Saturday August 30th, will from now on officially be marked as the day I interviewed B.J. Novak. It will also be marked as the day that I took my first interview ever. Although this was quite intimidating, the Bored to Death book club and me (impostor from Books & Bubbles) were nevertheless super excited and super nervous. Off to Amsterdam we went, by train and arriving early, which gave us the time to become more nervous, but also to browse Amsterdam’s second hand bookstores.
We arrived at the Ambassade Hotel about a quarter to five, fifteen minutes before the interview was about to start. While we waited for B.J. Novak to come down, a nice looking man walked by who smiled and nodded to us. After this the publisher told us it was Graeme Simsion, better known as the writer of bestseller The Rosie Project. Yeah, no biggie.
For everyone who has never indulged themselves in American (pop) culture and find themselves wondering who B.J. Novak is: he is probably best known for playing the role of Ryan Howard in the American adaptation of the popular comedy series The Office. Novak was not only an actor in the series, but also a writer and producer. Besides this, he has also starred in movies, such as Inglourious Basterds and The Amazing Spiderman 2. He is also a stand-up comedian. Oh, and for everyone who used to be an avid MTV viewer, back when they were a teenager in the early 2000s (I know I was), he also starred in the second season of Punk’d, where he pulled pranks on celebrities such as Hilary Duff and Rachel Leigh Cook. Since February 2014 Novak can also add writer to his impressive resume, since his collection of short stories, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories was then published and became a New York Times bestseller.
When B.J. Novak finally came downstairs for the interview, we were led into a small room. This was the library of the hotel, filled with numerous signed first editions of writers who have stayed at the hotel. As B.J. rightfully pointed out: “Well this isn’t intimidating at all.” Before we started the interview we wanted to make sure that he could enjoy some Dutch delicacies, so we gave him a bag of ‘kruidnootjes’ (yes, they are already on sale) and tried to explain to him when and for what occasion we usually eat it (St. Nicholas, December, and yes it’s august, but oh well). He looked genuinely happy when we gave it to him. Since we didn’t want to be too political, we decided not to mention that St. Nicholas is basically the same as Santa Claus but less fat, and with his helpers who are called ‘Zwarte Piet.’ It was time to start the interview anyway.
Okay, let’s start off with an impossible question: what’s your favourite work of fiction, and why?
Oh wow, I usually say Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, eds.). Because, when I read it at seventeen, it was the first book I’d ever read that felt more connected to the excitement of life than the homework of literature. It was very alive and exciting. It was clearly better written than anything I’ve ever read, and yet it was also very rebellious and wrong in many ways. I think that still remains my favourite novel.
You are known for writing and producing the popular series The Office, as well as acting in it. In what ways is writing a book different from all of this? Was it helpful for the process of writing One More Thing?
I made this book and the process as similar as I possibly could to the other forms that I worked in and I think that helped me make sure that my own voice was very clear on the page and wasn’t altered too much by the prospect of working in the form of literature with a capital L. A few mistakes I made in my life as a writer have tended to be trying to adapt my voice to a form, and I think that is generally wrong of any writer to do: it’s a trap, it’s a mistake. What you want to do is find the way to put your voice into the form, and if it is jarring, so much the better. So, to me, that meant reading the stories out loud, often in clubs I perform stand-up in and attempting a seamless blend of comedy and other elements, like emotion or romance or regret or nostalgia; whatever it would be. The way I was used to doing on The Office. So I used both of those as much as I could, and tried to put the voice I’m most comfortable with into the book. And I’m very happy with the voice in this book. It’s the proudest I’ve ever been of anything that I’ve done.
In an interview with The Daily Beast you describe your fictional sister Keough Novak in quite some detail. You also thank her in the acknowledgements of One More Thing, let her do an interview with you on HelloGiggles.com and she has her own Twitter account, which has quite a lot of followers. Have you ever thought about immortalizing her even further by maybe writing a book about her, or letting her write a book, or would that be too personal?
