Wednesday, June 8th, 2011
“I never would have dreamed that this book would be the big hit. One constant in my career is that I’ve always written the shit I’ve wanted to write.”
Before Adam Mansbach wrote the children’s book for grownups, Go the Fuck to Sleep, he was, in his own words, “feverishly working on all kinds of different writing projects, hoping one would hit and keep me from having to move out of my house and into a discarded refrigerator carton.”
It’s an overstatement, perhaps, but effective motivation nonetheless. Working outside the mainstream, Mansbach has, in reality, had previous success most writers would consider a victory. His first novel, Angry Black White Boy, about the assimilation of hip-hop culture by whites, has been taught at more than 60 colleges, universities and high schools, and has been turned into a play that sold out for three straight months in San Francisco. His most recent novel, The End of the Jews, was called “beautifully portrayed” by The New York Times Book Review and “intense, painful and poignant” by the Boston Globe. Recently a visiting professor of fiction at Rutgers University, he’s also written another novel, Shackling Water, a poetry collection, Genius B-boy Cynics Getting Weeded in the Garden of Delights, as well as A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing. And yet within a few days of the incredible viral run of Go The Fuck To Sleep, Mansbach had sold more copies than the sum total of all of his previous books—before it was even released.
A book for adults about the misery that is trying to get small children to sleep, Mansbach and artist Ricardo Cortes have found genius, and gold, in a presentation that’s exactly like a child’s bedtime story. As GTFTS approaches its official release this Father’s Day, its mere fourteen verses of text and accompanying illustrations has a print run of more than 300,000 copies, been optioned as a movie, and completely changed the life of its author, illustrator, and publishing house.
I spoke with the 34-year-old Mansbach by phone while he was gearing up for his book tour with a visit to his hometown of Newton, MA. As we spoke, the cries of my four-month old baby not sleeping provided an apt soundtrack in the background.
The origin story of Go Tte Fuck to Sleep is well known by now, but could you recount it in your own words?
Nothing about this book was planned. Last summer, when my daughter was two, I joked on Facebook: “Look out for my forthcoming children’s book, Go the Fuck to Sleep.” And it wasn’t like there was some overwhelming response, but a few people said, “Go do it motherfucker!” Then I thought about it, found out that a board book [children’s books like the ones we read at bedtime] is fourteen verses, and asked myself: Can I come up with fourteen verses? Can I find that many words that rhyme with sleep? My burst of energy lasted an afternoon and it was honest about the experience and it was done. It was close, but I think I got enough rhymes in just under the wire.
Even though the book is a fluke for you, it doesn’t seem like that radical a departure from your “more serious” books. They’re all quite satirical and obscenely honest.
It’s certainly not a departure; I think there’s a through-line in terms of my other work in the sense that I’ve always written the books I’ve been passionate about writing, without much thought about audience or salability. And in that a lot of my other books use humor as a way to explore serious issues. Also, I’ve always been good at profanity.
The fact that you’re really telling the truth is what people love about GTFTS. The first weeks after my baby was born, all sorts of people asked me if I was spending my days staring blissfully at my son. I was thrilled, sure, but mainly exhausted and terrified. No one mentioned that part to me. Why do people lie?
They lie because there’s a culture of both perfection and dishonesty about things like parenting. Part of the reason this book has been received so well is that it’s been cathartic to have people admit that it’s not good all the time. There’s all this preciousness around kids.
At the same time, remember that the parents in my book aren’t actually cursing at the kids. They’re actually being good parents; they’re not letting on that they’re about to explode.
The book may be the most viral literary sensation to date. What went into the decision to release the entire book via PDF?
We sent the book out as a PDF to handful of booksellers, and one of them leaked it. Once we started getting all this attention, we feared we’d be just a punch line; we’d be done before we got started. So not only did we not release the PDF, we spent a few weeks doing cease and desists, trying to get it off the Internet. We were not only not new media geniuses, we were stupid enough to try to stop it from going viral.
Still, the fact is the book was already charting on Amazon—where all people had were a title, a cover, and one verse—a week or so before the PDF came out. The supply rose to meet the demand.
I knew this book would be huge when people who aren’t part of the literary and/or coastal and/or Gawker crowd started forwarding it to me. Still, from the minute you open the PDF, it’s very much a book you want to physically hold.
