At 4:45 a.m., Ibrahim Ahmad’s alarm clock began pouring out the first bars of Leonard Cohen’s “Lullaby”—“Sleep, baby, sleep. The day’s on the run. The wind in the trees is talking in tongues…” With this bit of counterintuitive programming, another long day in the life of an independent publisher had begun.
After a quick breakfast and an industrial-strength quadruple espresso, Ahmad and his wife, Cassie Carothers, left their home in exurban Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and boarded a train that would carry them from the northern fringe of Cheever country to Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. For many of their fellow commuters, the next hour would be torture or drooling nap time, but for Ahmad, the editorial director at Akashic Books, it was a precious opportunity to focus on his twin passions without interruption: reading and editing. On this Friday morning, he was making a first pass through the manuscript of a debut novel that had landed on the Akashic slush pile.
Husband and wife parted ways at Grand Central—Carothers works for a nonprofit in downtown Manhattan, and Ahmad boarded a subway for Brooklyn. Another precious 45 minutes of reading. By 8 a.m. he was settled at his desk in the Akashic office, a largish room in a repurposed American Can factory, hard by that network of toxic sludge known as the Gowanus Canal. It was time for Ahmad to change hats. For the next eight hours, art would take a back seat to commerce. First, of course, there was the endless river of emails to wade through, which today yielded a pleasant surprise: two Akashic titles had been named finalists for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, which honor writers of color. That merited a full-throated blast on social media. There were also licensing contracts from publishers in Poland and Turkey, a translator’s contract to finalize, overdue invoices to chase down, promotional contacts to consider for the upcoming addition to Akashic’s eclectic, globe-spanning noir series: 90 titles that range from Atlanta Noir to Zagreb Noir. Coming this summer is Baghdad Noir, which has a special place in Ahmad’s heart because he has been nursing this new collection of Iraqi crime fiction toward publication for nearly a decade. There were no scheduled meetings on this particular Friday, but on other weekdays there are regular staff meetings to discuss current and imminent releases, editorial meetings to talk over recent submissions and map out the publishing calendar, and a monthly marketing meeting to plot publicity campaigns. Everyone on the small staff was busy—it’s not the sort of shop where people hang out talking about the World Cup or their weekend at the Hamptons.
When a reporter showed up to interview him, Ahmad happily fixed coffees and repaired to the comfortable chairs in the corner of the office. A person can answer only so many emails without taking a break. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves that contain every book published by Akashic in its 21-year history, Ahmad talked, in rapid-fire bursts, about the perils, challenges and rewards of being a small independent in a publishing world dominated by a handful of conglomerates on the other side of the East River. In 2013, book publishing’s Big Six became the Big Five when the giants Penguin and Random House merged.
Akashic’s answer to this trend is spelled out on the cover of its current catalog: “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” That philosophy is amplified on the catalog’s first page: “Akashic Books is an award-winning independent company dedicated to publishing literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.”
As he sipped his coffee, Ahmad was thinking less grandiose thoughts. “Day to day in the office,” he said, “most of us are working to keep a small business running. Most of what we do is trying to get attention for our books. Should I call NPR for this title? The Wall Street Journal? I have to be thoughtful and selective, but the onus is on us to make sure we’re covering all the bases. The goal is to get the broadest coverage possible, but we have unique marketing plans tailored to every book. The noir series has overt markets, and they’re a great way for us to promote literature in translation that’s underrepresented. Right now for Baghdad Noir, for example, I’m putting together a list of Middle Eastern Studies departments at universities.”
This task was a natural one for Ahmad, the son a Pakistani father and Iranian mother who was born in England, moved to Washington, D.C., at the age of 5, then attended the University of Chicago, where he studied Near Eastern Languages. He already had contacts in mind, some forged during his college years, who might help promote Baghdad Noir.
As Ahmad spoke, the two summer interns, Rachel Page and Abigail Schott-Rosenfield, were doing the glamorous work of putting review copies in envelopes, taping them shut, affixing address labels. Susannah Lawrence and Alice Wertheimer were at their desks, working to expand the mailing list of reviewers, librarians, and booksellers. Impossible to say for sure what Johanna Ingalls, the foreign rights editor, was doing because she works out of her home in Ireland. Aaron Petrovich, the production manager, was at his computer noodling with layouts and cover art for a new children’s book, Party: A Mystery, by Jamaica Kincaid, with illustrations by Ricardo Cortés. Watching them work, Ahmad observed, “One of the distinguishing characteristics of Akashic is our stability as a staff. Our publisher Johnny Temple, Johanna, Aaron and I have all been here for upwards of 15 years. Susannah and Alice started out as interns. That’s so rare. One of the biggest challenges of independent publishing is keeping people for the long term and getting them invested in the company’s vision.” That cohesion and dedication go a long way toward explaining how a small staff can produce 40 quality books a year.
