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20 Questions: Ben Greenman

Photo by © Gail Ghezzi

Have you ever seen a juggler on a moving sidewalk? Ben Greenman, whose latest, The Slippage (released today), ponders this and other wonders of life in his response to PopMatters 20 Questions.

The Slippage

Publisher: HarperCollins
Author: Ben Greenman
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-04

What He’s Poised to Do

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Author: Ben Greenman
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-06

Celebrity Chekhov: Stories by Anton Chekhov

Publisher: HarperPerennial
Author: Ben Greenman
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-10

Please Step Back

Publisher: Melville House
Author: Ben Greenman
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2009-04

Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

Publisher: Grand Central
Author: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Ben Greenman
Publication date: 2013-06

So, have you ever seen a juggler on a moving sidewalk? Indeed you have, or at least, you’ve seen the equivalent, because life in all its complexities, its joys and sorrows, is funny that way. The novelist, short story writer, humorist, and magazine editor Ben Greenman has observed, proverbially speaking, all sorts of jugglers in all sorts of circumstances. The results of his observations earn him the on-spot tagline, “a poet of romantic angst in contemporary American life.”

“I want to run out onto the balcony of my apartment and yell from there how snazzerific, how terrificadelic, how übertastic this book is to the people gathered below,” writes PopMatters’ Zachary Houle, of Greenman’s What He’s Poised to Do. Greenman’s latest shout-inducing (angst-ridden and damned funny) novel, The Slippage, a wry, wistful tale of marriage, lust, and disconnection, releases today. Enjoy The Slippage, and Greenman’s responses to PopMatters 20 Questions below, from the comfort of your own moving sidewalk.

* * *

PopMatters 20 Questions

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Where The Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls). I remember it well: it was 1979. Usually, I’m too acquisitive when I read books and too impatient when I watch movies. It’s not their fault. It’s my fault. Records, on the other hand, frequently make me tear up. Singers who can communicate sadness effectively are a tremendous natural resource.

Here’s one example that might be a bad one, or a cliché: recently I was in some kind of clothing store, and Rod Stewart’s version of “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” came on, and even though that song has been burned to death by FM radio and probably doesn’t mean anything anymore, I started thinking about it, and then about Danny Whitten, and then about the general pattern of despair—people get left behind by the people who they need the most, not because those people don’t know they’re needed, but because they do know they’re needed—and suddenly I had to pick up a shirt off the table and wipe my eyes with it. Confidential to whoever eventually bought that shirt: I think I slightly increased its value.

2. The fictional character most like you?

This is an impossible question. To answer it I would have to see myself clearly, and who does that? I’ll defer to Woody Allen’s joke from Stardust Memories. His character, Sandy, is speaking to an audience. I’ll just go ahead and call him Woody.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: A lot of people have accused you of being narcissistic."

WOODY: No, I know people think that I'm egotistical and narcissistic, but it's not true. As a matter of fact, if I did identify with a Greek mythological character, it would not be Narcissus.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: Who would be?

SANDY: Zeus.

Maybe some characters from my own books? Maybe the lead character of Please Step Back? Maybe the tree in my story “Sometree/Anytree”?

At times I feel like Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. Or like Pearl, when she said “John hit Daddy with a hairbrush.”

3. The greatest album, ever?

That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child, except that I only have two children. The albums I listen to the most are either Sly and the Family Stone records or John Prine records or Prince records or Rolling Stone records or Miles Davis records or Frank Black solo records.

The albums that scoop me out the most effectively are either Mary Margaret O’Hara records or Captain Beefheart records or Mississippi John Hurt records or Aretha Franklin records or Public Enemy records.

The albums I respect the most are probably Michael Jackson records. The albums I care for the most are all of those, and none of those. I am furious at you for asking this question. Do I really have to pick one?

Okay, okay: Bongwater’s Double Bummer. The Velvet Underground's Loaded. Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. Graham Parker and the Rumour’s Squeezing Out Sparks. That's one, right?

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Music without words. This is sort of the answer to the question I hated about favorite records. I like Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro. It’s perfectly sequenced to play while I write. It relaxes and provokes and then challenges.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Once upon a time I won a national rock ‘n’ roll trivia contest and was awarded a car. That’s why I am proud: I won a car.

I then sold the car right back to the dealer for much, much less than what it was worth.

7. You want to be remembered for ...?

I would like there to be another Ben Greenman that comes along in a little while, like maybe 50 years, and he should be good at something completely different. Professional sports? Science? Identity theft? Then in the distant future people will remember us together, and confuse us.

I want this sentence to happen in the future: “He wrote novels and robbed banks, and one never got in the way of the other.”

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

I like people who struggle with internal questions.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

I love going back to big things that I don’t understand: works that have an uneasy mix of tone, or works that pack a deceptive amount into their pages, or works that are absolutely impossible to crack open as part of a traditional critical project. They’re not always the “best” works, whatever that silly word in quotes means, but they are the best for me.

