Writer Ben Greeman’s day job as editor of The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section for the past 10 years has apparently not impeded his productivity, having published in that decade Superbad, Superworse, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories About Human Love, Please Step Back, Correspondences, and What He’s Poised To Do (plus, any day now, Celebrity Chekhov).
As well, he’s written for venues well- and unknown—here at TMN, plus the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, and McSweeneys. Additionally, he is credited with having ghostwritten the memoirs of Gene Simmons of KISS (Kiss and Make-Up) and Simon Cowell of American Idol (I Don’t Mean to Be Rude, But…), and a number of musical fragments, including, for example, one based on the Elian Gonzalez controversy.
As you can see by the digressive conversation below, Greenman has a restless and playful imagination, well served by his narrative talents. As a quick glance through his substantial body of work suggests, he is a charming and engaging literary chameleon. If you have not yet encountered any of Ben Greenman’s essays, stories, novels or miscellany, this would be a good time to address that deficit, for as he once declaimed (or was it Goethe?) “Everything has been thought of before, but the difficulty is to think of it again.”
Robert Birnbaum: It’s July 1, 2010—Lebron day. Anyway, looking at your book and who published it, it occurred to me that something interesting seems to be happening at Harper Perennial.
Ben Greenman: Uh-huh.
RB: Which reminds me of the Vintage Contemporaries of the mid-‘80s under Gary Fisketjon and Morgan Entrekin.
BG: Early ‘80s.
RB: So what is happening?
BG: My side of it, the part that I know, is that they are really making a concerted effort at looking around at independent houses and finding people online and bringing people aboard whose work is a bit outside of the mainstream. In some cases it’s republications and acquiring, and in some cases it’s development deals. I have, prior to this book, worked with independent publishers—
RB: Melville House—
BG: Mostly out of choice. McSweeney’s in 2001, Soft Skull in 2004, MacAdam Cage, Akashic, and then Melville House. Because I have a day job it takes some of the pressure off. And also I have liked figuring it out, or fantasizing that I am figuring it out; looking at how a small house works, where you can see all the moving parts.
BG: And so Harper found me because of the book that I did with Hotel St. George, this tiny little press, which is an art book that included five of these stories. It folded out. It had three flaps and it had little accordion books in it.
RB: [pulls book out of his pack]
BG: [laughs] And it looks like that.
RB: For those of you watching at home, this is the book in question, Correspondences.
BG: Cal Morgan, who is my editor at Harper, was in Book Soup in L.A. with his boss, and they had a small display of this and he saw it and he thought, “This is fantastic and inventive.” He was going to mention it to his boss but he thought it was not the right time-she’s a corporate publisher, maybe she’d be aggravated that we couldn’t do this kind of thing-so he bought the book. And then they had an O. Henry moment when he was going into her office a week later to tell her about it, and he walked in holding it and it was already on her desk: She had bought it also. Then we happened to be doing an event together and he made the connection and he said, “You’re that guy, that Correspondences guy. We have to do the paperback of your book.” And he gave me a three-book deal, and this is the first one.
RB: Interesting that he didn’t sign you up because he read something by you—
BG: Well, by that time he had read it, of course. The man’s a professional. What he said was that at first he was scared to read Correspondences because of the package. He’d read some of my other work, but he didn’t know if I was contracted to another publisher. I have always said in the past that I didn’t want to work with big publishers—
RB: Let me interrupt—this book is scary? What would be scary about it?
BG: He didn’t want to open it.
BG: Time Out Chicago said the same thing. I forget the exact phrasing, but they said it was too nice to read.
RB: Too precious?
BG: It’s funny; the designer and I argued about the paper band—
RB: That would be Alex Rose?
BG: Yes. He’s a good writer too, and he just sold a book to Harper Perennial as well, so there’s the coattail effect. He worked on the inside design of Correspondences for them. It wasn’t that I was hostile to [large] publishers, but I had always heard a lot of horror stories from friends who were writers. In my little world of independent publishers, was always very happy with the product and the—although, you know, sometimes things would happen later and I would think, “I wish I had a bigger staff,” or—I don’t know what. But I was happy; I got to pick the cover art. The control-freak parts of me were well served by the process. I was afraid of them bringing a cover to me and [Harper Perennial] saying, “Oh, we have a blurry photo of a wind-up toy and that’s your cover.”
RB: Let me back up a bit—you have friends who are not writers?
BG: [laughs] I have both. None of my old friends, none of my real-world—up to [the age of] 20 friends are writers. [The rest] are doctors or—
RB: Of course they are—professional people. [both laugh]
BG: Right, exactly; they got the memo fairly early. Yeah, a lot of my friends are writers. For me, it’s hard to be friends with writers—I don’t really want to see them in that light.
RB: How about yourself?
