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Your Favorite Celebrity Meets Your Favorite Short Story

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 13, 2010 7:00PM

Author Ben Greenman is reading from his book tomorrow at the Lincoln Park Borders.
What happens when you blend celebrities with Anton Chekhov, one of the pioneers of the short story? Celebrity Chekhov happens. Ben Greenman, editor of The New Yorker’s Goings On About Town section and published author of a variety of fiction, journalism, humor pieces and essays, took about two dozen Chekhov short stories and mixed in contemporary celebrities like Britney Spears, Conan O'Brien, Jay-Z and Alec Baldwin. Celebrity Chekhov aims to critique our celebrity-obsessed culture while paying homage to great literature. Greenman will be in town tomorrow night to read from Celebrity Chekhov, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book.

Chicagoist: So Anton Chekhov. Say I've never heard of him, and you only have one sentence to tell me why this name should mean something to me.

Ben Greenman: Well, he's primarily known as a dramatist, but he's also one of the inventors of the modern short story: apparently ordinary circumstance on the surface, and beneath it intense psychological depth.

C: Why'd you pick him? And why'd you pick these celebrities in particular?

BG: I picked him because these are stories I love, unconditionally, and I both want them to get a broader, different kind of readership and also want to see how the insertion of celebrities (who are not generally handled in a literary way) might bend or (hopefully not) break the sturdy frame of these stories. These particular celebrities I picked because they are considered empty, or considered full in funny ways.
They are not, for the most part, tragic figures -- those would pull downward too hard. There's lots of social satire in Chekhov, and these kinds of people (from Lindsay Lohan to David Letterman to Alec Baldwin to Oprah) seemed to work the best.

C: Are you worried about Celebrity Chekhov becoming dated because all celebrities you've woven into his stories will one day be forgotten?

BG: Yes and no. It will definitely be dated, but at that point, I think the stories will just be Chekhov's again, right? If Jon Lovitz, say, is forgotten, and his context lost, then "The Man In A Case" is just a portrait of limit and fear again.

C: Who would you say your audience for this book is? People who love celebrities and/or Chekhov? People who hate celebrities and/or Chekhov?

BG: That's not for me to say, right? I think that some people who love Chekhov will worry that I have somehow done something crass to the stories, and some will feel that I have done something interesting to them. People who love celebrities will be divided into a camp that wants to see those celebrities put into a new context and those people who don't. To the degree that it's a critique at all, I'd say that it's more a critique of the culture that produces and promotes those celebrities than the celebrities themselves.

C: Were you really born in Chicago? Anything in particular you'd like to do while you're in town?

BG: I absolutely really was. At Michael Reese Hospital. and then later (much later) I came back to go to grad school at Northwestern. There are lots of things I'd like to do while I am in town, but the one I will probably do the most of is just walk around and look at the neighborhoods where I used to live and think about what used to be there and see what's there now.

Ben Greenman will be reading from Celebrity Chekhov tomorrow night at the Lincoln Park Borders. He starts at 7 p.m.