Ben Greenman’s new book is What He’s Poised to Do.
The L: For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
Greenman: A friend of mine who is also a writer said that my stories are “funny sad you know.” She was just saying something in passing, an offhand remark. She may not even remember saying it. But I took it as a kind of manifesto. They are funny. They are sad. They are hopefully knowing. They implicate readers like inside jokes do, and as a result they exclude some readers too. I’ve never had a book of stories that passed with flying colors, by which I mean that any reader will love some, hate some, and be indifferent to some.
The L: What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers’ lives for the better?
Greenman: Oh, who am I to say? I have been spending lots of time with the Ramones album Too Tough To Die, from 1984. It’s a down record for Joey Ramone, who was in poor health, and a big up record for Dee Dee Ramone, who wrote most of the songs and even sang a few, including the great “Wart Hog.” It’s a pretty dark album with some great pop songs and a little more metallic (meaning less girl-group-sounding) than the first four records. There’s nothing as great as “Pinhead” or “California Sun” or “Rockaway Beach,” but the strong songs on this album, like the title song and “Mama’s Boy” and “I’m Not Afraid of Life,” are pretty great.
The L: Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, to balance it out)?
Greenman: I must recuse myself because I ghostwrote the celebrity tell-all for Gene Simmons of KISS, which would have been on that list.
The L: Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
Greenman: Not starving, but I eat lots of food. I have always had a day job, I think. I came to New York and worked for Michael Wolff when he was publishing reference books about the internet. It was a great job with insanely long hours. Then I was freelancer for a bit, and that was pretty Starving Artist-y, and then I was a magazine editor. I’ve been at the New Yorker since 2000. My problem with being a freelancer/Starving Artist wasn’t so much the poverty as the fact that I fell too easily into the lack of discipline. I’d wake up at eleven, hang around until two in the afternoon listening to records and deciding whether to have pizza or a sandwich for lunch, and then beat myself up for not being productive enough.
The L: What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
Greenman: I just want people to feel like they are getting either a moment of beauty or a moment of truth from my writing, or ideally both. I fully acknowledge the hubris of that statement—who am I to dispense beauty or truth, let alone both?—but that’s what would be ideal. It’s fiction, so they’re not getting information, as such, moved from my brain to them. I envy writers who set themselves to that task, to explain the Battle of the Bulge or the way that Curt Flood helped to create free agency. I don’t, or haven’t, worked that way. (And when I have, in the celebrity musicals I write, I tend to mock the whole process of information delivery.)
The L: Have you ever written anything that you’d like to take back?
Greenman: Maybe the answer to that last question. Oh, I know. Once as a young man I wrote a very negative review of an album by a prominent rock star. It was very mean-spirited. I think I called for his execution. Years later a newspaper was doing an article on me, and the photographer who came to take the picture was a friend of that rock star, and he told me that the mean review had really hurt the rock star’s feelings. It was a real shock to me that this rock star cared about what some punk said about him, and also a reminder that criticism stings, even if you are an established artist in your field. It changed the way I think about criticism slightly—it’s not that I think people need to be nice all the time, but I hadn’t really bothered to hide the fact that I was hunting for sport, and that was probably the error of a young writer, committed out of arrogance or insensitivity, and I wish I could take that back.