BG: Do I see myself in that light? [sighs] It’s a really good question. I think—I don’t know. It’s something I have always done, but in the normal world—like when I had kids and tried to explain to them what I do when they would start to ask, “Can I do what you do?” Uh, I think I think about it the way my dad did about medicine. My dad is a doctor; he never pushed us. I wouldn’t say he discouraged us, but—he was happy to talk about interesting cases but he didn’t bring it home in the sense of saying, “This is a calling,” or say, “I feel…”—it’s a good question.
When I used to read reviews all the time I would even get mad at good reviews.RB: Well, is it hard to be a writer? Whatever the social back-and-forth of it is, such as going to parties and answering the commonplace question, “What do you do?” And then you respond that you are a writer and you are propelled into a predictable exchange—have you reached a point where the making of stories and the reading of stories sometimes interferes with your connection to everyday life?
BG: Uh, I would say it the other way. I would say that it is hard for me to fully embrace what that thing is of being a writer. I have friends that are better at it. They are better at assuming the—donning the uniform or assuming the pose. It’s not an affectation. They genuinely come to it. For me, the kid I was when I was 13—you know, someone says something at a party and I feel like being a smartass or feel like—or I am somewhat antisocial and not really—I would like to preserve that kind of normalcy. And of course there is that other zone, masking the work; masking the work is very easy for me. There are parts of the process that I find to be horrendous. Like, I don’t really like touring. I don’t really like worrying—I try not to—I don’t read reviews anymore. I don’t like worrying about reception. If I start worrying I will worry—it doesn’t end that easily. I’ll start to get mad; when I used to read reviews all the time I would even get mad at good reviews. I would think—
RB: “They didn’t get it.”
BG: Yeah, they saw the wrong thing, “Thanks for liking it but you got it wrong.”
RB: She’s not the only person who made this comment, but I remember Sandra Cisneros would talk about the burden of the persona of the big-time writer and having to assume that role—she’d come out of her purple house in San Antonio where she lives and she [was] expected to act in a certain way.
BG: I have a friend who told me this story yesterday—I’ll hide a detail because I don’t want to identify him—but he had a professor who was a Nobel-level writer. He was walking with this person on an icy path in a college town and he slipped and fell on the ice, and he said he was so grateful that he was the one to fall—he imagined all the headlines, “Nobelist Cools on Ice,” and he’d have to be there when the campus cops came. There is that kind of—as soon as you publish you are in this wired fraternity where there’s differences of sales, differences of reputation, but at some level everyone is grappling with the same things. Last night when I read here, all these very accomplished people, academics and professionals, came up afterwards and they were talking to me and the other reader, a woman, Marcy Dermansky, who I read with, and all of them want to write; they all have books in them. To me that’s the oddest process. If they knew—I wouldn’t say that it’s heartache; it’s not painful for me, but it is an ongoing mix of fame and obscurity, and people not getting and getting it. And that never really ends. It’s like in business; you make money, you want more money. You get a certain amount of understanding at a certain level of connection with people and you are still are going to run into the guy—I mean [Philip] Roth, late in his career, was writing about people who encountered him and misunderstood him. They are comic scenes in the books, but I am sure it’s painful for him.
It gets harder and emotionally more difficult to read things closer to now because there are epiphenomena associated with them, like that bad obituary that the person wrote, or I know this person.RB: Well, yeah. It’s one thing to say that everyone has a book in them and quite a different thing to have the diligence and what-not to do a book, and yet another to evaluate what that book says. It’s also one of the odd aspects of writing that it looks like anyone can write a book. Therefore anyone can be a critic and expert.
BG: That’s right.
RB: Can people without training do architecture or surgery—
BG: But people do build shit—that’s right, there’s a professionalization—but it’s a mixed bag. You can also overprofessionalize what it is. It’s funny, every book that comes out I get increasing—because people are more and more on Twitter and Facebook and get my e-dress through my website—every book that comes out there are a certain number of people that will write very, very short two-line letters of appreciation or fan mail to say, “I’m reading this story and I love it. I am underlining passages.” And it is hard as a writer—it’s tricky to come around to the idea that those people are less than critics. Critics have platforms, of course. Critics have a professional paper trail. But it goes in both ways. You start to see the critics as individuals, which is liberating but risky. It’s just one person. Collecting readers one by one is, I guess, the point.
RB: Who may or may not have acceded to some position of influence, which adds a multiplier to their problems and everyone else’s. Literary criticism seems very degraded in this country. Maybe there are a handful of critics that are dependable as evaluators. The rest seem to be filling 700-to-800-word slots for short money. Or they are chosen and paid to stir up some controversy.
BG: You mean to get a battle royale going?
RB: Although that might not be so bad—maybe that’s how you stimulate readers?
BG: Have you found that as you have been in this world, your reading has been interfered with? The hardest thing for me [is], reading my contemporaries gets harder, and I feel badly about that. I read older and older things. There was a period when I didn’t go past 1950—that’s probably not true, 1965—but it gets harder and emotionally more difficult to read things closer to now because there are epiphenomena associated with them, like that bad obituary that the person wrote, or I know this person.
