Born to Be Public
(Clash Books, 2020)
I met Greg Mania the way most people do—on the internet. We were both about to publish our first books, in August, and after months of wishful thinking (or perhaps denial), it had become painfully clear that there would be no launch parties, no book tours, no talks or readings at bookstores or bars, no line of friends to hug—the stuff debut writers dream of our whole lives. Instead, alone in our living rooms, we would release our books online, into that vast digital ether, and hope for the best. Luckily, Greg Mania was ready. He’d been what the kids call “Very Online” for years, building a persona, a platform, and a community. And to me he seemed to materialize—a Millennial gift from the universe—out of thin digitized air onto my Twitter timeline, a writer and comedian with an unforgettable name (I first read it, like most do, pronounced like the syndrome) and a massive bright-blonde pompadour. I liked him immediately. Or, at least, I liked the persona he projected. He was funny and self-effacing, tweeting one-liners about sex and sweatpants and Panera Bread, or having a meltdown in a Mattress Firm. He tweeted about anxiety, PTSD, and Lexapro, too. He had what marketing people call a “Twitter presence,” but—like great comedy and great personal narrative—his presence felt like more than a performance. It felt like many of Mania’s selves, laid bare for us to see, one hilarious and heartfelt whole.
His memoir, Born to Be Public, published by Clash Books on August 25, feels the same. Part coming-of-age story, part stand-up routine, part subversive self-help guide, part love letter, it’s a funny and frenetic book about persona and personhood, and one first-generation Polish American queer kid’s journey toward building, and integrating, the two. Born and raised in lower-middle-class New Jersey—a place, he writes, that’s “ninety percent malls”—Mania knew early on that he was both gay—“I basically came out of my mother’s womb on a Pride float,” he writes—and a little weird. He recounts a time when, on a field trip to New York City, he had to be pulled out of a Blue Man Group performance because he wouldn’t stop screaming. (“No,” his teacher reassured him, “those aren’t demons.”) Mania would later find a home in New York, when during college he discovered the nightlife scene. It was here, in the dark dive bars and rooftop dance parties of the Lower East Side, he not only built his persona—a go-go dancing, 10-inch-mohawk-sporting, leather-and-fishnet-wearing club kid, reclaiming the commonly mispronounced version of his name—but found community too: performers and punks, DJs and scenesters, misfits like him who would become family. The book is both a chronicle of Mania’s journey from theater nerd to night-lifer to writer, and the journey we all hope to take: to find and embrace the many, and sometimes messy, parts of our identity; to find our place in the world; to find the people that help us get there. Born to Be Public is not just “comedic gold,” as O, the Oprah Magazine calls it, but an honest and tender examination of struggle and resilience, isolation and community, and the ways we build our lives and selves one Lean Cuisine at a time—never one thing or the other, but all those lives and selves combined.
Mania and I sat down—online, of course—to talk identity, queer culture, chosen family, nonfiction writing, New York City, and what it means to be Born to be Public.
Melissa Faliveno (Rail): Congratulations on publishing your first book! In a global pandemic! I keep telling people it’s been a “wild ride,” which is a funny way to say “a constant and often horrific vacillation between euphoria and despair.” How has it been for you?
Greg Mania: I would also like to congratulate myself on getting interviewed by YOU. Do you know how much Tomboyland means to me? I used the section you wrote on grief as a reference during therapy the other day. I think your book couldn’t have come at a better time. I mean, look at the books this year: they are pure gold. They have single-handedly saved us from total oblivion. So, thank you for being a floaty in the pool of old hot dog water that is this year.
That being said, I would like to go ahead and echo you that putting a book out this year has, indeed, been a wild ride. But there have been many blessings in disguise: I was still able to do a book launch hosted by my favorite bookstore with one of my dearest and closest friends, who lives in Michigan, which probably wouldn’t have happened in an IRL world. I just try to count my blessings and relish joy when I feel it!
Rail: First of all, thank you for the kind words about my book! There were so many things about your book that resonated very deeply, but the first thing that struck me—and by that I mean I screamed—was your childhood obsession with tornadoes. I write about this too, and think of it as a kind of origin story, not least in the way that such a weird obsession captures what it’s like to experience anxiety, OCD, and irrational phobias. Then recently, an interviewer told me they think tornadoes are queer culture. My head exploded. Maybe they were joking, but maybe they were onto something? It made me think about the ways queer kids often seek some kind of control, or safety, when they start to feel out of control or unsafe in the world. And maybe tornadoes—these terrifying acts of God that wield an unfathomable, unpredictable power—become a kind of mythic reminder of how the world can just destroy us at any moment? Can you talk about this obsession, and how it might have shaped your life as a writer? And most important: Are tornadoes queer culture?
