LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS Editor-in-Chief Tom Lutz recently chatted with B.J. Novak about storytelling and his forthcoming children’s book The Book with No Pictures, out in September (Penguin). Novak published his first book, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, in February (Knopf). He is best known for his work on the Emmy Award–winning television show The Office for which he was a writer, actor, and producer.
TOM LUTZ: So, do you go by B.J.? Do your friends call you B.J.?
B.J. NOVAK: Yes, or Ben; B.J. in print.
And print is where we’ll start: you just published your second book this year, a children’s book. It is called The Book with No Pictures, and one thing I noticed: it has no pictures.
Aha! Yeah, that should be apparent pretty quickly. It has no pictures.
Interesting choice not to even have a picture of the author.
Yes, the publisher asked me — standard practice — for a photo, but I thought, no. I wanted the book to be within a child’s framework, and children take rules very, very seriously, and they have a lot of fun with them if they’re presented the right way. A major theme of this book is that there are rules to letters and certain combinations of letters. That’s how you form a word, that’s how you make a sentence, and that’s how you make a grown-up say a very silly thing. I was that type of kid, who likes rules very much and is very upset if things violate the rules that have been promised — there was even a debate about whether we could use the tiny penguin that appears on the spine of the book —
The book is published by Dial, which is a Penguin imprint.
Yes, and I ultimately decided that the cover is not part of the book in the same way, and that it was okay.
Besides, the book is about rules, but it’s about rules that make people break other rules, right? Like the rule that adults should be serious, that books should be serious — and it kind of breaks the "no pictures" rule slightly, too, in that there is a lot of graphic information, a lot of typefaces, many different sizes and shapes and fonts, and many colors, and they are full of information.
I felt there needed to be a lot to look at, and I wanted it to feel very much like the pictures were missing, that it was a mischievous choice of the book, which is why the book is the same large size as other picture books, and the paper is a very glossy white — it really feels like this is a book that would ordinarily have pictures, and so why doesn’t it? And on the other side of the equation, kids are looking at this, needing to fix there eyes somewhere, so I actually spent as much time tweaking every little layout design choice as I did the writing the book — what font, what size, what spacing, and what colors, because you wanted something that felt very blank and yet gave a young child something to look at.
Yes, and it seemed to me that a slightly older child could get a sense of what reading is, too, because the layout translates to emphasis, loudness, silliness — all signaled with fonts — and then a return to seriousness, or faux seriousness.
Yes, reading, and especially what reading means — for me that means understanding that reading is something very rebellious and independent and empowering. I was very lucky to grow up seeing it that way, as a kid, discovering Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl, and then as a teenager, reading a lot of countercultural literature — reading was always a way to be older, and smarter, and cooler, and funnier, and I wanted that spirit in the book, too. For a young kid who doesn’t know if books are boring, or interesting, or a chore, or homework, to frame it right away as something that is always on their side. That reading is a fun, rebellious tool that they will always have. They can interpret this code and use it to their own advantage.
Did you do any research into children’s reading, into how children’s books work?
I did a lot of research in terms of testing the book out on kids. I have read a lot of books to kids in recent years, kids of friends, and cousins, and at family events, and there’s a certain kind of book I gravitate towards — I always try to find the funniest book.
Yeah — and I also realized there is something very funny in the power dynamic between me and a little kid who hands me a book. It always makes me think of being handed a script by a producer — this is a two-year-old handing you something, and saying, here, these are your lines, this is what you’re going to perform for my amusement, stick to the script! There is something very funny in the situation: I’m the grown up, supposedly in charge, but I’m just an actor for hire as far as this kid’s concerned, and this kid has the script, the book, on his side. That’s where I got the idea that it would be fun to have a book that actually plays with that, that plays with the fact that any kid who hands this book to an adult is entitled to hear every word on the page, no matter how silly it is.
And there are kids — maybe even most kids — who won’t let you ad lib. They know if you skip a page, or even a line.
Yeah, and I like that this book is explicit about that.
