A Chat with Author Adam Mansbach (Part I)


Today’s goal is to acquaint you with a man that gained national recognition and turned the literary world on its ear with Go The F**k To Sleep. While you should take heed and by all means get up on that, here’s me playing the role of contrarian, trying to get you to wake up and not sleep on the multi-dimensional talents that this dude possesses. My man has a deep knowledge and background within the sphere of not only Hip Hop and literature, but Jazz music, acadamia and public speaking as well (among others).

Oh, you still haven’t heard Samuel L. Jackson’s reading of every parent’s bedtime experience?

You probably noticed that his novel, Rage Is Back, was the only piece of writing that I included in my end of the year “favorite things” list. I cannot say enough about how much wifey and I enjoyed that brilliant piece of fiction. But don’t just take my word for it. If you have any appreciation for Graffiti or Hip Hop culture, get down with witty dialogue and street slang, or just enjoy well-developed characters and storylines, you owe it to yourself to read this book. And don’t neglect the accompanying mix tape like all of last year’s resolutions…

The Official Mixtape

I’m not gonna spend a lotta time breaking down the storyline or giving any kind of half-assed brief synopsis. Here. Give a quick listen in as Señor Mansbach reads a bit from Rage is Back

Dude’s responsible for several other well-regarded pieces of writing – in fact he recently put out a thriller that I’ve yet to read. In our conversation we focused only on Go the F**k to Sleep and Rage is Back because those were the only two that we had read at that point. Anyway, below is Part I of our conversation. This was like The Low End Theory of interviews. He brought it like that. I really enjoyed talking to this cat. Check it out…

TKM: How would you say that food relates to creating?

AM: The first time I started thinking about the relationship between those things was when I read an interview years and years ago with Miles Davis, who – at some point anyway, considered himself something of a gourmet cook. I remember the metaphors he used to compare the craft of cooking with the craft of playing and talking specifically about the importance of minimalism and delicacy – not overdoing it and drowning the flavor. He used the metaphor of cooking a nice piece of fish. You don’t need a heavy sauce. You just wanna hit it with a little lemon and bring out the flavor that’s already there. From a guy who was known for playing as few notes as possible and for the kind of tastiness of what he was doing at the time, I thought that was a really apt way of linking these things. And I think I started to think about music and writing and food and cooking as part of a linked creative process. I do a lot of cooking, I have a kid and my wife and I both cook a lot. For me, I think there are a lot of points of comparison. Starting with concepts like timing, improvisation, and ingredients.

“I think thinking interdisciplinarily is really important to me whether it’s on a culinary tip or a musical one or a literary one.”

What do you need to make this thing work? If the elements of what you’re trying to create aren’t perfect to begin with – if they’re not fresh, if they’re not tasty, you’re already operating at a broad disadvantage. Sometimes you can overcome that. If I’m doing, for instance, a piece of writing on assignment and maybe the parameters of the assignment aren’t to my liking, not perfect – not condusive to what I want to do (but I have to figure out how I can make them work for me), that’s the same as opening up your refrigerator and not seeing the ingredients that you want. Sometimes within those limited parameters the best things come. Like, you invent a dish, that you end up recreating later, with the odds and ends that you have in your refrigerator. I think there’s a lot of similarities and ways in which one art, one craft, can be analyzed and thought of in terms of the other. For me those kinds of metaphors have always served me well. I’ve always dealt a lot with music in different ways – whether Jazz or Hip Hop or other kinds of music. I’ve always thought about writing through the lens of those metaphors – how one art is revealed by the other. So when I’m writing I think about the elements of a Jazz composition like call and response, tone, coloration, instrumentation, the soloist vs the ensemble, improvisation, all that kind of shit. I think for me as a writer, a lot of what I do aspires to the spontaneity, and the feeling, and the excitement, and the energy of music. I think thinking interdisciplinarily is really important to me whether it’s on a culinary tip or a musical one or a literary one.

He makes good points…

TKM: Let’s run through 21 questions – play a little word association. Just say the first thing that comes to mind for each of the following 21 ideas…

1. Classic – Criminal Minded
2. Home cooked meal – Delicious
3. Old School Hip Hop – Cold Crush Brothers
4. Hot sauce – Trappey’s
5. Boomboxes – The bigger the better
6. New School Hip Hop – Run-DMC
7. Breakfast – Papaya…coffee…espresso
8. Overrated – Man, I’m such a hater that I don’t overrate anything. I don’t know.
9. Underrated – Most of the good shit out is underrated…No, you know who’s underrated? My man, Ka. I like that dude a lot.
10. Comfort food – Ramen
11. Freestyle – Necessary
12. Satisfy a sweet tooth – Ice cream
13. Graffiti – Style
14. GMO’s – Bad
15. B-Boying – Fresh
16. Vinyl – Obsession. That’s what I do with most of my time – shop for records. The writing is really kind of a side for me.
17. A feast – Dim sum
18. Cassettes – Car cassette player broken. Although, my real answer is digitize. I have so many cassettes, I need to hire an intern to sit around and digitize them because they’re not gonna last long. I have tons of music that I made or crews I was in made – as far back as 1990, all sitting in shoe boxes turning into dust right now. Makes me anxious to think about it right now.
19. Gardening – In theory I like gardening but in reality it always falls to the wayside.
20. The greatest – Played out
21. The kitchen – Impeccable

TKM: You’re incredibly well-versed in music – particularly Hip Hop and Jazz, you’re an avid crate digger, writer, and public speaker but what kind of label would you give yourself? What do you consider yourself? A writer? A novelist?

