Plenty of actors have written books lately, but none as original, smart or literary as B.J. Novak’s collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. It’s a sign of his freshness that reviews, most with extravagant praise, have strained for comparisons. Woody Allen’s sketches? Sort of, in their comic philosophical questioning, but Novak can be far more narrative. David Sedaris? Novak is less autobiographical; his characters include “The Man Who Invented the Calendar.”
His stories are absurdist yet have a surprising emotional undercurrent; they are scathingly funny about pop-culture language and clichés; they have a strong sense of character that takes him to strange places, including the minds of the tortoise and the hare as they prepare for a rematch of their classic race. You can hear Novak’s distinctive voice as he describes the tortoise’s training regimen: “Simple diet, some walking around…He didn’t want to overthink it.”
Novak may still be best known as Ryan on The Office, where he was also a writer and occasional director. He has since moved on to small roles in mega-movies: a soldier in Inglourious Basterds, one of the song-writing Sherman brothers in Saving Mr. Banks, and a villain in this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
He may also be the perfect author for the age of promotion by social media. He wrote and directed his beautifully satiric book trailer—black-and-white, in French with subtitles, featuring Mindy Kaling—in which he postures as the kind of author who hangs out in cafes, smoking cigarettes and pontificating about art. He has 571,000 Twitter followers and has posted some of his shortest stories, just a few lines long, on Instagram. He has total, tongue-in-cheek loyalty to Keough Novak, his fictional sister, who has more than 4,000 Twitter followers of her own. In real life, his background is East Coast literary, with a Harvard degree in English and Spanish literature (the book’s final story is an homage to Borges). His father, William Novak, is the ghost-writer of bestsellers by Lee Iacocca and Nancy Reagan.
At the start of his book tour, we met in the offices of his publisher, Knopf. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
You shaped these stories partly by doing readings, which is counterintuitive for most writers. How do you do something original if you’re relying on an audience? How did you know when to trust them, and when they were just reacting to something familiar?
A few hours before each show I would frantically anticipate what it would be like to be on stage reading these particular stories, and cut stories that I knew weren’t quite ready to tell, and embellish stories I was excited to tell, and go further on stories I had a feeling would score. This visceral anticipation of “You’re on stage in a couple of hours” made me edit at this hyper level. By the time I got on stage most of the important editing was done. It was that fear of an audience, the desire to make sure I was saying exactly what I wanted to be alone on stage saying, that made me do my best work.
If I loved something I would keep it, no matter what anyone said. But if an audience didn’t like something, I would think long and hard about whether I was right or not, and it really tested me.
But I never went on stage with anything I didn’t like to begin with, I never went on stage to try to pander to an audience—which I did in my early standup days. It was a lesson to learn from, because the worst feeling is failing with something you didn’t even like. You want to say, “I didn’t like it, I thought you guys would like it.”
I think when people heard you were going to write a book they assumed it would be autobiographical essays, like Tina Fey’s or Mindy Kaling’s. These are really stories, they’re fiction, some are sketches, some are more narrative. But is there an element of autobiography in them?
Yeah, absolutely and I didn’t realize it until afterwards. I was reading the stories out loud at this place, the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, and I took questions after. Someone said, “It’s amazing how personal your stories are,” and I thought he was kidding because they’re often even about the inner life of an inanimate object. And everyone kind of nodded, agreeing with him. That’s when I realized how much of myself I had put into every story. They all started with a comedic idea, but they didn’t survive unless I had some deeply felt emotional or philosophical observation that was important to me. And if it was important to me, it would usually be something that had caused me some pain or happiness in my life.
How did people know that was personal for you?
I think they just sensed it. There’s one piece, “The Market was Down,” about the stock market. And I thought, that’s funny, they always say “The market is down,” they don’t know why it’s down. What if the Market was a guy and he’s just down? The inner monologue is to me what it’s like to be depressed, or to suffer a mood swing in the course of a day, and that’s a very specific thing to a person. And I think you can sense when something is very specific to a person.
Or “The Rematch,” about the tortoise and the hare. It always bothered me. That was obviously an exception, that one race, and all we remember is that one time the hare got incredibly cocky and lost a race, but in general I’m sure the hare tended to win races like that. Why don’t we hear about that? And I thought: If I’m that bothered, how much more would the hare be bothered? I was an ambitious kid, and I sometimes messed up. I would be the brightest kid in fifth grade and then be in Math Group 2 in sixth grade because I’d been slacking off and people wouldn’t say I was so smart anymore. So I think that was personally felt too, my personal desire to avenge my own laziness and mistakes in life.