Just then the door opened and in walked Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher and co-founder, dressed in a Brooklyn Book Festival T-shirt, an event he helped establish a dozen years ago. Settling into one of the comfortable chairs, Temple ticked off three things—“irreverence, an attraction to dark themes, a passion for social justice”—that shape Akashic’s aesthetic and set it apart from the Big Five. He added that, growing up in Washington, D.C., he was attracted to African-American authors, including Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Black writers, both from the U.S. and the Caribbean, remain a staple at Akashic, as do first novels and music-infused books. “We’re doing similar work [to the Big Five],” Temple went on, “but our values are different. With global corporations, it’s all about the bottom line. In the arts, you struggle to find a balance that doesn’t let culture get sublimated to the dollar bill. We want to make money, but I think the big corporations are out of whack. Most novels only sell a few thousand copies, and at a big house those writers wind up feeling like a failure. One of the advantages we have is that given our low overhead, it’s much easier for us to have a success. The money our authors earn is the money the book earns. It’s not a gambling model. We don’t throw things against the wall and hope something sticks.”
Yet Akashic has enjoyed some major successes—artistic and financial. The house’s very first release in 1997, The Fuck-Up, Arthur Nersesian’s grungy picaresque novel set on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, went through three printings. Other solid sellers include Amiri Baraka’s story collection Tales of the Out & the Gone, Nina Revoyr’s novel Southland, and Joe Meno’s punk novel Hairstyles of the Damned. But no Akashic title can touch the sales of Adam Mansbach’s twisted sympathy card to the exhausted parents of young children, Go the Fuck to Sleep. The book became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2011, and promoting it consumed Ahmad’s life for two years. It’s still the house’s top perennial moneymaker, and the steady income gives the Akashic staff the breathing room to experiment and take chances. It also helps fund the fun stuff—annual trips by staffers to book festivals and conventions, including the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, the Winter Institute gathering of indie booksellers, and of course, the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Later, over a leisurely outdoor lunch at a Park Slope café, Ahmad expanded on the business model that sets Akashic apart from other publishers, including many independents. While Akashic author advances are predictably modest—usually under $5,000, rarely more than $10,000—once all project-related expenses are recouped, the author and publisher split profits 50-50, a sharp departure from most publishing contracts. This “profit-split” royalty model was used by Temple’s record label in the 1990s, when he was playing bass with the D.C.-based post-punk band Girls Against Boys (the band still plays occasional gigs). It was then that Temple and Ahmad first met, and soon afterward, Akashic was founded on that music-industry model. Taking the music analogy a step further, Temple said, “Being an independent publisher is like being a deejay spinning the records that people dance to.”
“If a book sells more than 5,000 copies,” Ahmad added, “you start to see the profit accelerate. We stay in business simply by selling books.” He made the point that the enduring success of Go the Fuck to Sleep will be forever cherished by the staff, but it was more a happy accident than the point of the enterprise.
Walking back to the office, Ahmad appeared to be feeling the effects of his post-lunch double espresso. “I have the best fucking job in the world,” he said. “I can do whatever I want, and I’m accountable only to my authors and the people in that office. That’s what it means to be an independent publisher—you’re free to make your own decisions.”
He was ready to spend the rest of the afternoon dealing with the commerce end of the business—emails and contracts and authors and publicity. Then it would be back on the subway with that manuscript from the slush pile, back on the Metro North train, and home to Cheever country, where Ahmad would spend the evening and the weekend doing what he loves most, reading and editing. Then, at precisely 4:45 on Monday morning, Leonard Cohen’s voice would start bubbling out of Ahmad’s alarm clock, and another long day in the life of an independent publisher would begin.
When I think about the books I’ve read in 2016, the greatest have left me cut open, because I believe words are swords. Even hello and goodbye. Especially goodbye. And even curse words. But for my purposes, they’re swords against injustice, a voice to the marginalized — spoken or on a page, a wall, a tattoo.
