INTERVIEW by DANIELLE OLIVER |PHOTOGRAPHY by SARAH MILLET
If you’ve been on the internet in the past three months, this author is going to need very little introduction — but we’d hate to cut out the preliminaries. Allow us to present Adam Mansbach — novelist, teacher, and author of the “children’s book for adults” and viral success, Go the Fuck to Sleep. Managing to vault to the #1 spot on Amazon.com’s bestseller list a month before it was even published, and sitting snugly atop the New York Times’ Hardcover Advice & Misc. category of best sellers, the book has created less of a buzz and more of all-out ruckus. Adam spoke humbly to Daily BR!NK about the insanity of it all — from 90-year-old tap dancers to Samuel L. Jackson’s, er… vocal support.
First of all, huge congratulations! How does it feel to have your book go viral?
It’s been pretty crazy. There’s been any number of moments where it’s like, okay, things must have peaked and will now level off, it couldn’t get any crazier than it is right now… and then it’s consistently gotten crazier. [laughs]
How did this all start?
It really started in a very lo-fi kind of way. I gave a reading of the book at The Fourth Wall Art Salon on April 23 of this year. At the time, the book wasn’t scheduled to be published until October, so it was just me testing out new material, seeing what people thought about something I hadn’t read aloud yet. It was a crowd of about 200 people, and it was a long evening of short performances, and I was the last one to go on. I was on after a 90-something-year-old tap dancer – a hard act to follow. [laughs] And I read the book and showed the images, and people kind of went nuts. A lot of laughter, a lot of enthusiasm, and it really set things off.
By the next morning, when I thought to check our Amazon number (we didn’t even have an Amazon number the night before because the book was months away), it was ranked 125th of all books…
…which is a really low number. I’m a novelist, and I’ve published a bunch of books, and I’ve never seen a number that low. Literary fiction is supposed to be at a respectable 35,000 or so, you know? [laughter] So it was like, okay, shit, something’s going on. And it just snowballed from there; by mid-week, it had gone all the way to the top of the charts. A week after that, after a bunch of attention, a PDF of the book went viral, which was totally unintentional. It wasn’t a media thing, it wasn’t a strategy thing, it was an accident. It leaked because we had sent a PDF to booksellers for early feedback and support, and it got out somehow.
We were terrified that this was going to sink us, because now the whole freaking book is available online. Instead, it ended up giving people the promise of this premise – before that, they only had the cover and the title and a verse. And luckily, it’s a bad look to show up to a baby shower with a printed-out PDF of a book. [laughter] So that all ended up helping us, and meanwhile, we were frantically moving the publication up to June. A lot of publishers were making offers, trying to buy the book away from my publisher.
One of the coolest things about this book is the idea of the book itself. Is this genre – children’s books for adults – an existing thing, or is this a new territory?
I think it’s pretty much a new territory. I think it’s a new genre in the sense that this book plays with the tropes of a children’s book – with its form of a four-line rhyming stanza… there have been some things that are vaguely similar, but also very different than this book.
Do you have children? Is that how this idea was conceived?
I have a three-year-old daughter, who – at the time of writing the book – was two. It’s very much a book that comes directly out of personal experience.
I was looking at your other work that’s been published, and it seems that you’ve kind of gone a different route artistically with this book. Was this a pet project, a creative idea… where did it come from in terms of your other work?
It was really something I did for the hell of it, without any kind of expectations or calculation at all. One through-line in my work is that I have always written the books that I’ve wanted to write, without any thought about how marketable they might be. Ultimately this book is resonating with people because it’s an honest reflection of how they feel. It’s… a verbatim take of what I consider to be the internal monologue of a parent in a position of trying to put a young child to sleep. And as a writer, you have to strive for honesty, humanity, integrity… and this is obviously a very stripped-down form, but there’s still a narrative here and that’s very important to me.
Just out of curiosity, how did this help with the sales of your other books?
