Untangling Funk


"Please Step Back" author Ben Greenman

The New Yorker editor and novelist Ben Greenman's new book, "Please Step Back" (Melville House, 2009, $16.95), tracks the life and career of funk-rock star Robert Franklin, a.k.a. Rock Foxx, a fictional character based loosely on Sly Stone. Hailed by George Pelecanos as "a literary funk-rock novel with weight and power," "Please Step Back" is only moving forward. I recently spoke with Greenman, with whom I worked at The New Yorker magazine, about his latest effort.

• It seems like "Please Step Back" is a bit of a departure from your other work. Did you just wake up one day and say: "The world really needs a literary funk-rock novel. I guess I have to write it"?
Well, sure, sort of. I had to get it out of my head so I could get on to the next book. I mean, that's kind of a weird premise—that the world needs any book. It was more a matter of my needing this book, needing to write it and deal with my interest in this kind of music and this character.

• Where did your interest come from?
From the music, first of all. Since I was 9 or 10 years old, I was obsessed with funk and soul music of the early '70s. That (interest) didn't dissipate. I tried to write a biography of Sly Stone, which didn't work out, so I decided to write it as a novel instead. Weirdly with Foxx though, it actually ended up being a very autobiographical character: he worries about creativity, about marriage, the way society shifts around him too far in one direction or the other.

• Was it hard to write a black character? Were you worried about that?
No and no. I mean, I connected with artists like this from very early on; maybe it was before I even thought of them as black or myself as white or Jewish or anything. When it came time to write, I really felt like these were people I knew.

• Talk more about your interest in this time period specifically.
[Y]ou know, we have the wars in Iraq and Afhanistan and the recession, and a lot going on, but at the same time I find it to be very boring in many ways as opposed to then (the 1960s). The reason that I'm very interested in that particular time (is) … that's the last time that all of these kinds of things—race, pop culture, legitimate politics, youth culture—were the most closely smushed together, and the most interesting to try and untangle.

• So what's next?
Well, either a collection of stories or another novel or a book of essays. All of those are close to done. I have to do that thing where you talk to your agent and see which book they think makes sense next, and then I guess decide if I think that makes sense, too.

"Please Step Back" is available at Lemuria and http://www.pleasestepback.com, which also has a recording of a track written by 70s funk star Swamp Dogg, with lyrics Greenman wrote for the novel.


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