Books In Conversation
Ben Greenman with Darin Strauss
Ben Greenman’s Superworse has just been published by Soft Skull. Darin Strauss is the author of the novels Chang and Eng (2000) and The Real McCoy (2002). Both are contributors to One Ring Zero’s book-CD project As Smart As We Are, due out in May from Soft Skull.
In the middle of February, Strauss sat down with Greenman at the latter’s home in Park Slope.
Ben Greenman: Who should begin?
Darin Strauss: You should. You’re the one with the new book.
Greenman: But I don’t have questions about my own book, or at least no questions I can answer.
Strauss: Okay. I’ll start. You have just published Superworse, which is a paperback version of Superbad. How is the paperback different from the hardback?
Greenman: In the hardback, there’s a story about an artist who makes copies of things like restaurant menus and phone book pages, and then alters a tiny bit of information. That was how I changed it: it’s slightly different, and at the same time entirely different. In other words, there were things that I wanted to change as it went from hardback to paperback, but more than that, things that I wanted to amplify. On both versions, I worked with an editor named Laurence Onge. He’s a character, and he had very distinct ideas about what needed to change. There are a number of new introductions, by him, and commentaries, by him, and then I changed the contents. There were some pieces too closely tied to current events, like the 2000 Presidential election or the Elian Gonzalez case. Those pieces came out. All in all, it was a cathartic, terrifying process. When you finish a novel, how great is the temptation to rework the book, or do you just put it in a box and bury it?
Strauss: There’s a brilliant short story about a guy who goes into bookstores and marks up the copies of his own book. I never stop tinkering with a manuscript until it’s torn from my hands by a publisher; right down to the wire I’m changing semicolons to periods and generally futzing around. I think I’m a better reviser than writer. So the temptation to change is always there.
Greenman: And yet, you don’t reread your books.
Strauss: Once they’re out there I wouldn’t want to read them from cover to cover.
Greenman: It’s an other-people job.
Strauss: And it’s torture. You’re going to see things you would change.
Greenman: Right. And that was one of the interesting things about doing my paperback: I had to reread the hardback, which was a liberating process but also an extremely painful one. The only way it was bearable was because I had this editor character at my disposal, and he had no qualms about criticizing me.
Strauss: One of the things I really like about your stuff is that you’re not afraid to be influenced. What I mean by that is that you’re not afraid to follow an idea just because someone else has followed it. A lot of people will shy away from doing that because there already is a Borges, etc. But I love that story of yours that you mentioned, which is informed by Borges’s "Pierre Menard."
Greenman: Originality is such a strange idea. If you’re really going to be original, you’re almost always going to be wrong. There’s been enough writing and artwork that when you find the form that best suits you, it’s a good bet that someone else will have put his or her grubby little fingerprints all over it at some point in the past. So the best work you can do ends up being both on the run from those antecedents and on the run toward them.
Strauss: When I was younger I was a guitar nut, and I remember Eddie Van Halen saying he was a huge Eric Clapton fan. I didn’t understand that at all, because their styles are so different, but later, as a writer, I could see what Eddie was talking about, which is that influences are not always swallowed whole and regurgitated. You don’t have to sound like your influences.
Greenman: Switching to music is interesting, because I always thought of Superworse like a record album, in a way. Often times you’ll read a collection of stories and they are all fairly good, but they’re doing the same thing at the same length over the course of the collection. On an album, on the other hand, you might get a six-minute song, a three-minute song, a ballad.
Strauss: That’s the trouble in a way: you want it to be cohesive and also varied. How many albums get panned by saying it’s a good collection of songs but it doesn’t cohere?
Greenman: And this changes over time, too. In 1958, if you were a rock star, you might release single after single, then some opportunistic record-label owner would throw them together with some filler and call it an album. By 1968, though, rock stars were making albums that held together from end to end; if you went into their stupid rock star offices, you could see their colored-pencil charts – here we’ll bring in the oboe and here reprise the theme in speed-metal. All of a sudden they were composers.