RB: Some people have found the idea alluring that books should be published with blank covers and no author identification—publish the book and forget everything else associated. A boring idea, I think; there is something inherently interesting about the creator of anything—books, music, paintings—which reminds me of another recurring and useless theme lately stirred by Lee Siegel: the death of fiction.
BG: That piece is more fiction. That piece is the proof that it’s not dead. [laughs]
RB: Then, in response to the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” the New York Times has a piece advancing the notion that writers create their best work when they are young, blah, blah, blah.
BG: We ripen on the vine. [laughs]
RB: [That assertion] is unsupportable—why make that argument—you can trot out 20 names of which that is true and 100 that it’s not true of.
BG: When the magazine talks about it or Debra [Treisman] talks about it they must know—and I have seen comments to this effect—they know it’s reductive, they know that it’s a list. They’re not idiots. Any list is reductive.
RB: Right, right.
BG: At some level, as you say, they welcome the competition from other lists or the parodies. I was told somebody did top “20 under 4,” but then instead HTML Giant did “200 under 1”; they just have a bunch of baby names and they list the months and sometimes little comments, “Reaches for rattle.”
RB: In the best of all possible worlds we look at it as a joke—recognizing 20 writers is not bad. Listing 20 writers—at least the New Yorker didn’t have the nerve to say it was the “best.”
BG: I did a piece once for McSweeney’s: the greatest figures in history rated, and at the bottom there was asterisk, “explanation available upon request.” I just arbitrarily assigned numbers to people. “Aristotle: 6, Descartes: 4” The mindset is that someone looks at that and they know it’s a joke, and they will still look at that and say,”Descartes: 4? C’mon. Why!”
RB: I don’t remember if the New Yorker still does this, but in the past they would preview the About Town listings with a note saying, “These listings are an arbitrary and capricious listing of events.”
BG: We have said in the past—we’ve cleared ourselves for the Night Life listings—I forget the exact wording, “Club owners lead unpredictable lives, so make sure you call.” The sad part for me is when people take those things at face value—like anything, you can’t take it at face value. Ingredients of food you don’t take at face value, so why would you take a subjective list of artists at face value?
RB: Right. Chicken byproducts—do you know what those are?
BG: The things the chicken doesn’t want?
RB: Feathers, beaks, claws. One of the things that Harper Perennial does is expand upon the book with various features in the back of the book. Since you brought the issue up—
RB:I feel like I can ask. I don’t want to appear stupid to you, I get what it’s about, but in “Further Explanations” you say, “If you like the book you just read, you might enjoy Either/Or by Kierkegaard.” Clarify the connection?
As a person, as a human, I am so addicted to those formal things that are around the edges of a piece of art.BG: To me, it’s a great example, and in the past I have done this too much. They are all formal games, in a way. Like “Acknowledgements” or “Notes on the Type.” For one of the books I did a jokey “Notes on Type”—I like those things as a reader; I am drawn to them the same way I like previews in a movie. It’s not part of the work—we can talk about this when we talk about the stories—
RB: We’re going to talk about the stories?
BG: [laughs] If you want, it’s up to you.
RB: Hey, I am running this thing [both laugh].
BG: As a person, as a human, I am so addicted to those formal things that are around the edges of a piece of art. I really do like them and I see how much I depend upon them. I love the idea of playing with them. This list? These are things I like. In that case, I think Kierkegaard is interesting because of the way that he used voices and the way he built into the work so many layers of authority. That’s something when I first read it in college I was struck by. I try to use it in a more—hopefully—accessible way.
RB: No Wittgenstein here! What’s wrong with you?
BG: I didn’t have room for everyone. That guy’s name is long. What’s interesting is when I briefly taught in grad school—there’s this strange thing. You’d give kids a Calvino story and you ask,”What is this story about?” They all have ideas: “This is about government;” “This is parable about death.” Then if you put one line of italicized type on top of it saying the author wrote the story the year his mother died, that’s it; that’s all they thought it was about. So that one line leveraged the entire story. You could have beautiful 7,000-word piece of fiction that is about nothing and everything, and one little line will turn it. I thought that was so strange, but I’m susceptible to the same thing—how you can take that other authority—just italics, that’s the only authority and it’s at the top. That little tiny ant can carry that giant loaf of bread the whole distance. So whenever there is the opportunity to do this kind of thing in the book—that other part of me, the pedant, the self-annihilating teacher. Laurie Anderson, when she first taught—she taught history before she was a pop artist—she would tell her students lies, fake things about ancient Egypt. I never did that explicitly but I always really felt [that kind of impulse]. In graduate school I had to do a seminar paper, so I did it on flash photography at the moment of death. In Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading it happens, and in Borges, the Secret Miracle, it happens, and I thought, I just loved that idea of that—the person who is about to die seeing it being captured by some other idiot with a camera. I needed a third—you have to have three. So I just made it up. I made up this guy Grigory Satyrenko, who is a Russian writer who I said had studied with Sasha Sokolov. I wrote only one paragraph of this story because I needed to excerpt it, and then later I wrote the whole story—that process I really like.
