Ben Greenman on Kim Kardashian, Tiger Woods, and Chekhov

OS author Ben Greenman’s (issue #113, “The Tremulant”) latest book, Celebrity Chekhov, just out from Harper Perennial, takes classic Chekhov stories and reworks them to include a range of celebrities clouding our everyday American existence–from Oprah to Tiger to Brittney Spears. Here, OS intern Conor Mesinger asks Mr. Greenman a few questions about the project.
CM: What inspired you to augment Chekhov with current celebrities? Why
Chekhov in particular?

BG: What inspired me, initially, was the spirit of Why Not. Do you know
that spirit? It’s a benign spirit. Chekhov in particular because
there’s a kind of anonymity in his fiction. I am sure that Russian
literature scholars will appear immediately brandishing their weapons
(pens? samovars for scalding?) and say that I am an idiot for
believing this, but I have read Chekhov’s stories a number of times,
and what sticks with me are the situations, the moments where
character is revealed, and not necessarily the characters themselves.
Take a story like “The Beggar,” which I love and have always loved.
The main character is a lawyer named Skvortsov. I never remember that.
It’s partly a language barrier, and partly because Skvortsov could be
any officious man who believes he’s helping an unfortunate. So I
started thinking about his stories, and how they seem to me more
satirical than self-important, and that suggested to me that they
could survive an update, particularly one involving celebrities, which
would contort them in all kinds of strange ways. But I hoped, and
hope, that the contortion is a form of exercise rather than a form of
torture.

CM: What was your process for writing the stories? How did you choose your
characters?

BG: I read them a number of times in the original — well, the original
translation — before I wrote. Sometimes a celebrity sprang to mind
immediately. Sometimes the matches were more difficult. And sometimes
I zigged after zagging: in other words, I followed a story with an
obvious match (I gave one about a wayward husband to Tiger Woods) with
a more surreal or strange pairing (I put Jack Nicholson and Adam
Sandler at the heart of Chekhov’s Little Trilogy: “The Man in a Case,”
“Gooseberries,” “About Love”).

CM: How did it feel to reinvent these stories using modern characters with
so much baggage?

BG: Liberating and terrifying and comical and grave. And I know for a fact
that how it feels for me is not how it will feel for some readers. The
characters, the celebrities, have baggage, but they’re also oddly
empty. Or rather, they have baggage only because we put it there,
because we as a society spend so much time and energy worrying about
why Kim Kardashian is doing so many nude magazine covers (I’m guessing
it’s because she needs attention and has a great body, probably in
that order) or whether Oprah’s straight or why Alec Baldwin yelled at
his daughter in a private phone call.

CM: In your short story “The Tremulant,” you seem to investigate the role
of the speaker through the use of letters as narrative. In your new
book, how does the switch to celebrities complicate Chekhov’s own
speakers?

BG: Well, it complicates them in a related sense: “The Tremulant,” and the
whole book in which it eventually appeared (What He’s Poised to Do)
looked at letters and letter-writing as very vexed forms of personal
advertisement/articulation. How do you speak to people you care about?
Do you tell them the truth? Do you work around it? Do you disclose the
things that are truly in your heart, or is that too much exposure? Can
you bear the risk of ridicule? Those kinds of questions. In “The
Tremulant,” one of the narrator’s strategies is to write not to his
lover, but to her letters. There’s an intertextuality that creates
texture and acts as a form of armor. Celebrities, by their very
nature, operate this way as well. When you see the name “Lindsay
Lohan,” how much are you thinking of the human versus the incidents
and apparatus surrounding her? And when you hear her speak in my
stories, how do you get around to the idea that it is actually her (or
at least a version of her) speaking? There are stories like “A Lady’s
Story,” which is told in the first person by Britney Spears, that wind
the ball of yarn even tighter. What does it mean to be in her head?

CM: You’ve written both novels and story collections, one of which was entirely comprised of stories about letters. How do you decide what
material is better for each format?

BG: Generally I like playing with a series of shorter narratives that
(hopefully) add up to something huge and strange. The most traditional
novel I wrote, Please Step Back, was a struggle, in some ways, but
it was carried along by the plot, which was essentially the life story
of a legendary (fictional) funk-rock musician. There were quick
reversals and chicanes and everything else, but the plot in general
was carried forward by time — by time in the story, I mean. In this
case, with Chekhov’s stories and the celebritized versions, stories
were the only way to go, because each short work has to live within
the force field both of its plot and also of its central character.

CM: What are you working on now?

BG: There are a number of books that I’ve either started or sketched or am
dreaming about: a novel about a politician, a novel about a safety
inspector, a novel about a detective, a novel about a plagiarist, a
novel about a con man, and a novel about a conned woman. So basically
a novel. But there are always stories, too. For example, there’s a
strange one, strange in the sense that it’s kind of normal, coming out
soon in the next edition of Electric Literature. And lots of little
humor and conceptual pieces along the way.

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