Ben Greenman has a new novel, Please Step Back, from Melville House, about the rise and fall of Robert Franklin, aka Rock Foxx, a Sly Stone-like star of the 60s and 70s. We spoke to him about books and music.
The L Magazine: You've been writing about R&B, soul and funk music from this era for many years, for the New Yorker and elsewhere; for Please Step Back, did you find you were at home enough in that world to tell a story from it, or were there resources you used to shore up your familiarity?
Ben Greenman: As a kid, I read everything I could about this era: magazine articles from the time, books, liner notes. I was pretty hungry for it and for the artists associated with it. Sly Stone, of course, but also Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, War, P-Funk. All of it. When this specific project started, I wasn't sure how biographical it would be and how fictional, so I relied heavily on research. As soon as it took a turn into fiction, though, I closed off that avenue and focused on writing characters and scenes. Most of what's left is accurate, or as accurate as it needs to be. There aren't people with cell phones in the studio, for example.
The L: I also wanted to ask you about the book's language. The dialogue, naturally, is very tuned to the slang of the era, and to Foxx's unique patter — but the close third-person narration, too, channels the musicality of Foxx's speech. Was it a stretch to get to, and stay in, that voice, or did you find — as a fan of the music; as something of a lyricist (or librettist) yourself — that its rhythms came naturally?
BG: I thought from the start that Foxx would speak as a character, even in his own life. He's an entertainer. His sense of language, and of the energy that it emits, informs the rest of the book. It wouldn't have made sense to deal with it with Jamesian language, say. Weirdly, in my mind, I kept coming back to Conrad — Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Janis, because there's an almost hallucinatory intensity in his work. But part of it is what you say — when you're writing about a musician and entertainer who has a sustained patter in his own life, you have to be willing to let that find its way into the book.
The L: Since you mention Conrad, I should ask: are there other touchstones that found their way into the book?
BG: Henry James is a touchstone for thinking about how to write about how people think, and how mercurial a state of mind can be, but this book is written very differently than James — I wanted it to move like a genre novel. That's the big touchstone, honestly, which is one of the reasons I'm so glad that George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley generously gave me blurbs for the book.
The L: I imagine that the most fun thing about writing a book like Please Step Back would be making up all the band names and song and album titles (and the album art, and the stage costumes, and on and on...). What is the appeal, do you think, of this train-set toying with the details of history?
BG: I call it "punking history," and I've always done it. In other books of mine, like Superbad, it was even more explicit, because that was a high-concept humor book. Since this is a straightforward novel and a fairly traditional story, it was subtler, but yes, I made fake album covers and fake song titles and fake reviews. And of course it's fun.