I fear the silences.
The silence of those who feel unthreatened. That is, the silence of well meaning, “nice people” who want to get along, and who believe a disagreement or protest only means no peace, not a path to get there. I fear the silence of other Christians that I now hear so loud. Those who only pray for the police and not the protestors. We need God all around.
When I was 19 years old, a boy in my college who was offended by the words I used after his assault said, “If you say anything, I will destroy you. I have more friends than you do.”
He was right about having more friends. In other words, he had more power and influence in that space, the same way politics and money have power over us. But at almost 40 years old now, I’ve lived long enough to have been destroyed before, and I can testify that sitting in silence is worse. In shame is worse. Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. I would have chosen for myself when and when not to be silent. Back then, his threat chose for me. But today, I’m different.
I believe that love casts out all fear. Including mine. And I believe the world is rigged in the favor of love. It is what will ultimately unify us. And I believe in hope. Active hope. And active love. Not just a feeling, but the kind of love that compels us to do something selflessly for the people we say we love and support. It should compel us to serve others, and if necessary, to stand in the gap for those who can’t. It’s an action word and still a sword.
Preferring love doesn’t mean to ignore other emotions, like this anger I know I carry. And if I’m honest, I try to carry it the same way I do my lust. I have become a container of longing. It’s redirection. It’s discipline. I know we don’t all have it. Not yet. I’ve read the biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I admire the way he carried his passions, but I’ve read about his failings, too. No one’s perfect.
I give these admissions of love and lust and anger to you because we are alive and there is so much to feel right now and to acknowledge and understand about others — there are no “others” — but not all of our emotion is helpful to what must be done in times of “no peace.” To stand in the gap for others, to get us along the road to move forward and help in some way. Whether we feel personally threatened or not, we’ll have to recognize what our cleanest sustainable fuel is — the cleanest emotion. I think it’s love. For all other emotions, we’ll have to make time and a safe place to be reckless.
Books help to inform how I’ll love; where the need is outside of my own personal experience and circle of friends. So I’ve read so many good books in 2016, many are from marginalized groups, but not solely, and include women and people of color, and from the LGBTQIA communities, and from different religious and spiritual groups. But what I want to share with you are the books I’ll be bringing with me into the unknown of 2017.
For spiritual fuel…I’ll be bringing Timothy Keller’s book Prayer in order to pray for this world around me, including our president, the House and Senate and our judiciary, and for every group in our country that is living under extraordinary threat based on ethnicity or religion or sexual preference. For Native Americans. For women. And I pray for those of us who are able to do something, even if it’s one thing or a handful of things, or many things. We can make a difference.
I’ll also be bringing Beth Moore’s book So Long Insecurity to remind myself of the courage we’ll all need to carry on. Beth Moore, a pastor, tirelessly and publicly stands up for women. And I’ll bring Judah Smith’s book Life Is______.
And last but not least, for spiritual fuel, I’ll be reading The Bible. Specifically, the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — books by men about a man who respected women from all walks of life, no matter the mistakes she’d made in her life, years ago or just moments ago. And in this way, I’ll remind myself of the kind of men who possess the love I’d put my faith and hope in, even if they don’t call themselves feminists.
For other strengths, I’ll be rereading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and any of her essays, including one of my favorites called “Acts of Faith.” Ever since I read that essay for the first time last year, and learned of the existence of Jesuit Priests, I’ve considered converting to Catholicism just for them…and for the Pope. I enjoyed his recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy.
I’ll also be reading essays by Rebecca Solnit and finishing her book The Faraway Nearby because it says so much about the nature of us, of women, and our “place” in society and what we hope for. I’ll never forget the term she coined, “Mansplaining.” It sums up my professional life in the last year or so. Fourteen years as a lawyer in my field, and men will still feel compelled to explain the ropes of law practice to me. I let them. It allows me to rest.
To laugh, I will take Ayisha Malik’s new book, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. When I heard her read from it in London this summer, I was crying-laughing. The same as when I was flipping through the pages of Mary Laura Philpott’s book, Penguins with People Problems. I’ve read her book again and again like it was a squishy stress-relief toy. And, of course I’m taking the book Go the F**k to Sleep, which is essential reading for new parents who have protected their senses of humor from sleep deprivation. And I’ll take the book All My Friends Are Dead just to smile, and finally, I’ll finish Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley because it’s worth it. We need laughter. Even if it feels wrong to laugh right now.