Your other book breaks some rules, too. In One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories — well first, before I go there, I wanted to ask you how you came to write this collection, but it turns out the book trailer you made kind of answers that. It opens in a Parisian café, and Mindy Kaling has written a book — Les pensees de Mindy Kaling, translated in the subtitles as Is It Existentially Possible that the World Hangs Out In My Absence? — and she says, in French, to her snooty French-intellectual friends, as you stare in from the street, like a poor orphan, "It’s so chic to be an author — to be known as an author is to be truly known." You are obviously playing with the nature of fame in these two very different worlds.
Yeah, I do feel that way; I wrote the trailer to be funny, more than anything else, but it is my point of view on this. My character in the book trailer is at first besieged with requests for selfies from people who recognize him from a TV show, and what he longs for is to be understood for his true self, which Mindy, in the trailer, has been able to accomplish. And that happily is what I felt, having written this book, that my sense of humor, my personality, my point of view were very similar to The Office, but not the same — probably for anyone who works on a TV show in this way, it’s an uncanny feeling, to be more or less understood by many people, but not exactly understood by anyone. Of course we’re lucky to be more or less understood at all, but it does make you want to do something more personal, and I think that’s why you see so many actors and writers putting so much into tiny passion projects — you’re more or less understood by many, but you really want to be completely understood by a few.
Still, the trailer, at the same time, shows you immediately becoming very pretentious once you publish your book, which is very funny — and Kaling is very pretentious too, in her role as an author — which brings up a couple of questions, including: What exactly is the self-doubt that engenders that kind of self-deprecating humor?
I really see my role as an entertainer, which is why I never stray too far from comedy in anything I do, or get too deep in an experimental direction. Being an entertainer, not an artist, is what I’ve always wanted to do. I want to make things that everybody is happy about. I want to do it on the best possible level. I want quality, but I want to make art that everybody can be happy with, and it made me nervous to go in this new direction, because a book of short stories is by nature something that tends to appeal to a lot less people —
To eggheads like me.
Yeah! And that’s who I was, too. I was a literature major, and I’m a big reader, but I know that collections of stories tend toward an artistic end, rather than a populist end. It was something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I felt a little shy — to take a year and tell people I was writing a book of short stories, because it did seem like the kind of thing you do when you think you are oh so brilliant, as opposed to wanting to crack people’s shit up. It’s what I really wanted to do, but I did feel shy about it, and that comes out in the humor of the trailer.
And yet the book itself is a mixture of levels — that old argument about Shakespeare as a populist entertainer —
Yeah, I think about that all the time.
— the idea that Shakespeare was only for refined, educated audiences doesn’t even appear until the late 19th century — the Duke and the King, in Huckleberry Finn, are bumming from town to town doing shows for the people — Shakespeare was the TV of the American 19th century.
I couldn’t agree more — when I was in college I went to the Globe Theater in London, and they have a display in their museum of a journal entry from the year that Macbeth premiered, and the journal writer was debating — “shall I see the new play by Shakespeare, that people say is good, or shall I go to a bear baiting?” Bear baiting! The most grotesque, dumb form of entertainment ever invented! And to this guy they were equally exciting. And I loved that, and remained aware of it.
I remember when I was a teenager in the 1990s, the most popular shows, I read, the ones that made the most money, were The Simpsons and Seinfeld. Have there ever been two better television shows? And everybody thinks there’s this cultural divide, that the quality stuff gets cancelled — I grew up hearing that, too, that only the trash stays on TV — but these were the biggest money-making shows and they were the best. I think more than music, more than film, television is where the highest quality tends to be the most popular.
And does your thinking along these lines have something to do with the mixture of what might be considered high and low in your fiction collection? You have some straight-ahead realist literary fiction, but you also have a series of comic sketches, or bits, like the rematch between the tortoise and the hare, which are almost like extended stand-up bits.