RB: That outrages some readers who believe even fiction should have truth. Jim Crace makes [up] all sorts of stuff—plant names, events, and foodstuffs. A lot of writers do it—Edward Jones made up stuff in The Known World—even though you are writing a fiction there seem to be boundaries for how far you can make things up—you are toying with readers when they worry about what is made-up.
BG: It’s amazing how it still bothers people. If you look at the Internet now—everyone knows, “don’t believe what you read online,” that people know—my grandmother will say that. I have a line in a story from an earlier book where I say, “Is a fact that which is true or that which assumes the status of truth?” It’s an experimental artist—he takes restaurant menus and he Xeroxes them exactly—uses the same commercial printer—he changes one or two things, maybe the price of Kung Pao chicken and that’s it, and considers [it] his own work. It’s print ready-made. So it’s an excellent question and people get so disconcerted. I understand why; you don’t want nothing to be true.
RB: Right. You want some fixed point, which is unshakeable, eternal. You want truth to be a monument.
BG: If we went around changing these dates—if you and I brought chisels and changed a seven to a nine on tombstone—that’s very subversive, not just because we were defacing. That hits people at some fundamental level, where it is really upsetting to them. And that’s what I think is good about fiction.
RB: Consider the Soviet tactic of erasing people from pictures and historical accounts.
BG: [both laugh] That’s right.
RB: Which were true?
BG: They are not less true. History—what we have is true?
RB: When it comes down to it for many people, and certainly for people who are not creating things, this is some form of insanity. You go through life with commonsensical notions of reality, and then when you become a writer, what is the commonsensical reality? Or, how strong is it?
BG: In a way it has to be stronger. The questions I get a lot are the standard questions. Like, this is an unsympathetic character; this guy seems immoral. To me the mortal and the ethical rigor, even though it may not be—the story maybe pointed in the other direction, but there has to be an arrow. The philosophy or their ethics have to hold together. For me there is more responsibility. Writing fact—facts are insane and random. If you wrote fiction that was as random as most fact is, no editor would take it. They would say—just three days ago, a tree fell on a baby in Central Park and killed the baby, a rotten branch and heavy winds. If you had a random event like that in a story and it wasn’t meaningful, it wasn’t a story about things falling apart or didn’t have some ecological dimension, most editors would say, “This is inhumane. Why did this random cruelty occur?”
RB: Why introduce it?
BG: Right; it’s not justified, you didn’t set it up, you didn’t pay it off, the family didn’t mourn.
RB: So if you report in a story a man has murdered his two-year-old daughter because she was crying during a World Cup match, and then proceeded to put a screw in her throat so he could claim it was an accident, you’d have to connect that somehow.
BG: That’s not the whole story. If that was the whole story—a 110-word anecdote and that was it—you’d be classed with the theater of cruelty and you’d be looked upon as an experimentalist and it wouldn’t be accepted as fiction. Take a paragraph out of [James] Ellroy—I remember starting to read him, and those moments that are vividly described cruelty, people accept it because of his infrastructure, and they may be wrong. He may not think of it that way, or Bukowski or whoever—they may not need that infrastructure, but readers do. Readers need to know, “Oh, this is a bunch of poems about how he hates and loves women.” It’s hard; people have to process the world.
RB: I like to read an author’s acknowledgements. You didn’t commend your publicists.
BG: I don’t know if I knew who they were yet. There’s a lot of turnover.
RB: I like the way that you indicate that people who have contributed in odd, not necessarily categorizible ways. And the back-of-the-book list is like that—books movies, music, and TV programs—perhaps a list you made up the day you were submitting it, “Oh, what am I liking today?”
BG: I tried to think of things—here’s the problem—
RB: Swamp Dogg? How many people reading your book will know who Swamp Dogg is?
BG: None, and then they will go find out. I hope.
RB: I enjoyed the Kierkegaardian aspects of Swamp Dogg.
BG [both laugh] He does have an alter ego—in fairness—OK, so if you are an artist or a writer and you know or you think you know what feeds your thing. Like last night a woman at the reading asked, “You always have a lot of pop culture references in your work,” and this book does not. She was talking about the novel from last year [Please Step Back], which is about this funk-rock musician from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and that is all pop culture. I am wary of, and maybe this is my weakness or problem—serving one slice of pie of me, to make a disgusting metaphor—
RB: OK, work this out.
BG: I wouldn’t want to say this is the academic—another woman, a different woman came to the reading and she had read and loved Please Step Back. And she had seen me read in Miami, she loved the book. And she was standing there talking to me, and I jokingly said, “Buy the new book.” And she said, “Well, I’m scared. I really liked pop culture stuff, and this seems a little serious and literary.” She was reacting to the cover—
RB: It could have been an Edward Hopper painting.
