‘It’s Not Oprah’s Fault’ and Other Truths: An Interview with Ben Greenman

“Your voice,” Simon Cowell says to a singer in a story from Ben Greenman’s latest collection Celebrity Chekhov. “It rattles like a pan under a car. What is Bono going to think when you take his song and treat it like an advertising jingle? I would be surprised if you are here a week from now.”

The book recently received some attention for its conceit (“Celebrity Chekhov?!” wrote Huffpost, linking to a story in the Daily News), which is to replace the characters in Chekhov stories with modern stars like Alec Baldwin, Billy Ray Cyrus and Nicole Kidman. An excerpt is available here. The Observer recently had a phone interview with the writer and New Yorker editor just before he headed to Los Angeles to promote the book.

The Observer: We were already familiar with your work on celebrity musicals, but why drag Chekhov into all this?
BG: Well I’ve never met the man. But it’s been ten years now of doing what I guess people call serious fiction. I’ve done mainly short stories, and it has a lot to do with having a day job, that’s the size work that makes the most sense to me, so I’m constantly reading and rereading his among others. And I felt like they were constantly getting kind of stuck in that 19th century world. So rather than dragging him into it, I actually see it as more of pulling things into his work. There were certain stories that, when I read them, they seemed to me like they were the stories of celebrities that I knew. There’s A Lady’s Story that I gave to Brittany Spears remembering this early sort of ideal love that she had with Justin Timberlake, before age and gravity set in. I’ve known that story for years and in my mind they were sort of similar.

And one of the things you keep the same in the stories, to great comedic effect, is the dialogue.
I rewrote some, but wherever possible I used the dialogue that he had. So there are cases where it’s very stage-y and formal. I think the way he uses it is to show people’s internal states in very quick snapshots. It’s often what people don’t say, they’ll leave off in the middle of a sentence. And then a couple of paragraphs later this torrent of confession will pour out of them. It’s a nice mix. You really get to see the insides of people, which I think is the job of fiction. Celebrities now are absolutely media-trained to never say anything wrong, to the degree that when they do it becomes a national story.

There’s this thing in journalism where you find the celebrity angle of a story and then blow that out so people will read it. Is this book, to any extent, a commentary on that?
I think that will happen. The way I see it, there will be people who say that it’s opportunistic, that it’s piggybacking on these celebrities. There will certainly be people who will say it’s a travesty because I’ve taken these stories that are so comfortable in their original context and disemboweled them. To me I think it’s a little different. I think it’s an experiment. I hesitate to call it serious fiction, because it sounds ridiculous, let’s say I think of it as literary fiction, and then humor pieces that are about pop culture.

I think it’s a big set of questions. Why are we drawn to celebrities? Why when you see the name “Lady Gaga,” even if you don’t care about her, it’s sort of like Pavlovian training, your eye just goes to that? People say I’m making fun of celebrities, which might be true, but the question isn’t why are celebrities doing what they do, because in a lot of cases it’s very obvious. They like acting, they like money, they like attention, they’re attractive people, they’re talented. So it’s not so hard to imagine why Justin Timberlake is acting and going on talk shows: because he’s good at it. To me the more interesting question is why for the rest of us you can just put that little name in there, all you do is take out a Russian name that you didn’t understand anyway and everything changes. What’s interesting is the strength and the magnet of, say, Oprah’s name. You put Oprah’s name into something and that suddenly bends everything around it; it has this forcefield. It’s not Oprah’s fault.

You ghostwrote biographies for Gene Simmons and Simon Cowell. How did that play into your interest in celebrity?
On some level these stories are kind of serious. It’s hard to say that because I don’t want to come off as self-important. They’re an attempt to kind of reauthorize these people, celebrities, as three-dimensional people, and that may come a little bit from the ghostwriting. Because you see so much of these people, when you’re working with them, that doesn’t even make it into their own memoirs. You get to see the days that they’re in good humor and they’re really funny and kind and the days when they’re worried. You get a more complete picture of them. That’s what literature’s supposed to do for its characters. So it’s partially an attempt to re-inflate these people who at times have become cartoon characters. In those two cases, Gene Simmons has a very different way of dealing with it than Simon Cowell. Simon made a career out of being himself, as far as we know, obviously there’s some distance. He was not concealed. Gene made a career out of being in costume for the most part.

We heard that there’s an extra chapter to this book if you buy it on the iPad?
One of the things we found as we closed off this book is, obliviously, celebrity can be either be fleeting or slightly less fleeting. Certain celebrities that were on everybody’s lips nine months ago have sort of passed. So we’re looking for extra stories because a lot of publishers now want some incentive to encourage people to purchase the ebook. In the case of nonfiction books sometimes they’ll add content like an interview with the author or primary documents but for fiction it’s hard to imagine what you add. You’ve edited a novel, it’s perfect, what do you do? You don’t put in this part you took out because that seems stupid.

For this book we received a perfectly wrapped and beribboned gift from heaven: Mel Gibson came back into our lives. The timing couldn’t have been better and the man couldn’t have been angrier. At that time there was this one story that I loved and it didn’t make the cut because I couldn’t think of a celebrity to put in there. It’s a story about a man and his wife, they’re coming from home from dinner around Easter time and they run into this poor thin man, this beggar on the street, and how they treat him and the tension between them becomes the center of the story. And when Mel blew up at Oksana it was like a giant stinking flower blooming right in my garden. It was perfect. It fit him, I would say, like a crazily clenched glove. It’s almost as if I went back and time and paid Mel to scream at her that he would like to burn her house down after she orally serviced him. It’s like he’s working for me, that’s my feeling.

And the weird thing is, I did a musical for him and there are some celebrities that I thought would never die. Mel I think is one of them. There’s just something about the man, whether it’s his need for attention or that weird mix of talent and, from everything you hear about him, true kindness and generosity and also an anger problem. The other one who didn’t make it into the book because he’s an icon in a different way was OJ [Simpson]. OJ surfaced in the musicals a million times, but he’s OJ, you know? There’s no story about a Russian gentleman who takes somebody who’s returning his little nose-pinch-y glasses and chops off their head. I couldn’t find one of those.

Celebrity Chekhov by Ben Greenman, available in print or e-book format.

‘It’s Not Oprah’s Fault’ and Other Truths: An Interview with Ben Greenman