A Conversation with Adam Mansbach

March 21, 2008 | 5 books mentioned 7 min read

Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher, has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.

I first met Adam Mansbach a few years ago, through mutual friends in Berkeley, California. Not too long thereafter, he relocated from New York City to Berkeley, where we hung out from time to time, because both of us are talkers, and we both like to talk about big, important, at times unwieldy, ideas like America, politics, writers, writing and jazz. Not too long after Mansbach moved west, I headed east, landing in New York City. The following questions are framed by the many conversations that we have had since first meeting, though they exist on the canvas of the release of Mansbach’s third novel, The End of the Jews, and the forthcoming US Presidential election. Like his first two novels – Shackling Water and Angry Black White Boy – in The End of the Jews, Mansbach examines the legacies of race and religion, legacies that demand attention if there is to be any true understanding of today’s America – as James Baldwin, a major influence on Mansbach, wrote about time and again.

Buzz Poole: More than most authors, your background seems like something readers want to connect to your fiction, as if to validate your work, or perhaps even dismiss it. Is this something that has ever bothered you? In looking through the promotional materials that accompany review copies of The End of the Jews, you acknowledge how your family very much impacted you as a writer. Has there been a shift in your perception of how to reconcile your life with your work in public?

Adam Mansbach: There have been a number of shifts. I think with each project the relationship is different, the goals are different, and the interface with the public is different. With my previous book, there was a very clear agenda: to try to jumpstart some dialogue about race and white privilege by discussing these crucial issues through satire, humor, and absurdity. And also to apply hip-hop aesthetics to a novel in some kind of significant way, as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere. I was clear on who I wanted to reach, how I wanted to do it, and my own willingness to personalize these issues by speaking publicly about my own past, my entrance into hip hop, how it shepherded my race politics, the pathology of white hip hoppers in the 1980s and 1990s, how the landscape has changed since then. Talking about myself was a way to show audiences – especially at colleges, where I do the bulk of my speaking – that talking honestly about these difficult issues can be easier, and more fun, than they thought.

coverThe End of the Jews is a totally different kind of book, and you’re right, there does seem to be an appetite for some kind of way to connect my life or my family to the plot, the characters. I don’t think it’s about dismissing the work, but rather enlarging it with some kind of “behind the scenes” angle – for some reason, there always seems to be an appetite for that. I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it, because this time around it’s not so interesting to me. Or maybe it is, but there’s a high probability of people misunderstanding, or me failing to explain right, because it’s near impossible to explain how life and fiction dovetail in this book. It requires such an involved recounting of the artistic process, the research process, the adaptive process, the speculative process. All of which played out over a five or six year period.

The funny thing is that the book itself grapples with these very issues. Some of the main conflicts involve artists cannibalizing each other’s lives, and where the boundaries lie, what is art and what is exploitation and what is both – what it means, for instance, when an old man slams his grandson’s novel down and says “even the parts he made up are true,” and threatens to never speak to him again because he feels so violated. On top of which, he’s a novelist himself, so he thinks he understands just what the kid is doing – and on top of that, his wife feels vindicated and liberated by seeing her silent pain find a kind of alternate voice in this same book. Meanwhile, the grandson is still pissed because he feels his grandfather stole some shit from him for his previous book, which is why he felt entitled to put the old man’s life on blast. So for me to try to explain this book biographically ends up messy, and already people have taken liberties, like assuming Tristan Brodsky is my grandfather. Some of that is probably my fault, for even mentioning him in interviews. But the true relationship between the man – who I love as dearly as anybody on this planet – and the character is far more complicated. There are stories from my grandfather in this book verbatim – funny ones, mostly. There are wild leaps of speculation, like the relationship between Tristan and Peter Pendergast, which is a kind of ghastly, made-up version based nominally in a fact of my grandfather’s life, the fact that he had a WASP mentor who made it his business to open doors for Jews professionally and socially – but he was a man my grandfather had nothing but admiration for, whereas Tristan essentially resents Peter and can’t respect him.

Buzz:You credit your grandfather for the title The End of the Jews as something he whispered to you while the both of you were attending a garish bar mitzvah. What is that “end?” Is it a loss, or forgetting, of a culture’s traditions? Does commercialized spectacle mark the end of reverent history, or is it just a change, an evolution, for better or worse? Is it something that can be spotted in Jews in Europe, or Israel, or is it a distinctly American issue? The fact that your character Nina is a Czech Jew raised in a family where being Jewish is a secret – in the late1980s – leads me to believe that you consider this a global condition. Why is that? Is there a kind of market-driven homogeny spreading through the west?

