Adam Mansbach is an author of contemporary literary fiction, including the books “Rage is Back” and “The End of the Jews.” However, he’s undoubtedly best known as the author of the New York Times best-selling classic of subversive parenting, “Go the F**k to Sleep.” In that book, Mansbach articulated the deep, almost primal frustration of a parent whose kid just won’t go the…well, you get it. The book was an immediate sensation. His new book, “You Have to F*cking Eat,” taps into that same seemingly bottomless reservoir of parental annoyance, also to humorous effect.
Mansbach took time last week to chat with Kveller contributing editor Jordana Horn about Lenny Bruce, radical honesty and when it’s OK to unleash parental F-bombs.
When you’re not writing these books, would you call yourself a “potty mouth” in real life? Is your internal narrator a Lenny Bruce-esque salty sailor?
Internally, I’m very much a Lenny Bruce/Richard Pryor mash-up. I come from the school of thought that, when properly deployed, profanity can be the most eloquent form of language we have. I grew up around people who cursed with skill and took pleasure in it. When I’m talking to myself, I sound like this in my head all the time.
How about when you’re talking to other people–or kids?
One of the fringe benefits of pretty consistently having to go on TV or radio and not say the word “fuck” means that, contrary to what you might think, I’m very good at restraining myself. I don’t want to pay FCC fines or cause anyone else to pay them. That carries over into life with my daughter. I’m pretty good at not cursing in front of her. Now listen–she was 3 when “Go The F**k To Sleep” came out. And we had a tacit understanding–wink wink—that she knew what the book was called. And I knew she knew it. And when we talked about it, we called it “Go To Sleep,” and we were both at peace with that.
She knows damn well what the new book is called. She’s known from the beginning, from when illustrations came in. She’s on the cover and a lot of her friends are pictured in the book. She has an intimate relationship with the book. She knows what it’s called, but is also judicious enough to know what’s appropriate.
If someone had come up to you when you were a kid and said, “One day, you’re going to write literary fiction…but then you’re going to become famous for writing a fake kid’s book called ‘Go the F**k to Sleep,’” would you have been surprised?
That has definitely become the dominant element of my reputation and resume. We’ve sold 2 million of those books–that’s an astonishing number to me. I continue to not quite believe that these things are happening to me. LeVar Burton read “Go The F**k To Sleep” out loud and that shit went viral right before we dropped the new book. For people who know me for my other literary fiction, this whole thing is amusing and weird.
But in another way, you know, it kind of makes sense. I’ve always been interested in these kinds of themes in my work. Not sleeping and eating, per se, but I’m interested in paradox and complexity. And sometimes those things are as simple as the basic paradox of loving your kid to death, but thinking these words in your mind when that motherfucker will not eat a proper meal. What the fuck is wrong with me? What the fuck is wrong with her? I’ve always had sort of a commitment and passion in my work for radical honesty, and these books fit right in with that.
It seems like the overwhelming reaction is, “Thanks for saying what we’re all thinking.”
It is the overwhelming reaction, and I’m super gratified by that. There are of course people who don’t feel that way. I think by simple virtue of getting the kind of exposure we got and entering the zeitgeist, you become everyone’s point of departure for what people want to wax philosophical about. You get vilified, you get praised. Criticism has generally been kind of stupid and easy to ignore.
I’ve heard some therapists give the book to their jittery young parent clients to make them feel better. One person said it saved their marriage. I don’t believe that.
Will there be a teenager follow up, “Stop Slamming The F**king Door”?
Hard to say. I think I have to follow where my daughter leads. I have to see what she’s into in two, three, or four years. As soon as the first book came out, people were suggesting what to do for the next thing, but I didn’t want to do something I’d regret and dash off, or something that didn’t resonate with the same depth.
But since you apparently write these books in 39 minutes with no pants on, you can keep up with your literary fiction career as well.
(laughs) That’s true. They’re not mutually exclusive.
I have one kid who eats everything that isn’t nailed down, and another who survives on string cheese and chocolate milk. Did you consult with any doctors before you wrote this book? DOES one actually have to fucking eat?
No doctors were consulted or harmed in the making of this book. I meet people all the time who say things like, “My kid only ate spaghetti and ketchup for 12 years, and now he’s an NFL quarterback.”
There was an experiment done some years back–seems so bizarre that this is ethically OK—where someone took a bunch of 1 or 2-year-olds and allowed them to select their own diet. They had a smorgasbord of options and they could pick. Over time they self-regulated and ate a balanced diet. They didn’t just go for sugar non-stop. They went for the broccoli! I don’t know what that means.
Today, even when you succeed, you worry you failed. I got my kid to eat a whole salmon filet–but is it irradiated from nuclear fallout in Japan and filled with mercury? Did I just give my kid a death bomb?
What are your favorite and least favorite parts about being a parent?
My favorite parts are the small moments where you’re kicking it and chilling with your kid, not necessarily doing anything. I love reading her books, we tell stories collectively, listen to music, make puns. I enjoy watching her grow and develop as a person as her sense of humor and compassion flourish. After writing, my other main pastime is bragging about my daughter.
My least favorite parts of parenting are pretty well documented. The first book came out of a very personal place. It is my interior monologue. The eating thing–Vivien is actually a more adventurous eater. She’s just inconsistent which is my main beef. The part of the book that was most personal for me is when I wrote, “Your cute little tummy is rumbling/And pancakes are your favorite treat./I’m kind of surprised that you suddenly hate them./That’s bullshit. Stop lying and eat.”
The other thing I don’t like about being a parent is dealing with other people’s kids’ shit. I take my kid to someone’s house for a playdate and they’ll gush about what an awesome kid she is. And I’ll say yeah, she’s funny, she’s got great taste in music. But I can’t reciprocate! I don’t feel the same way about your kid. What the fuck? Your kid is mediocre and a liar. Am I socially obligated to lavish you with compliments?
This interview has been condensed and edited.