It’s short enough to work as a PDF to look at and laugh at quickly, but you still want to buy it—so we had the best of both worlds. I do think that this is a gift book; it’s an art object that fundamentally you buy for a friend or that your mother gives you to remind you what a bad kid you are. Luckily, it’s still bad form to show up at a baby shower with a stapled PDF—even a hi-res one.
There’s a really nice parallel in how a small publishing house like Akashic and you both have room to grow and do what you want next. Can you talk about that for what this breathing room does for you as a writer?
It’s right on time. My job just ended, it’s a tough time to sell a novel, the publishing industry is tanking. So for the last couple of years, I’ve been stressed about the post-job future and feverishly working on all kinds of different writing projects, hoping one would hit and keep me from having to move out of my house and into a discarded refrigerator carton. Now, that’s less of a concern, and I can be selective and deliberate. And this book has helped my publisher stay in business. A small pub like mine can rise or fall by miscalculating a book run of 8,000 books that should have been closer to 2,000.
What are you working on now?
I think I’ll be doing a lot of screenwriting in the next couple of years. I have a graphic novel, Nature Of The Beast, that drops in February. And my next novel is called Rage Is Back. It’s your basic magic realism graffiti revenge novel. I haven’t sold it yet.
I imagine you’re glad it’s still on the market given your new success.
Two months ago I was mortified I hadn’t sold it; now it seems okay. To write a novel takes a lot of endurance and stamina; selling literary fiction is almost fucking impossible now—the challenge for writers is to maintain the energy. I’m fortunate that the success of this book gives me time and security to do other writing projects.
You’ve written a number of serious books—novels, a book of poetry—but clearly this is going to be the book you’ll be known for. Does that make you feel conflicted about this book’s success?
My books have been critically received but haven’t been on any bestseller lists. Even before GTFTS is officially out, I’ve already sold more of this book than everything else I’ve written combined, and I’m not one to complain about success or the potential financial security. I’ve been able to get by with writing and a little teaching. Getting a regular paycheck teaching these last few years was a nice thing. But it just ended and I’ve been worried about getting by. I never would have dreamed that this book would be the big hit. One constant in my career is that I’ve always written the shit I’ve wanted to write.
My friend put it in this way: “What’s so cool about this is that a lot of people sell out to make money, or try to. And this book is you talking the same shit you always say.” But in this case what I said just happened to resonate and hit the vein in the zeitgeist.
Do you worry that when people learn about your earlier work they will change their opinion of this book?
Well, I made my YouTube channel private for a while because there was stuff that was pretty bananas on it. I envisioned an intern at The Today Show finding a lecture on Angry Black White Boy where I’m talking all this shit about structural racism and white privilege—and that would be the end of that. [Editor's note: Mansbach appeared on The Today Show]
What do you read to your daughter?
My daughter is very language focused and story focused—she really cares what she hears. We read Margaret Wise Brown, that sort of thing. A lot of my friends are graffiti writers so we read a lot of books on graffiti art. She took a shine to the twenty-fifth anniversary reissue of Subway Art, the book that started it all in the graffiti world. She says, “Papa, I want look at the train book!”
What book do you remember loving as a kid?
All my memories of books are of ones I was able to read myself. I have a feeling the one thing writers all have in common is that we just love to read—and as kids we always had a book on us. I remember the young adult stuff best. My favorite book is called The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. It’s set in North Carolina in 1957 and is about this one black kid who integrates this white school, and his white friend. That remains one of the most influential books for me. I reread it every three years.
Are you going to do another book for parents?
I may or may not do another kid’s book, though there’s a lot of pressure on me to do one. Everyone is suggesting sequels and all that. But I won’t do a shittier version of same idea like Eat Your Fucking Vegetables. Everyone on Facebook is saying, “Do a Shut the Fuck Up book!” But I don’t have the urge to tell my kid to shut the fuck up. This isn’t an angry book; I’m not going to be a mouthpiece for everyone’s rage. This book works because there’s an established notion of a bedtime book and I found a way to have fun with it.
One thing that will definitely happen is that we’ll do a G-rated version. My publisher was reading it and realized it’s a pretty funny book to read to a kid without all the cursing. Not a redacted version, but with the same art and tweaked to be a bigger size, more kid friendly.
Are you going to have another kid? Your daughter seems to be good for your creative process.
What are you, my mother?
Finally, Adam Mansbach, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Still can’t believe this shit’s happening.
BUY Go The Fuck to Sleep.
VISIT Adam Mansbach’s Web site for info and reviews of his many other books.