Best-selling author Adam Mansbach claims that he’s “really bad” at not working.
He has spent a lifetime of summers at his family’s longtime home in Chilmark, times full of idyllic pleasures — bodysurfing, grilling fish from Larsen’s, living in a house overlooking a beach — that anyone would find enviable. But Mr. Mansbach cites his time on the Vineyard as his most productive as a writer.
“One of the things I like about being here is that my life gets stripped down to basics. I traditionally get more done in the two months here than I do any other time of year.” Some summer residents might resent the intrusion. But Mr. Mansbach, who grew up amidst a circle of writers, sees work as a normalized notion. Writing is a job that you do on a daily basis as a regular part of life.
It would be understandable if the 37-year-old author would want to take some down time. In January Viking Press published his hip hop inflected novel, Rage is Back, about a New York city graffiti crew. The paperback version will be available on Sept. 24, the very same day that Harper Voyager publishes Mr. Mansbach’s first thriller, The Dead Run.
The author will be speaking at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival on Saturday, August 3, at 3:10 p.m. at the Harbor View Hotel and Sunday, August 4, at 10:30 a.m. on the grounds of the Chilmark Community Center.
But 2013 isn’t the only busy year Mr. Mansbach has had of late. Two years ago his profile skyrocketed with the success of a satirical “children’s picture book for adults” called Go the _ to Sleep (the exact title could not get by this newspaper’s censors). After a PDF of the book was leaked on the internet, the book catapulted to number one on Amazon.com’s sales charts a month before publication. It later debuted in the number one slot on the bestseller list of The New York Times. The book’s fans include actor Samuel L. Jackson, who voiced the audiobook. “One of the benefits of that mistaken leak was that people felt really invested, like they had discovered the book and helped to spread the buzz. When people feel that way, that’s a good thing. It’s an insane thing. It’s still selling a lot of books.”
Mr. Mansbach said that the book’s sales have given him a buffer of comfort at a period he feels is a terrible time to be a writer.
Language and writing are in Mr. Mansbach’s blood. Poetry and rhyme permeate the words he writes and the way he thinks and speaks. He is the grandson of judge and Harvard law professor Benjamin Kaplan, who helped to craft the indictments of Nazi war criminals tried at Nuremberg. His grandmother, Felicia Lamport, was a poet and satirist well remembered for The Love Song of R. Milhouse Nixon. Mr. Mansbach spent his childhood summers at his grandparents’ Chilmark home.
“They hung out with a wide circle of pretty incredible people, always sitting around drinking gin and tonics,” he recalled. “As a kid you don’t understand that those are some of the most prominent academics and writers around. But as I got older, I started realizing who some of those folks were.”
While writing his earlier novel The End of the Jews, Mr. Mansbach did his research by asking questions of his grandfather and his grandfather’s friends.
“They were all in their 80s or 90s but the memories of that generation are astounding,” he said. The experience also gave the author an opportunity to learn more about the life of his grandfather, who often dismissed his own achievements and what he’d overcome as a Jew in New York city and Boston. The author cites his grandmother’s poetry as a huge influence on his fascination with rhyme and figuring out different forms.
“She wrote incredibly incisive, political satire that was brilliantly and intrinsically rhymed and very poignant.”
From a young age Mr. Mansbach became fascinated with the poetry and politics of hip hop music and its messages about race and class.
“My first access to the music was through friends of mine who lived in inner-city Boston,” he said. “I was going to a public school in Newton that was a recipient of the busing program during the Boston busing crisis. Kids from Roxbury and Dorchester were getting bused to my school and they were bringing hip hop tapes with them. There was a sense in which the music at that time, hip hop, was cresting in terms of its overt political content. This was the era of Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, X Clan and Brand Nubians. Listening to hip hop and participating in hip hop culture at that time was a political act.”
Hip hop’s message and lifestyle are the world in which Mr. Mansbach has set Rage is Back. The novel is set in 2005 and explores the life of Kilroy Dondi Vance, a multiracial Brooklyn teenager benefitting from affirmative action programs at an elite New York city private high school that he describes as the “Whoopty Whoo Ivy League We’s A Comin’ Academy.”
Dondi has been raised by his mother after his father, celebrated graffiti artist Billy Rage, skips town following an arrest warrant and $2 million bounty for defacing subway trains with accusations that a NYPD cop murdered his friend. Just as Dondi is kicked out of school and his mother’s house for selling pot, Billy returns. After years on the run, Billy plans to bring back his crew of fellow graffiti artists, now mostly retired or in hiding in the cleaned-up, post-Giuliani New York city, for one more spectacular display of artistry.
Rage is Back may well fulfill the author’s wish to write “the great American graffiti novel” that he always knew was waiting to be written. During the two and a half years Mr. Mansbach took to write Rage is Back, he drew on the deeply personal experiences of his youth. He moved to New York city in 1994 to attend Columbia University. New York city was the epicenter for the movement at the time, although Mr. Mansbach thinks that “every city is a hip hop city if you know where to look.”
“Mostly I ran a hip hop magazine and managed to get Columbia to give me about 60 per cent of my credits in independent study. I had the support of Anne Douglas as my advisor, who was a great scholar and who saw the importance of what I was doing.”
“I always had the sense that there was something majestic about graffiti,” he added. “Graffiti has all this mystery, lore and a secretive cultish ethos to it. The artifacts themselves were destroyed, so what’s left is this story and the arguing about the story. What I realized was that graffiti artists were the eccentrics and the mad scientists and the weirdos . . . and they outlived the thing that they invented.”
The result is a vibrantly drawn novel of distinct-sounding urban characters whose social stratum isn’t often heard from in mainstream publishing. It’s a book that begs to be read and heard aloud because the characters’ speech patterns are so rhythmic.
Despite the heroic aims of Billy and his crew (Amuse, Dengue Fever, Sabor and Cloud 9), Mr. Mansbach doesn’t glorify their actions or how they live. He does, however, note the differences in how hip hop and graffiti are viewed across the span of 1987, when the novel’s inciting incident takes place, to 2005, from which Dondi narrates, to the present.
“Hip hop culture is now our global top culture. That’s incredible,” Mr. Mansbach remarked, sounding like a proud parent. “At the same time, I want to not be overly romantic about the forces that allowed those things to be created. It was in the face of tremendous governmental neglect, persecution, racism and marginalization that hip hop and graffiti came about. The conditions that gave us those things, we shouldn’t be celebratory of. We shouldn’t forget about all of that.”
Adam Mansbach will speak at 3:10 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, at at the Harbor View Hotel and at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 4, on the grounds of the Chilmark Community Center.