Neatly summarizing Ben Greenman’s fiction is not easy. His first collection, Superbad, included a number of well-crafted, emotionally crushing short stories — but also prefaced several with editorial notes suggesting that Greenman would be better off including more musicals about then-current events. Some of his fiction opts for an experimental structure; other work — notably, his funk-rock inspired novel Please Step Back — is, on the surface, much more traditional in its organization. And oftentimes, his work can be deeply moving even as it gently (or not-so-gently) tugs at the borders of form. His new collection, What He’s Poised To Do (Harper Perennial), takes as its focus stories built around letters; it is itself an expansion of an earlier work, Correspondences.
What He’s Poised to Do takes as its starting point your earlier collection Correspondences. Earlier, you also revisited portions of Superbad in the later Superworse. Did these revisitations arise out of a dissatisfaction with the initial work, or is there a constant impulse to revise, even after a story or book has made it into print?
It stems, first and foremost, from a misunderstanding. When I was a kid starting to read, and I saw different editions of books, I assumed they were different books. It didn’t occur to me that the hardback of The Ox-Bow Incident, the one with the wagon train silhouetted against a mountain range, was the same as the paperback with the noose in the foreground. That naïve idea stuck with me and, when I became a writer, turned into something else. There is also, of course, some element of fussiness, though in the case of Superbad/Superworse it was strongly comic – the second book invented an editor who thought that the first edition was a mess and I was a charlatan and readers were stupid and everything needed fixing- and in the case of Correspondences/What He’s Poised To Do it’s more like the traditional relationship between a hardback and a paperback.
Is there a point at which you feel that a particular work — whether short- or long-form — is, essentially, out of the scope of revision or reassignment?
Yes and no. I don’t do much line-by-line revision. It’s hard to re-enter a piece of writing at the level of the sentence or paragraph. But I like the idea of putting old stories in new soil. There are pieces from my collection A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, which was published in 2007, that I considered transplanting to this collection, just to see if they would flourish or wilt, but in the end, they seemed like they would be weeds more than flowers.
Do you see digital editions, which in theory can be constantly updated, as at all advantageous to this process?
Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it. You mean beaming updates into a text, like making prices of food more current? I think something like that will certainly happen, but that means that the way we read will have to change, because we will still need a convention that tells us what the Real Work is. There has long been a divide between the Alexandrian and Pergamanian schools of textual scholarship: the Alexandrians believed you could absorb all the revisions and shifts and, from your experience, generate an ideal master text. The Pergamanians said that change is arbitrary and inevitable, so you had to pick one version and declare that The Thing. This is a third thing: the text that perfects itself. It sounds scary and a little wrong, but that doesn’t mean it’s not right.
Letters have played a part in your fiction going back to Superbad’s “Snapshot.” Is there anything specific about the form that has led to its long-term appeal for you?
Everything: the specificity of audience, the importance of voice, the necessity of establishing character quickly, the foregrounding of motive. Also, letters are very intimate documents that depend on a dialogue between a writer and reader, and usually between two writers. But letter writers aren’t necessarily writers in the professional sense, and there’s a great relief in that. I am naturally suspicious of the professionalization of writing. What makes one person better at it than another? Isn’t it just that there are different kinds of writing needed at different times? Aren’t most people good (and even great) writers in certain circumstances? In conjunction with this new book, Harper Perennial and I launched a blog called Letters With Characters, which invites people to write letters to their favorite fictional characters. The response has been tremendous, and tremendously interesting. People really want to speak directly to fictional characters, and the letter form lets them interact with literature in ways that other forms – essays, say – don’t. A friend of mine said that she thinks people like letters because they feel they are allowed to write them.
Was there any overlap in the time spent working on Please Step Back and the stories in What He’s Poised to Do?
Yes and no. The first set of stories, the ones that were in Correspondences, were done and published, in a way, before Please Step Back ever came out. But most of the pieces came later, after I was done touring for the novel.
In the story “A Bunch of Blips,” there’s a line about letters that could be taken as a theme for a collection as a whole (“…but then he designed this inverted critical structure that privileged a letter you might write to a girlfriend over, say, Tolstoy”)? From where did the idea of doing a collection of letter-themed stories arise? Did the idea come first, or was it an outgrowth from one particular story?
Corespondences, which came out at the end of 2008, was a reaction to Please Step Back: to writing a longer novel, and to writing something that had a kind of traditional shape – it told a story on its own terms, from behind a curtain, and then released that story in a time-tested form, the codex. That seemed fine to me, but also limiting, or at least potentially limiting. I designed, with Hotel St. George, this weird book-box with seven stories, six on accordion books and the last printed on the casing of the box. That was Correspondences, and when it came time to pick which stories we’d use, it seemed natural to use the ones that were about letter-writing, because they were the most subversive of fiction-as-monologue. One story, “Helpmate,” came first in Correspondences, and the others came along soon after – although, ironically, “Helpmate” (which was a kind of suicide note from a wayward husband to his loyal wife) didn’t make it through to What He’s Poised To Do.
The design of What He’s Poised to Do places postmarks by the titles of the stories. What are your feelings about having some of this information — location and time, specifically — imparted to the reader outside of the confines of the story?
I think it’s subtle enough. My original idea was more elaborate: I wanted to transport myself to different points in time and mail myself letters from those eras. Harper Collins rejected that as too expensive. They have no budget for time-travel.
At the same time, some of those postmarks — “Lunar City, 1989,” for instance — suggest a reality that isn’t exactly our own. Similarly, the “sides” structure established in Please Step Back ends up being subverted by the end, when the fourth side is significantly shorter than the previous three. (A double LP with an etching on the last side, perhaps?) With this in mind, what are your views on form and structure — do you see them as hard-and-fast guidelines, or ideas to be subverted if possible?
Everything should be subverted if possible. That’s how you know you have an idea, and also how you pay your respects to form. I don’t think you honor structure by simply acknowledging it – you make it visible and make it strong it by challenging it. Plus, this is fiction. If you can’t mount a challenge to established ideas orconventions in fiction, where can you? Upset the apple cart whenever possible: or, if you’ve got the time, upset it, douse it in gasoline, drop a match, and turn to walk away before the flame hits apple one.
Reading What He’s Poised to Do, I found many of the stories to tap into this sense of personal connections — whether romantic or familial — that remained elusive. That in turn echoed Rock Foxx’s attempts to complete the song that gives Please Step Back its title — something that was, for him, every bit as elusive. What about that pursuit appeals to you as a writer, and how do you capture the feeling of something that, by its nature, can’t be captured?
This is the central theme of everything, so thank you (and damn you) for ending with it. Art is, for me, that attempt to capture the things you know you’ll never really have: the energy that moves the drums at the beginning of “Street Fighting Man,” a beautiful person’s beautiful face, a truth about society or psychology or even science that doesn’t fade when you stare at it. I am suspicious when stories or novels come to conclusions. I feel like those writers are colluding with death or despair, even if they pretend that they are showing you something good. I haven’t seen conclusive proof that there is any such thing as conclusive proof, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.