Adam: I have no idea. I’ve never been to Israel, and my travels in Europe have had nothing to do with Judaism. I thought it was a great line, and I filed it away, and eventually this turned into a book fitting, I think, of the title. I grew up very marginally connected to Jewishness – got kicked out of the So You Think You Might Be Jewish Sunday School and Grill, didn’t get Bar Mitzvahed, didn’t grow up with religious parents or even grandparents. So for me, it’s very hard to talk about “the Jews” because it’s not a monolith; I’m very resistant to that notion and even more resistant to the idea that I’d be qualified to speak for them if it were. I can speak for myself, and my characters. That being said, I think the “end” is not so much about homogeny or spectacle, but about community, about the disappearance or the active destruction of traditional forms of identity, of fitting in, of understanding yourself in relation to a tradition in an uncomplicated way – whether religion, history, art or family.

I think that for every community there are outskirts, margins. And for every person nestled comfortably in the bosom of community, there’s somebody feeling alienated, ostracized, conflicted, marginal, ambiguous – regardless of who is trying to include or exclude him or her. To me, those margins are where art comes from. And to pin it more closely to this book, it’s where 20th century Jewish-American literature comes from. That’s where Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Mailer, and Kazin were. That’s what Chaim Potok wrote about, even though he was deeply religious. So everybody in this book is conflicted and is often surprised at the ways identity, religious and otherwise, is wielded – by them, and against them. The moments at which they claim Jewishness, or refuse to. The ways in which their creativity hinges on remaining on these margins, and the critical distance the margins allow – and also the pain inherent to that. At the same time, the spirit of inquiry at the heart of the Jewish tradition – which I most connect to – is also perhaps most operative from the margins. That’s the spirit that gave us a Talmud with no margins – literally no margins, because motherfuckers couldn’t stop arguing and rearguing the interpretations of these esoteric, self-generated laws, so they filled the whole page.

Buzz: This book links the margins that your Jewish characters inhabit to the margins that African Americans inhabit in this country, and I guess to continue, or butcher, the metaphor, the page is America. After meeting jazz musicians in Prague your character Nina, a photographer, moves to America. Early on in her stay, one of the players tells her: “[T]he legacy of black folks in America is so profound that it functions as a metaphor for all humanity.” What is that metaphor?

Adam: The metaphor is about survival, connection, and creativity in the face of systematic brutality and deliberate attempts to destroy families, communities, languages, all forms of expression and humanity.

Buzz: What works of fiction did you keep close to you while working on The End of the Jews?

covercovercoverAdam: The Big Book of Jewish Humor and The Joy of Yiddish were deep-background reading – not so much because there’s any Yiddish or any jokes in the book, but because they helped me think about Jewish sensibilities. New York Jew by Alfred Kazin was very important. I wish I remembered who recommended that book to me so I could thank them, but all I remember is reading it on a bus between New York and Boston. I worked on this novel for a long time, and certainly I read plenty, but I guess I don’t so much hold books close when I’m writing. I read much more when I’m not writing, before I start, during breaks, that kind of thing. I suppose I made an effort to read or re-read the work of artists in Tristan’s age-range, especially the Jews: Bellow, Roth, Malamud. I re-read some of what he’d have read as a young man: Kafka, Fitzgerald. I’m trying to remember some other folks who made an impact on me during this time I was writing this. Denis Johnson, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Russell Banks, James Baldwin, Tobias Wolff. I’m blanking on two-dozen other books, I’m sure.

Buzz: The End of the Jews is your third novel in 6 years. What’s your writing routine?

Adam: I like to work as soon as my coffee’s ready in the morning, and go as long as I can. I’m working on a first draft of a new book now, and it’s been so long since I’ve been in that position that I’m kind of reinventing my writing process. I always long for the part I’m not currently engaged in: a first draft seems like the most fun when you’re editing, and when you’re writing it you can’t wait to get to the end and go back and start shaping. I think I’m getting much slower as I age. I used to try to write 2,000 words a day. That amount seems ludicrous to me now. I have a home office, a garage converted into a studio, which I usually write in. But I also love to work in cafes, and I think I’m more focused when I’m not at home. I tend not to be able to work well unless I know I have a nice open vista of time ahead of me: no travel for a week or two, at least. Otherwise, I can only work on short stuff – stories, journalistic pieces.

is the co-author of the recently released Camera Crazy and he is currently working on a 33 1/3 about the Grateful Dead album Workingman's Dead. Keep up with him @buzzpoole.

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