I want to bring books about girls and women into 2017 that may not fall into the designation of “women of color” — some of the books I’ve already mentioned do not. I want to remember that we’re all in this together and no one gets out of this life as an adult unwounded. Shared pain (and shared laughter) may be the simplest unifiers. So I will read Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak, and Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell. Gina’s book has this opening line: “My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.”
Because I am a sister to four brothers and have always been told growing up that I was a Tomboy — but whatever! — I will call these books my masculine selections that I’m carrying into 2017: Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland, Matthew Nienow’s chapbook House of Water, and Shooting Elvis by Robert Eversz. Coincidentally, Shooting Elvis has a young female protagonist from the 1980s to whom I can relate. I still imagine myself wearing neon with crimped bangs.
And finally, I’m carrying an early review copy of The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi. It’s gorgeous. In it, Choi writes about painful loss — he’s lost a child, he’s lost his native country, and now, the people he loves are slipping away. The poems in his book have caused me to ponder the state of life, this world we now live in, and to draw enormous conclusions about us: That maybe by 40 years old, every person alive has lost something so germane that it changes her — something about her country, her personal life. But what I’ve discovered is more true is that the love we give is timeless. For everything else, we’ll have to decide how we’ll move forward with what remains.
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Hemingway put the Parisian bar, Harry’s, on the map. Dylan Thomas did the same for Manhattan’s White Horse tavern. This fall, Victor Giron’s Chicago watering hole, Beauty Bar, might prove just as instrumental to independent literature.
While a staggering number of publishers are closing up shop or announcing mergers, Giron’s press, Curbside Splendor, is growing at a rate many big New York presses would find inspiring, envy-inducing or both. None of it would have been possible without the Beauty Bar. That, and Giron’s bottomless supply of energy.
You get a sense, talking to Victor Giron, that he probably wakes up before you and goes to bed many hours after you. Our interview felt a little like witnessing a plate spinner at the circus. Because, on top of running the Beauty Bar and Curbside Splendor, the optimistic Giron is also a husband, father of two boys, and works a high profile day job as a financial accountant for Jim Beam.
“I tend to pick things up and get really into them,” says Giron, squeezing our weekday afternoon chat between several of his other responsibilities. “If I’m going to do something, I’m not going to do it half-assed.”
Half-assed is probably the last thing observers call Curbside Splendor. Especially after its recent jump in production and profile. Curbside previously released only a handful of books per year, but ramped up the release schedule to a whopping dozen this fall. This shift is a direct result of landing a coveted distribution deal with Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. In this golden age of the indie book publisher (According to Bookstatistics.com there are currently over 60,000 book publishers), it is tough to get noticed amongst the slosh of other presses. So, aside from a political sex scandal involving one of your authors, solid distribution is the most reliable way to compete with the major New York houses.
But should book lovers care about industry talk like distribution? Absolutely. Distribution is the only thing — not the overthrow of Amazon or an e-reader revolution or a self-publishing frenzy — that ensures fresh voices finding readers.
A publisher landing a strong distributor is similar to a rock band selling CDs at concerts and then signing with a prominent indie label like Merge Records. Merge has excellent distribution, which gets its albums in stores and online outlets just as well as majors. But distribution doesn’t guarantee success. It does, however, level the playing field between big labels and indies. Merge is an ideal example. Since starting in 1989, the record company has a massive list of artistic high points, but also numerous business victories. This ability to remain independent, yet place its albums in every conceivable retail outlet has given Merge the strength to release a Billboard #1 album, help its bands like Spoon perform to millions of viewers on Saturday Night Live and watch its most popular act, Arcade Fire, earn the 2011 Album of the Year Grammy.
Similarly, Curbside’s distribution deal is no guarantee of success. But it opens doors to compete on the literary world’s main stage. The evidence is promising — small publishers with Consortium ties have made serious waves, like Akashic Books mega-selling Go the F**K to Sleep and how Two Dollar Radio’s titles frequently earn raves in the New York Times.
Curbside seems poised to make the most of this opportunity. But if it wasn’t for Giron’s bar, none of it would be happening.
Three years ago, when Giron started Curbside Splendor to release his own novel, Sophomoric Philosophy, he had next-to-no literary connections. “It seems kind of backward, I guess. I had no idea people did such things as readings at coffee shops or bars, to tell you the truth, until I was invited myself,” he says. “I began meeting other editors and writers around Chicago by hosting readings at my bar. I really didn’t know anyone until I started reaching out on Facebook and in person, really with the interest of getting people to come to the bar and read.”
