Writers learn their craft in any number of ways — from books they read, classes they take, the editors with whom they work. B.J. Novak says his best lesson came from comedian Steve Carell.
As a young writer, actor and co-producer on the NBC series The Office — he played the self-involved Ryan Howard — Novak had done standup comedy and tended to think in terms of jokes. Carell, the former Daily Show correspondent who starred as excruciatingly clueless boss Michael Scott, had a different approach.
“The idea, which came from Steve Carell’s background in improv and from show runner Greg Daniels, is that everything should proceed from honesty,” says Novak, who worked on the mockumentary-style series for its eight-season run. “If you do that, comedy and drama can be indistinguishable. If you are true to all these characters, they will naturally reveal themselves to be funny. You didn’t have to worry about chasing the joke.
“That was very scary.... I’d be like, ‘Where are the jokes? We gotta kill!’ This one time I brought jokes to Steve Carell, and he said, ‘These feel like jokes to me.’ I said, ‘It’s my job! I wrote you great jokes for this sitcom you’re the star of! Did you not get the memo?!’ But he was right. You have to find honesty first.”
Novak, 34, puts this theory to good use in One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories (Knopf, $24.95), from which he’ll read Saturday at Coral Gables Congregational Church. Eschewing the usual humorous celebrity memoir or essays of the sort penned by Tina Fey or Novak’s BFF and Office cohort Mindy Kaling (who “gets her own line in the acknowledgments, as previously negotiated by her representatives”), Novak writes fiction — short, clever, funny fiction. He’s not your usual short story writer — how many of them have actually co-starred in a Quentin Tarantino movie? — but the results display that honesty Carell was talking about, as well as quite a bit of heart.
Some of the stories are mere tidbits. The Walk to School on the Day After Labor Day simply reads: “I was sad that summer was over. But I was happy that it was over for my enemies, too.” Kindness Among Cakes consists of a short but pointed conversation: “CHILD: Why does carrot cake have the best icing? MOTHER: Because it needs the best icing.”
Other stories run at a more traditional length, such as Sophia, about a guy who buys a sex robot, then returns her when she confesses she’s in love with him. The story, like all the others, grew from an idea Novak jotted down in a pocket notebook: “First artificial intelligence to fall in love falls for a guy who doesn’t want commitment.” He considered writing a short film about the premise, but when the idea of a book arose, his Office training kicked in.
“These are bizarre characters, but I was really interested in this guy and this creation that could feel love,” Novak says. “We’ve all been through heartbreak and emotional confusion about the issue of love. Before I knew it I had put in so many of my most private fears and theories about love for both of these characters. I never would’ve had the courage to do that in a memoir.”
Timothy O’Connell, Novak’s editor at Knopf, calls him a natural storyteller.
“That shows both in his readings and on the page,” O’Connell says. “He has so many ideas, and the way he spins these ideas out — it was just a lot of fun to work with him. He’s rare. The spectrum he can cover is something you just don’t work with every day as an editor.”
So, yes. Though he played one of Brad Pitt’s Nazi killers in Inglourious Basterds, and though his favorite Office character to write for was Michael Scott — “He had this huge heart and this brain that couldn’t quite keep up” — Novak comes by his love of literature honestly. After all, who but a lit lover writes a story, complete with footnotes, about a struggling poet who chases glory translating the classics? He graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English and Spanish literature. His father, William Novak, who co-edited The Big Book of Jewish Humor, ghostwrote autobiographies of Magic Johnson, Oliver North, Nancy Reagan and Lee Iacocca.
Yet Novak was still nervous about venturing into literary waters.
“I was intimidated,” admits Novak, who’s a fan of Philip Roth, Terry Southern, Simon Rich, David Foster Wallace and George Saunders (though he fears that he brings up Saunders’ name too much when asked whose work he admires — “George Saunders is thinking, ‘This guy is talking about me again?’ ”).
“I respect fiction. I’m a serious reader. I was a serious student of fiction and didn’t think I had any business mucking around in it. But as I found my own voice in writing TV year after year and in doing standup, I realized my writing voice was what I should pay attention to, not what I thought of as fiction. Nothing I could do would damage the fiction that was already out there.”
Standup comedy is not the usual path to publishing short stories, but it turns out to have been solid training for Novak, who says he has read most of his stories at least 20 times on stage over the course of the editorial process. He likens his method to that of David Sedaris, who also hones and edits his stories by performing them in front of an audience.
“I exhausted my editors,” Novak says. “I’d send a dozen changes to each story. I was on stage with a pen. They would keep trying to trick me into thinking the book was locked. ... I’m an obsessive self-editor. And I’d say: ‘This is coming from the readers! They’re our boss!’ ”
O’Connell confirms that Novak is “kind of a perfectionist” about editing.
“We kept telling him he had to put the pen down and just read the stories,” he says, laughing. “He was editing until the final pass. Everything was considered. Even in the shortest of stories, we were like, ‘Should this one go in the book?’ ‘Does this word work?’ He pushes the people around him, and maybe that comes from being in the writer’s room on The Office. This was a team effort.... Everyone chimed in. It was a unique experience for me as an editor. You always have a team working on a book, but this was different. B.J. really wanted feedback and opinions.”
Novak, whose children’s book The Book With No Pictures comes out in September, looks forward to his public readings, even if he can’t make changes anymore.
“There used to be much more of a tradition of this,” he says. “Mark Twain was really a standup comic. He was a persona. He would go from city to city telling stories. Charles Dickens, too, performed stories on stage. Both of them have writing that reads as popular entertainment, and they had this tradition of performing live. I’m sure it did shape them. They had a real consciousness of how it sounded. My main point here is I am just like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. There’s your headline: ‘Delusional TV writer thinks he’s Mark Twain.’ ”