In 2011, a children’s book parody took the Internet and bookshelves on a glorious joyride of profanity, driven by a nation of parents pulling their collective hair out over difficult bedtimes. Author Adam Mansbach introduced the world to Go the Fuck to Sleep, based on his then two-year-old daughter Vivien’s inability to do just that. The No. 1 New York Times bestseller has sold 1.5 million copies worldwide to date and was the subject of celebrity readings by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Werner Herzog, and LeVar Burton. Go the Fuck to Sleep was an instant, honest, foul-mouthed classic.
Today, Mansbach’s daughter is six and as ornery as ever, and he’s trying to make lighting strike twice–or at the very least make some serious thunderclaps–with You Have to Fucking Eat.
“I resisted a lot of entreaties to write a sequel sooner. Go the Fuck to Sleep was such a perfect storm,” Mansbach says. “I don’t think the book is going to do the numbers Go the Fuck to Sleep did–that would be beyond my expectations. But I am optimistic about its chances.”
It’s true there were no expectations for Go the Fuck to Sleep: It was written in an afternoon and almost never saw the light of day. That kind of unintentional success is hard to manufacture. But lest we forget, Mansbach’s adult approach to children’s books isn’t his first foray into publishing; he has a list of award-winning novels including Angry Black White Boy and The End of the Jews as well, and is also tackling screenwriting.
Mansbach recently sat down with Fast Company to discuss his scattershot “brand” (p.s., he hates that word), how to leverage what inspires you, why micromanaging your own career is a must, and, of course, why children should fucking eat.
Fun fact: Mansbach used to be an MC. But what makes this tidbit more than just an interesting backstory is that it’s the basis for practically his whole career. It was the hip-hop community that not only inspired Mansbach to start his own hip-hop magazine in college, but also instilled in him a particular work ethic that still guides him today.
“That was always my ethos, coming up in hip-hop as an MC and a DJ and in running my magazine, there’s very much a do-it-yourself mentality,” he says. “The paradox of being in an industry where other people are usually the gatekeepers: publishers, editors–there are a lot of barriers to having control over your career. But coming out of hip-hop, the mindset was always to create your own. I was throwing parties in New York, going from one newsstand to the next selling the magazine out a giant backpack. Next to that, figuring out ways to write fiction seemed relatively easy.”
“For me, another important element of the hustle is paying attention and being involved in all of the aspects of your career,” Mansbach goes on to explain. “I’ve planned book tours for myself, whether or not anybody wants to hear what I have to say, I’ve weighed in on things like what the cover looks like, what the copy looks like, how it’s going to be promoted–just every aspect of it. I’ve been hands-on with all of that and tried to learn as much as possible because I don’t necessarily trust other people to do it, particularly an overworked publisher at a mainstream press who’s got 17 other books they’re working on. I’ve always been really involved in figuring out who my audience is and how to reach them. Sometimes that’s been talks with the publishers like, ‘Look, let’s pay X amount of money to put this mural on Houston Street and we’ll get press off of it.’ So those aspects too are part of the hustle: How do you get the work out in the world?”
“My approach is to treat writing very much as a job,” Mansbach says. “On one hand there’s a ton of romance in writing–the notion of creating is an astonishing thing. On the other hand, you have to be rigorous and disciplined and not sit around hoping the Muse visits you or shit like that. You have to sit down every day at your desk and put in the hours.
“That, more than anything, governs what I do. I constantly feel like I’m being unproductive but ultimately, I put in the time and I write the words. It used to be for that however many days I took off, it would take me that long to get back in. One of the ways the discipline pays off is that now for me it’s not that hard to get back in even if I do take time off.”
It was practically foreseen by the literary gods that Mansbach would become a writer: his grandmother was a poet and playwright, his father is an editor at the Boston Globe, his mother used to be a reporter, his uncle is a sports writer–you get the picture. It’s a legacy that looks daunting to live up to–but Mansbach doesn’t see it that way.
“A less scary but more obnoxious word is ‘brand’–a lot of people will talk to you about your ‘brand,’ if you’re inclined to listen to those things,” he says. “There are moments when people who have an investment in my career, like agents, have brought up that notion of ‘brand’ in regards to some of the work I’m doing. My response to that, generally, has been like, ‘Insomuch as I have a brand, I want my brand to be that I can run in all these different lanes and I’m going to do what I feel like doing.’
“One of the weird things about my career right now is that I’m known for totally different and seemingly unconnected things. There’s a community of people who know me from doing work on hip-hop. And then there’s this far larger population who know me as this guy writes who obscene children’s books. I kind of like the idea of working in all these different media and genres and bringing a certain sensibility to all of them that might only be recognizable if you’ve checked me out in all of these different aspects.
“It may seem random or incomprehensible but I’m going to do what the fuck I want to do and I’m going to let that be my brand.”
After the massive success of Go the Fuck to Sleep, there was undoubtedly pressure on Mansbach to do a sequel. Ideas were pitched to him, but he resisted until he hit on one theme that rang true.
“It’s probably the only other parental frustration that felt to me on par with sleep,” he says. “Part of the frustration of getting kids to eat is that it’s not just one of the greatest things about being a human being, it’s also one of the most basic. When your kid rejects the very idea that putting sustenance into their body, it makes you feel like a complete failure. You’re like, ‘How have I failed to communicate the basic precept that you have to eat to live? What the fuck is wrong with you? What the fuck is wrong with me?’
“As a young kid, you don’t feel a lot of agency–people are constantly telling you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Eating becomes this thing kids can control. We all know parents who have basically lost the battle and their kids only eat chicken fingers and tater tots. Those parents feel judged by everyone around them. And over here it’s like, ‘Oh, my daughter has been eating oysters on the half shell since she was two and she loves steamed kale!’ And it’s like, ‘Yo, I will fucking murder you–shut the fuck up.’
As Mansbach mentioned, Go the Fuck to Sleep was a special case of being in the right place at the right time. But, in some ways, that makes marketing You Have to Fucking Eat a far easier task–the trick is not to fall into a rut.
“It seemed like there were enough aspects of it that I could take the book in some different directions–it wasn’t one note. It’s probably less one-note, in fact, than Go the Fuck to Sleep. The battle over sleep is in the bedroom–it’s not spread out over several meals,” Mansbach says.
“Sleep is this very private thing: it happens or fails to happen in your house. Eating, in some ways, is the flip-side of that because that’s the thing other parents see you struggling with and other people see you struggling with,” he says. “Your kid is failing to eat often in public. You get to see how other kids eat. It feeds into this weirdly competitive aspect of parenthood which is one of the worst things about parenthood in this culture.”
Even though Mansbach says he doesn’t generally write with an audience in mind (“Only when I’m done and I’m coming up for air and the shit is as good as I can make do I start thinking, ‘Who is this for and how do I get it to them?’ You definitely fuck yourself up if you try to write with an audience in mind.”), there was one built-in with You Have to Fucking Eat that can be used to his advantage.
“This is the first time I’ve been in this position of doing a sequel where the audience has already been established and we have an idea where they are,” he says. “And also trying to think about how is this book different from the last. There’s a food angle. Are we going on cooking shows? Am I going to be making pancakes with fucking Rachael Ray or some shit? I don’t know! It’s trying to keep what we have intact in terms of what worked last time and then also trying to think outside the box.”