Mania: I just rolled my sleeves THE FUCK UP, because we have a lot to unpack here. Holy shit. Let’s start with tornadoes as queer culture. I think it all boils down to identity for me. Identity is messy; it changes paths, it picks up things along the way, and then sometimes ejects those things as it goes on. Isn’t that what growing up is, what personhood in general is? Aren’t we all just little tornadoes following a path that is unpredictable, picking things up along the way, and, if and when we outgrow them, hurl them directly onto the roof of a library 30 miles away?
And, because I write a lot about identity, I would definitely say growing up with an obsession with tornadoes shaped my life as a writer. Maybe I’ve just always been attracted to mess and making sense of it.
Rail: There are definitely still parts of my identity on the roof of my hometown library. Anyway, I could talk about tornadoes all day, but let’s talk comedy! Your book is very funny—I laughed out loud a lot and, speaking of being a floaty in a pool of hot dog water, it was such a welcome relief during this particular time in our country, on this planet, when very little feels funny. It reminded me how important laughing is, how it can be a balm against the wounds the world inflicts; maybe even an act of resistance. How does comedy, and comedy writing, help you navigate the world, or make sense of the mess of it?
Mania: I love that: laughter as resistance. I definitely—especially in recent years—think of laughter, and joy, as resistance. But humor has always been how I metabolize things. Even when I go through something traumatic, my brain has this visceral reaction and immediately starts panning for comedic gold, no matter how murky the waters. It’s a tool of self-preservation, otherwise I would be crying all the time, which, don’t get me wrong, I still want to do. Even when I’m going through a catatonic depression, I still find ways to laugh. And the darker, the better. I’ll make the worst jokes about mental illness that I would never tweet, the ones that invoke those deep, guttural hand-covering-your-mouth laughs because you know you’re going straight to hell for laughing at said awful joke. Is there any better type of laugh, though? I’m terrible! But if everything is going to be terrible, I’m going to be terrible right back! RESIST!!!
Rail: I just laughed out loud again, so thanks for that! You mine those darker spaces earnestly in this book, too—including your struggles with anxiety, depression, self-harm, and PTSD. I often tell my writing students to try to balance the dark and the light, and you certainly do this: moving from a chapter about a traumatic relationship to a chapter composed entirely of tweets that underperformed, or an enumerated list of jokes about casual sex or being a New Yorker. Can you talk a bit about your writing process? How do you incorporate the comic with the drama, and how did the form of this book take shape?
Mania: That is such a compliment, thank you! I definitely think balancing levity and gravity is something that takes practice. It doesn’t happen overnight. As much as I want to deflect and make jokes at the expense of vulnerability, it just creates this distance between reality and myself. It’s like I’m microdosing on gaslighting myself? It’s knowing when to take a pause and realize that some things need to just be, without any garnish. And you release that into the world and accept that it will be received how it will be received, but with that comes the sweet liberation of knowing that, no matter what, the truth—your truth—is out there. It’s free.
That’s how the book took this form. When I first started writing it, like seven years ago, it was just a compilation of funny stories and vignettes about my tragicomic blunders in New York City as a twentysomething. But then, as I grew up, so did my book, and I started including stories about my struggles with mental illness, toxic relationships, and the things that almost broke me. The arc of the book wouldn’t be possible without including those hardships.
Rail: I’m grateful you wrote about those struggles so openly; I saw myself in these pages, and a lot of other readers will too. And as an essayist, I completely feel the liberation in giving such personal stories away. It’s powerful, and important. But do you ever find it terrifying too? There have been many times since putting my book out when I’ve thought, “Why in the holy hell would I ever be compelled to do this?” Do you ever feel this way—a tension between the public and private parts of you, bewildered at yourself for wanting to say some things aloud? What do you think compels us to do this?
Mania: Oh, totally. It’s mortifying! And I’m not even talking about all the embarrassing sex stuff, which is, like, whatever. I’m an uncouth idiot and honestly will never have the type of sex that you’ll see in porn. Do you know how much I wish I could have sex like Lady Gaga in American Horror Story: Hotel, seducing people in haute couture, wearing eight-inch heels in bed? Meanwhile, if I try anything remotely different than missionary, I’ll get a concussion. Whatever! That’s my truth.