Yeah, she’ll kill me for saying this. I’m not sure she’s ready for a book. She thinks she is. She thinks it’s “retarded” in her words that her brother has a book deal and she doesn’t. She is clearly the most, if not the only intelligent member of the family and the only one who [laughs] with an inclination towards ‘real talk’ as she says. She has several book titles in mind already. Real Talk is a big candidate, No Filter is one of them, and then she has a screenplay she’s working on called Keough and Sophie Travel in Time that she wants me to produce for her someday.
Maybe you should do it. Young Adult is pretty big right now. We’re starting a YA book club in Rotterdam and we thought her book idea for No Filter sounded amazing. We would love to read it there.
This will only encourage her.
We hope so!
At the end of September your children’s book The Book with No Pictures will be published. Could you maybe explain a bit what the book is about and what it aims to do?
Oh yeah, I should actually bring it tonight! The Book with No Pictures is a very silly read aloud book in which the parent or other grown up reading the book is forced to say things they don’t want to say. So, it introduces kids to the rules of books and of the written word in a way that they will hopefully love, because it shows them how much power they can exert over adults with the written word as their ally. For example, one of the pages declares “I am a monkey,” and then in smaller print the protest “Hey that’s not true, I’m not a monkey.” And what always gets a laugh at the next page is “Yes, I am a monkey” and “I’m a robot monkey.” So the idea that the parent is trying to stop the book, but can’t, I found to be very funny to kids.
Why did you want to write a children’s book?
I love funny books for kids. I think Mo Willems is the best right now that I’ve seen. And as a kid I really loved Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl in particular, who have a great sense of humor. So every time I read to a friend’s kid or a cousin’s kid, I look for the funniest book I can find. The way I am with kids and the stories and games I make up are always very silly. The adult is trying to be serious, while the kid has all the power and I thought that would be good in book form. I’m dismayed and nervous about the extent of skepticism about a celebrity’s children’s book, because a lot of skepticism has been engendered about these. I don’t see The Book with No Pictures as a celebrity’s children’s book at all. Instead, I see this as a conceptual book by someone who is painfully serious about children’s literature and wants to offer a new approach to it, but I keep running into people who say “oh we’ll interview him for anything but a children’s book.” I think there have been too many celebrities who have tried it before, and people think that it is easy or something. However, there will be a US book tour in the fall, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Did you find writing a children’s book easier than writing One More Thing?
Well sure it was easier, because it was 200 words instead of 300 pages and it has no pictures, so I didn’t even have to draw anything. But the effort I put into it page by page, word by word, and the stress I put into testing it on dozens of children and taking the concept seriously was major. My hope for the book is that it will be the most lasting thing I will ever do, because if a children’s book hits that right spot, it’s a part of everyone’s life that touches it growing up. So my hope for it is that it’s the most important thing I ever do. Was it easier than 64 complicated stories? It took less time, but it didn’t take less effort.
You wrote your thesis about Shakespeare, and we noticed that quite some stories seem to be influenced by your academic and literary background. Do you think that this background has influenced you as a writer? If so, how? And do you think this is a good or a bad thing?
Yes, it has definitely influenced me. It has some good and bad influences, but you can’t control for influences. I studied literature at Harvard when the department was especially interested in the meta-concepts of literature itself, and I was prone to think like that anyway. So for better and worse I think that infuses how I approach writing, the concept of the book. The final story in One More Thing, “J.C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote,” is very much about that. I even footnoted some real people that I have read in college in that story and one of them was my thesis adviser – I haven’t contacted her about that. So that was sort of an homage to the literature department which was obsessed with one particular story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” by Borges. So this was sort of my homage and satire of the concerns of the literature department.
You have a very academic background and you mentioned that your favorite book is Lolita, but what we were wondering is if you also have any guilty pleasures?
I will quote Quentin Tarantino, who said in my presence once “not to me, there are no guilty pleasures, only pleasures.” I think that is completely true. Why I love Lolita is that one does not have to be proud or guilty and the same goes with Tarantino, who is probably my favorite film maker. Is Grindhouse a guilty pleasure? Yes, and so is Inglourious Basterds, but this doesn’t negate that they are high pleasures either. That said, what is a guilty pleasure of mine by the classic definition? [thinks for a long time]. Anthony Bourdain is a guilty pleasure. I have a story about him in my next book. It’s called “Tijuana on 10.000 dollars a day.” But I love watching him, I roll my eyes sometimes, but I watch it anyway, so I guess that is a guilty pleasure.
