In the acknowledgments you thank a number of actual graffiti artists. How did you forge connections with this community?
Over many years. I wrote this book as an outgrowth of those relationships, rather than the other way around. When I got into hip-hop, around 1986, all the artistic elements were of a piece: the verbal (rhyming), the sonic (deejaying), the kinetic (b-boying), and the visual (graff). I was mainly an MC and a DJ, but you had to be conversant in all those forms and understand the ways they connected aesthetically. So I wrote a little bit—took tags, tried my hand at piecing under the names JUST and EASEL.
I wasn’t a natural at graffiti, but I became a connoisseur. The way it dealt with flow and rupture, the intricate rules and mores of the art and the competition, the interplay between creation and destruction—all that fascinated me. And graff writers were usually the most interesting hip-hoppers: the weirdos, the mad scientists, the guerillas, the theorists, the addicts. They’d invented this thing that made them outlaws, that they pursued at their own risk, strictly for fame and satisfaction. There’s a beautiful purity to it. So I made myself a student of its colorful, often apocryphal history, and got to know as many writers as I could, including legends like PHASE 2 and ZEPHYR and PART ONE.
By the time I conceived of this book, those friendships were solid. Before I started writing, I remember, I took KET ONE out to lunch and told him I needed to know whether it would be possible to paint every train in the NYC subway system in one night, and if so, how it could be done. He leaned across the table and said, “I’ve been thinking about this for twenty years.”
It seems that graffiti has existed for as long as there has been written culture; there are even ancient Roman examples of graffiti, often of the type found in a bathroom stall. What accounts for the enduring appeal of writing graffiti?
The purity of the statement. It’s literature in its rawest form: a simple declaration of existence, adorned and armored and fractured and stylized in every imaginable way. It’s no coincidence that modern graffiti culture developed around the name, or that the practitioners call themselves
writers. Graffiti is narrative; it tells a story, if you know where to look.
You write in a number of different genres, including poetry and your bestselling children’s book parody, Go the F**k to Sleep. Is there a particular medium that you feel most comfortable in? Were you expecting that the parody would be the success that it was? What was that experience like?
No, I wasn’t expecting that book to take off and sell a million copies; I was just tickled that I got to publish it. The experience was crazy; I literally did eight hours of interviews every single day for six months, and I’ve got far too many wacky stories to get into here, from the New Zealand censorship battle to my face-off with Dr. Ferber.
At heart, I’ll always be a novelist, and an MC. But the nice thing is that compared to the heavy lifting of a novel—the time, the commitment, the word count, the world-creation—everything else feels relatively light . . . which is not to say that I’m good at it, just that it takes a lot out of me. But I’ve been doing more screenwriting lately, and I find that a joy. Poetry is always fun. Genre fiction, which is new to me, is a blast, too. I like to work within parameters sometimes—
the strictures of meter and rhyme, or the imperative to end each chapter with a cliffhanger—because it’s a fun challenge to create inside these constraints.
From the first page, the novel is written in the vernacular of the graffiti crew, and the reader either understands it, appreciates it, and follows it or he doesn’t. Was there ever a concern that the language might be an impediment for some readers?
A: I was only concerned with getting the voice right. And I don’t see it as particularly inaccessible—I mean, it’s English, and it’s grammatically correct. Yes, Dondi mashes up slang and high cultural classicism, so maybe some readers won’t get the Greek mythology references and others won’t know some hip-hop touchstones. But that kind of easy, flowing multilinguistic pastiche is how he gets down—how a whole lot of people I know get down. His signposts are as legitimate and mainstream as any other set, they’re just inderrepresented in literature. The way I was taught to approach books at my fancy Ivy League college is that if you don’t understand something, you do the work of figuring it out. You look up the obscure reference, or the Spanish
word, and you learn something. Language is changing all the time, after all.
New York City is more than the setting for the novel—it’s a mythic presence; the novel could not take place in any other city. Why does New York hold this sway over people?
