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It's like an exercise in pitch in text. You make something up and then you see if it sounds right.
The L: Speaking of sound, I wanted to ask you whether you relied on any ears other than your own during this project.
BG: Not really. My wife read pieces of it all along, and since she's not a writer, I wanted to make sure that this book moved at a speed that would please a run-of-the-mill (but of course very smart and sensitive) reader of books.
The L: Since you mention being conscious of the pacing, I wonder about the challenges that arise in trying to streamline a book (especially one that, I imagine given your interest in the subject, could have been a lot longer)? How'd you keep it tight? Will there be a rerelease with Japan Bonus Tracks tacked on to the end?
BG: The thing about a book is that it has to follow its own internal logic. It's the ultimate album, to mix metaphors irretrievably. So there aren't some extra singles floating around. On the other hand,maybe we could invent the idea of the bonus chapter: it would be a hidden bonus chapter, though — dozens of blank pages after the end, then a little lagniappe.
The L: Anytime a writer depicts the creative process, he's opening himself up to questions about his own process. So I'm curious: how much of your own creative life, as a writer, were you able to draw on in your depiction of Foxx's process?
BG: Oh, lots. It's a very autobiographical character in many ways —- how he balances his home life and his creative life, the difficulties of collaboration, the way work can be both funny and serious.
The L: Throughout the book, we see this process, Foxx's struggle to give form to his ideas. He seems like a visionary, albeit one still in awe of Miles Davis and James Brown. Toward the end of the book, though, we also get a sense of his historical-footnote status, so I wonder: is there a critical component to Please Step Back, an argument for the genius of bright-burning fadeouts like Sly Stone?
BG: You mean is there an argument for this kind of fast-burning star over the stars who persist through phases and changes, like Miles and James Brown? Not really. I think both are good. There is a division between the two kinds of stars, though, and the different ways that they articulate their connection with the world around them. As for genius, it's a funny word.
The L: It is — that's what I'm curious about. Did you think you were writing a book about a genius?
BG: Yes. He is a genius. I mean, I think the artists that I'm talking about, the real-world analogues, are also geniuses. Everyone says it about Ray Charles, because that's his brand, but I'd point at Sly Stone or Marvin Gaye. What do you think genius means? I think it has something to do with the ability to get close to the core of an idea without burning yourself up. It's an old story in myth and an old story in culture. Many geniuses slip over the line and then they're gone in a flash.
The L: I guess I'd have a tough time improving on your definition — especially in terms of Foxx, who stands as "close to the core" as Miles or James, but can't stay there for nearly as long. I wonder, though, if it'd be possible to write a book about a genius with longevity — I can think of many visionaries in literature, but none who live their whole life close to the core, without burning up — that just seems beyond everyday experience in the way that the brush with greatness doesn't. (And our living examples of the long-lived genius are, perhaps inevitably, obscure or blasé about it, like Dylan is.)