BG: Exactly. It’s mid-century, stark and a little eerie. I said, “There are stories that I find funny; there are stories that are sad. It’s not as pop-cultural, but that’s that impulse—you want people seeing one painting, part of you wants them to see the others. You don’t want to be considered atomically, you want to be considered as many, many molecules. I think you are right; putting Swamp Dogg in there is a bit of a trick. I can justify him: he remade himself. There is a reason. Part of the reason is I didn’t want to pick—had I picked Hopper and Henry James and things more sort of similar in feel I would have felt strange, like I was only partially emerging.
The dignity and the pleasure of making something contrasts very harshly for me the indignity of bringing [it] around to the world.RB: There is something exasperating about being limited by a list or defined by a list. Like when people ask for your 10 favorite this or that. My minor subversion was to give 13 or 17. Lists are a silly way of attempting to understand someone.
BG: And it’s artwork; by definition it’s promiscuous. For my first book Superbad, I brought—
RB: Did you make a lot of money from the movie?
BG: [both laugh] I did. I think a lot of people bought the book thinking it was related to the movie. I was going to have a medallion on the cover say in tiny letters, “Not in any way connected to,” and then in giant letters, “The feature film.” When I brought the book around I had this experience with a number of big corporate publishers and this is what led to me going, in part, to indies. I wanted to do a book that was both humor piece and experimental pieces and also serious traditional fiction, in the exact same book. And almost every publisher said a very similar thing, which is, “Look, we can do one or the other. We can make an Adam Hazlitt-type book for you.”
RB: Speaking in high concept?
BG: One did. One said we can do a book like this austere-cover-type treatment, or we can do a wacky kind of humor-thing; we can’t do both in the same book. It’s impossible to market. I said at the time, and felt proud saying, as I was young and arrogant—and then got lucky, McSweeney’s understood it—“Everyone I know is funny and sad in the same day.” To segregate it seemed insane to me. So now that I am older and marginally less arrogant I understand their point, but it does still seem wrong to me. You want all those things in the same book.
RB: The fly in that ointment, to coin a phrase, is who is to say that marketing is truthful and who is to say that it really has anything to do with the content? Please.
BG: They all have jobs and they are good at their jobs. I was talking to a friend, I was saying it’s such a grueling process for me—the dignity and the pleasure of making something contrasts very harshly for me the indignity of bringing [it] around to the world. I love the readers and I am happy when people tell me they like or even dislike my work. And I was saying yesterday, when you get caught up in it, your publicist forwards you the reviews—my friend made this kind of violent metaphor: “Isn’t it better for you to know that you hit a couple people in the face hard with your work and for those people to come to you? That’s a sign.” I guess that’s true, sort of.
RB: You’re asked to make sense from a variety of reactions that you have limited information about—that are disembodied. I think it’s important not to assume that writing and creating is some kind of elevated activity that makes one superior to the people pumping gas or loading trucks.
BG: It’s only elevated for me in the sense that it’s the thing that I think I do well. I guarantee that athletes feel this way about athletics and studio musicians playing other people’s music—they do that well. The only way in which I think it’s important is that a lot of people stop asking questions—in any profession there’s a way to do this. But it’s important for me to keep asking questions, “Why do people think this about marriage?” If I were more political there would be a lot of questions that would go along with that. I agree—the way that I un-elevate it is by trying to keep everything—there are a lot of different kinds of work, like a little funny one-off. I try to remind myself that it’s not this world-changing endeavor always—with any luck, it changes somebody’s world for a while. I am not only writing big novels; when I start to feel that they become too weighty, I’ll write a little humor piece, place that, and that has its own arc. It’ll go for two days, some people will laugh at it, and some will write me and say that was great; someone else will write me and say that was stupid. Then I get on and do something else. To me, a lot of the career has been that kind of balance.
RB: Your day job is being a New Yorker editor, and in the citations of where some of these stories appeared previously—I could be wrong, but they are some of the most obscure venues I have never heard of. How did you place your stories?
BG: Sometimes they find me. It’s a mix. McSweeney’s is known; One Story is known; from the book before this, Paris Review and Zoetrope. In a lot of these other cases, people will write me and they have a project. Because I worked as a journalist, I like the idea of writing on demand. It doesn’t always work out. The Lifted Brow, an Australian literary magazine, they do these concept issues; they found a foam-core bookcase outside of a hairdresser’s, a barbershop, and it had all these fake book titles in it. So they contacted a bunch of authors, me and Rick Moody, 100 of them, and they asked each [of us] to pick a title from this list and write a story based on this title, and the issue will be based on this fake bookshelf. Their next issue was a world atlas—we each had to pick a country. And I like those exercises—
RB: Good ideas that you didn’t think of.
BG: That’s right. Like in the case of this book—In this story called “To Kill the Pink” I had this idea of man leaving his girlfriend a letter and going off to improve himself before he could commit. When this atlas project came up, I was looking through the list of countries, and Malawi was still available, and that helped me complete the idea. But you’re right, it’s a good idea I didn’t think of. And everything is collaborative at some level; people have silent collaborators all over the place. In this case, I really do like the idea of working work out. Again this has to do with having a day job and not needing the money from fiction-writing. People who are full-time writers, they need it, they really need it.