The story with the kid, the narrator who is called Bright Ben—was that you?
It was, but as it is in the story, it was a name game at the beginning of school—Bright Ben—and I hated that. I thought it was such a dull complement. I would rather have been Cool Carl or something.
Tell me about Keough Novak, your imaginary sister.
Some people think she’s imaginary.
Is she imaginary?
She’s real to me.
Does it bother you that in some places, your biography says you have three siblings instead of two, and one of them is your sister?
Well it bothers her when people say she’s fake.
No, she and I have a real rivalry. She’s the sister I always wanted to have, in a way.
But you say in the Acknowledgements she was “no help at all.”
She’s “no help at all,” in the Acknowledgments. We’re three brothers, and I always liked the idea of having a sister.
So, what is she like?
She’s a real brat on the outside, but I think she has a very sensitive and very hyper-intelligent mind. She admires the right people in general. She wishes she were pretty enough to be in the field of fashion, but she’s too young to realize that it’s better that she is the way she is, that she has more intelligence and character than style and flash. She reads Nylon magazine. She is desperately seeking an HBO Go password. She gets different obsessions. She is everything I think I would be if I were a 16-year-old girl. And she thinks I’m a bozo—that’s one of her most important traits.
Did you always want to write? Your father is a writer.
No, I never wanted to write. It was what came naturally to me in school, but when people said, “Are you going to be a writer like your dad?” I was offended. To me it was like, “Are you going to be a dentist like your dad?” It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I saw Pulp Fiction and sort of got into cool, pretentious dead poets like Rimbaud and stuff like that, that I got into the literary glamour mythology phase. That’s when I thought, “Oh, maybe that would be cool.” But even then I wanted to be a filmmaker, like an auteur. I always thought writing was a means to a more exciting, glamorous life. It’s really been a long process to think that writing itself was the cool thing to do.
But you’re still doing these great big movies, like Saving Mr. Banks and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I understand they just revealed the character you play. Is it Alistair Smythe?
When you’re on a set like that and you’re just an actor, is it frustrating?
No, it’s incredible, it’s my favorite, it’s such a luxury. On The Office, there’s this pressure on you, not only to write your own part, but to improve your own part as you do it, and to improve everyone else in the scene; that’s your job. So you’re always thinking, “Well, what if I said this, and what if he said that?” You can never really focus 100 percent on the acting of it. Whereas on a film, especially with someone like Tarantino, or Kelly Marcel, who wrote Saving Mr. Banks, especially if it’s a good screenplay, then you can put all your creative energy into your character and how you would say a line. Acting is fun, that’s why everyone wants to do it. So, to not think about the script at all—it’s a dream.
You’re really focused on text itself.
Text as the final image.
You have a children’s book coming in the fall, Book With No Pictures, and your Instagram—
My Instagram is “Pictures of Text,” which I’m sure is the opposite of what Instagram is intended to be. I’m hacking it to be more like Twitter. My book cover has no image on it. It’s just my thing, I guess, it’s like my code if I were a programmer. That’s all I’ve got is my love of letters. I think of myself as a very visual person but the only expertise I have in that is a font or a spacing.
The title of the book comes from a line in the story “Sophia,” about a sex robot who falls in love with her owner. She’s talking about how infinite love is, that there’s always one more thing. Is the title meant to resonate with that, or is it just catchy?
It’s both. It’s great if it resonates with that. It doesn’t have to; I also thought it just sounded like, “Oh, that’s a book I’ll pick up.” But I think it is a theme, I realized as I completed the book, that is in many stories, not just “Sophia,” this idea that if you only had one more thing, everything would be OK, everything would be what you wanted it to be, no matter who you are, whether you’re a hare who is the fastest animal in the kingdom, or the man who lost a love that he dismissed as robotic. I think that yearning for one more thing is very much on my mind.
There are a lot of themes in here—about fate and philosophy—but there’s also a big strain of talking about romanticism. There’s this tension between being romantic, and having romance crash up against reality. Do you think of yourself as romantic?
Yeah, in exactly that way. And I think the nature of being romantic is that it’s never exactly real, never exactly precise—otherwise it wouldn’t be romantic, it’d be realism. But I love romanticism, I love being slightly wrong about how things will work out. It’s painful but it’s also beautiful, and that’s what “one more thing” means to me: this false but romantic faith that there is something just out of reach that can transform everything. It’s never true—you get it and then there’s the next “one more thing.” But if you stop believing in that romantic myth, then a lot of the fun of life is gone, and the magic. And magic doesn’t exist—there’s no such thing as magic. The magic is believing in magic, you know?