Jonathan Goldstein: It's good to be a Grinch
The CBC's latest Grinch (and our official judge for the Seusstivus Twitter Challenge on Tuesday, December 18) on the Dr. Seuss-gangsta rap connection, what liking the name "Bartholomew" says about a person, and why you should never tweet in the back of a limo.
What's your first memory of Dr. Seuss?
There was a wall of his books in my elementary school library. There was a feeling about them, an approachability, that made me feel like reading was within my grasp. They might have been the first books I’d ever discovered that didn’t intimidate me. That changed the way I felt about reading. I realized there didn’t have to be this low hum of anxiety that went along with it.
And I remember tearing through them in what was probably my first experience of feeling bookish. I remember finding Green Eggs and Ham really weird and even at 5, really annoying. But The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins struck me as a work of genius. What a concept! I thought about all those hats a lot, and even that name, Bartholomew. Whenever someone asked me my name, or I was writing a story, that was the name I’d use. I thought it was just perfectly absurd. Now that I think of it, I think my liking of that name was the beginnings of developing what you might call an aesthetic sensibility.
And of course Doctor Seuss instilled in me a love of rhyme and, in good time, gangsta rap.
As a writer, what do you appreciate most about Dr. Seuss?
The imaginativeness. The way he created a whole universe. And then, out of that universe to create such sentiment. Like Oh, The Places you’ll Go!. So unexpectedly moving considering it comes from such a silly place, a place you don’t expect to find such humanity. Whenever I read that book it always manages to choke me up.
Also that he could he could write and draw. Double threat. I wish I could do that.
What was your reaction when you were asked to play the Grinch in the new CBC/McGill production?
To being on stage with a choir of over 200 kids? From way back in my vaudeville days, I’d sworn I’d never work with animals or children. By which I mean to say it was the role I was born to play.
What specific convictions did you have about what your Grinch would be like?
Well, the Grinch didn’t seem like such a bad guy to me. He speaks in well-crafted rhyming couplets and, unlike the citizens of Whoville—a bunch of hand-holding joiners—he remains true to himself, on the margins, speaking truth to power. Plus, he’s a pet owner. Perhaps even a vegetarian, for the idea of the Whos eating "roast beast" sickens him. Much like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, the Grinch strikes me as the story’s secret hero and that was something I wanted to come across.
What do you think you bring to the character?
Sympathy. I mean, Christmas can be a particularly lonesome time of the year for people. I imagine that if you are green and live on top of a mountain it’s got to be particularly rough.
For inspiration, I listened to Boris Karloff’s reading of The Grinch from the 1960s cartoon. He recorded it near the end of his life and his performance has a rich and warm melancholy to it. While my voice certainly has its own kind of melancholy, it’s more the whiny, accusatory kind.
I've been told this my whole life and it holds no less true today: I am no Boris Karloff.
As the judge of our upcoming Seusstivus Twitter Challenge, what is it about Twitter that inspires/entertains you as a writer?
The democracy of it. And the immediacy. If you write something that moves people, you get a response right away. So even if you’re up late at night staring at the ceiling in bed, you feel less alone. And in the best of times there’s a certain kind of poetry that emerges from that. This is not an example of that, but last night, while at a bar urinal, I tweeted: “So everyone’s life makes no sense, right?” The responses gave me comfort and I think putting that out into the world might have brought comfort to a few other people. Though the image of me tweeting at a urinal might cancel out whatever sliver of comfort I’ve offered.
What I also find funny is the way that the truth is sometimes enabled because of the brevity. Thus the rise of what is called “the humblebrag.” The bragginess comes through so boldly because you can’t bury it too easily in 140 characters. So when you tweet: “OMG Just spilled my champagne glass in the back of Jimmy Fallon’s limo! #klutz” everyone sees you’re really saying, “Suck it. I’m in Jimmy Fallon’s limo and you’re not.”
Anything about Twitter you find infuriating?
That in some ways it short-circuits larger, more sustained thoughts. It can be a place where first sentences to novels go to die. I actually tweeted that.
As the judge of our Seusstivus challenge, what tips do you have for contestants?
Try to entertain yourself. Sound like yourself. Twitter’s a place to take chances, to be less polite then you would be in conversation. So don’t be afraid to be silly, because Seuss is, in the best sense of the word. Find your inner silly Seuss and put it to use. See how that happens?
What will you be up to on December 25 when your version of The Grinch airs on CBC Radio?
I think I’ll be visiting friends I haven’t seen all year. They live out on the tip of Long Island. But the night before I’ll be in New York and might go to this Chinese restaurant where an organization of Jews and Chinese are putting on an event called “Lox and Woks.” Jews, Xmas, and Chinese food is a time-honoured tradition.
The Seusstivus Twitter Challenge is open from 9 am to 5 pm ET, on Tuesday, December 18th.
Jonathan Goldstein’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and the National Post. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s This American Life and is the author of the short story collection Ladies and Gentlemen,The Bible!, the novel Lenny Bruce Is Dead and the book of essays I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow. His CBC Radio show, WireTap, is now in its ninth season.