Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Featured Writer: Ben Greenman

This is the latest in a series of posts highlighting the work of our Gotham friends

 With Celebrity Chekhov, author Ben Greenman jolts the Good Doctor's short stories from the Russian past into the E! True Hollywood present—the tales are the same, but instead of Anna Sergeyevna and Ivan Andreitch, we've got Oprah Winfrey, Lindsay Lohan, Jay-Z, and David Letterman. For Greenman, the book is as much about reading contemporary culture as it is about reading Chekhov. Part of the project, he says, is "to restore depth to contemporary celebrities." And it's true: transported into Chekhov's melancholy landscape (it looks a lot like the Hamptons), Alec Baldwin's malaise is downright lyrical.
If Greenman is interested in rescuing celebrities from their US Weekly caricatures, it's hardly a surprise. After all, in addition to being a New Yorker editor, novelist, essayist, and Chekhov aficionado, he's an accomplished ghostwriter and the pen behind Gene Simmons's Kiss and Make Up and Simon Cowell's I Don't Mean To Be Rude, But.... Yesterday, Greenman took a minute to chat with the BloGG about the ins and outs of ghosting with the stars. The interview follows after the jump.
Take me through the process of working on the Simon Cowell and Gene Simmons books—from the first meeting, how did you navigate those relationships?
The two projects were entirely different from one another. The Gene Simmons one was more sustained and traditional: lots of face-to-face meetings, lots of interaction, more of a personal relationship. Other than close personal friends, it's rare to spend that much time with someone, and rarer still to spend that time expressly focused on the business of their life.
For me, the most interesting part was how easy Gene was to get along with. I hadn't heard many horror stories about him, but I obviously knew his reputation as a relentless self-promoter. For my purposes, I needed him to shift that a bit. Not to set it aside, of course, because a memoir is a form of self-promotion. But I needed him to take the stories he had been telling for thirty years and stretch them enough so that they became translucent.
Interviewing, knowing which questions to ask and when to lay off, is a very complicated process, especially with someone who is as results-oriented as Gene. But it was a great process overall. I recommend him highly to anyone else who might want to write his memoir.
The Simon Cowell book was simpler: he had already done much of the groundwork, and it was more a matter of taking a heap of text and turning it into a book with his blessing. Again, he was very easy to work with. I hear stories about celebrities who were divas or nightmares; I think I lucked into people who are highly sane, organized, and don't dissolve into personal drama.

One of the biggest differences between writing as your self and ghostwriting is the need to capture someone else's thoughts--in their voice. How do you go about making a book sound like its celebrity subject?
Gene has a very distinctive voice that's very much in keeping with his public persona: he's sure of himself, funny, and not exactly prone to introspection. He's also restless and can come to see a process as frustrating when it takes too long. Out of those qualities, a voice emerged. There are modulations, of course -- he was (and is) different depending on whether he's talking about his kids or his bandmates, whether he's cooking up a new idea or reflecting on an old one. Again, much of the job is simply listening.

How has your ghostwriting evolved? You did the Simmons book, and then the Cowell a year later. Did you approach the process at all differently going in a second time?
Not really. They were different projects, because the two men were known to American audiences in such different ways -- one for decades of rock-and-roll stardom, one for a relatively recent TV show. Also, the books were somewhat different in shape. The Cowell book had a section of advice for prospective Idols: it was a way of taking what was Simon's trademark, his brutal honesty, and opening it up a bit into a kind of self-help space.

From celebrity memoirs to Celebrity Chekhov, you seem pretty clearly interested in celebrity--the people, but also the concept. What is it about celebrity that draws you in?
I think that I'm interested in private and public lives, which is a much broader and deeper subject than just celebrity. Many, if not most, of my books are about that in some form.

Does your ghostwriting work inform your fiction? And conversely, does your fiction inform your ghostwriting?
There are some points of contact: I like the idea of people justifying themselves. That's important in my fiction, and I think it's one of the reasons that I am attracted to ghostwriting projects. And I also love the idea of blurring the lines between what is real and what is not. As far as I know, the subjects of the ghostwriting books didn't knowingly lie, but they have their own memories and their own versions. They should: the book represents their story as told by them. But once they say something, it's entered into the official record, and it becomes "true" in some sense.
Fiction has a related mechanism. Within a fictional world, if I, as the author, say that someone moves out of town, well, they move out of town. Both kinds of works trade on this incredible power that language has to create and distribute thoughts.

Want more? On Thursday, 11/4 Greenman will join Neil Strauss (ghostwriter for Motley Crüe and Jenna Jameson) in Brooklyn for an "Evening of Celebrity, Comedy, Conversation, Literature, and Alcohol." If you can prove you've got the most interesting life in the audience, they'll write the first chapter of your memoir on the spot. powerHouse Arena, 37 Main St., Brooklyn, NY. (718) 666-3049. 7pm. Free.

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