But the other stuff I wrote about, like suicidal ideation and self-harm, that gave me the most anxiety. I never told anyone—not my parents, my partner, nor my closest friends—about the abuse I used to inflict on myself. But it’s a part of my history; it is also my truth. And I think what compels us—especially writers of essay and memoir—to share these things in such a public way is survival. It’s a way to reconcile ourselves with our histories, to name and acknowledge these events in our lives and the way they made us feel. By putting them in something so tangible, like a book, we are resisting something. And what is a better tool for resistance than art? For me, it was resisting shame.
Rail: Absolutely. Naming our truths to resist shame—I need that reminder sometimes, that there’s a critical reason we’re putting ourselves out there for those people to see. Speaking of putting ourselves out there, I’m curious about your relationship between person and persona. You write about this in the book, and I think all memoirists and personal essayists put a persona on the page to some extent. I’m wondering how Greg Mania the person and Greg Mania the persona coexist or diverge, now that the book is in the world and you’re out there promoting it.
Mania: I would definitely say that the person and persona are fully integrated now, especially after writing this book. For a long time, they were separate. I was Greg Mania (“mahn-ya,” the actual pronunciation of my surname) by day, and Greg Mania (“may-nee-yah,” my nickname) by night, especially in my early 20s, when I was an active participant in New York City nightlife. My nickname—persona, moniker, stage name, whatever you want to call it—allowed me the space to experiment with things like gender presentation, to snuff out the insecurities I’ve accumulated growing up closeted. It was a way for me to inhabit the parts of me I was always curious about, but was always hesitant to make public.
But, as I started writing this book, I realized that the two could co-exist. By writing this book, I realized that we are many different things, and that identity is a totality. I wanted to honor each facet, from young club kid to young writer to everything in between—and what’s to come.
Rail: You write very lovingly about that scene, and how it shaped you. I spent a lot of time on the LES in those years too, mostly playing shows in a band (RIP, Cake Shop); it was a pretty different kind of nightlife—no rooftop parties or go-go dancing, sadly. But, on the subject of identity as a totality, I’m interested in the ways we move in and out of scenes, how we bring communities with us even after we’ve left them. Do you still carry parts of that club kid with you? Please tell me you still go-go dance sometimes. Even if in your living room in sweatpants.
Mania: Absolutely. I still have my first leather jacket that I ever bought. It’s worn out as hell, so I don’t wear it much anymore, but I will never get rid of it. It has this smell, and every time I smell it, it brings me right back to the early 2010s. It makes me emotional, because the community that I wrote about—my chosen family—is scattered all over the globe now: we’re in London, Berlin, Los Angeles, Orlando. And I don’t know when (or if) we’ll all be under the same roof again. Also, all the roofs we were under 10 years ago are now TD Banks or juice bars. Pouring one out for Cake Shop as I type this.
I would love to tell you that I still go-go dance, even in quarantine. I’m not as—let’s go with limber—as I once was, but I can drop it like it’s tepid!
Rail: We’ll take tepid in a pandemic. Speaking of chosen family, I think of this book as part love letter—to your community, to queer kids, to a younger you, to you now, to all the yous yet to come. Who did you write this book to? Who do you hope reads it?
Mania: Honestly, I wrote it for those people and me. That’s why there’s that photo spread in the middle of the book. I wanted to immortalize not just a very special time of New York City nightlife, the tail end of an era that we were fortunate enough to experience before all of our old haunts—community staples—turned into luxury condos or whatever corporate entity decided to sink its teeth into the neighborhood, but a special time in our lives. We were so lucky to have found each other at the same time, in the same place, and to spend those years growing up together, crying together, fighting together, laughing together. It’s bittersweet, but now we can flip through those pages and recall those fond memories and silly stories. Conversely, a queer kid growing up somewhere can flip through those pages and realize that there’s a group of people—a community—somewhere waiting to embrace them, when they’re ready.
Rail: I love that. And I would love to talk to you forever, but at some point we need to yell last call on this party. I recently saw on Twitter that you started working on a new book; can you tell us about it?
Mania: I’m writing an essay collection, so I have to go Google, “how to write an essay collection.” Bye!!!