Adam Mansbach is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Go the Fuck to Sleep, the novels Rage is Back, Angry Black White Boy, and The End of the Jews (winner of the California Book Award) and a dozen other books, most recently the bestselling A Field Guide to the Jewish People, co-written with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel. He wrote the award-winning screenplay for the Netflix Original BARRY, and his memoir in verse, I Had A Brother Once, was published by One World on April 13. Photo by Pete Rosen
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Grace Tobin. Of the process, she said, “Adam Mansbach’s memoir and epic poem I Had a Brother Once is an exceptional depiction of life after his brother’s passing. I am honored he took the time to answer my questions with the same honesty and care he lends to his extensive work.” In this interview, Adam Mansbach talks about the importance of ritual in times of great loss, his appreciation for a wide array of mediums, and texting about ‘90s hip hop with Andy Samberg.
Superstition Review: Your book has been described as “A brilliant, genre-defying work—both memoir and epic poem—about the struggle for wisdom, grace, and ritual in the face of unspeakable loss.” When did you realize it would be an epic poem and why did that seem like the best form for the content?
Adam Mansbach: It took me years to figure out how to write about my brother, both emotionally and in terms of form. Form was actually one of the things that stymied me; I'd get caught up thinking about what kind of structure or plot or scaffolding I'd need, and this would stop me before I started. I considered a novel, a long-form nonfiction piece, a screenplay – and these are all forms that I work in more frequently than poetry. Poetry actually never occurred to me, across those eight years of contemplation. There was a time when I mainly wrote poetry, but that time was like 20 or 25 years ago.
And it's largely circumstance and luck that brought me back around to it. I was commissioned to write a poem for an SF Jazz show by my friend Marc Bamuthi Joseph – something to perform with a live band, as part of a show with a bunch of other poets. And that took me back to my roots in a couple of ways. I used to perform with musicians all the time, tour my novels with bands, rap over live music, sit in with my friends' bands. I also used to be a roadie for Elvin Jones, the greatest drummer in the history of the world, so the energy of jazz cats, young or old, is very familiar and very comforting to me. And Bamuthi is someone who knows my work well, who has been wonderfully supportive over the years, and thought to put me in this context.
So I wrote my first poem in years. It was an elegy for Phife from A Tribe Called Quest, who had just died. And I spent the week kicking it with some poets I love – especially my homegirl Lauren A. Whitehead, who I hadn't seen in a minute – and remembering how powerful poetry can be. And I went home, and it was the week before what would have been my brother's 40th birthday, and I just started writing, and it was really liberating – and really obvious, in retrospect, that this form made the most sense. Poetry allowed me to write intuitively, to focus on language and emotion, and tell the story without worrying too much about scaffolding or how one scene or idea connected to the next. It let the structure emerge, rather than me having to establish a structure a priori. And I wrote the book in about three very intense weeks.
SR: Your previous book, The End of the Jews, was described by The Millions as an examination of “the legacies of race and religion, legacies that demand attention if there is to be any true understanding of today’s America.” How has the faith of your family influenced your writing?
AM: I wouldn't say my family has "faith," exactly. We're secular Jews for many generations, many of us actively hostile to organized religion. But that doesn't mean we're not Jewish, or that being Jewish isn't important to us, that it doesn't form a critical part of our identity, how others see us, or how we exist in the world.
With The End of the Jews, I didn't set out to write a book about Judaism as much as a book about my generation and my grandparents' generation, but the deeper I dug the more I realized how defining and inescapable it was for my grandparents to be Jewish, despite not being religious. I started thinking more about Jewish artistic practices and legacies, especially of that generation – Kazin, Malamud, Bellow, Roth. And about the relationships between Black and Jewish folks in America, which are really the two communities in which I've spent the most time. I started thinking about art and the margins, art and discomfort, and art and feeling alienated. Because one thing Judaism has is large margins. It's the “Hotel California” of religions; you can check out but you can never leave, because it's not just about faith, it's a snarl of history and creed and ethnic identity, and all of that means that there's a lot of space to be alienated and create art out of that distance and the perspective it allows.
There's also a tradition of inquiry, of arguing. The Talmud is one big debate. That resonates with me. There's a social justice tradition, a solidarity tradition that was critical to the civil rights movement and was then subverted in the '80s as the Jews became whiter. These are all things I've written about. And Jewish humor is another tradition I tap into; I've written two Jewish humor books with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel, and that sensibility even finds its way into this book – I tell a fucking Jewish joke about assimilation and self-hate in the middle of this book about suicide. And I grapple a lot in this book with ritual - with the lack of it, the need for it, what Judaism can offer me, what it can't. So it's always there, echoing through the work in different ways.
SR: In 2011, Smith Magazine described your writing as “obscenely honest.” What is your response to this characterization?
AM: Confusion. Unless maybe they were referring to Go the Fuck to Sleep? Which I guess is both obscene and honest, or uses obscenity in service of honesty?
SR: The work is clearly poetic, yet the use of narrative arc and structure make the work accessible. What was the process of writing this poem and were there any intersections with the process of writing your prose? Did you have any models that inspired you?
