Last June, author Adam Mansbach was teaching in the graduate writing program at Rutgers and working on a novel. Life was good, except for the (non)sleep habits of his daughter Vivien, then 2. Mansbach took to his Facebook page to post a complaint: "Look out for my forthcoming book, Go the F--- to Sleep," he wrote. He got the immediate gratification of comments and "likes" from a couple dozen friends.
He also got the idea to create a picture book for grownups, beautifully illustrated by Mansbach's friend Ricardo Cortes and featuring at least one dirty word per page. Go the F--- to Sleep is already a best seller ahead of its June 14 release date, and Fox 2000 has optioned it for a movie. Not bad for a guy who just wanted his kid to go to sleep.
The novelist and essayist has always tended toward good luck. As a kid, the Newton, Mass., native was crazy about hip-hop and jazz; his first real-world job was as a roadie for jazz legend Elvin Jones. Mansbach nabbed an agent the day he graduated from Columbia's graduate writing program and a book contract the week after. Go the F--- to Sleep became an Internet phenomenon thanks to pirated galleys just as his gig at Rutgers was wrapping up. "It is really sort of exactly on time," he says.
TIME: When did you start taking your Facebook post seriously?
Mansbach: As I often do when I make a joke that I think is funny, I repeated it to a lot of people. Gradually it dawned on me, over the course of a week or so, that it could actually be a book. I wrote it last July. Then I showed it to Ricardo. The process of illustrating it took a number of months.
Your novels The End of the Jews and Angry Black White Boy were published by major New York houses, Spiegel & Grau and Crown, respectively. For Go the F--- to Sleep, you ended up with an independent press, Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. Was that because the bigger publishers shied away?
Actually, I took it directly to Akashic. It's one of my favorite publishers. I've contributed stories to a couple of their anthologies, and edited an anthology for them in 2006. I have a lot of respect for what they do, and I like the idea of spreading projects out, doing some books at the bigger houses and some at smaller. I took it straight to Johnny [Temple, the publisher], and he was into it. That was good enough for me.
Best-seller status is a new thing for you, and also for Akashic, right?
What has happened with this book is kind of new to everyone. I've had a lot of conversations with industry people, and they all say it's not just that the book is selling but that there was huge buzz in advance of publication, buzz not caused by anything we did.
So you didn't leak the galleys on purpose? That's what one of the dads at Little League was telling me last week: No way they didn't plan this. Someone e-mailed him the whole thing back in April.
It was not marketing. We had nothing to do with it and in fact tried to stop it. We sent out numerous cease-and-desist orders. Before the PDFs got leaked, there was a week and a half of crazy Amazon linkings and publicity that happened, all based on a title, a cover and one verse that was on Amazon. Then the PDF got out and that was something that we were sort of mortified by. But I am not going to deny that it helped us initially. The PDF allowed people to see that the product delivered on the promise of the premise.
We are really fortunate that people decided it was worth owning. It is an art object, the kind of book you buy as a gift. And it's not like you could print the PDFs, staple them together and give it to someone for Father's Day.
The galleys were sent to booksellers across the country, right? Did you find the source of the leak and legally spank them?
No, the PDFs were sent to bookstores in lieu of galleys, to friends and stuff like that. It wasn't sort of a big galley push. Keep in mind, the book wasn't scheduled to come out until October, so this was way, way in advance, and went just to a few key booksellers. By the time the thing had leaked, the cat was out of the bag, so tracing it back to the source was sort of pointless. I did get in touch with a number of people who posted the whole book as a Facebook album. They really believe they are helping; they are very invested in the book's success.
Are you encountering any jealousy from people who wish they'd put their own dark bedtime moments to such clever and lucrative use?
A little bit, but the main feedback I am getting is this incredible weird gratitude, because I think it makes a lot of people feel a little less alone. It is a sort of cathartic experience for people to read it, and it [creates] a weird sense of community, as if it's given people permission to laugh at something that is difficult.
What about your mother? Is she ready to wash your mouth out with soap?
My mother is a very excellent and colorful user of such language. I might have learned it from her.
Should we be looking forward to the sequel Just Brush Your F---ing Teeth?
A lot of people are suggesting a sequel. It's possible, but I don't want to do a sequel just for the sake of cashing in. If it happens, it will have to take some other direction. It won't be an exact blueprint of this.
You've just finished another novel, titled Rage Is Back. Can we assume this media storm will brighten your prospects for selling it?
I hope so. My sense is that it will, yes. We are going to go out with that book in a couple of weeks. I have my fingers crossed.
Is it true you're working on a G-rated version of Go the F--- to Sleep?
Yes. It came out of the realization that kids are going to be interested. Johnny has two sons, who are 5 and 3, and of course, their house is in an uproar because of this [book]. He read a highly censored version of it to them, and they loved it. Particularly the 5-year-old; he is old enough to understand that putting him to bed is a major undertaking.
Any idea what the movie version will be like?
At the moment I have only a vague idea, because I haven't sat down with the producers yet. I do know they want to do live action and use the framing element in the book of a story within the story. I am also a screenwriter, and [while] I don't know if they'll let me anywhere near the screenplay, I do know that if I were approaching it as a screenwriter, it would be exciting because it is so wide open. They're really buying a piece of the zeitgeist.