BEN GREENMAN’s had a busy year. He’s still at the New Yorker; penned three short-short stories for a new line of Jack Spade passport covers; published Correspondences, a letterpressed post-card “book” of short fiction; and on May 5 his newest novel, Please Step Back, about the genre-busting, fictional sixties funk showman Rock Foxx, was released.

I caught up with Ben on this occasion and asked him what he’s been reading now that he has some down time (though as you’ll see, I don’t think Ben ever has any down time), how he created the lyrics in his new book, and what makes a scandal worthy of starring in the strange current-event musicals he writes.

What’s Ben Greenman Reading?
Author

Q&A by Christine Thomas

Q. What are you reading these days, Ben?

A. These days, I’m reading sort of a mix of things, because I’m finished with the book and getting back into other people’s books. James W. Hall, the thriller writer, who I like very much. The John F. Kennedy speeches. Mary Robison’s stories, Frederich Busch’s novels, a biography of James Dickey.

Q. What’s at the top of your stack, or are you rotating through each of them?

A. Right now? [looks] None of the ones I said, weirdly. What’s at the top of the stack is a novel called “Elbowing the Seducer,” from 1984, by this woman named T. Gertler. I don’t know if people remember it anymore. It was there for a while, then gone. Sad.

Q. What about Elbowing the Seducer makes you remember it, or at least want to re-read it (presumably since it’s at the top)?

A. Oh, it’s a book that I liked very much at the time: lots of sex, adult themes, characters that wind in and out, some dark comedy. It’s also a book about authors and publishing and the New York literary world, which really appealed to me when I was a teenager in Miami and now appeals somewhat less. Mainly I like it because it’s about transforming personal and emotional confusion into crisp literary art. That’s the job we all have, as writers, and it’s much more important than worrying about how things are received or how they sell or anything like that.

Q. Is that what also draws you to Robison and Busch, who some admire for emotionally dislocated stories and minimalist, artful prose?

A. Well, I love good prose. Who doesn’t? Maybe members of the League of Prose Enemies. Does that organization still exist? Their mailers were unreadable. I think in Robinson’s case, that’s certainly true. Busch seemed—well, his stories seem, though he’s now a seemed—less dislocated, even less charged in some ways, but he was such a consistently compelling stylist.

LL: I’m not sure if they still exist, but I know a futurist who still thinks reading is a form of oppression and mind control.

BG: You know a futurist who thinks that reading is generally a form of mind control, or reading while writing?

LL: Reading generally, but I know I find it difficult to free my mind to write my own fiction if I’m reading others’ fiction at the same time.
So did you read a lot—these authors or others—while writing your new novel, Please Step Back, or did you free your mind to create crisp literary prose?

A. While I was writing, I read mostly Henry James and Iceberg Slim, trying to balance off the high with the low and end up somewhere in the middle.

Q. I’m imagining James and Slim mixing in with your novel’s conjured life of fictional sixties funk-rock star Rock Foxx…Where did Please Step Back end up then, either because of or in spite of your reading at the time?

A. I wanted to make something that was directed inward but also full of evident life. The book landed somewhere in the middle, I think, though it ended up being more commercial than I had originally suspected—not in a calculated way, but because the character ended up pulling the story along in what was a predictable but not unsatisfying arc. Though keep in mind that since I wrote the book, I may not be the best critic.

Also, one thing that was in neither James nor Slim was lyrics, which were in my book and were one of the most challenging but liberating parts. I loved writing songs for my fake funk star, like this one, where Rock Foxx wonders about America, race, drugs, violence, and fame.

STAGGERING

I ain’t your boy
I ain’t your slave
I won’t be digging
For your grave

But when you’re falling be sure to watch the sky
You’ll see me up there learning how to fly

Staggering oh staggering
Mack the knife is daggering
America is flaggering
I’m staggering

I ain’t your son
I ain’t your Tom
See me fragging
In Viet Nam

The street ain’t always wide enough for two
I’m crossing over to take good care of you

Staggering oh staggering
The family dog is waggering
The Rolling Stones are jaggering
I’m staggering

Q. The book already got a starred review from PW, so it looks like you’re spot on for now, and is this the song that was ‘covered’ by real seventies funk star Swamp Dogg?

A. No, that’s Please Step Back, the title song. It’s all about verticality and grounding…

Please Step Back

The world is
Pushing up too hard
Yes it’s pushing up too hard
I wish the pull
Would have its full
Effect
Lord save my neck

The world is
Giving too much lift
Yes it’s giving too much lift
I wish the ounce
Would stop its bounce
So high
Lord tell me why

Please step
Please step back
The pill on the hill
Is still killing Jack
It broke his crown
It put him down
It beat his white eye black
Oh, please step back

Well, what good is my money?
What good is my fame?
Every solution begins with a single flame

The world is
Spinning much too fast
Yes it’s spinning much too fast
I wish the poles
Would play their roles
And freeze
Lord help me, please

Please step
Please step back
A peach out of reach
Never fails to attract
There goes a bird
Without a word
His song is so abstract
Oh, please step back

Q. Who or what did you turn to for help or inspiration when creating Foxx’s lyrics?

A. I turned outward to the artists I love (Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield) but also inward. I’ve always listened to a ton of music, and I have always heard things in my head as rhymes. Do you know of those weird current events musicals I do? I’ve written them for years, whenever there’s a scandal—Mel Gibson, Larry Craig, Elliott Spitzer, John Edwards, steroids in baseball. The one about Britney Spears I wrote during her crazy period.

But I wanted the lyrics to be elliptical at the same time that they were tethered to the political realities of the period.

Q. So you’ve had a lot of practice… Are you choosy about which scandals you transform into musicals, say just the ones that are irresistibly humorous, or omnivorous?

A. Any scandal where someone famous made a fool of him or herself is fair game. Then I narrow it down. I used to be on deadline for one every two weeks. Then I started doing them more occasionally as I was getting this book wrapped up.

Q. What’s next for you—catching up on recent scandals, more musicals, original songs?

A. As far as the rhyming goes? I’m sure I’ll do some more musicals pretty soon. There are a bunch more books that have to get done—more novels, more collections of fiction, and so on. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t know exactly which one will come to the forefront. That depends a bit on how I feel over the summer.

LL: Okay, really I want to know what musical-worthy scandal is most making the rhymes sound in your head.

A. At the moment? I’m interested in the Craigslist killer, but that’s too dark. That’s better suited for serious fiction, don’t you think?

LL: I don’t know–it might be perfect for a dark comic opera, though it is very American Psycho.

A. Until I know more, I’m not giving this guy any unnecessary publicity…

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