For two decades, Ben Greenman has been in the game. He’s never done anything else other than write, and he’s pretty much done it all: fiction, non-fiction, magazine editing, reference books, and even worked for The New Yorker as a writer for almost 15 years. More recently, he’s worked on collaborations, writing books with the likes of Brian Wilson, George Clinton, and Questlove. He’s constantly got something on the backburner, and right now is no difference: the near future will see Greenman drop another collaboration with a certain Tonight Show bandleader, as well as a book on Prince, the dearly-departed funk-soul superstar.
How/why did you get involved in your career as a writer? I always wrote. I haven’t ever done anything else. That takes care of the “writer” part. As for career, it’s been the same winding path that lots of people walk: in my early twenties, I went to grad school and wrote lots of fiction; then I left grad school and worked as a book packager and reference-book writer; then I became a magazine editor, eventually ending up at the New Yorker, where I worked for almost fifteen years; during that time, I started publishing books of fiction; I eventually phased into writing non-fiction, some of it in collaboration with celebrities, in addition to fiction.
Tell us a little bit about your present work, the CliffsNotes version of your day to day and what is at stake. Over the last few years, I’ve worked on collaborations—with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, with George Clinton of P-Funk, with Questlove. I’ve also published a novel (The Slippage) and a book of essays (Emotional Rescue). At the moment, I’m working on a book about Prince, out soon, in addition to a few fiction projects and another collaboration with Questlove. My day is pretty simple. I wake up. I write. At around 4 pm, my kids start to return home, distracting me (though in a good way). The next morning, I wake up and write again. I try to alternate writing days with reading days, so that I stay inspired and don’t get too far into my own echo chamber.
What do you find most fulfilling about writing both fiction and nonfiction? They play off each other. I have always worked as a journalist, so when I write fiction, it’s a sanctuary away from speaking to people, but with the knowledge that pretty soon I’ll be speaking to people again. I don’t know if I’d like it if I was always off on my own working on fiction projects. Over time, I have come to I like the collaborative projects, because they let me handle another person’s life story and use a mix of reporting and fictional presentation. They are very ego-free, which is refreshing.
What is your proudest achievement as a writer, and what’s been your greatest challenge? My proudest achievement is just staying in there for two decades. The rest of it is hard to parse. There have been books that have been critically celebrated but missed commercially. There have been books that have sold well but seemed to be misunderstood. My greatest challenge has been continually finding a mix of projects: both keeping all kinds of writing muscles active and also making a living.
What do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field in the future? I don’t like that publications use free labor, or cheap labor. That’s been a relatively recent development, as the internet has raised the demand for content but lowered the value of individual pieces of content. Too many people write for peanuts, and it’s not good for young writers, and the ripple effect isn’t good for older writers. Also, I hope that people continue to write fiction that takes risks with form and subject. I’m sure they will. They do it all the time. If they stopped, it would be a tragedy.