You unbashed McSweeney's acolytes will recognize today's interviewee from his book Superbad, published in 2001 by McSweeney's press. His most recent book is A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories about Human Love. In addition to this he's the editor of the Goings On About Town section for the New Yorker, the author of Superworse - The Novel: A Remix of Superbad: Stories and Pieces, and has penned penned a series of musicals that reflect on current events, including If I Did It! The Musical,
The Ben Greenman Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions
Can you explain the relationship between your website and Sable Bank & Trust?
Yes. Can and will. Sable Bank & Trust is a neighborhood lending institution that helps local entrepreneurs set up businesses such as shoe stores, soda shoppes, and houses of ill repute. My website has been, for many years, the home of Sable Bank & Trust. In recent months, since my latest book came out, I have taken over the address to promote my writing. Soon enough, it'll be Sable Bank & Trust again. So don't be worried if you are a local entrepreneur with a business idea and you are looking for a line of credit.
What's the biggest misconception people have about what it's like to work at the New Yorker?
I guess it's the cliché: that people sit around talking about literature and international relations all the time. I mean, we talk about physics, too!
Do you receive many unsolicited ideas for goings on around town, stories or cartoons or cartoon captions?
Do I, personally? Some, yes. But since I edit Goings On About Town, I usually send them to the proper departments. In rare cases, I keep them for myself. Once, there was a cartoon someone sent me of a stapler saying to another stapler, "I think it was something I ate." Awful, but somehow great.
What's your favorite thing they serve in the Conde Naste cafeteria?
Is there any specific area of your work that you wish interviewees would ask you more questions about?
I wish people would ask me more about the structure of my books. I put lots of work into structuring them. More work, for example, than I have into structuring this answer.
Has Seth Rogen responded to your Superbad "attack"?
Not "yet." Hopefully, he "knew" that it wasn't really an "attack." If not, I'd be "worried" about his mental "state."
What have you read lately that you'd like to recommend to other people?
Always an impossible question, because it seems so easy. Last week, over the vacation, I reread Voltaire, of all things. It was the top book on a stack of books in my family's vacation house. Once I got past the anti-Semitism, it was excellent.
You're standing in a room with a paintgun, a Harvard grad and a Princeton grad. Who do you shoot first?
Once I played paintball on a corporate/editorial retreat. In round one, Team Killers won. In round two, Team Destroyers won. Then the publisher of the magazine I worked for at that time put us all on the bus and told us, "the reason there was no third round is that we are all winners."
Which of the musicals that you've written has the best chance of actually being staged on Broadway?
Elian, I think. Or O.J. Not the one about the sinking of the Jeannette.
What do you miss most about Chicago?
My life there. It's gone, so there's no point pining for it, and I have a life now that I like just as much. But you know sometimes when you go through a door and you're sure you can just step backwards through it? Well, you're wrong.
just got back from a small trip to Wisconsin with some friends who had never been to America's Dairyland. If someone was heading up to Milwaukee and the environs who had never been there before, what would you instruct her to see?
Kopp's. The art museum. My cousin.
How did you come up with the title for your latest book?
It came to me, not in a dream, but in a half-sleep. It means something, of course. People have asked me what it means like it might not. It's about the way that romance is both a way of orienting yourself in life and an escape from that life.
Other interviewees have noted your organization methods in this book and others. Are there any books by other authors that you've admired for their interesting structure?
Of course, but they're mostly nonfiction books: encyclopedias, self-help books, books of worlds records.
Of the various genres you've worked in, which do you think gave you the most practical experience?
The most practical genre: reporting. When I was 21, I was a film critic and a normal old reporter for a weekly paper in Miami called New Times. I loved it. I got to do normal news stories, stories about sexual harassment, police corruption, and that kind of thing. It was a great way to set aside the ego of writing and focus instead on telling the truth for a change.
What made you decide to pursue your PhD in literature, and what made you decide to cease?
I went because I thought maybe I couldn't spend my life working for magazines and newspapers, and I stopped when I realized that maybe I could. Also, there was a girlfriend involved at both ends of the decision.
I read some interesting quotes from you in a New York Magazine article on McSweeney's, but I couldn't tell when it was published. You said in it, "There appears to be a universe in which there is nothing higher than McSweeney's." I have an unfounded theory that the McSweeney's groupies seem to have thinned out (which is no reflection on the success or value of McSweeney's itself.) Do you agree? And on that note, do you receive as many "Dear Benny" emails as you once did?
I do not receive as many as I once did. I think they got older. In some rare cases, I miss them, but for the most part, it's a welcome relief, since I tried to answer them all.
What music have you been listening to lately to supplement/provide inspiration for your writing?
Soul music and Jelly Roll Morton, mostly.
How does it feel to be the 187th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Well, it feels a little scary, since 187 is the police code for murder. You know how in "Deep Cover," Snoop Dogg says, "it's 187 on an undercover cop"? It's like that.
Don't worry, because you're actually #188
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