I am not particularly interested in plot in the sense that Robert Stone is, where a lot happens. To me it’s emotional plot, and because of that I require emotional time, and that is what technology damages.RB: You don’t have that pressure—although you do have two kids.
BG: I do, but they are fine. They’ll eat what I tell them.
RB: Right. Here, eat this Spam. I take [it] that Alex Rose was responsible for those nice little touches like the postmarks on the title page of each story?
BG: Yeah, we wanted them for Correspondences, but they didn’t fit.
RB: And your love affair with letters and correspondence is that lifelong. Do you still write letters?
BG: Yeah, some. Email has been the great emancipator, or—
RB: The great degrader.
BG: Degrader or great jailer. I have been going around with this book—it’s sort of a hypocritical moment. I don’t as much as I probably would like to, but I write a lot of email. People have come up to me indignantly, “Well I write email to my mother but they are more like letters.” And they are probably right. The medium is not necessarily degraded. It’s the way it gets used, and the ease of it. To me the biggest problem in email is you have both sides of it. So much of what I try to make sense of is the sense of loss or longing—
RB: You have to infer what you wrote.
BG: In letters you lose your own half of it. You say everything you want to your wife and then you send it—you don’t have it anymore. You have to decide how you can keep it emotionally.
RB: I write email as letters: greeting, salutation, spelling intact. and grammatical conventions observed; paragraphs, and no LOL or emoticons. I can’t think of another way to write to people. No BTWs or such.
BG: Those don’t save any time. And the reason you don’t do them in letters is its embarrassing. When I hear “BTW” in my mind it’s longer than “by the way,” it has more syllables. The immediacy is actually the problem. I am not particularly interested in plot in the sense that Robert Stone is, where a lot happens. To me it’s emotional plot, and because of that I require emotional time, and that is what technology damages; it’s immediate.
RB: There is an unwritten imperative to immediately respond to an email when you read or open it.
BG: Yeah, totally.
RB: And an equal probability of being thoughtful or thoughtless.
BG: It’s both; that’s the fascinating thing. People in the dating world probably know this better but it used to be—when I was 20, if you were starting to date somebody and two days went by, [or] you call the girl and she doesn’t call for two days, you didn’t feel good about it but you didn’t panic. Now if it’s an hour, people panic. They know the person has their phone with them at all times, and they assume they are being ignored. I don’t see how psychologically that builds stronger bonds.
RB: There is a new book out called Hamlet’s Blackberry [by William Powers], which is about the incursion of technology and social networks into people’s lives. I like the title—that seems to be a growing field of study.
BG: There’s Nicholas Carr’s book—
RB: Yeah, The Shallows. It doesn’t make sense to be technophobic, but there is a way in which all this stuff overwhelms a normal sense of balance. Let’s shift gears here. Your day job is as a section editor [Goings On About Town] at the New Yorker—how many editors are there? It seems like there are multitudes of editors there.
BG: I don’t know the exact number, but we have—
RB: Are there more editors than writers?
BG: [laughs] No, I don’t think so. I think it’s fewer than two dozen. It depends on how you count it. There are some writer/editors. There are section editors. There are senior articles editors. It’s not that big—it’s not an overwhelming number.
[The New Yorker] is a place of institutional memory. It’s not a place that has reinvented itself. There are other magazines whose whole thing is that they are good at reinventing themselves.RB: If I remember, Roger Angell is a fiction editor, and he writes wonderful features on baseball.
BG: A lot of the pieces in his memoir appeared in the magazine. A lot of editors, a lot of writers, and always a certain amount of turnover that David [Remnick] has to manage: writers who are working on a book project and can’t do the usual kind of reporting, they move and become a bureau somewhere, or editors leave. Though editors try not to leave, because they like it there.
RB: I was going to say, I couldn’t think of too many New Yorker writers who leave to go to another publication.
BG: It happens, but it happens rarely. I got there when I was 30—I have friends who started there in their 20s and they stayed. I don’t know if it feels emotionally like golden handcuffs, like they want to get on to the rest of the world, but it’s a great place. You’d feel crazy to voluntarily leave it. It’s like abdicating. Occasionally people do [leave]. Sometimes people get married and they decide to move and do something else. David is good at—from what I have seen—keeping in contact with those people because often times they will come back and write. This is a common thing—they’ll start as fact-checkers, go off into the world, do something else, pursue their interests, and then come back and write pieces for us later, and that’s a nice—that’s often the entry-level, fact-checking or working copy, because they are the youngest people.
RB: How much of the spirit and the legacy and cultural weight of the New Yorker still pervades the workplace, especially in a newer corporate environment, in the Condé Nast Tower?
BG: I would say some of it does—we have the Thurber drawing up in the hall, a lot of cartoons—it definitely does. We keep putting out anthologies, and on the website we have a very deep archive that you can subscribe to and get everything. We have access to it when we work there. Somedays I’ll go back and read issues from 1952 just to see what was happening. There has been a generational change even since I’ve been there, which is 10 years. You don’t come there and work there without a sense of what it is. The harder question is about the things that have to change, like coming to terms with the Internet or the iPad and those things—how the legacy will persevere through those changes. I know that the people like David, the editor, or Blake Eskin, who is the web editor—they think about that quite a bit—it is a place of institutional memory. It’s not a place that has reinvented itself. There are other magazines whose whole thing is that they are good at reinventing themselves.
