An Interview with Ben Greenman
Ben Greenman’s What He’s Poised To Do came out this summer, and was praised as “astonishing” (by the Los Angeles Times), “beautiful” (by Bookslut), and “ubertastic” (by PopMatters). After only three months, Greenman is back, with a book called Celebrity Chekhov, which takes the short stories of the Russian master Anton Chekhov and rewrites them with contemporary celebrities as the characters. The two couldn’t be more different on the face of it: one is a serious collection of short fiction; the other a high-concept humor book that has at least a little in common with literary mashups. But upon closer inspection they aren’t that different: both are about lost souls, miscommunication, and how surface light can distract you from what’s deeper down.
A writer and editor for The New Yorker, and a contributor to Bookslut (he co-writes, with Pauls Toutonghi, the Nobel Reprise project), Greenman lives in Brooklyn.
What led you to his new book?
I think it came right out of the old one, in a strange way. In that other one, as in all my short fiction, I’m interested in the process where friends of mine are in pain temporarily. That may be a strange thing to say, but I like when people call me or write me and I can tell that something is really bothering them. It seems legitimate, like they’re being honest, and that’s a rare moment, especially when technology gives us so many ways to chatter distractingly. So in the first book, I isolated some of those moments. When I was done with it, I started to think more broadly about the question: is that what short fiction should always do? In what ways? Has it ever been different? That led me back to Chekhov but in a strange way: it led me to a new version of Chekhov, a reboot or reupholster, with contemporary celebrities.
Because they are characters. We make them up as much as they get to make themselves up. And generally they are denied inner lives. You can see this because people who are the exception, like Lady Gaga, are seen as revolutionary for those reasons. She’s in control of how she’s perceived, more or less. She speaks more straightforwardly about sexuality and politics, for the most part. And so she’s seen as a higher evolution of celebrity.
You took great pains in What He’s Poised to Do to make it kind of old-fashioned. The characters send letters rather than using e-mail. They don’t have iPads. And then in this book everything is very contemporary, in the sense that the characters are celebrities of the present moment. Is that a conflict, or part of the same project?
I think it’s part of the same project. The earlier book takes characters who are trying desperately to find a stable version of their own identity. That’s something that I think also bedevils celebrities. In this case, by taking out the Chekhov characters and putting in celebrities, I wanted to call that process into sharp relief. What is a character, really, versus a real person? Is Justin Timberlake a character or a person? He seems smart, genuine, talented. But most people only know him at the level of his celebrity, not to mention that “Justin Timberlake” is a name that an editor would reject as too fictional-sounding. But now, in America today, that name, that
character, brings so many other associations with it. I think I’m always looking back toward certain possibly mythical mid-century ideas about stable identity and what happens when it starts to waver. It’s like what’s happening to Don Draper on Mad Men right now.
How closely are the stories in Celebrity Chekhov modeled on the original short stories?
Exactly, at first. All I did was take the translations and replace the names. That was the starting point. But then there was the matter of updating the world of coachmen and lamplighters so that it could become a world of cars and cell phones. And then there was the matter of slightly bending each story toward, or in some cases away from, the personalities of the celebrities.
Why do you keep all the celebrity names as their full names in the text?
For formality, and also to increase the strangeness of the effect. Oh, and to absolutely ensure that no one forgot that they were celebrities. If David Letterman, after his first appearance, just became David, the effect would be decreased.
Why did you choose to give Britney Spears so much depth? She is probably the most vapid out of all the celebrities you chose.
Our idea of Britney is, sure, but that's the whole issue. We, as a culture, have built a Britney character, and then, when something doesn't accord with it, we frown and shake our heads. It's hard to imagine her as an older woman, looking back on lost love with profound regret, but why is it hard?
You once described celebrities as being "larger versions of us." What do you mean by that?
Well, all the qualities that we grapple with -- ego, doubt, appetite -- are flattened out in celebrities, so that they become thinner but more widespread. They live larger. They cover a larger area. But we use them to work through our own insecurities, which is why I thought they were good subjects for literature.
