A Phone Call With B.J. Novak (!)

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Im so excited to tell you that this week, I was lucky enough to chat with this bearded fellow! Heres how our conversation went down…

Like most people, Ive been a huge fan of B.J. Novak since his days playing Ryan on The Office. And I vaguely assumed he was probably similar to Ryan, since all actors are just like the characters they play, right? So although I knew his new book of short stories, One More Thing, would be hilarious, I didnt expect it to be so poignant and literary. He seems to understand and even love people around him in a very insightful way. I was curious to learn more about him and was thrilled to be able to arrange a phone interview.

So, heres what we talked about on Wednesday morning…

I have to say, Ive seen you around New York, and youre so nice when people approach you.
It feels surreal. I hope I never get fully used to it. Its so special and odd when people know your name. Its like you go to high school with everyone in the country. Hey, theres that guy who did that thing…

Can you tell when people recognize you?
I can absolutely tell. I wish I were there in person with you because I could show you the eye movement when it happens. Its a different focal distance in their eyes after they look away from me. You know, you look at every stranger that walks by, but after you look away, if youre thinking about the person you just saw, youre focusing on a much shorter frame of distance, whereas if you dont know that person, you look off into the far distance.

Does the book feel personal to you?
Yeah! Unbelievably personal. And personal was the last thing I ever thought this book would be. I assumed it would be opposite of a memoirpure entertainment, nothing about myself, nothing about anyone I knew. But because there were no rules to writing this booknot the length of a story, or how funny a story should beeverything was my own style and taste, every detail of the story was my own emotional life, my own philosophy. I feel extremely well known by anyone who has read the book.

While writing the book, did you picture a reader?
When I was working on the book, I read parts out loud to audiences at Upright Citizens Brigade in L.A., so I pictured those audiences. And sometimes Id read it to friends that came overdifferent stories for different friendsso I pictured reading it to them, too. I always pictured it being read out loud.

I was struck by how real the dialogue felt. Where did you learn that? While writing for The Office?
My dad is a ghost writer, so he writes books in other peoples voicesexactly as Magic Johnson or Tim Russert or Lee Iacocca would write it. So I subtly picked that up from himhow to write like someone else would write, how to speak like someone else would speak. So, while writing for The Office, I could figure out the exact difference between how Dwight would say something crazy and Creed would say something crazy. People often ask how much of The Office is improvised. The answer is about 10%less than people would think. We wrote it so that it would sound improvised. We wrote in ums and pauses to make the dialogue feel natural.

Im claustrophobic and hate elevators. Do you have any irrational fears?
Roller coasters. I wont go on them. Ill go on babyish ones at Disneyland. But any ride I get on where Im out of control, Im scared theyre going to trick me and theres going to be a drop. My friends wanted to go on the Cars ride at Disneyland. They kept saying, Theres no drop, theres no drop, so to outsmart them, I said, Hey, should I bring my camera, or is someone going to take our picture on the ride? And they said wed get our photo taken. And I was like, I knew it!!! When you take a picture, its at the drop!!!! Im actually sketching out a movie right now that involves a horror theme park.

Whats your favorite place in the world?
I like a beach that is more than a mile or two long. Thats the other thing Im angrily trying to bust people on: Whenever Im going to a hotel advertised on a beach, I say, is it on a long beach or a cove? They say its a long beach, but its always a rocky cove. I dont give a shit about a rocky cove! I want the long walk on the beach. As romantic as it sounds, I always want to do it alone. The end of Shawshank Redemption, thats my perfect place in the world. Thats where I came up with my book. I went on a vacation right after The Office ended to Tulum, Mexico. They have a very long beach there. I went on a walk, and by the time I came back, I was like, Im going to write a book, heres what its going to be called, and Im going to read it out loud.

What are some books you really love? Your top five?
I just started Birds of America, which is blowing me away. I cant believe I havent read Lorrie Moore before. For comedy writing, I really love Simon Rich. My #1 top book of all time is Lolita. Sabbaths Theater by Philip Roth. I loved Gone Girl. I thought it was incredible that a book that was so much of a pulpy heart-pounding thriller had so many intimate sophisticated observations about human nature. I kind of tease John Grisham in my book, but The Firm was one of my favorite books, one of the most exciting books Ive ever read.

Whats something about you that might surprise people? Actually, while reading your book, I was surprised by how nice you seemed. Not that I didnt think you were nice, but…
Well, in The Office, I played this character who was a subtly recognizable kind of jerk. Secondarily, I have a face that in resting position looks angry. These two things combined have made people think Im cold or unhappy or unfriendly. I certainly have those sides but usually Im just thinking about things, often in a contemplative, insecure or even daydreamy way. The book is whats actually been going on in my head while I look like Im meanly staring straight ahead.

Do you identify more as a writer or an actor?
A writer, completely. My fathers a writer, and writing is always what I did in school. Thats what I put on my customs form. But I do really enjoy doing the live readings of my stories. I aspire to be like David Sedaris, and when Im on stage, embodying the stories, doing gestures and voices, I think, Oh, youre really something of an actor, arent you, buddy?

Whats your guilty pleasure?
I love being on my phone. People think its the sin of our time to be on your phone too much. But I think on my deathbed, I will wish I spent more time on my phone.

Thank you so much, B.J.! It was such a pleasure to talk.

P.S. An interview with an animal photographer and the costume designer of Girls.



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