RB: Which Esquire did umpteen times after Arnie Gingrich.
BG: That’s right. You get a new art director—you have the same idea, you want to appeal to a certain kind of man, but the staff is all different. The funny thing for me is as a kid I was not a magazine-reader—I was a newspaper person. I liked reading the comics and the box scores and all those other kinds of data.
RB: The Miami Herald? Was Carl Hiaasen writing for the Herald at the time?
BG: Yeah, he started after I was reading it. It was Edwin Pope on sports, Edna Buchanan on crime, a lot of good daily reporters. What’s funny about it is, in a weird way, a lot of people at the New Yorker are newspaper people: David Remnick started at newspapers; Jeff Frank, who is now retired, worked at newspapers. It’s a different pace, a slightly different sense of responsibility. David is a good example of this, if you know his work; he works incredibly hard at different aspects of his career, but one of them is ongoing writing. If he is not writing pieces he will be putting a big book together. That is the mindset of a newspaper person: there is stuff to do every day—even though you are feeding a bigger mouth, which is the newspaper, or the readership.
RB: How does being a magazine editor affect the way you write fiction?
BG: It’s hurt with regard to novels, but it doesn’t hurt short fiction. I’ve done only one novel—proper, real novel—and then cobbled together linked short-story novels. I can draft and make sense of a short story in two or three days. It’s not done, but I know what it is, and I can spend time revising it. I have a couple other novels that are 75 percent done, but doing that last 25 percent push with a day job is harder. It’s not impossible; people do it. Short fiction is easy—the rhythm of it—
RB: Lots of short-fiction writers would disagree. Easy for you—
BG: Easy for me, and I like the rhythm of it. Sometimes I’ll get a week where the end of the week won’t be so tough, and I take an hour to make sense of something. With a novel that would be a foolish thing to say.
RB: This book is suggested to be about linked stories—I think I am a careful reader and the only one that hit me in the face—
RB:was the last story seemed to be connected to an earlier story.
BG: Right, the woman in that story resurfaces in “A Bunch of Blips.” To me they are linked—again that’s probably a marketing or publicity consideration to say “linked short stories.”
BG: [They are] thematically linked—they are all linked by letter-writing. I noticed in one yesterday that I had written, that I had forgotten until I read the story yesterday, which was that there are phrases and things that recur a lot. I forget what it is now—someone says something so many times that the person hearing it knows it can’t be true, and that’s in two stories. There are things that I think of as emphases, let’s say. I could imagine an editor saying, “Well this a repetition, we have to edit it out. We have to take it out of story six because the exact same thing is in story three.” I cleared the way, telling the editor, “I am going to do this in more than one story. I will have a character whose name rhymes with the name of his best friend in more than one.” Those kinds of echoes, which in the earlier work are much more explicit.
RB: Were there more stories, and you culled them down?
BG: For Correspondences? No. I was working on Please Step Back. They came back and wanted to do a book. [I told them], “I can’t do another novel with you—it clogs the market and whatever else; let’s do a collection.” I had a couple stories that were about letters and letter-writing, which to me is more about human disconnection, particularly in romance but not exclusively, and how it’s very hard for people to explain themselves and give account of themselves accurately and efficiently. Most of the stories are about that. We had seven for Correspondences. When I was out on the road for Please Step Back I did a pretty extensive book tour—on the West Coast, eight dates in nine nights. I was very tired by the end. I don’t particularly like it and it was raining in Portland. So I was writing a lot of more formal emails to friends and my wife—because of that I wrote a bunch more stories. I didn’t know at that time—I assumed it would be a paperback somewhere—I didn’t have the deal with Harper yet. Once we did the deal we added two at the end—there were a lot more that didn’t make it. I was trying to do one from a very elderly person’s point of view but I didn’t like it. I was going for an Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, [but] it felt like in the movies when they do aging makeup; it didn’t feel legit. So I tabled that one—there are probably three or four more that didn’t make the cut.
Some people will say, “This is a stupid gimmick and you are an idiot,” and some people will be very moved by it.RB: And the order of the stories—I imagine you worried the sequence.
BG: Oh, yeah, quite a bit. Whenever I do a collection—in Superworse, the second collection, that’s meticulously ordered to the point where the first story and the last were related, the second and the next to last were related, and like that for the whole book. And for the middle story, it’s called “Notes to a Paper You Wouldn’t Understand,” and there are footnotes, which correspond to the stories and explain the whole scheme. And then on top of that there is a made-up editor who writes a forward, “midward,” and afterward where he berates readers for not understanding the scheme.
RB: Wait a minute—what’s a “midward”?
