The Temp's Literary Debut
The Temp's Literary Debut
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.