Storytelling With BJ Novak

BJ Novak at 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party
Dia Dipasupil / Staff / Getty Images

BJ Novak’s character arc as Ryan Howard on The Office, from 9 to 5-er to hopeless poet, could be considered foreshadowing for where he was looking to head professionally after of the show. Novak, who has appeared in blockbusters like Saving Mr. Banks and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 most recently he has been touring with his bestselling book, One More Thing, a collection of short stories that, he says, are meant to be told out loud. This is what he has been doing in bookstores across the country since February. His performance is subtle: the tiniest change in voice for a new character, the most modest of hand gestures, a strategically timed pause, but the audience hangs on every word and it’s clear that BJ’s got a gift. Before his set at Wild West Comedy Festival we asked Novak about his secret to storytelling, his mostly-professional relationship with frequent collaborator Mindy Kaling and his dream retirement plan.

You seem to be on a real tear with this writing, are you leaving TV and film behind?
I found that I’ve honestly had to limit it myself because I could easily see myself becoming just a recluse writing books at a farm in Tennessee but I do love film and television as well, so it’s been about finding a balance these days.

When is your ideal time to write?
I set aside all day. I find myself wasting most of the day just to get to that point where there is actual work happening. It’s a combination of shame and caffeine that kicks in around 4 to 5PM but when it starts I really enjoy it.

Is there a particular message you find yourself repeating in your stories?
From the beginning what fascinated me most about what inspired me was the collective range of different kinds of ideas that I wanted to tell. New angles keep coming to me. Just today I had this thought about the kinds of stories that you hear in church. I’m not sure where it came from but I just picture this preacher standing up there in front of his flock and he believes every word that he says. Sometimes they are just jokes that are too dirty for my stand up act, but I can see them working as the basis of a story. They are consistently inconsistent.

It seems pretty clear that some of the stories are taken from your own life. Have you been contacted by anybody from your past who are connecting the stories to themselves?
I wish. There is one story in particular that is called “One of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie.” That story was taken straight out of my life and clearly it’s about someone close to me so I did ask permission to tell that tale. Other than that no. There is one person in particular who truly crushed me a couple of years ago. I hoped that this person would reach out but so far there’s been nothing. I have no idea what happened to her. She’s been good use as a ghost though.

When do you know a story is worth telling?
The ideas I feel the need to write are the ones that won’t leave me alone because I either think they are so very clever or I can’t stop obsessing over them. I feel like if it’s not coming from a place of obsession you should probably look harder.

Do you find it better to write when you’re in a relationship? Or just out of one?
I’m a better writer when I’m happy but I’ve just turned the corner from miserable. When I have this reservoir of pain built up but finally I’m in the right mood to express it. You know when you’ve had the flu for a week but you can tell the worst is over and you’re able to start eating soup again? You’re so happy, like Spring after a long Winter. That’s when it’s best for me to write.

You’re friends with Katy Perry, do you plan on working with her soon?
She was nice enough to lend her voice to my audiobook for One More Thing, she reads The Girl Who Gave Great Advice. I also want her to do one of the stories in my children’s book.

Speaking of women that you work with, it seems like the world would very much like you and Mindy Kaling to be together at all times.
Mindy and I are constantly looking for ways to collaborate with each other. We both want to be like Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, the only problem is we both think we’re Woody Allen. That’s fine though. I think we’ll continue to be people who are best working together but also do other things.

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