I know that doesn’t quite answer the question but that is how it will have to be.

10. Your hidden talents . . .?

I can type pretty fsat with a minimum of erorrs.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

There are two things that spring to mind. One came a long time ago, from my grandfather, who used to be annoying about things like the best way to prepare food or the best way to watch a baseball game. Once, in a fit of self-awareness, he said “There’s a right way to do everything, though it’s not always the most interesting way.”

The other came from my older son. He was right around two, maybe a little older, and I was holding him up to the window to watch a snowstorm.

“Dad,” he said. “Where do the birds go when it snows?” I started to answer him. I think I said something about eaves and certain kids of trees. He tapped me to interrupt me. “Who cares?” he said.

My interpretation of that is that we don’t have to have opinions about everything, and it is very liberating to remember that.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

I stole Bozo the Clown rub-on transfers from a toy store in Miami called the Red Balloon when I was six or seven. They were under my shirt and I took them out in the car.

My dad drove me back and made me return them and I got a big lecture from the guy who owned the place. That was great: scary, clarifying, and in the end morally affirming.

I will only say that he went a little too far with his performance. If you’re trying to scare a kid, talk about how he can’t shop in the store anymore. But don’t talk about sending him a jail. Even little kids know that’s not true. It just hurts your credibility.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?

Now I feel awkward, because I don’t know what either of those things are. Wait. Let me look on the Internet. Oh, they’re kinds of clothes? I don’t really pay attention to brands. Brands are corns on the feet of ideas.

I feel best in clothes that have been worn by people who recently attended a house of worship, though I usually demand that they be washed between their experience with them and mine.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

I think maybe Prince. He wouldn’t eat very much, which would be good, because he could do most of the talking.

Or maybe Groucho Marx: I would tell him to eat beforehand for the same reason.

If I have a room at the Ritz, then I invite people with whom I would like to later retire to that room. I call it the Dinner-With-Rita-Hayworth-Or-Blake-Lively-Or-Whoever Effect.

I am so glad this survey is not public and will never be published. It would be embarrassing if my wife ever saw this.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I would use it to move slightly forward in time, from question 14 to question 16, because then I would avoid the brain cramp of this question.

There are lots of creative people I would like to meet, but mostly so I could see them at work. The very young Picasso has always interested me, even before Arte Joven, when he was a teenager rooming with Max Jacob.

The same thing goes for the young Sly Stone. I would like to have been there while he produced the first Beau Brummels album.

From my answer to this question, it seems like I like people at the sponge stage, when they’re alive to everything, before a synthesis happens. For that reason, I would like to go to the future, when everyone will be replaced by sponges.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. I am like a Jewish Christian Scientist. I don’t like medicines. I have nothing against people who like them or use them responsibly, but they are opaque to me as solutions.

A spa vacation seems more exhausting than rejuvenating. Also, when I get off the treadmill, sometimes I find that I lose all motivation, not just to work, but to do everything else also. A vegetative state arrives.

I guess I’d have to say hit man, though I would dial him down: I’d send him to yell at people or play strategic pranks rather than do the killing thing.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?

Not chocolate. Not cigarettes. But I think vodka and coffee, used intelligently and separately, can regulate energy in most cases.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I carry around a giant You Are Here arrow at all times, so I’m good wherever.

The older I get, though, the more I think that maybe I would like the country. It has fewer people and thus fewer problems. If I were a tree, I would pick the city for the same reason.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

How does it feel to not be able to be funny, or at least not quite funny?

The more people move up a ladder, the more they are accountable for the feelings—and, worse, for the perceptions—of the people below them. That has a chilling effect on certain kinds of jokes: it either stops them outright or drives them deep inside private moments, where they begin to contrast drastically with a public persona and become, in effect, hypocrisy.

“Don’t you ever just want to let loose and make an actual joke, without that over-determined concern for the consequences?” That’s what I would want to say.

I think if I said this to the leader of the country he or she would nod slowly, all the while desperately pressing the button on the underside of his or her desk that calls security.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Well, two books are emerging into the world (The Slippage, which is my new novel, and Mo Meta Blues, which is the Questlove memoir I helped write). So there will be some time and effort spent watching them learn to walk or, just as likely, stumble.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say. There are so many seeds in the ground.

Every night I go to sleep late, but still earlier than I want. Every morning I wake up early (also earlier than I want). I have a folder on my desktop of projects that are at that germinal stage. I read through them all, quickly, and whichever one speaks to me, that’s the one that gets my attention.

Sometimes it’s a short humor piece and I can polish it off quick before I go to the office. Sometimes it’s a longer fiction piece and I manage to sketch out only a sentence or two before the day begins. Things happen precariously and confusingly, but they happen.

Have you ever seen a juggler on a moving sidewalk? I haven’t, but I imagine it would look harder to us than it would feel to the juggler. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker. He is the author of the story collections What He's Poised to Do; Superbad; and A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories About Human Love, and the novels Superworse and Please Step Back.

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