Even Curbside’s distribution deal came because of a chance Beauty Bar meeting. “I had been a big fan of James Greer’s novels, The Failure and Artificial Light,” Giron says. “James came through town when his girlfriend’s band played at my bar. We got to talking and he said ‘You know, I’ve never had a story collection published. I don’t think Akashic, his publisher, is interested in a story collection.’ Long story short that’s one of the books (Everything Flows) coming out this fall.”
This relationship with Greer proved invaluable to Curbside’s current growth. “I was kind of honest with James, saying there’s no real distribution for your book. Just so you know. The amount of sales you can expect aren’t going to be much,” says Giron. “And then he suggested we talk to (Publisher) Johnny Temple of Akashic. Originally, Akashic was going to consider sub-distributing James’s book. After our conversation Johnny said we can certainly consider doing this, but it just seems like you have so many great projects that it would be a shame that you not actually try and work with Consortium yourselves. And so he made a personal referral.”
Temple’s enthusiasm for Curbside was a massive boost. Giron had already been rejected by several distributors. Temple, however, saw something most distributors didn’t: “While the mainstream New York-based book industry laments the supposed ‘decline’ of the industry, moping ad nauseum about how no one reads anymore,” says Temple. “This creates opportunities for ambitious and creative companies like Curbside to prove them wrong.”
From the Akashic referral, things moved swiftly last December. “On Friday [Temple and I] were talking and then the next Tuesday I was on the phone with Consortium’s president and then that Thursday they were like, okay, we can sign the contract. And by the way, we need all of your titles for the fall season by next week.”
Where most budding publishers would sprout ulcers at such a radical change, Giron’s energy and optimism took over. “I never really got worried. A big part of my day job is project management, so it comes naturally to me.”
The bulk of Curbide’s fall catalog was born in only a few days’ time. Once again, the Beauty Bar and bottomless energy played a big role. Giron quickly rounded up writers and artists he’d befriended from the bar. “I basically got all my people together and said, okay all these great projects we’ve been kicking around, we need to actually put them together now. So we had to come up with cover mocks, come up with one paragraph summary of titles, author bios, marketing plans. Luckily, we had all these projects but over a long weekend we put together the backbones of the twelve books that are now coming out.
“Some of these titles were pretty much complete, like James Greer’s book, but ranged to flat out ideas like Samantha Irby’s Meaty. We had known Samantha, who is a performer here in Chicago and has a huge following through her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat. We had been loosely talking to her about maybe doing a book together sometime. So, after the meeting with Consortium we were like, Samantha, we really need you to write the book. So then she wrote it.”
Beyond Irby’s collection of humor essays, Curbside’s whirlwind effort since December is just now coming to reality. Giron’s press is offering a diversified lineup this fall, ranging from YA lit Zero Fade, to literary leanings like Greer’s collection and The Desert Places by Robert Kloss and Amber Sparks, to Franki Elliot’s Kiss as Many Women as you Can — a poetry collection in postcard form.
There is, of course, great risk in Curbside’s gamble for real estate on the literary map. Namely, financial risk. Giron has no business partners or investors in Curbside. He personally funded the costly printing, editing, and marketing expenses for every release this fall. “It’s pretty crazy of me. As a rational business person, this is not a good investment/risk to be taking.”
It’s easy to see his energy overshadowing this rationale. “What propels me in this is the idea, the challenge, the belief that there are really great books out there to be made and there is a market of people that are thirsty for innovative, artistically minded, edgy, fresh, spectacular new voices and ideas and beautifully designed books, and so we’re here to try and provide that service.”
Not surprisingly, Temple echoes this sentiment. When asked how he saw Curbside impacting the literary landscape after this Fall’s splashdown, he says Curbside is, “Further proof that books matter, that new audiences are still very hungry for books.”
While it’s still far too early to begin tossing confetti, Giron’s barroom-born gamble seems to be paying off. Irby’s Meaty is garnering a lot of attention, thanks in part to being named part of Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. The book has already sold several thousand more copies than any previous Curbside release. Does that mean Giron will be buying rounds at the Beauty Bar? Probably not. But it might just give this uber-entrepreneur the ability to keep pushing Curbside up through the ranks.
