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B.J. Novak gets into the family business with 'One More Thing'

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B.J. Novak wrote for and costarred in NBC's hit series "The Office" for eight seasons, a quiet member of a hilariously brash ensemble, playing the smug Ryan Howard. So when he unleashed his literary debut, "One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories" (Alfred A. Knopf: 276 pp., $24.95), as part of a two-book, seven-figure deal with the literary stalwart publisher, there was no reason to think that Novak wasn't just another actor with writerly delusions.

In fact, he was succumbing to his fate.

Sitting at the Bowery Hotel on the slush-stormy morning after his book party, Novak says that growing up, "I wanted to be a baseball player, or a real estate mogul, or an actor. I wanted to do something that felt big to me."

The literary world seemed anything but grand to the young Novak, who had an unusual close-up view of the book business. His father, William Novak, was the co-editor of "The Big Book of Jewish Humor" and a hugely successful ghostwriter who built his career on being fame-adjacent and invisible.

Novak senior penned the autobiographies of Magic Johnson, Oliver North and Nancy Reagan. He also wrote "one of the most popular nonfiction books of all time," as The Times noted in 1992, referring to the bestselling "Iacocca," which sold 2.7 million copies (and, as is often the case, earned the writer a flat fee with no royalties) — while being "unknown to most Americans." But having the proximity to greatness and wit may not have appealed to Novak junior as much as being the creator of greatness and wit.

So B.J. — who grew up in Newton, Mass., and majored in English and Spanish literature at Harvard — decided to pursue a comedy career, making his debut at Hollywood Youth Hostel on Oct. 10, 2001. He acknowledges, though, that he wouldn't have gotten into comedy if he hadn't capitulated to his destiny.

"I found that my biggest talent was writing, not these other things that I would have rather done. I fell in love with what I could do with it," he says. "And as soon as I started getting into writing, I got into comedy. I didn't know any other way to be interesting. To me, funny and interesting are pretty related because for me the goal was always to make someone laugh."

And he really was good at it: In 2003, Variety named him among its "Ten Comedians to Watch." That same year, when Novak was 24, veteran "Saturday Night Live" writer Greg Daniels saw him perform at the Improv in Hollywood , and asked to meet with him after the first joke. The next thing the young comic knew, he was cast as an actor and staff writer for the U.S. adaptation of "The Office." (He already had some TV experience, having cut his teeth on staff at the short-lived Bob Saget sitcom "Raising Dad.")

"Greg had this idea to try some writer-actors the way he'd worked at 'SNL,' where everything worked like a cohesive troupe," Novak says. Mindy Kaling and Paul Lieberstein, who played Kelly Kapoor and Toby Flenderson, respectively, also served double-duty.

While working on "The Office," he started keeping notes on the short stories that would constitute "One More Thing." He says, though, that those notes — "literally two shoe boxes full of pocket notes, which were eventually compiled into a 43-page, single-spaced Word document" — weren't intended to be part of a literary project. He imagined these were for a screenplay, maybe two. But once he took stock, he realized "it was just like 900 opening shots."

After some soul-searching, he took on a challenge he'd long avoided: crafting the narratives into pithy, funny, often-poignant stories. Many are philosophical, some gimmicky (a handful are punctuated with discussion questions) and often feature protagonists facing off against pompous, self-absorbed characters: a woman on an awkward date with a warlord; a dejected hare maniacally training for a rematch against the champion tortoise; a dead grandmother reveling in her posthumous, heavenly existence, blowing off her newly deceased grandson.

Novak's decision to publish fiction distinguishes him from fellow comics Tina Fey and close friend and "Office" colleague Mindy Kaling, both of whom have published bestselling essay collections. But in writing humorous stories, he's also distanced himself from actors like Ethan Hawke and James Franco, whose literary ambitions appear to be far more earnest.

Although his tone is light, Novak — who will be reading from the book at a sold-out Vroman's event at the New Beverly Cinema Friday at 7 p.m. — is more of a littérateur than he lets on. In fact, he labored over rewrites and tested the stories before an audience; an avid reader, he's a huge fan of writers such as George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart, whom he was excited to meet two weeks ago at a PEN benefit.

But, he says self-deprecatingly, "I'll never be George Saunders." In fact, his joke tag line for the book, he says, is: "Imagine if George Saunders wasn't a genius. That's what these stories are."

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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