Writer Ben Greenman so craves human contact as part of his routine that he edits the front section of The New Yorker.
His fiction, including his latest novel, Please Step Back, he boxes off in the mornings and evenings at his Brooklyn home, between raising his five and eight year-old sons. Then he takes the subway into Manhattan and begins to put together the listings and features that make up Goings On, the weekly events guide of the globally-renowned magazine. It’s a job he has held for 10 years.
“For me it’s not good to not be connecting with people,” he says, speaking from his office in a recent interview. “[At work] if you hand in an edit and forget to tell someone, there are consequences. And there’s a pulse of satisfaction at a job well done. Writing fiction occurs 100 per cent in your head, and you’re the only victim or beneficiary. You become superstitious at home.”
With no boss to keep the writer on the straight and narrow, routines lose their meaning, he argues. “No one’s going to call you up and say, ‘Hey, I notice you didn’t take your 8:35 a.m. shower.’ Or, if this does happen, you should probably move,” he says.
For this reason, the Vineyard, where the Chicago-born, Miami-raised 40-year-old has spent his summers for two decades, is a particularly non-conducive work environment. He recalls a lonely and fearful period attempting to write at his family home in Aquinnah during the winter, when he spent much of his time seeking the refuge of fellow humans at the Navigator bar in Edgartown. But the Island does function as the location for one key work-related activity of Mr. Greenman’s — an annual culling of a list of projects, a ritual that directs his massive output over the coming year.
“I walk around the garden weighing each one up, getting bitten by mosquitoes,” he says. The Island was a source of inspiration for Please Step Back, as both the place where he settled on the writing style for his new book and as a surviving example of how the famous were once better integrated into society, key to the novel’s main character.
But first to Mr. Greenman’s principal muse: Sly Stone. Robert Foxx, the lead singer of a fictional sixties-era funk rock band at the center of Please Step Back, uses a stage name, dresses like a pimp, self-implodes under the pressures of fame and in other ways bears a striking resemblance to Sly, of Sly and the Family Stone fame. Mr. Greenman bought his first Sly and the Family Stone album, a greatest hits cassette tape, as a 10-year-old.
“I listened to it thousands of times,” he says. “I learned about the dark messages that he put out in these shiny containers.” Many artists of the time reflected their disillusionment with the faded ideals of the sixties, but Mr. Stone’s method was unique he says. “Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, the way they dealt with it varied. But [Sly Stone] was so un-straightforward.”
Mr. Greenman describes his decades-long interest in the funk pioneer as a casual obsession. “I used to collect videotapes footage of backstage appearances and interviews. If I was in a library I might look over at the microfilm for local appearances when he or other musicians in that group came to town. If I was in a used bookshop I’d look in that section.”
For a while he was considering writing a biography but creativity and fandom got in the way. “When I got to a dead-end in my research I tended to want to start inventing things, plus when I discovered anything negative — drugs or violence at home — I wanted to protect him.”
Finally he satisfied both journalistic and creative instincts by dreaming up a parallel band, and inserting it into the whirligig of sixties and seventies America. The central theme is Mr. Foxx’s alienation and paranoia in the face of megastardom in Los Angeles where he spends his energy and money barricading himself against the world, ultimately squandering his talent. Like Mr. Stone, the novel’s protagonist enjoys a brief period in the Bay area of San Francisco, where he finds he can live in relative normalcy while being a widely recognized figure.
“Rob Foxx in the early sixties in the Bay area, he’s known, some people are in awe, but he’s left to go about the street. This is how it used to be, there were no handlers,” says Mr. Greenman. Casting about for a place in America that offers celebrities a comparable lifestyle today, he found only the Vineyard. “I feel everybody’s a little bit more normal as a celebrity [on the Vineyard]. I remember being at the Home Port as a kid and seeing Ted Danson just walking around, thinking he’s eating the same fried strips of seafood as us, he doesn’t go to better restaurants or stores. There’s no anonymity for those people but there’s some privacy.”
He acknowledges that the same may not be true of the most celebrated of celebrities, the likes of President Obama. Nevertheless, he imagines it is a relaxed attitude rather than exclusivity that attracts even the ultra-famous to the Island. “This criticism from the right wing of Obama staying on the Vineyard because it’s an elite enclave, well, it’s right in a way, it is an elite place. There is a high cost of living and a finite amount of property, which brings the home values up, so there’s a higher cost of entry,” Mr. Greenman says. “But once you’re there it’s not like people are walking around in tiaras. People have the same beat-up cars because of the roads which helps to equalize everyone.”
In preparing for his book, the Vineyard provided Mr. Greenman with different reading material from the exacting prose he consumes in his day job. Here he would take crime novels by the handful from the mystery section of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore — devouring authors like Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler. “That escapism, the thrill of rushing through things,” he said, “that’s how I wanted Please Step Back to read.”
If in every music fan there is a frustrated rock star, Mr. Greenman marshaled his condition to come up with original verses to songs, ones that don’t quite exist, even in the head of the author.
“I wanted people to be able to imagine different songs; I think it would be interesting to know what people hear,” he says.
The method squares felicitously with Mr. Greenman’s inability to hold a tune or produce a note, though he did play a little trumpet in junior high.
“I’m bad at it,” he says. “It always seemed unfair that someone could make a four-minute song that has as much emotional power as a book. A song seems easier.” One set of lyrics, Please Step Back, did make its way off the page. Mr. Greenman sent the words to Jerry Williams Jr., also known as Swamp Dogg, a soul musician with whom Mr. Greenman established an e-mail friendship after interviewing him for The New Yorker, who produced a song, loosely approached as a modern cover of an imagined lost demo of a sixties-era band.
Side projects such as the Swamp Dogg collaboration help make Mr. Greenman’s resume nearly endless — he has provided lyrics for other bands, written fiction sized to be printed on passport holders, he even designed fake record covers for the albums described in Please Step Back (also available at bengreenman.com). Nevertheless, he says, he is conscious not to send his creative energy off in too many directions. “Plenty of authors look up in catalogues for the sort of clothes their characters would have worn, for example; it’s a way of getting immersed. It’s just playing around,” says Mr. Greenman.