AM: I was pretty much making the process up as I went along. I was working almost in a trance state. I don't mean to sound mystical about it, but there was an outpouring of so much emotion, a codification of so many thoughts and feelings that had been building up for eight years. And I was also having revelations, making connections I had never made in the process of getting it down on paper. I just kind of went with my intuition, let the ideas branch and connect as they wanted to. It was very, very solipsistic and definitely without any models. I was crying a lot, and pretty much writing to the exclusion of all else.
SR: This poem includes religious rituals in which the entire family partakes. These are both spoken and unspoken. Can you explain your relationship with rituals and why you think they present themselves in the face of the unspeakable loss?
AM: Well, loss is when you find that you need ritual, that you long for the comfort it provides, and the sense of a tradition, a history to support you. And if you don't have that, the lack of ritual feels like a true absence, a true void. I spent a lot of time worrying that I didn't know how to mourn, that I was doing it wrong, and that if I fucked it up or did it in an incomplete way, the grief would come back stronger and incapacitate me or something. My family didn't have much ritual to fall back on, so there was this sense of imitating or enacting something we didn't really know, didn't really feel. And at other points, I found a lot of resonance in ritual, even if I didn't fully understand the ritual, or even the Hebrew words – just feeling the weight of the history was enough. I also thought and wrote a lot about the notion, the possibility, of inventing a ritual. Or even becoming a ritual.
SR: The expanse of your work is impressively diverse and all-encompassing. You’ve worked with novels, poetry, film, children’s books, television, and journalism. Can you describe how you deal with the transition from medium to medium?
AM: I'm a polymath when it comes to writing. There's a lot I enjoy, and I also enjoy the process of learning the rules of a new form, the tension of trying to do everything you can within a specific set of constraints. Certain things feel more like pleasurable diversions – like co-writing comedy books with Barry and Zweibel – and others feel daunting because of commercial constraints, like writing a big-budget film for a studio, which is what I'm currently doing. But I also think you learn about one genre by working in another; the most successful writing course I taught when I was at the Rutgers-Camden MFA program was screenwriting for graduate fiction writers because the form didn't allow them to be self-indulgent, and that changed their whole perspective on craft. I'm trained as a novelist, and on some level that still feels like the ultimate form to me, the hardest form, so I bring a little bit of a "train high, race low" mentality to every other kind of project.
SR: As a writer myself, I still haven’t found the courage to write about my own parents. What advice would you give to writers who are considering writing about their families?
AM: I've had a lot of students ask me this over the years. I think it's so personal, so circumstantially specific, that I can't really answer it – the stakes are different for everyone. But even when we try, we never render people as they are. Often the people we're writing about don't even recognize themselves or recognize themselves wrongly. A lot of the things writers do - composite characters, create alternate versions of ourselves and others – are not necessarily legible to the reader, even if the reader is a family member.
SR: Throughout your career, you’ve worked with huge household names like Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Samberg, and Sarah Silverman. What has your experience been as a writer working with actors?
AM: It's a pleasure and also a discipline to write for a specific voice. I'm writing this movie called SUPER HIGH right now, and it stars Samberg, Craig Robinson, and Common. I've known Craig for years, and I'm working closely with Andy and texting back and forth – about the script, but also just bullshitting about '90s hip hop and stuff. And it's like being on a basketball team. I'm the point guard, and my job is to get them open looks so they can score. And the better I get to know them, the more I can anticipate the cut, or know Andy likes to go to his left, or Craig needs to come off a high screen or whatever. And it's a lot of fun, to make the right pass, write the right joke.
But more than anything, what I've learned and continue to learn as a screenwriter is to do less. An actor has a range of expressive tools at his or her disposal, and language is only one. I really came to understand this on the set of Barry, which was the first script of mine to be shot. I'd have Anya Taylor-Joy or Devon Terrell saying three lines, and when it actually came time to shoot the scene, I'd be like "wait wait wait, let's cut 80% of that and just say it with a look."
SR: In I Had a Brother Once, you describe an interview for another book in which you were nervous someone was going to ask you about your brother. As I was reading your poem as an interviewer preparing to ask you questions, I was in awe with your process of grief, and I became very conscious of my job as an interviewer. Can you please talk about the distinction between writing about something in solitude versus being asked to talk about it with someone else?
AM: For me, talking about a project, shepherding a project out into the world, and connecting with readers or viewers about it, is incredibly rewarding. There's a duality to the solitude of writing and the public nature of publishing that, for me, add up to some kind of balance. I love to perform, I love to tour, and I love to be onstage. For this book, that process was going to look very different from any other I'd ever experienced, but it felt like an important, and maybe cathartic part of the process – one I wasn't ready for in the moment you're describing, but that I do feel ready for now. Covid has really curtailed all of that, but I'm still looking forward to talking about this book. I learn by talking about it, and I think demystifying process and giving people some insight into how things are made is important.
SR: What genre do you plan to work in next?
AM: Well, I've got to finish this screenplay, and with any luck, I'll sell another one after I do. I'm also working on another book that's similar in form to this one, but with a very different focus; it's basically a memoir about race in Boston from like 1983 to 1994, the years I was growing up there. I've also got a kids' book, a picture book, coming out next year with Dial. And I've been writing and directing these PSAs lately – one with Sam Jackson about pandemic safety, one with Killer Mike for the Georgia senate elections, another with Sam for the Biden campaign, and one with W. Kamau Bell about the vaccines. So I'll probably keep doing those, too.