In the past couple of years, Adam Mansbach has gone from respected novelist to pop culture lightning rod thanks to a little book he wrote about trying to put his daughter to bed. Having already been a go-to expert for all things hip hop, as well as fiction writing and the politics of race, he unexpectedly found himself answering endless questions about parenting. He’ll probably never escape being known as the guy who wrote Go the F**k to Sleep, but 2013 will put some distance between him and that book with the release of two novels, the first of which, Rage Is Back, delivers readers to New York in 2005, where an old-school crew of graffiti writers attempts to recreate the past.
TM: This is the story of a family and gentrification, but graffiti is the vehicle that carries the book. What made you want to write a novel based on the evolution of New York City graffiti?
Adam Mansbach: I’ve been fascinated by graffiti for a very long time. As a kid, during the time I was coming up in hip hop, you were expected to be conversant with all the art forms — the sonic, the kinetic, and the visual — and to be proficient in at least a couple in order to fully “be” hip hop. I was an MC and a DJ, but I also wrote graffiti. I wasn’t great, but the thrill of it was captivating, and I quickly discovered that graffiti writers were the mad geniuses and eccentrics of hip hop, the guys whose relationship to their craft was the most fraught and intense, the guys who labored in the dark, literally, whose lives were a discourse between fame and anonymity, who used “beautify” and “destroy” almost interchangeably when they talked about their work. And when I first got into hip hop around 1987, graffiti was already being forced off the New York subway trains, which had been its canvas since the beginning. So there was this sense of a death throe, and of guys outliving the form they’d created, which was weird and tragic, even though graffiti had already gone worldwide by then. By the ’90s, you had all these writers living in, and beefing about, the past — who was king of such and such line in ’78, who started writing when, and so on.
TM: How do you square that with graffiti today, especially in terms of how some the original writers, like TAKI 183 and BLADE, have been resurrected and found some mainstream, international recognition? Years ago I met STAY HIGH 149 and he couldn’t believe that all of the sudden people cared about him again, and were willing to pay him to tag.
AM: The death throes I’m referring to were not of the movement as a whole, just of its original conception as an art form inextricably and brilliantly bound to New York’s subway, which gave writers a perfect platform to be seen, incubated a certain set of aesthetics because of the fact that the pieces would be seen in motion, and also fostered a particular kind of competition and ruggedness because of space limits and working conditions. But by the time the buff eradicated the last train pieces in 1989 graffiti had moved into, and back out of, galleries, and had a huge impact in Europe and across the U.S., largely through the book Subway Art and the film Style Wars. In Sweden, for instance, Style Wars played on national TV on a Wednesday night, and by Friday there was a graffiti scene. Guys with the right combination of skill and savvy had already transitioned into art careers, and a lot of other guys got into graphic design and advertising. So the interest in graffiti never really abated, but when the train era ended everybody came above ground and a new era of street-bombing got underway, with a lot of throw-up kings like VFR, JA, and SP ONE getting big, new school iconoclasts like REVS and COST doing their thing, and clever muralists like ESPO figuring out ways to piece illegally in broad daylight. But for every writer who made it, found a niche, sold some pieces, there are 100 who have been trying to drive their lives on the fumes of their train reps for the last 20-plus years. You can’t live on the adulation of a bunch of graffiti fans, and for a lot of the real innovators and workhorses of the train era, it’s been pretty rough going, even if their names have made it into some history books.
TM: And Rage Is Back is really more about the unsung heroes, right, the workhorses? The key players are legends in their world but are otherwise unknown.
AM: I knew I wanted the book to be told from the perspective of somebody who wasn’t part of the glory days, somebody who inherited the culture, was born into it, and had a complicated relationship to it. For Dondi, graffiti is old man shit, the thing that derailed his parents’ lives. I wanted this to be about a reckoning between generations, and I wanted to do something exciting, a heist story with plots and setbacks and lots of moving pieces, big stakes and big payoffs. And for the record, everything in here about the train mission is totally plausible. My consultants were people who’ve thought for years about how to pull off something like bombing every train in the system at once.
TM: How did you educate yourself about the New York graffiti scene?
AM: I moved to New York in ’94, and started a hip hop magazine in ’95; my partner was a graffiti writer named Alan Ket, who also started Stress Magazine. We met in Tricia Rose’s hip hop class at NYU. He was and is a major figure in the scene, and through him I met a lot of other writers. I’d just try to soak up lore and stories from all these cats; they were like the ultimate New Yorkers to me. Nobody knows a city as well as its graffiti writers.
