Before he was an editor at the New Yorker, before his three published novels and five collections of short stories, and before he'd contributed to publications like McSweeney's, the Paris Review, and the New York Times, Ben Greenman was just your average kid growing up in the Miami suburbs.
"I grew up in Kendall. It was fairly boring," Greenman recalls. "You'd come home, play basketball in the driveway, read.... You didn't really interact with your neighbors."
That suburban sense of isolation, of who are these people who live beside me, anyway?, helps drive the plot of The Slippage, the novel Greenman will be promoting at Books & Books this Thursday. It's just the most recent example of Miami's influence on his writing career, which began in the '90s at the newly launched Miami New Times.
Greenman, who worked at New Times from 1990 to 1992, says the job required a full immersion into the weirdest parts of Miami. In its earliest days, Greenman says, "these crazy people -- eccentrics -- gravitated toward the paper, and vice versa."
There was the Coral Gables bookstore owner with whom Greenman carried out a series of "adventures," from trying to literally fry an egg on the sidewalk to exploring what the bookstore owner called "secret Nazi sex caves" along the Miami River. (Greenman says they were really just places natives once stored dry flour.)
There was Jack Thompson, the now-disbarred Coral Gables attorney who led an anti-obscenity campaign against 2 Live Crew. "He would send faxes in about Janet Reno and Queen Elizabeth," Greenman says. "We pretended that all of his faxes were this new thing, a fax novel, and reviewed it like a book. It made him furious."
There was the guy who hated one of Greenman's stories so much that he put a Santeria curse on the author, writing his name on a piece of paper, rolling it up, filling it with pepper, and storing it in the freezer.
And then, as now, there was the Miami Beach Police Department. Greenman remembered an incident in which Police Chief Philip Huber launched a full-fledged investigation, complete with a taxpayer-funded crime scene team, into the problem of littering at the department's 1100 Washington Ave. headquarters.
"People go crazy from the heat," he figures.
That last story, which Greenman turned into a script for a dramatic re-enactment, may have marked the beginning of his tendency toward dramatic writing. Though he claims, "I know nothing about musicals," he's written lines and lyrics for several of the stage shows, compiled into The McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals.
"It may have started there in some way. Elian Gonzalez was the first one I wrote. I would see the news and see all the coverage and start hearing the things rhyming in my head, because -- I don't know why," he laughs. "But I would imagine him breaking into song."
Compared to projects like those, Greenman says, The Slippage is a bastion of normalcy: the story of a couple in the suburbs confronting questions about their future. But read closely, and you'll still find parts and pieces of the Miami experience.
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"In the book, I don't say where the suburb is," Greenman says. "But a lot of the places, I have secret corners in mind in Miami."
Ben Greenman reads at Books & Books Thursday, May 9, at 8 p.m. Visit booksandbooks.com.
Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.