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.