Turning An Off-The-Cuff Joke Into A Best-Selling Book
Adam Mansbach, author of Go the Fuck to Sleep and You Have To Fucking Eat, on writing children's books for adults and making time for his own daughter.
I wrote Go the Fuck to Sleep in July, 2011, between the hours of 4 and 5 p.m., with no expectations and no pants on. The idea, however, occurred to me several weeks earlier in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Also with no pants on.
My daughter and inspiration, Vivien, was hundreds of miles away. I was in Michigan to teach a weeklong fiction workshop for high schoolers. All the cool kids signed up for the poetry classes; everybody who wanted to write prose was midway through the second chapter of a projected tetralogy about wizards and bisexual angel-dragons and socially awkward wan teenage singer-songwriters. But the gig was not about pedagogy, or trying. It was about drinking hard with friends.
My co-teachers were three of the country's most awesome poets: Patricia Smith, Kevin Coval, and Roger Bonair-Agard. I cannot overstate the individual and collective brilliance of these folks, on the stage and on the page. They are responsible for inspiring thousands of young people to make the awful, life-destroying decision to become poets.
The four of us were being put up in a sprawling Victorian on the tenured side of town; the family who lived there was vacationing and they'd donated it for the week. Patricia immediately claimed the master suite with the claw-foot tub. This went uncontested. The rest of us were all secretly terrified of Patricia, whom we knew less well than we knew each other and who had won a Guggenheim. We suspected that she might be a real adult, the kind who would find our juvenile antics tiresome and ask us to keep the noise down so she could get a decent night's sleep.
This turned out to be wildly off-base. By the time I dropped my bag in the room of a 13-year-old kid who slept on a bed the size of a prison cot and made my way downstairs, Patricia was scouring the pantry for alcohol. We'd been invited to consume whatever was perishable; Patricia astutely pointed out that the bottle of white wine she'd found would not retain its integrity for more than a few hundred years, and pulled the cork.
This was a stopgap measure, though. We needed booze. Roger found a comically small bicycle and headed out in search of rum, because Roger is from Trinidad. I started cobbling together ingredients for a pasta sauce. It was sweltering in there, and Kevin, Patricia and I stripped down to tank tops and shorts and opened another bottle of wine. It's amazing how being given free rein over someone else's house instantly turns you into a teenager whose parents are out of town.
Two things of note happened in the next hour. I made a joke about writing a children's book called Go the Fuck to Sleep that made Kevin and Patricia laugh, so I posted the joke on Facebook and racked up about five likes. And far more importantly, Roger failed to return. We grew concerned. What if he'd been hit by a car, and nobody was bringing rum?
When we heard the door open, we broke into applause. I shouted, "Took you long enough, motherfucker!" and Patricia and Kevin added profanities of their own.
Into the room strode a man who was not Roger. This was easy to determine, because Roger is a tattoo-covered black dude with a mohawk, whereas this individual was Caucasian, in his seventies, and had a full head of white hair. He looked so patrician that the only logical assumption was that he was a senator.
"Hello!" he said, striding toward us with his hand outstretched, grinning ear to ear, "I'm John! This is my daughter's house! What's your name?"
That was how we knew he was Canadian. If you're American and a senator and you walk into your daughter's house expecting it to be vacant and instead find black and Jewish people standing around cursing and drinking in their underwear, that's not how you react.
Patricia shook his hand and explained who we were and what we were doing there. John thought that was great. "That's great," he said. "Everybody wins!" Yes, we agreed. Everybody.
It turned out that John and his wife, Betty, who walked in a few moments later, had been at a soccer tournament with their grandson, Sam, whose room I was occupying. It was supposed to be a weeklong thing, but Sam's team was hot garbage and they'd gotten bounced the first day, so here they were! Back early!
We were apologetic. Maybe we could find somewhere else to stay, we said. But no! Don't be ridiculous! John and Betty would stay on the foldout bed in the TV room! They always stayed there — they loved it! And Sam could stay in the basement, in a rat's nest of blankets on the floor! Fuck him!
Uh, OK, we said. We'll try not to disturb you. No! they said. You won't disturb us! You can't! Have parties! Be loud! You're poets! You're doing a great thing for the kids! Everybody wins!
Because we are jerks, we took them at their word. We stayed up late carousing, inches away from the TV room's glass door. Roger performed scantily clad calisthenics on the back porch twice a day. We systematically devoured everything in the house. The Canadians were unfazed. Their good cheer knew no bounds. Every morning, Kevin and I would stagger downstairs, hungover, to knock out a pot of coffee and a half-assed 20 minutes of lesson planning. Betty would already be awake, puttering around the kitchen. The coffee was always ready. We'd make polite comments about how her coffee was so much better than ours, haha!, and she'd furrow her brow and look very fascinated by this information and try to figure out why that was and tell us how they made coffee in Canada, and we'd smile and listen. Her coffee was no different than our coffee. It was the same coffee.
What really intrigued the Canadians was Roger, because he had a mellifluous accent and a French surname. John stopped us one afternoon as we were about to go play basketball against our students, and conducted a lengthy inquiry about Roger's name. "I'm French-Canadian," John pointed out. "I have a French name. But why do you have a French name? You're not French."