One of our favorite stories from One More Thing was “Kellogg’s (or: The Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy)”. How did you come up with it?
Oh, thank you. How did I come up with it? I don’t know exactly, but I’ll walk you through it. A lot of the details that come up in the story are from my life. The diagonal staircase, the colour of manila was real and all the descriptions of that, that is where it would have been hidden in my house. I did look for a prize in a cereal box, I did cry when I lost, my father did take – I don’t think he remembers this – a dictionary off the wall and make that bizarre contest that fascinated me. Thematically, I think I’ve always had what that kid has; a strong yearning for a name brand life, for being part of the glossy American culture that feels a little out of reach in an academic environment. My parents weren’t academics, but my father is a writer and we lived in a very literate liberal enclave, and I wanted to grow up in a small town, an hour from Chicago or somewhere in California. I don’t know what it was in particular, but I wanted to be in a place where people bought Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes for breakfast and I think a lot of my career reflects that. Clearly I can’t escape the literary and academic background I come from, it will never escape me, for better or worse. But I was proudest of this book, perhaps, when two contestants on The Bachelor last week were seen reading it. That is my dream. As much as I wanted good reviews and be taken seriously by other writers I admire – which, of course I feel – my ultimate dream is to be a part of pop culture. In a way that was more important to me than the best review.
This story and a lot of other ones are about winning the lottery or winning something. Is that something that you think about a lot?
My imagination goes to extremes. It works in the opposite way most comedy minds work. I think most comedy minds take something big and find the smallest, most human level on which to play it out. Dramatic minds as well. My mind takes a human relatable thing and magnifies it as much as possible to see if we can still find some humanity there, or to see if we’ve learned something else. I think if I had an experience in which I felt lucky, that would come out in a story about someone winning the goddamn lottery and if I felt successful, but self-obsessed as a writer, to me that would come out in a story about John Grisham (“The Something” eds.), the most commercially successful author of the century. So I tend to exaggerate things, which is maybe why winning on a grand scale comes up a lot.
Could you recommend our readers a book that you think we should definitely read?
It’s not out yet, but I would recommend Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich. He’s the writer I admired most directly when I was writing this book. He’s a brilliant, very charming comedy writer who publishes in The New Yorker a lot. They are comedy stories meant to make you laugh, but they have a lot of heart and wisdom in them too. They can be quite beautiful, but first and foremost they are really, really funny.
Earlier you said you are working on a new book. Will it be another short story collection?
Well, I’m working on a lot of things. The book of short stories won’t be out for a very long time, because I want to devote myself to other things first. But yeah, I have almost a 100 stories that I have notes on in various forms that I hope will form the backbone of the second collection someday.
What’s coming up next?
I’m working on many things. I have to promote The Book With No Pictures. Then I have two screenplays I’m finishing up this summer and then I also have two television pilots.I hope to get them all perfect and hit the market.
It sounds like you are very busy.
Well I always think that I’m lazy, but sometimes I remind myself that it sounds like a lot.
When the interview is over Novak goes upstairs to get The Book with No Pictures. When he finally comes down (he has taken the ‘kruidnootjes’ with him) he lets us take a sneak peak. You can tell he’s really proud of his own children’s book, and, not to be too ass-kissy, we can really see and understand why. It even makes us, three book-loving girls in the midst of our quarter-life-crisis, laugh out loud. And although we don’t have children yet, we will be sure to buy it once it comes out and so should you. So, what happened next you might wonder? Well, we of course made sure our copies of One More Thing were signed and we took some awkward pictures. After that it was time to eat, and prepare for the John-Adams event later that evening, where Micha Wertheim would interview B.J. Novak as well.
Interview by Maritza Dubravac & Esmée de Heer
Text by Maritza Dubravac.