible stories.

Rumpus: When did you begin work on these stories? And what provided the initial impetus?

Greenman: The initial impetus was a joke, but a serious joke. I started to worry that except for Shakespeare, the eternal masters will be read with decreasing frequency. Then I started to wonder about what would rejuvenate them, and then it struck me: celebrities. Then everyone would care about Chekhov again, because Lindsay Lohan or Mel Gibson was in there. From that seed, the whole crazy plant grew. I think there are several different threads in there, all twisted around one another: serious literary recontextualization, satire, inquiry into celebrity, a reconsideration of certain aspects of translation.


Tobias Carroll lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has recently been published by Tin House, The Collagist, Underwater New York, The Paris Review Daily, Necessary Fiction, Bookforum, The Collagist, The Collapsar, and Joyland. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and can be found on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll. More from this author →