Arts, Culture & Media

After The Office, actor B.J. Novak found his voice in short stories


B.J. Novak, left, and Jason Schwartzman pose at the premiere of "Saving Mr. Banks" during the opening night of AFI Fest in Hollywood, Calif., November 7, 2013.


Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

After college, BJ Novak made the stand-up rounds for four years before landing his dream job: he was recruited for a new television show, the American version of The Office, which launched in 2005.

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Novak stayed for eight seasons — writing, producing, directing and acting as the insufferable know-it-all Ryan. But he left before the show's final season and pursued other interests including writing short fiction, performing small roles in movies and appearing on TV.

Novak says, though, that he thinks of himself as a writer first. His new book, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, is full of short character portraits and familiar parables gone awry. While his peers have opted for memoirs (including his close friend and collaborator Mindy Kaling), Novak says “I thought I could never reveal myself that way, I’m just not a very personal writer.”

The book has been a long time coming. Novak says he's been accumulating stories, informally and not necessarily with an eye on writing a fiction book, for more than 10 years. "I didn't know what to do with ideas that had been rattling around in my head, let alone all the emotional things I'd experience in my life," he adds.

For a long time, those ideas existed perhaps as lines from Jim to Dwight on The Office, or perhaps the first scene of some unproduced TV pilot. But when he was pressed to fill out the book’s 60-plus stories, “I ended up putting in lots of very private emotions and details and observations and fantasies and worries.” It’s more revealing, he thinks, than a work of nonfiction.

“If I had written a memoir,” he says, “I would have been consumed with hiding how I really felt in the service of seeming witty and cool.”

To workshop the stories, Novak performed them at comedy clubs, making changes based on the crowd reaction. “Often I would do my best editing the hour before I went on stage when I realized ‘I can’t read this, this isn’t ready,’” he admits. “Or conversely, ‘this is so great, how can I milk this?’ Channeling that performer ego into being entertaining was the best editorial process I had.”

Novak says some people came to many of the shows he did over the course of a year and commented on how the stories had changed from when he first read them to when he next put them on stage.

"To me, performing those stories was a process of making sure that I wasn't going to be embarrassed and wasting anyone's time. If I'm standing there alone, in the middle of a boring story, I feel awful," he adds.

You can find this interview with B.J. Novak and other stories and conversation about creativity, pop culture and the arts at PRI's Studio 360.