John was the kind of guy whose friendliness obfuscated anything and everything. If he was intent on a pleasant, leisurely conversation, nothing was going to stop him, including clear evidence that the people with whom he was having it were on their way to play basketball. As evidenced by: They were holding basketballs.
Roger explained that he was from Trinidad, which had been colonized by the French, among other European powers. John cocked his head, grinned, and waited for more information. Roger proceeded to lay out the history of Carribean colonization, slavery, independence, and migration, as the rest of us perspired, squinted, and resisted the urge to bounce our basketballs. When Rog wrapped it up, John said, "That's great!" and let us go. We spent the walk to the courts trying to figure out which part was great. Slavery? Colonization? Roger's knowledge of history? Probably that last one, we concluded.
Before the week ended, John and Betty invited us all to come visit them in Manitoba or Sasketchuwan or Hoth or whichever part of Canada they were from. And the four of us stormed into the basement and gave Sam a stern talking-to when we heard him back-sassing his grandmother. We didn't play that shit. Not in our house.
I went home and forgot all about Go the Fuck to Sleep for a while. It seemed like the kind of thing that had been funny in the company of drunken vulgar poets, but wouldn't go over in a real world populated by John-and-Betty types. I bandied the joke around for a few more weeks, with an increasing sense that I knew exactly how a book with that title would look and sound, the way it would play off the existing canon of earnest bedtime literature, how an honest parental monologue might intertwine with the saccharine tropes of those stories.
So I wrote it, and sent it to my friend Johnny Temple at Akashic Books. I was far from convinced it should be published, and Johnny shared my ambivalence. We thought it was funny, but we assumed that meant we were shitty parents. We also couldn't figure out where a bookstore would put it, since it clearly wasn't a kids' book. Johnny walked a printout into Greenlight in Brooklyn, and they loved it, and told him they'd stock it in the parenting section. Johnny and I were astounded to learn that there was a parenting section, thus confirming the thesis that we were shitty parents.
When Go to Fuck to Sleep gate-crashed the zeitgeist a few months later, a lot of weird things happened. The book became a convenient point of departure for any argument anybody felt like making about parenting, profanity, my generation, my daughter's generation, the coarsening of the culture, the war on Christmas, whatever. Martin Bashir used it to mock John Boehner on MSNBC. I got emails from people thanking me for saving their marriages, and also from people who were furious at the book's very existence and wanted to let me know that they would never read it to a child. I still wonder about the particular blend of literacy and illiteracy that would be required to mistakenly read a kid a book with "fuck" on the front cover and "you probably should not read this to your children" on the back.
Also, it did spectacularly well in Canada.
For the next 10 months, I did nothing but answer questions about Go the Fuck to Sleep. Not different questions, mind you — the same questions. On TV, on radio, in print, and in person. Sometimes I was billed as a "parenting expert," which made no sense whatsoever; more frequently I was described as the "spokesman for a new generation of parents" or with the epithet "bad boy father," which sounds creepy but would make a good band name. The photographs Patricia Smith took of me playing basketball with no shirt on that day in Ann Arbor were "leaked" by a gossip website, although they'd been on Facebook for a year and as if anybody gave a shit about my nipples.
The necessity of promoting the book, of providing sufficient fuel to achieve escape velocity and get into orbit, took me away from my daughter. That made me feel sad and hypocritical. I was at peace with pretending to be a parenting expert — I could at least tell people to embrace the absurdity, keep their sense of humor, and realize they weren't alone, which seemed like borderline-legitimate advice — but I wasn't going to fake being an actual parent.
Eventually, things calmed down and I made up for some of that lost time. And last month, in an effort to bridge the divide, I brought my daughter, Vivien, to see me speak for the first time. I was telling a story about the book and the attendant madness for The Moth at Stanford University, an hour from our house.
Vivien went into that evening with only a vague idea of what I do when I'm not home; she knows I take planes and do "gigs," but her view of the world is so egalitarian that if I tell her I spoke to a group of people she tends to assume we were all sitting in a big circle, taking turns. And like most kids, she's utterly unimpressed with the fact that I write books, because who doesn't write books? She's written three books this month, and she can't even read.
She is, however, taken with the notion of fame — specifically, the notion that she has some. She knows she's on the first page of Go the Fuck to Sleep and on the cover of my new book, You Have to Fucking Eat, and she understands that this means millions of people have seen her, and that most kids cannot say the same. But fame has never been more than an abstraction, with no discernible effect on her life.
That changed when my story ended, the lights went up for intermission, and she leapt into my arms. Moments later, a line of people was waiting to talk to her, and before I knew it Vivien was signing autographs.
She was puzzled, but happy to oblige. I could see her figuring things out in real time, with a speed that was both exhilarating and a little sad. Things like: Fame means people know you, but you don't know them, and for some reason, these people are expecting me to entertain them, and Some of these people are weirdos who ask incomprehensible and inappropriate shit and keep talking long after you wish they would stop.
I am, of course, paraphrasing. And speculating. Maybe she was thinking, I want to do this every night. That's certainly what I was thinking. Not the speaking part, but the part where I get to watch her work the room.
Adam Mansbach is the No. 1 New York Times best-selling author of Go the Fuck to Sleep. The sequel, You Have to Fucking Eat, is out now. His other books include Rage is Back, Angry Black White Boy, and The End of the Jews, winner of the California Book Award. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Esquire, The Believer, and on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
To learn more about You Have to Fucking Eat, click here.