Many writers consider it risky to include celebrities in their work, let alone structure entire stories around them for fear of dating their work. Was that a concern for you with Celebrity Chekhov?
Of course. I think I painted a target on my back and then my face on the target. Still, I'm not worried about dating them. In this version of the book, they are dated. That's the point. It's a mirror for the present. Later on, this book may mean different things to readers.
The writing in Celebrity Chekhov is beautiful. Did you grapple at all with how to reconcile a literary style with the likes of Lindsay Lohan?
I'm not sure I grappled with it, but I liked, and like, the tension.
Let’s go back to your earlier book for a second. One of the things I love most about What He’s Poised to Do is how even though all the characters are longing for human connection, they grapple with different circumstances and have completely different backgrounds. Why did you choose to place all of these stories in the context of heterosexual love? Did you intentionally focus on the struggles men and women have in seeking partnerships with each other?
It’s intentional only in the sense that that’s all that I know. Being straight, all that I have ever had to do is to think about what I’m doing in relationships and then what women are doing in response to me. And I’ve thought quite a bit about both of those things. I guess I think it would be funny that I could re-release it and change the names so that every single story was about gay relationships and that could be the remix. It would be a modest but targeted seller. I guess I would ask this question back in return, which is, does it make a difference? The strategies might be slightly different if the characters were both women but to some degree not. To some degree, it’s just people. They’re set all over time and all over place that there’s enough cultural difference like in “Against Samantha,” or in “From the Front,” there is enough difference in how people are conducting themselves based on where they are and what their background is and what their social status is. The distance between myself and those people based on race or place or time is probably roughly equivalent to myself and a gay man in 2010 or a lesbian in 2010. Okay so now, your motive for the question is, do you think it would be different or no?
No. For me, when I was reading the book, the characters themselves didn’t come across as particularly conventionally gendered so I was wondering if, when you did sit down to write an anthology of short stories, you chose to concentrate on heterosexual love.
Well, it’s collection about letter writing and the relationships between men and women. That’s true. But if they’re not conventionally gendered that maybe because that idea of being conventionally gendered is a bogus idea, right?
People are all over the map. I haven’t done a big survey if gay or straight people react differently to the work. I know that women, on average, and sensitive young men, let’s say, react very strongly to this book. It’s a good question. I’d ask this question in return. Do you think gay and straight people are different?
Not fundamentally, no. I do like how much sexual agency you give your female characters. Men and women seem to be on very equal playing fields when it comes to deception, infidelity, and love in What He’s Poised To Do. Was that also your intention?
My entire existence is very boy-oriented because I have only brothers and sons. So as long as I’ve been able to do field research figuring out women, I’ve been very careful to look and listen and pay attention, ask a ton of questions. To me, the characters are gendered in that there are different forms of manipulation that people have and are encouraged to use and then resist them. In “A Country Life is the Only Life Worth Living,” that guy in that story does what is sort of a male thing, which is that he just doesn’t listen. Clearly, all along his wife and his girlfriend are begging him not to do what he’s doing. He’s comically insensitive to everybody and yet he keeps telling himself that he’s super sensitive because he’s being so honest.
One of my favorite stories of the collection is “Against Samantha.” The narrator is disgusted with both himself and his fiancée after sleeping with her and even considers having a friend seduce her so that he can deem her promiscuous. This story stands out for me because “Against Samantha” is the only one in the collection in which gender differences are introduced in that he contemplates destroying her pristine feminine reputation with a sexual reputation. Why does this story differ in that regard?
I think the characters demanded it. The narrator in that story is obsessed with his mother-in-law, who is a different kind of woman: older, more confident, less dependent upon her youth and beauty. You could say he’s being sexist in parts of the story, but then you have to contend with the fact that in other parts he loves women so much.
I also love how artfully you weave the second person within first person narratives, specifically within letters. It’s so subtle that I often forget that the narrative has shifted. Did you plan to create this hybrid narration beforehand?
I don’t think it’s calculated. I guess when I start these stories, those questions are always there: who is telling this? How much am I going to reveal? Broadly speaking, is it reliable narration or not? Is it a sympathetic narrator? In “Barn” it’s pretty straightforward. Again, each story has its own method of narration: there are straightforward first person stories, nested narratives, second-person confessions, and more.