BG: There is in the book. I made it up. He comes in, in the middle, writing—I don’t know if you have understood the organization of this book yet—and the editor hates my work and thinks I’m an idiot. I made this all up thinking it was funny to have this kind of editor. This is not that kind of book—it’s more organic. But I think of these—I’m a very album-rock person, so whenever I put these together I really think of it as an album. The last story, which is the longest and the most traditional, was like the “Layla” of the book. [laughs]
RB: [aside] It’s possible some people don’t know that was a classic by Derek and the Dominos, a.k.a. Eric Clapton and friends.
BG: It’s totally that—it has a long outro. It’s all album construction. I don’t think of them—there are short-story writers who are good at putting [out] a bunch of singles; they are self-contained. For me it’s not that way. It’s the same concern.
RB: We are sitting here at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. We have come up to your current work, which we have discussed sufficiently for my purposes—
RB: You have a lot of writing and fragments in cigar boxes and drawers, literal or virtual?
BG: That’s right.
RB: Do you try to have a plan for the future?
BG: Yeah, there are always a number of projects. There is another book.
RB: Do you play an instrument, by the way?
BG: I do not. I have always regretted it. I played trumpet in junior high—I was bad at it. There is a book coming in November that is sort of a—I guess it’s a comedy. It’s very serious to me—
RB: It will be marketed as—
BG: I had this idea for many years. There are Chekhov stories that I love and I find that people aren’t—I wouldn’t say that people aren’t reading them, but because the translations are old-fashioned they fall away a little bit. So I had this idea that I thought of as interesting, maybe questionable, that Harper loves, which is to replace the characters with celebrities, contemporary celebrities.
BG: So that’s coming out. The work is very interesting. I am sure some people will say, “This is a stupid gimmick and you are an idiot,” and people will be very moved by it, to give inner lives back to Britney Spears and whoever else. There are three novels sort of done. I owe Harper two more books, so that’s one and another one after that.
RB: Who gets the reworking of Chekhov?
BG: Harper is doing that, Celebrity Chekhov, and that’s a funny project. It’s the first book that I have done [where] I saw those little commercial light bulbs go off—like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and whatever. I had more questions about it than answers. So I owe Harper two. Beyond that there are three that I like a lot—I write a lot, I don’t know what happens to it. One about a safety inspector in Florida in the early ‘60s—
RB: What does he inspect?
BG: He works for the county and he had done industrial stuff but he is now in charge of writing the manual to train other safety inspectors. And then there is one about a young guy—a rework of an earlier project—his father is a state senator in New Jersey, drops dead, and he is put up to run for the office. There is a plagiarism novel about a guy who steals a manuscript from someone else and publishes it.
RB: No writer’s block for you.
BG: Partly because working with independent publishers—I feel a little more of it with Harper, not too much, because they have been great—but the freedom of working with an indie and thinking, If this novel turns into a crazy novella, I can do it; it will come out. You don’t get blocked if you know there is an evacuation process, so to speak—
RB: [laughs] Interesting metaphor.
BG: if there is someone who is going to come and laxative you, you know. A lot of writers forget that. I’m fascinated by writers older than I am who confidently make the jump down. I don’t even think of it as down—who are with a big house and then either financially their relationship dissolves or they don’t feel their needs are being served, and they go to an indie with a good head on their shoulders about it. They don’t think they have somehow failed or that they had to take a step back—then they can keep doing great work. Over the history of publishing, this is so fluid—majors and minors doesn’t really mean anything. What’s Dial [Press]?
RB: What is Dial now? It seems to be an offshoot of Random House.
BG: Yeah, or Dalkey [Archive Press]. In their day they were independent.
RB: It’s like independent movies.
BG: That’s right—it doesn’t really mean anything.
RB: Essentially, the game is still to get into a major distribution pipeline.
BG: Or Atlantic Records. You can say it’s a major but it wasn’t a major when it started. Motown: What’s more of a start-up than Motown?
RB: Okeh Records. Actually, I think it was always a part of Columbia Records—the Race label. Then it became an R&B label in the ‘60s.
BG: Right, and Vocalion—I remember the guy, what’s his name, the guy who recorded Robert Johnson?
RB: Don Law.
BG: I also have a blues-music novel, [both laugh] but I’m not sure. It’s an old, old project; I probably started writing it when I was 20 and it has been submerged over the years. I would like to do that sometime; I don’t now if I will.
RB: Your wife’s a writer?
BG: No, she’s an art director. She is a good reader of the writing. As a kid she didn’t read that much and so I think it’s sort of horrendous for her to have married a writer, [both laugh] to have to read all the crap that I shovel over to her.
RB: Yeah. This conversation could go on indefinitely, which would leave me with a long, carpal-tunnel-syndrome-causing transcription, so I have a feeling we’ll speak again.
BG: Yeah, definitely.
RB: Given your ambitions and productivity—
BG: And the center of ambition that I will be returning to.
RB: Thanks for talking with me, and wait for Part II of Lumpy Gravy.
BG: Phase II. Thanks.