Ben Greenman Mashes Up Hollywood and Russian Lit In Celebrity Chekhov

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In a world drowning in footage of Britney Spears' meltdowns, blogrolls of Tiger Woods' mistresses and fawning Brangelina features, how does a writer contrive to say anything new about celebrity in America?

Simple! If you're proud Miami New Times alum Ben Greenman -- now an acclaimed author and editor at The New Yorker -- you sub the celebrities into lead roles in Anton Chekhov's most famous short stories. The result, "Celebrity Chekhov," is a surprisingly poignant collection that adapts the Russian great's insights for our most tabloid-worthy neighbors.

Greenman, who is known for his McSweeney's writing and previous novels like 2009's Please Step Back, also released a collection of short fiction called What She's Poised To Do earlier this year.

He'll discuss his latest project at the Miami Book Fair International on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Prometeo Theater (Building 1, first floor, Room 1101).

New Times: This seems like the kind of book bound to polarize audiences. What kind of reception have you gotten so far?

Ben Greenman: People definitely seem to either like or hate it in a very specific ways. There are some traditionalists out there who think there's no point in this kind of a project because people should find their way to Chekhov through the original work. Or else they object to it because they have such a strong connection to the material.

I'm fine with it. For me, it's different kind of project because it's more directorial. I don't feel like I wrote it as much as I directed it. The stuff was already there. I cast it and pointed to the right people.

So the process was a lot different than writing a novel?

In the early stages for a book, you look at the idea, like you're going to explore the life of a sailboat captain or a genre murder. This was more high concept. These are obviously stories I'd read before, and I always felt like they were tiny bit stranded in time. They're not as old as Shakespeare where people accept all the anachronisms -- and by the way, which people update all the time with really crazy variations on his work.

I also felt like these stories, in their time, were social satires. They were about certain kinds of aristocratic and public people, and the separation of public and private life. They had an existance already in this forum of celebrity culture. So I wrote a couple to try the idea, and Harper liked them and said they'd like to do a book.

A lot of reviews have grouped this project with the latest trend toward literary mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Is that a fair comparison?

For me, it's different. I knew it would be grouped with them, but to me it's not the same kind of project. I think it's different in one major way: All those projects take the originals and graft some other kind of things on, like moving the location or adding these monsters in.

I'm not changing the stories much at all, other than substituting the characters. They're more cover versions of Chekhov than remixes. Like, if there's a weird reggae cover of this Rolling Stones song, it is new, you've made something new and taken the musical character in a different direction, but you don't change the basic idea.

I wasn't trying to change the stories. It wasn't like I'd move it from one location to have them in the middle go to Universal Studios.

Yet without much change, these stories manage to have some serious insights into the celebrities you add in.

On avereage, Chekhov's characters are kind of anonymous. On average, they're more stories about types of people. Even people who read them a lot, we don't talk about them by saying, 'I love that the story with the young guy named whatever.' Part of that is the language barrier, because those Russian names don't have the same currency.

But they're also meant to be these almost fables. Since I've done this project, I've been asked, 'Are there other authors you could do this to?' You could, but it certainly wouldn't work for an author like Melville, for example, with such specific characters.

Why did the idea of exploring the inner lives of these celebrities appeal to you, even in such an odd format?

We have all these great celebrities with so much packed into their identities, but what you perceive or anyone pereives is so overloaded. The culture writes them as characters. You take Beyonce, for instance, and what we all think of as her is not really her at all. It's just a big grab bag of what we're putting in there.

This book seemed like a good, weird way to explore that. The clearest example to communicate from the book is the one with Kim Kardashian. It's a young man in the original, and he's going back to his family's hometown, where they were in the newspaper for public drunkenness. I changed that to her and the story to a sex tape. But that whole mechanism really plays the same as it did 120 years ago. That mechanism is showing people so eager to be recognized, but not for the right reason. It's a perfect fit. And it's not tampered with that much at all.

There were tabloid urges before there were tabloids. Chekhov understood that urge. And that's what makes them succeed as literature. People can quarrel in the way they're changed. They can feel it's disrespectful, but I don't think so. You can't deny the points that he was making about people are true then and are mostly still true now.

Did you already know all these celebrities' stories really well before jumping into this? Do you subscribe to People Magazine or anything?

I know about them all sort of casually. I didn't put in any celebrities I didn't know about at all. Justin Bieber isn't in there, for example, because I don't know about him.

The question is, why do we have this line drawn between what is high quality literature and what is tabloid reporting? Sometimes, fine, I think I understand that line. But as I've shown, these stories by Chekhov are really about the same things we follow so closely in the tabloids: Too much pride sinking someone, or someone having the wrong idea about what their closest partner is feeling.

In writing about them and cracking open their psyches, it's a weird process. Some stories are weirdly emotional. There is one about a character remembering her youth when she was so beautiful, and I gave it to Britney. Poeple laugh at the very idea that she has thoughts and feelings. They find that idea funny, even though on another level, they obviously know that she does. But it's uncomfortable to think that way. They don't want to think of her that way.

Have you heard from any of the celebrities you put in the book?

No, I haven't. I have some people to run interference, in case there's trouble. But these people are so protected with so many layers I don't know if they'll ever see it. My dream is to hear from someone who's very upset that I didn't put them in the book.

Would you add them into a new edition if you did?

We're going to see about that. We are adding a few of them later. I added one about Mel Gibson for the audio book. The story is about a guy coming home from Easter dinner and this begger asks for food. The man and wife squabble about it. He snaps, and he's feeling guilty because he thinks the begger was a test from God. It really worked.

This one review, which was favorable, said, 'I smell franchise.' And I don't. It's so different from the other books I write. My other work is a lot about private and public life, also, but this is one where I direct more than I write. I don't think it's that different, it's not like I was writing academic papers about marine biology or something. But it's different enough to be off to the side.

Does that change the way you've looked at criticism and reviews of the book?

I'm really interested in the reviews for the first time, because the way people read this book is a part of the project itself. These are people grappling with the same set of concerns I had in putting this together, so it's kind of fun to see the range of reactions it's getting. Some people say, 'Oh, my kids could have searched and replaced names in this thing.' Other people think I'm making fun of the celebrities. But really, I'm making fun of everyone else, everyone who's happy to reduce them to flat caricatures.

The discussion so far has been good. I did a short West Coast tour talking about it, and it seems like this book has more room for readers to get in at the ground level. It's kind of an open source project.

We'll see how it goes in Miami, but it's a more fun book to do a discussion about. I'm not a huge huge fan of readings usually, because they're sort of static. This one, it's not. People feel authorized or able to raise their hand afterward and really say, 'What were you thinking?'
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