Strauss: I’ve been reading lots of V.S. Pritchett, who was maybe the greatest British short story writer of the twentieth century. He was a master of that mix. He’d have a really long story, a sixty-page story, and he would follow it with a two-page story, and it worked, because all the stories are written with the same sensibility.
Greenman: In the foreword to the Updike collection of early stories, he talks about why he left New York. He says he got tired of all the word people: you go to a party and you hear someone talking over there about their novel, and someone over there writing for a musical, and someone over there finishing up an essay on politics. It’s a strange mix of careerism and honest interest in the same kinds of things. Does Brooklyn cure that at all?
Strauss: No. All the writers have moved here. There’s so much ambition here, and it’s all the same as your own. It’s tough to work in that environment. But it’s invigorating in other ways because you get to meet like-minded people.
Greenman: It’s always interesting, but sometimes hard to keep your head above water.
Strauss: Your book is very diverse, as we’ve said. Do you think a publisher would ever go for a completely mixed book? I mean a total mishmash: essays, fiction, poetry.
Greenman: I think that’s a hard call. If an author has a big brand, if they’re the name above the title, it might. Otherwise, it’s a hard diet for most people to digest. If you insist on diversity, you’re creating a problem for readers. It’s not just tough to get it to publishers, but it’s tough for an audience to come around to. I started as a reporter and a critic, and I have always written a mix of serious pieces and funny pieces. Interestingly, they’re generally about the same themes. Superworse, like Superbad, is pretty consistently a book about mentor/protégé relationships.
Strauss: Writers constantly do this, right? Almost every great writer has a narrow range of themes, a few pet themes he or she works over and over again.
Greenman: Like Conrad. Like James.
Strauss: Like Roth. But you have to try to branch out a little bit. You see how much greater a writer Roth is now than at the beginning. When you first start reading Sabbath’s Theatre, it seems like the same thing. Then when you get into it, you see that he’s going deeper.
Greenman: And if you’re Richard Russo, maybe this is an upstate work, maybe this a campus work. But it’s the same. In a way, the definition of a hack is someone who moves so easily between things, so the definition of talent, maybe, is that you get stuck.
Strauss: Early success— to be thought of as successful for one thing very early on in your career— is tremendously problematic. I mean, look at authors like Richard Russo or Don DeLillo, who published four or five books to mixed reviews and small audiences. They didn’t start to come into their own until six or seven books down the line. It’s the same thing with Russell Banks, who I have met a few times and talked to about these things. He felt like he needed the time to develop. But nowadays, if you can’t find an audience quickly, you’re discarded.
Greenman: In a way this is why I took Superworse to Soft Skull. It began as a Brooklyn indie and I wanted it to end as one. I am interested in Brooklyn publishing, but I’m not much of a public person. I don’t like going to events, don’t like going to readings, either as a participant or as a performer. I’d rather be at home or a bar. But I think that the freedom involved in independent publishing is important. It’s a freedom for the writer, who can build a body of work slowly, without answering to the bottom line, without worrying about appearances. In big publishing hairiness is a problem. You have to be groomed. It’s hard to feel like I’m not bitching when I complain about publishing. Most writers don’t get published at all. But of the writers I know who are published, there really is a frustration with a rigidity in publishing. There isn’t time to develop as an artist.
Strauss: I think it’s purely corporate now. I’d like to believe it’s a more complicated set of circumstances, but I think it’s a situation where money is the bottom line in ways it wasn’t before. And in a downturned economy, what’s the first thing you’re going to stop buying? A twenty-dollar hardcover.
Greenman: Superworse is, I should say again, a paperback.
Strauss: It’s such a great thing to be able to rework a book. Most writers would love to be able to do that. Is this the more mature of the two versions?
Greenman: Well, I wanted it to be different enough that readers wouldn’t feel cheated. There’s a bonus track mentality. But it is a more mature work in some sense. The first book was very topical. In a way, this book is the one that may last longer. In that sense it is more fully realized. I sort of thought it backwards. I knew that the hardback was stamped with an expiration date. That’s why I took some things that were implicit in the hardback and made them explicit in the paperback. It’s that same mix of generosity and defensiveness. I am giving people a present, but that present is the ability to better read my book. What a present!
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