It’s definitely helped my other books, no question about it. And it will help my future books, I’m sure, as well. Which is a great thing, because this is a really shitty time to be writing literary fiction. The industry is not in a good place at all, and editors have less flexibility with what they can do, and taking chances on books is not permitted.
How you feel, especially now, about internet publishing? Has your opinion about the way the industry is shifting changed at all?
[thinks] Not dramatically. It’s tricky, because we benefited in a fairly dramatic way from this viral spread. There is a whole school of thought that says this is what marketing is now – you make it completely free, you let people see what it is, and you trust that they will still buy it. If you’re Radiohead, put your album online completely free and say: pay what you want. And I think that’s great, but… I’m rolling with Akashic Books, which is a great small publisher, they’ve been around ten or more years, and they’ve always been on the BR!NK of success or failure, depending on very small runs of books and how they do. This piracy turned out to help us, but would that be case for another book? Maybe not. I don’t know if it changes my opinion overall. I think I’m still too close to it to call. Also, I’m such a luddite when it comes to stuff like this. [laughter]
The book release was a big event at the New York Public Library, and you had hundreds of fans there. What was that whole experience like?
It felt great to be in that space – it’s a beautiful building. Having 500 people sit there and listen to Werner Herzog was incredible, and Judah Friedlander who was also there in person to read the book was great. Afterwards, we were in a room with 17th century tapestries, drinking vodka out of sippy cups and listening to classic 90s hiphop…
How did Samuel L. Jackson become a part of the project? [laughs]
He was our #1 pick to do the audiobook and our publisher, audible.com, contacted him and he was really into it.
Well, that was easy.
Yeah! It was amazing.
I just wanted to touch on this… there has been a little bit of backlash about the book, mainly with just one blogger at CNN.com, saying it was insensitive content. But it seems to me that this book was created in humor and, most certainly, light-heartedness.
That was always the intention – to shed light on something that a lot of people go through, and be honest and funny about it. First of all, you can’t legislate a sense of humor. People are certainly free to not think it’s funny. But whenever someone calls something like this out on moral ground, they get shouted out by legions of fans and supporters of the book, so I don’t even feel the need to say or do anything. And that woman got excoriated. There were thousands of comments on that piece, and they were pretty much all negative. She did herself a big disservice by writing a piece that made no sense. She found violence in the book where no one seemed to find violence, and claimed that the fact that some people don’t read to their kids implied that this book was bad… [laughs] It was all over the place, it overreached, and it made no sense.
I know that you’re a teacher, so what are some rules or pieces of advice that you give your fiction students?
One is that everything begins with character. Any good piece of fiction is ultimately based in character and in being able to explore the intricacies and paradoxes of what it means to be human. You always have to be pursuing a deeper understanding of your characters, and you should be writing in a way that makes you personally uncomfortable – seeking to push yourself into territory that is psychologically and emotionally unknown.
A lot of times, my students have a very clear idea on what the end of a story is, and I find myself frequently pushing them beyond that. They take these very measured steps towards that perceived ending, when what they should really be doing is sprint toward it, get past it, and see what lies beyond.
I also tell them that you have to fucking sit your ass in the chair and write. You’ve got to do that everyday, build up your endurance. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You’ve got to put in that work.
Any potential for a Go the Fuck to Sleep series?
I may do something, but what I refuse to do is something that sucks just to cash in on the momentum. If I do another book, it will be hopefully something that’s original and creative, not something simply derivative of this in attempt to keep it going.
One thing that I think will be in the offering is a g-rated version of the book. I think a lot of kids really relate to it in the sense of, oh, this is a book about a mischievous kid who won’t go to sleep. He’s flummoxing his parents and winning, and that’s a cool concept for a lot of kids.
What can our readers do to contribute to your success?
Buy books. Not just buy my books, but buy books in general. Support local, independent bookstores and authors. If you care about the future of literature, there’s really only one way to ensure that it has one.