Because it’s a festering, majestic shithole full of compressed energy and dreams and tension and innovation. At the population density of Manhattan, you could fit the world’s population into the state of Texas. Put people from all over the world on top of each other like that and some fly shit is bound to pop off. In terms of this book, New York is the nexus of graffiti culture, the birthplace of hip-hop. There’s an exceptionalism that goes with that—sometimes it sours into provincialism, but often it just gives New Yorkers an unmatched wit and swagger.
In the 1970s and 1980s, New York was a dark and foul place, riddled with crime, urban squalor, and, of course, graffiti. Some people, including those in the novel, feel that this period was the “true” New York, as opposed to what they perceive as the gentrified, sanitized New York of today. On pages 216–217, Dondi admits seeing both sides of this issue but declines to argue for either. What is your opinion?
It’s important not to romanticize the governmental neglect, institutional racism, and other insidious factors that created the climate you’re talking about. The circumstances out of which graffiti and hip-hop rose were deplorable, and represent failed policies on a municipal and a national level. That said, to position gentrification as the opposite creates a false dichotomy. There are losers and winners in gentrification, and the losers are the same people who lost in the ’70s—the poor and disenfranchised. We have to look at whether gentrification lifts everybody’s quality of life, or just makes a neighborhood uninhabitable by its longtime residents. Ditto the “sanitized” New York: that process mirrors a national trend toward record-setting levels of incarceration. We’ve moved from the politics of abandonment to the politics of containment, but neither one is worth celebrating.
Your narrator Dondi isn’t shy about sharing opinions on actual people and events. For example, the book Tuesdays with Morrie receives a few less than flattering comments. Were you concerned that you might offend anyone?
No. I’m writing in a voice, and the novel succeeds or fails on the authenticity and humor and heart of that voice. Dondi is a sharp, shit-talking eighteen-year-old stoner, and I was having too much fun to rein him in at all. Generally speaking, I think honesty of the sort that underwrites good literature is incompatible with worrying about causing offense. Plus, Mitch Albom’s probably not gonna read this book.
When describing the time-traveling properties of the apartment stairs, Dondi says that if the readers are hoping for magical realism, then they should move on to a different book. However, magical realism is usually defined as a narrative style in which fantastical elements appear in a reality-based context. Doesn’t that description fit Dondi’s supernatural staircase or the possibility of supernatural forces in the subway tunnels?
Yeah, but he still rejects the term—because he considers it corny, and “literary,” and his life is real. Personally, I was interested in thinking about what a contemporary, New York magic realism would look like. You know, we read Márquez and understand that his magic realism is grounded in the religion of Colombia, or we read Murakami and understand that his version is based in
Japanese myth and culture…but we don’t have any such framework in this country. So for me, what it looks like is that the incidents of “magic” don’t go unremarked upon. Rather, they have to be defended and debated, and when you tell somebody about them, the reaction is usually like, “get the fuck outta here with that bullshit.”
Are there any classic New York films or novels that influenced you when writing RAGE IS BACK?
I’d say that the biggest literary influences on this novel were Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, and maybe Treasure Island. But the music of New York City—from classic hip-hop to Nuyorican salsa to jazz—is always with me in an important way, no matter what I’m working on.
Late in the novel, Dondi describes the process of writing his book as “Fake it till you make it, as they say. Keep sitting in that chair” (page 288). Is that your own approach to writing?
The “keep sitting in the chair” part, for sure. I’m happy to say that I don’t feel like I’m faking it anymore. Although that probably means I’m faking it.
What is your next project? Are you working in different genres simultaneously?
I have a supernatural thriller called The Dead Run coming out in July—my first genre novel. I’m supposed to do a second, too; that one is called Blood Alcohol Content. I’ve got about three movie projects in various stages of development, too, including a script I got to workshop last year at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and another that Jim Jarmusch is executive producing.
Check out a video for Rage is Back here: http://youtu.be/K8JaCos9GEg