Out of 'The Office' Into...Everything | EW.com


Out of 'The Office' Into...Everything

The actor-writer-director-producer B.J. Novak is now branching out with a smart, quirky short-story collection, ''One More Thing''

“Let’s see exactly where I would go.” B.J. Novak is running a finger along the shelves at the Last Bookstore as he attempts to locate the future home of his first book. “Colum McCann…Cormac McCarthy…Jay McInerney…lots of Irish writers, I guess…Steve Martin…Murakami…wow, I’m in a good section…Joyce Carol Oates — we’ve gone too far! If you hit Joyce Carol Oates, you’ve gone too far.”

The eclectic indie store is Novak’s favorite place to browse for books in L.A., and one of the places he staged a reading while his own short stories were still in the teething stage. “This isn’t the best bookstore to find what you’re looking for,” he notes. “But what’s looking for you, you find at the Last Bookstore…. This is the glamour of the accidental discovery.”

He may soon be one himself. Best known as the writer-producer for The Office who played slippery temp-turned-salesman Ryan (and who previously served as Ashton Kutcher’s prankster-in-crime on Punk’d), the 34-year-old multihyphenate transformed years of his jotted-down ideas for Hollywood projects into One More Thing, an impressive collection of short stories that reverberates with off-kilter imagination, pop cult whimsy, and stealthy intimacy. An enthusiastic New York Times review made inevitable comparisons to the aforementioned Martin and a couple of guys in the S’s (Sedaris, Saunders), but these tales are decidedly Novakian. “A good friend read my book and she said, ‘I love your book more than you,’” he says. “That was the highest compliment that I could get, that this book is warmer than me. It’s a side that I’ve had trouble showing. I certainly couldn’t show it as my character on The Office very much. This is the first thing I’ve ever done that is really, really me. It’s so me that I don’t think I could live up to it.”

One More Thing is vast in scope and voice, whether chronicling a woman’s overly detailed “Missed Connections” ad on Craigslist or To Catch a Predator host Chris Hansen’s dilemma about attending a Justin Bieber concert with his daughter. What themes did Novak set out to explore? None. Which ones seeped in subconsciously? “Fate. The limit and limitlessness of greatness. Transcendence. The mundane,” he rattles off. (He shifts from quipster to scholar mode at will.) “When I was a kid, I was always wanting to be the greatest at whatever I was doing, and thinking there was some ultimate level to get to — the man behind the curtain running all American culture. If I could only get to the other side, I’d see it all.”

Novak’s father edited The Big Book of Jewish Humor and ghostwrote autobiographies for Nancy Reagan and Magic Johnson. He himself won a national writing contest in elementary school with an essay about why he loved to read. But growing up in Newton, Mass., he never dreamed of a literary career. “I was like, Who wants to do the boring old thing their dad does? I want to be famous! I want to be on the cover of Time!” he says. “My dad teased me when I asked if any kid had ever won the Nobel Prize.” Alas, his fourth-grade blueprints for a time machine and teleportation device didn’t pan out (“The science seemed to make sense”), and he went on to major in literature at Harvard. His postcollege stand-up act led to the jobs on Punk’d and The Office. Multitasking for eight seasons on NBC’s mockuseries was “the best education ever created,” he says, reeling off the daunting challenges the show faced: “It had to be funny enough to be America’s favorite comedy, it had to be realistic enough to pass as real life, and you had to tell love stories. It would take a lifetime to learn all the lessons we learned on this one show.”