AM: I’m a writer, that’s how I make my living for sure. I certainly care a lot about music and spend a lot of time playing records, buying records, talking and thinking about records but as a writer I’m very much shaped by, not just the music, but the culture around the music. I don’t want to put myself in any kind of box because I do a lot more things and right now I’m running in a lot more lanes than I really ever thought I would. For years and years I was just a novelist, I would just write novels. I might take a break from that and write a book review or some kind of critical essay and do a little public speaking about things like race and Hip Hop. Now I’m writing everything from screenplays to thrillers to obscene fake children’s books. I have a couple of actual middle grades children’s books – the kinds of things your son can read in another four years. I don’t want to put myself in a box. When Go the F**k to Sleep came out there was a danger of me being put into some kind of box. I’ve been lucky enough to turn that on its head and be like, what I do is actually everything and I might hit the zietgiest again in any of these fields so you need to fuck with me in all of them.

“I’m a writer, but I’m a writer who’s definitely influenced by and part of a broad Hip Hop community and sensibility.”

But having said all that, nothing has been more formative for me than Hip Hop. So, it’s not just that I like listening to music or I’m interested in music, it’s that I feel like on a very formative level Hip Hop was one of the things that made me who I am in terms of my artistic aesthetics, my music, my political world view, my interest in really interrogating things like race and identity in this country. All of that really was said in a very profound way at an early age by Hip Hop. That mindstate – Hip Hop’s relationship to community, Hip Hop’s notion of intellectual democracy through collage, Hip Hop’s understanding of, and willingness to go to difficult places and talk about societal ills, Hip Hop’s particular notion of collage, particular notion of improvisation, freestyling – all of these things really, really shaped who I am as a writer. I do write Hip Hop literature, for lack of a better term. And even when I’m writing something far-field – Rage is Back wears Hip Hop influences very much on its sleeve but even when I’m doing something very far-field from all of that, like this thriller that I published in October (Dead Run), those influences and rhythms worked their way in. So, yeah I’m a writer, but I’m a writer who’s definitely influenced by and part of a broad Hip Hop community and sensibility.

TKM: Yeah man, you just summed up my life in terms of influence and identity but I wanna take it back to food for a minute. Where are you at with food right now? Do you follow a specific diet for you and your family?

AM: I would say that we are pescatarians and try to eat organic. We’re lucky to have really good farmer’s markets so we get all of our produce locally and organic. You know, really typical common sense stuff. We don’t really eat a lot of processed foods – we don’t really eat any processed foods. And, increasingly, I’m a little nervous about the ocean these days so I’m sort of wondering where that pescatarianism is gonna go in the next five years. I’m very wary of the mercury levels and all of that. I feel like my sea food consumption is gonna be more in the summers when I’m on the East Coast and I can be getting the Atlantic stuff [instead of worrying about the Fukushima aftermath].

TKM: Yeah, a lot of that Pacific seafood danger talk isn’t really being heard but it ain’t no joke. People better start paying attention. Do you have a recipe that you could share with us?

AM: Yeah, I knew you were gonna ask me that so I was thinking about it. I think in a former life I was like an unsuccessful Sicilian fisherman. A lot of the recipes that I like are based around these Sicilian dishes that they would make when they came back with nothing in the nets but sardines and anchovies. So this one is a pasta and the ingredients are sardines, pine nuts, fennel, fennel seeds, raisins, saffron, white wine – that’s basically the sauce. It’s simple but it’s delicious. I’m not good with the proportions and alla that but…

(The full recipe can be found HERE)

TKM: Ah yeah, son. Pasta. Sardines. That’s right up my alley. Sardines are full of those omegas – perfect for little brains. Always got those on deck for the kids. We’re gonna put that one together for sure.

There were so many incredible tidbits and chunks of insight in our conversation that rather than disregarding a good 2/3 of it, I decided to break this interview up into two parts. Part one is mostly about food and writing in general. Make sure to keep us bookmarked and be on the lookout for the second half of the interview where we really start to delve a little deeper into some specifics. You know when you hear a great song for the first time and you go away feeling uplifted, even a bit inspired, hoping to hear that song again – and soon? That’s Adam. I’m really looking forward to his upcoming projects. I just copped a few of his novels that I hadn’t already read as well as Dead Run, his most recent piece. If you’re new to this cat, you should probably head to your nearest independent bookstore and get hipped. Don’t sleep.

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