Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 interview: BJ Novak of the US Office on debut short story collection One More Thing
'There’s a story in my book called “Regret is Just Perfectionism Plus Time". That’s how I feel'
This article is from 2014.
As if being in a hit US comedy and a few Hollywood films wasn’t enough, BJ Novak’s now got an acclaimed book of short stories under his belt too. As the comedian prepares for his debut Fringe show, he tells Yasmin Sulaiman why he’s always searching for one more thing
If you’ve ever watched the US series of The Office, BJ Novak’s face will be instantly recognisable as obnoxious temp Ryan Howard. A producer, writer and actor on the show (he landed the gig aged just 25, after producer Greg Daniels saw him at a comedy club), he’s since had recognisable roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and in recent PL Travers biopic Saving Mr Banks. So it’s been a bit of a surprise to everyone – himself included – that he’s come out with a collection of short stories, which he’ll be reading in his debut Edinburgh comedy show this month.
‘The ideas for many of the stories came to me while I was on [The Office],’ he tells us, on the phone from Los Angeles. ‘I kept all these notebooks, literally boxes of them, for the eight years I was on the show. But the one thing it had never occurred to me to write was a book of stories, or any stories at all. It just never occurred to me. So when The Office was finished, I looked through all of the ideas and thought maybe they were movie ideas or stand-up comedy ideas, and I surprised myself with the idea to write a book of stories.’
The result is One More Thing, a collection of 60 brilliant surreal stories, full of unexpected twists and turns. In some of its stand-out offerings, we get a sneak peek into the diary of the man who invented the calendar; a girl goes on a date with a war lord; a man dies and goes to heaven, where all the world’s greatest musicians are playing gigs every night; a sentient sex robot falls in love with her owner. It’s an enticing mix of quirky fantasy and blistering realism – Novak’s depiction of a stand-up performing his best and most well-known routine is spot on – but they’re personal too.
‘Someone said to me, “I’m shocked at how personal your stories are”,’ he admits. ‘And I thought he was kidding because the stories seem so abstract. But I think actually my true self is written all over them in a very obvious way. That’s one thing I’ve been incorporating into live readings now, talking about where they come from and the play between fiction and fact.’
Novak honed the stories through live readings at New York and LA’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and, even though they’ve been published, he’s still bringing a pen on stage with him now. But his debut Fringe show will contain some surprises: ‘I would like to take some risks in the Edinburgh show, because I think that’s the place to do it. I will read a number of stories that have already been published. My commentary on them and what I bring from my real life will be new, and I’ll also debut a number of stories that I have never read before and maybe was too scared to read previously.’
While he’s enjoyed being a literary sensation this year – the book debuted at number four on the New York Times bestseller list in February – he says, ‘I really don’t want to give up being an entertainer, I think that’s really who I am first and foremost.’ But, like the title of his book, Novak is also always searching for ‘one more thing’.
‘In many or most of the stories in the book,’ he explains, ‘there is someone who is convinced that if they only had one more thing, everything would be perfect. And that is always the case for me. Whether I’m far away or close to what I’ve always dreamed of, I feel that it’s just the one thing right in front of me that would solve everything. I’m sure when I’m in Edinburgh it’ll be, “if only this debut show goes well my life will be complete”. I’ll have done it: come overseas to the biggest comedy festival in the world and done a magical show. And if I do that, the first night I’ll think “if only I do two in a row, then everyone will know it’s not a fluke”. It always continues like that. There’s a story in my book called “Regret is Just Perfectionism Plus Time”. That’s certainly how I feel.’
And although this is Novak’s first time in Edinburgh, he already seems to understand the festival’s haphazard charm. ‘Every time I ask what I should see in Edinburgh, people just get this baffled look on their faces,’ he laughs. ‘People love telling me how much bad stuff there is – I think that’s part of the fun. You have to really sift through; you never know whether something is going to be the worst thing you’ve ever seen or the best. People really seem to love that part of it: the whispers of “this isn’t as good as they say” or “here’s what you can’t miss, drop everything”. The whispers in the pubs at night – that’s what I look forward to most.’
BJ Novak: One More Thing, Assembly George Square, 623 3030, 19–24 Aug, 9.10pm, £16. One More Thing is out now from Little, Brown.