Yeah, I think that especially now, in the internet age, whether that’s cause or effect, a lot of walls are coming down with regard to genre, length, type of entertainment — if you hear Sleep No More is good, you’ll see it; it’s not that you were looking for an experimental immersive theater experience — if you hear House of Cards is good, you’ll watch it even if you hadn’t asked, “is there a cable drama I can watch on my iPad?” People check out what’s good in new ways. So the idea was that I would try all these different ways to express whatever an inspiration was, whether I think something is best as a two-line joke or a 20-page character exploration. I think the book aspired to do what I’ve seen a lot of — which is people breaking down traditional, standard categories, and just following, with as much authenticity as they can, what they think is best.
Speaking of following whatever you think best: I believe it is now officially a trend — the James Franco-ization of Hollywood. You’re a producer, TV writer, actor, stand-up comic, now fiction writer and children’s book author. I assume Franco has by now started a neuroscience PhD program or something — what’s next for you? Are there other arts and sciences that you’re going after?
You know, it’s funny, the three things that you do when your TV show ends and you’re never going to be heard from again? You write a book of short stories, you write a children’s book, and then you build an app. And so that is the third thing I’m working on now, in the I heard he lost his mind vein. I had an idea for an app that keeps track of lists, basically — I’m always making lists — you know, I’m going to Europe on Sunday, can you email your list of things to do in Edinburgh, that list of restaurants in Paris that you mentioned once? I would like a way for people to share those, in a mobile database among friends, so you don’t have to ask again every time. I’ve been building that with a really talented developer over the past year, and getting some good people on board to set the tone for the content, and that should be out by the end of the year. Yeah that’s my James Franco play: App developer.
There was a book of lists that was a bestseller a number of years ago, by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace [The Book of Lists].
I don’t know that one, but there’s a beautiful book of lists called Lists of Note [by Shaun Usher], that has Johnny Cash’s list of things he loves about his wife, and Nora Ephron’s list of pastrami sandwiches, and you see the actual paper they were written on. We’re looking to add a lot of classic lists as well.
We’re working on a piece about Susan Sontag’s digital archive at UCLA [by Jacquelyn Ardam & Jeremy Schmidt], which includes her laptop, and she was an inveterate list maker — you can see dozens of iterations of her list of the 100 best films (which at one point has 167 or so films on it).
I’ll have to put that on my list of things to look at.
And put it on the app. There’s a second book of stories coming, as well?
Yes, what I really want to do is a [TV] series, along the lines of The Twilight Zone, but for my voice, for my style of comedy, and I would like to write the second book at the same time. I don’t know what the television equivalent of cinematic is — telematic? Telegenic? Cinemagenic?
I like telematic …
Yeah, it’s actually been a really good exercise, because every time I remind myself to take characters on traditional arcs, and take plots in traditional twisting directions — those are TV values that help me write fiction well, too.
So the idea is that the stories would be templates for the episodes?
Yes, and I’d like to write them simultaneously, to see how the one form influences the other.
One last question. Your father is a writer.
A ghostwriter — so he writes other people’s stories; he’s writing in the service of someone else’s story, which is akin, somehow, I assume, to being in a TV writers room. Did you pick up things watching him that were helpful for your writing?
Not at the time, but now I notice many lessons that I didn’t absorb back then. One of the important things about being a ghostwriter that I brought into TV writing, without even noticing it, was adopting someone else’s voice. He would write as Magic Johnson, as Lee Iacocca; he would talk to them until he knew how they would say something, and that’s extremely important in television writing — you can’t just have a character say a convenient punch line, you need to have Michael Scott or Dwight Schrute say it, and it needs to be exactly the way they would say it, or they don’t seem human, and it doesn’t feel as funny. So I did learn channeling another voice from my father, certainly.
And you’re working on a couple of screenplays?
Tell me about that — is that a fundamentally different kind of writing?
We shall see! I hope I keep discovering that good writing is good writing — and I hope I don’t discover that bad writing is bad writing — I hope the values that make a TV show work are the same values that make a story work are the same values that make a kid’s book work, and the same for a movie — if you pay enough attention, if you are a perfectionist, making quality work that everyone will be surprised by and enjoy, you’ll do well. I hope those values are universal, but every field, every new thing I’ve tried, when I’m a newcomer to it — you get beat up a bit before you learn your way. So, we’ll see.
Tom Lutz is the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books.