Ben Greenman is a novelist, short story writer and a ghostwriter who collaborates with musicians on autobiographies. He’s a contributing writer to The New Yorker and the composer of Fake Celebrity Musicals (most recently 2011’s Weiner! The Musical). He is a popular if reluctant tweeter and the creator of charts and graphs about charts and graphs.
Adept at changing pace, Mr. Greenman’s life imitates his work: for part of each summer, he trades the bustle of Brooklyn for the relative quiet of the Vineyard, continuing his varied projects from his family’s home in Aquinnah. The Greenmans have been coming to the Island for about 20 years.
While Mr. Greenman, 43, has the city to country switch down pat, his sons, now 12 and 9, had some trouble adjusting. “They’re city people,” he told the Gazette in a late August phone interview. “When they were babies and they stepped on the grass they freaked out because they didn’t know what grass is.
“But now they know what it is. It took them a little while.”
These days, the family settles into familiar Vineyard routines of playing frisbee, visiting the Gay Head Cliffs and occasional forays to Oak Bluffs.
“One of the dumb holdovers from being a city person is that you become dependent on walking to your local coffee shop in the morning,” Mr. Greenman said. “So I usually invent an excuse.”
Mr. Greenman’s work also bears the stamp of Vineyard summers, including his most recent books, the novel The Slippage and Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, an autobiography by Amir (Questlove) Thompson that Mr. Greenman co-wrote.
It so happens that the early summer is “often the time that I get the first round of edits back from the editors,” he said, and the summer is spent “bringing it from that 80 per cent mark to completion on the Vineyard.” He squeezes in work amid the summer bustle.
“For fiction projects, the summer ends up being really great for kind of the refinement process,” he said. “I’m working on the end, making sure that parts work, and there are lots of people around to test things on . . . I listen for people’s rhythms and how people interact.”
In his younger years Mr. Greenman stayed on the Vineyard past Labor Day. “It was very different, cold and dark,” he said. “You can get into your own head a little more, and not always in a comforting way. I would get a little stir crazy because nobody was around.” (He said the isolation reminded him of The Shining “without the murder and freezing to death.”)
“Initial composing is easier in that kind of environment,” he said. “You’re just generating a lot of material in your own head.”
No matter the project or the time of year, the basic elements are the same: a laptop, some coffee, music without words. But ghostwriting, though a good fit for Mr. Greenman, is a far different process.
About 12 years ago, Mr. Greenman’s agent at the time also represented Gene Simmons from KISS and was looking for a collaborator for his memoir. Mr. Greenman had always written about and listened to pop music. “It’s a big part of my writing anyway,” he said. He collaborated with Mr. Simmons and “that relationship seemed to work so I did that, then they sort of come one after the other.” He has also collaborated on a book with former American Idol judge Simon Cowell.
These projects, initially, are “very, very long conversations with other people where I have to talk less and guide more,” Mr. Greenman said. “And that’s hard . . . it’s like reporting with the difference being that you know the broad picture of where you’re going but you don’t know all the specifics yet. That person isn’t necessarily practiced at telling their life.”
The dozens of hours of conversation are “somewhere between reporting and therapy,” he said. “I like it a lot . . . it’s actually very relaxing to listen to somebody talk about their life.”
His next collaborative effort will be with George Clinton. “I know the music and I listened to it when I was a kid so to hear him talk about it is kind of comforting,” he said.
The outcome and general plot are clear for biography projects, he said, but fiction is the opposite. For those projects, “I’m wrong a lot,” he said. “I start a novel and say, I know what’s going to happen, the first half will take place in a generic suburb and then they’ll be on Mars. A week later I think, that’s not going to happen.”
His recent novel The Slippage, started with charts and graphs.
The main characters — in their late thirties or early forties, married and seemingly settled in jobs and homes — grapple with the slippage that gave the book its title, feeling lost and having depressive episodes. “That idea of being on the treadmill for awhile, and stopping and thinking, all right, I’ve come all this distance, and what was it, what happened? And you’re very far away from that initial decision that set you off on this path,” he said.
People also often measure things in their life, he said, like income and productivity, despite the fact that “what’s being measured is not really real.”
One of the characters in the book is a visual artist who makes charts about how people look at charts. Mr. Greenman said charts have never made much sense to him. “Life’s not simple enough to go into these graphs,” he said. To get into the book, Mr. Greenman started to make his own, with names like “how much I had to manipulate the data to make it seem like things are going up.”
The result took on a life of its own. His graphs about charts and charts about graphs are featured on the McSweeney’s website. A Brooklyn company has talked to Mr. Greenman about using the graphics on T-shirts and coasters.
In the novel, two other characters started to feel more real to him and the graphs play a less central role.
Beyond his writing projects, Mr. Greenman also reluctantly joined Twitter, where he has more than 13,000 followers. He finds the medium good and bad. On one hand, he said, it felt like “I’m hiring you to write fortune cookie papers, but I’m not going to pay you and you have to do a thousand a day.”
Coming up next are a host of projects that might make appearances during Vineyard summer vacations: the George Clinton book, perhaps a novel about criminals, some television things. “Always a bunch of stuff,” he said. “I sit down and write every day and stuff will happen.”
He’s not sure if he’ll return to his fake celebrity musicals, satiric takes on current events (the balloon boy, Britney Spears, Sarah Palin) that were featured on McSweeney’s.
“I can’t tell if I’m temporarily retired from those,” he said, though he might eventually find a topic or a new way to do them. “One of the weird things about doing all these projects, like the charts and the musicals, is that because of my personality I do a lot for awhile, I decide anything that happens I’m going to do a musical for or I’m going to do a chart a day.”
“And then when that passes, it’s not that I’m fickle but the energy goes somewhere else.”