The book evolved out of my belief that the history of graffiti is a really interesting window on the history of New York. The “War on Graffiti,” first declared by Mayor Lindsay in ’72, and prosecuted by a series of like-minded mayors ever since, has really been a war on young people, especially young people of color. It’s about public space, and who has the right to it. It presaged and ushered in zero tolerance policy, prejudicial gang databases, quality of life offenses, epic incarceration — the whole way a generation has experienced law enforcement and personal freedom, basically.
TM: There is a wild-style manner to the narrative, both in terms of how the story unfolds — the dialogue snaps with the rat-a-tat cadence of ball bearings rattling around in an aerosol can; you describe pieces and tags at length; Dondi, the narrator, possesses pop-culture-rich street savvy and heightened self-awareness — and in its layering. We are reading the book that Dondi is in the process of writing, but you let another narrator hijack a chapter and also manage to slip in a short story. Were you intentionally trying to connect the visual intricacies of graffiti to the book’s narrative structure?
AM: Not explicitly, but it’s gratifying to hear you say that. I knew, from day the first, that the book was going to succeed or fail based on the strength of Dondi’s voice: it’s his show, and his narration had to be funny, captivating, believable, digressive, unpredictable, but still in the pocket. My model, in that, was Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone. I’d always shied away from first person before — loved to write it, but been afraid that I’d paint myself into a corner doing a whole novel that way since you’re limited to writing scenes at which the narrator is present. It turned out to be incredibly liberating. And making Dondi a kid who’s explicitly writing a book, with no experience doing so, was like free money.
The narrative handoff, where CLOUD 9 takes over for a chapter because Dondi wasn’t there, is something I jacked from Treasure Island. There is a collage element to the book, and that is intentional. Layering and flow and the strategic, intentional use of rupture are tenets of hip hop’s aesthetic DNA, and I definitely wanted to reflect that in the book.
TM: Words are the only tool novelists use to convince readers. Rage Is Back is your fourth novel; your previous one, The End of the Jews, came out in 2008. But in the last two years you not only grabbed the whole world’s attention with Go the F**k to Sleep, but you also co-wrote Nature of the Beast, a graphic novel, and worked on film projects. How has your relationship to visual storytelling changed over the last few years and did Rage Is Back gel because of it?
AM: I’ve definitely become comfortable moving across genres in the past few years. As you say, I’ve been doing screenplays, I did the graphic novel, did the “Wake the Fuck Up” Obama video with Sam Jackson, sold a sitcom pilot to CBS. And my next book after this is a supernatural thriller called The Dead Run that HarperCollins will publish in September. Partly, these are all pre-existing interests of mine, and Go the Fuck to Sleep opened some doors and I took advantage.
I think I’ve always thought visually, as a writer: I envision scenes in space, if you will; I think about blocking and where the light’s coming from and that kind of thing. But it’s also that I really appreciate parameters, and being forced to work within them. My first love was MCing, which means making a statement in 4/4 time over a set number of beats per minute, and making it rhyme. GTFTS was basically me seeing if I could tell a story in an ABCB rhyme scheme and find 14 words that rhymed with “sleep.” Screenplays are similarly regimented, and writing a thriller is too: push the plot forward, interweave four voices, end each chapter with a cliffhanger. Ultimately, though, it’s all storytelling. That’s always been my passion, and for me the story has to dictate the form. If it wants to be a short story, you’ve got to let it be one, instead of trying to make it a screenplay or a haiku.
Adam Mansbach’s Go The F**k to Sleep took the children’s book market — or at least the number of adults talking about the children’s book market — to a whole new level last summer. Then, weeks later, Samuel L. Jackson read parts of the story for its book trailer, and people freaked out all over again. Well, prepare yourselves yet again, folks. Now somebody’s remixed that recording into the most badass (NSFW) lullaby of all time.
Adam Mansbach’s “viral,” tongue-in-cheek kids’ book for adults, Go the F–k to Sleep is now out. We interviewed Mansbach years ago, pre-frenzy, about other matters. This week also offers up a pair of much anticipated novels for the literary set, The Astral by Kate Christensen (don’t miss Edan’s interview with Christensen today) and The Curfew by Jesse Ball, and a rather specialized tome for fans of literary history, Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.