BJ Novak: from The Office to the classroom
The actor is aware of scepticism around celebrity children’s authors but he has taken an innovative approach to the task
BJ Novak with his children’s book The Book with No Pictures. Photograph: David Becker/Getty Images
Steve Martin has done it. So has Madonna. Even John Lithgow and Whoopi Goldberg have had a go. Famous folk have frequently found a sideline in children’s books, and as much as BJ Novak is having fun with The Book with No Pictures, he recognises the eye-roll aspect of his new career. “It’s even worse than being a kids’ book author; I’m a celebrity kids’ book author. It inspires more scepticism than anything else on the planet,” he says.
In 2003, Novak found himself working with Ashton Kutcher on MTV’s Punk’d. He began writing comedy and worked the Los Angeles stand-up circuit. In 2005, he was asked to join a US remake of a popular British comedy. With The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant created an outsider mockumentary classic, but some feared that – as with Fawlty Towers and countless other British shows – it wouldn’t cross over to the US.
The series became a huge success, with Novak playing Ryan, an aloof sales guy involved in an on-off relationship with Kelly (played by Mindy Kaling).
Novak was also a writer on the show. “Among the cast and crew of the show, I was known as a writer, so when it ended, it was natural for me to keep writing. I had so many ideas that just didn’t fit for The Office, so I wrote a book of comedic short stories just to get those ideas out. A few months later, I was reading to my best friend’s two-year-old son, and the idea struck me. ‘What’s this child’s dream book?’ And that made me come up with The Book with No Pictures.”
Getting the right tone
This is Novak’s first book for children, and while it’s different from his TV and stand-up past, he thinks there are overlaps. “It’s all about thinking about your audience and working really hard to give them an intelligent and entertaining experience. Whether that’s a TV episode of The Office, or a children’s book, you ask what is the right tone and idea for this audience.
“As with The Office, I tested this book a lot. I read it to kids, and would bring a mock-up of the book and ask a parent to read it to their child so I could see how the book worked. When I did TV or stand-up, I also tested it, and you have to be very brutal on yourself. Everything goes through the same process.”
The Office initially garnered a cult audience stateside, as well as non-US fans of the original series, but it grew to be more mainstream, with Steve Carell playing the hapless boss. For The Book with No Pictures, Novak has been touring schools and discovered that kids are a different kind of audience: more direct, less inhibited and with no critical fence-sitting: you’re funny or you’re not.
“They’re hilarious. They ask how much money I make, and I could say $10 and they’d still be impressed. Often I ask if they have any questions and invite them up to the microphone, which draws them like moths to a flame. Once they get there, they rarely have a question, just something they want to say. Recently, this boy goes up to the mic and says: ‘I had a dream about you and my mom.’ Others come up just to say stuff like: ‘I like garbage trucks.’ ”
Novak’s book has a simple premise: a child gets an adult to sit down with them to read it, with the instruction: “Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. No matter what.”
The book, which has (spoiler alert) no pictures, consists of words such as “BLORK” and a hippo pal called Boo Boo Butt. There are no fuzzy patches or lift-the-flap cliches; the emphasis is on words and language.
“The only kids’ books I don’t like are the ones that feel like advertisements. You want a book to feel like it’s on the kids’ side. I have no need to teach a child about Martin Luther King or the importance of recycling, but looking back at this book, the values in it are positive. It’s about the power of the written word, and the fun that comes from words alone.”
Subversive, therefore appealing
Novak was a big reader as a child and liked “sports wish-fulfilment stories” and Roald Dahl. The latter, along with the likes of Shel Silverstein, were subversive and therefore appealing. Those early mischievous books were the building blocks of his relationship with reading, which is something that Novak says is crucial when you leave childhood behind.
“I love the idea that a book can break the rules. When you’re a teenager and your inner sense of rebellion awakens, you can either look at books as your ally or as the authority. You’re in good shape if you look at literature as the safe place for a rebel. There’s nothing better than a teenager reading the kind of books that always get stolen, like Kerouac, Bukowski and all the counterculture people. If you’re lucky, that starts in early childhood, when you identify that books are something for you and not for your parents.”
The Book with No Pictures was Novak’s second book of last year. Earlier, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories was published, and proved to be a way of funnelling his ideas into a comic collection of stories of various lengths and themes.
“I had all the ideas that I had had over nearly a decade, because I couldn’t use the majority of them in a show about a small paper company in Pennsylvania. I catalogued them in a notebook to see what I would write first, and assumed it would be another TV show, or a movie. I spent more than a year on it, and became obsessed with how they could live in the world as stories.”
Many writers read aloud, pacing the room, performing accents. Novak took a different approach to refining his stories. Having worked in stand-up, he knew it was a form where you get instant, honest feedback. So he hired a 100-seat theatre in Los Angeles and put the short stories to the test.
“I brought the unfinished stories printed out on pages, and a pen. I told the audience, ‘For the next hour, I’m going to read stories and edit them in front of you’, and each monthly show became my deadline.
“If you read a 15-page story aloud and if you have a problem on page three, you can’t bail. It was very high-wire stuff creatively.”