New Yorker Editor Ben Greenman Talks His New Book, What He's Poised to Do

Categories: Art, Culture

Miami native Ben Greenman has never been shy about toying with convention.

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via Ben Greenman
The New Yorker editor and novelist -- and let's not forget, Miami New Times alum -- has won acclaim for his McSweeney's-approved approach to writing, as in his last novel, 2009's Please Step Back.

The book tells the tale of a fictional '60s-era funk musician named Rock Foxx -- and Greenman recorded a theme song for the novel with real-life legend Swamp Dogg.

Greenman's newest book -- What He's Poised to Do, published by Harper Perennial and arriving in bookstores this month -- also grew out of an unusual project.

In 2008, Greenman collaborated with Hotel St. George Press to release Correspondences, a letterpress box set with three accordion books and a postcard referenced in one of the short stories, about a man who walks out of a marriage and holes up in a hotel where he receives postcards.

Readers then sent their own messages back to the publisher on the card (a selection of which you can read here).

Greenman's latest book grew out of that central postcard-themed tale, and each of the 14 short stories carries a postmark stamp with its time and place, from 1940 Havana to 2010 Miami. Click through for an interview with Greenman about the book.

New Times: How did this collection come about? Did you write these short stories intending to have this unifying theme, or did they end up connecting that way independently? 

Greenman: This thing started as a box book, a big art book by Hotel St. George Press. I had this book, "Please Step Back," and after it came out this little house wanted to do a book with me. So we decided to do a box. It was all about correspondence, and how that world of dealing with people through letters has shifted through email and text, and how the loss of that process is changing us. After the box came out, Harper wanted to do a paperback version and it went from six stories to fourteen.

And the idea was still to stay with this theme of correspondences?

In the original box set, we included postcards that people were supposed to send back in. And we got a lot of them. We started another project in conjunction with a blog, letterswithcharacter.blogspot.com, where we have people write letters to fictional characters. We're up around 80 letters so far. Some are very serious letters to Hemingway characters, and some are just totally ridiculous.

This finished book is really nice, but it turned into a straightforwarded book of short stories. I still highlight that theme of correspondences, with the postmarks on each story. But if you say the story is about correspondence only, that makes it much more niche-y. It's a short story collection first, and the other theme is men and women and their difficult relationships. I suppose each story at heart is about the problematic relationships between people, if that counts as a theme.

Why are you so fascinated with this idea of people corresponding through the written word?

It's a couple things. First, it's a very efficient and interesting way for certain themes in fiction to come to the fore. A lot of the things happen very quickly now, and in contrast, I like the pace of correspondence by letter.

One of things I have a big problem with it, I don't mind them, but Twitter and Facebook are difficult. When I taught classes in college, I would ask students to listen to an old soul song called "Ain't That Good News." I would ask students, "How long do you think the woman he's singing about has been gone?" I had always imagined it was around four months or so. But sometimes these young students imagine it's just for a weekend.

With all the new media, it's hard for people to imagine not interacting with someone you know for a month. Letters are an interesting way to explore how a narrative moves between one person and another over a longer period of time.

There's a long literary tradition, as well, of telling a story through character's letters to one another. I'm reading right now Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera," where letters play a central role.

It is a familiar device, but I didn't want to do stories told solely through letters ... If 50 years ago, you wrote a letter to me and said you're really angy, when I receive it I have to assume you still felt that way. If you didn't, you wouldn't have taken the time to send the letter knowing it would take days to arrive. With status updates on Facebook, you can write, "I'm really angry with that guy," at noon, and and ten minutes later, you can change your mind and say it's no big deal.

Your roots in Miami obviously shaped some of the stories in this book. How much of your life is there in What We Believe But Cannot Praise, the story set in 2010 Miami in a lawyer's office?

That one is mostly true to my life. Not everything in the story happened the way I write it, but when I was in high school, or just back in from college, I worked to help take depos for a civil rights lawyer in Miami. I sat with these guys while they were telling all their stories.

I assume the story set in Havana also reflects some of the Cuban culture you grew up with?

Some of the story comes from that, from growing up around that culture. The other thing you'll find in my writing is that I grew up here in Miami as a reporter. I like using the idea of fake documentary, the sense of bringing artifacts to prove that you're writing the truth. It's more comfortable to me bringing pieces of real things into the story, because as a reporter you believe in documents and you believe in having sources backing up your stories.

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