Considering that some of your stories are contemporary, why did you choose the device of letter writing as opposed to emails as other writers sometimes do? Why do your characters preserve the art of letter writing despite that some of them live in modern times?
E-mail is not timeless to me, yet. A story with a letter in it is potentially timeless. Someone can read it, I think, in a thousand years and still sort of get it. To me, email, even though we’ve had it every single minute of our lives for a decade, it still has little bit of that whiff of gimmick. A little bit like space cars or you take off your headband and you have an antennae. It’s just thin at some level. There is an article about kids going in college now, class of 2014, and how they don’t use e-mail.
Yes, I read that. They only use social networking.
And texting. And I hate the Facebook email system to me. It’s like the devil. It’s so creepy and redundant. Isn’t that what the devil is? Redundant?
In choosing to include email, it would also immediately place your story in this very specific time bracket.
Right. And as you see, these stories are all over the map, literally and in terms of time. In one of the stories, “The Hunter and The Hunted,” it wasn’t really clear in one version when it was set and there was e-mail. When I decided to push it back to 1989, I had to take e-mail out. I was finishing the book and it was the final edit and I saw I had left one reference to “e-mail.” I got it, but I thought that had it slipped through, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal, but to me it would have been a problem.
So referencing e-mail cheapens the quality of the story?
It at least staples you to 2006 or so.
I really appreciated the “About the Author” note that was included in the back of the book. In it, you write, “Many of the stories in this book are set in the past, recent or distant, before the Internet and Facebook and Twitter began frittering away at legitimate human connection, and as a result the characters are preoccupied with conversation and correspondence, with voices and faces.” Can you elaborate on that please?
I think there are a lot of cases now with friends where fifteen years ago, the only way I could have dealt with them would be personally or on the phone. In conversations like then, you can pick up cues. You could see the person you’re talking to is really interested or comfortable or sad about something. In e-mail, you can’t. It allows people to lie. Now, people have always lied. But what e-mail does is it creates a whole generation of these introverted extroverts -- shy people who are accustomed to hiding their feelings but who now speak them at all times. One minute, it’s “Sadder than before.” One minute, it’s “Feeling happy and not sure why.”
Sounds like Facebook status updates.
Right. Instead of people walking around shoulder to shoulder or sitting in a room or calling on the phone, you have tweets and Facebook updates. They are one-way advertisements for the self. And obviously, plenty of people are legitimate and sincere and organic, but plenty aren’t. When I was a kid in 1980, the only way you ever knew anything about anyone was by interacting with them. Letters are what adults do when they can’t be with you; they are what you do when your life and circumstances separate you from the people you want to be with. Most of these letters in What He’s Poised to Do are in some way about longing. “Hope” is the most explicit example of that; the main character is writing a woman every day. Most of the letters are about not being able to be around people who are, in your heart, the people you do want to be with. These are substitutes for real interaction and love and sex and friendship and so, now, you can conduct entire friendships digitally. I don’t know if this happened to you, perhaps it has, where you have a friend who uses all these evasive technologies of texting and status updates and group emails and eventually you think, “I have lost sight of how this person feels about their life.”
So you feel that all of those mediums perpetuate those walls?
Yeah. They give people too many outs and too many end arounds and too many mirrors: there is the email version, the Twitter version, the Facebook version, and the blog version. So now when somebody says, “How is she?” I would likely say, “You know it’s weird, because on blog and Twitter she seemed really happy. But I saw her for a second and she seemed very sad. Puzzling.” This assumes that the goal is to find out the truth about people, which for me it is.
In your opinion, does social media have anything to offer writers? Or the writing community?
I would say yes. Absolutely. Clearly, it does. You can reach readers and you can connect to like-minded people. You can have young writers find you. But I think you have to be careful. Unlike letter writing, which is probably food, this is probably a drug. I think any social-media tool, like any product that is designed and engineered, is a drug, a pill. A company made it, they engineered it, released it on the market, and they make money off of it. No one is making money off of your letters.