Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on ‘The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories’


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Joseph Gordon-Levitt is best known for bringing life to large stories on the big screen in films such as “(500) Days of Summer,” “Inception,” and, most recently, “50/50.” But the actor has his eyes set on something smaller -- tiny, actually.

Gordon-Levitt is entering the mainstream publishing world via his online production company HitRECord. The site is collaborating with HarperCollins’ imprint It Books on “The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories.”


It Books will publish a three-book series, with the first volume scheduled for release Dec. 6. Each volume is a collection of brief stories and illustrations submitted by users of the site, with collaboration at the forefront -- users are encouraged to build upon each other’s work, in what Gordon-Levitt refers to as “remixing.” Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord published the initial Tiny Book independently in 2010, culling 45 stories from more than 2,000 submissions.

This new volume -- tiny in size, just 4 inches by 6 inches -- features 60 contributions from even more submissions, more than 8,000. Yvonne Villarreal spoke with the actor about his forays into the publishing world.

Jacket Copy: This is an interesting endeavor -- are you considered the author of it all? Your name is on the cover? And did you ever think ‘author’ would be one of your titles?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Uh, you know, I was a cocky kid so, yeah, I thought ‘author’ would someday be a possibility. But it’s interesting. We went back and forth a lot of what exactly to call me. This book was created in quite an unconventional way. I wouldn’t exactly call myself the author of it. I tend to call myself the director -- we didn’t put “directed by” on the cover of the book because it’s not the normal thing to put on a book, we thought it would confuse people.

But, really, there are dozens of authors attached to this. This book is the result of a collaboration that 8,000-some people contributed to. I was definitely directing it. I edited lots of the stories and I curated them -- with the help of many others -- into this book. But it certainly wasn’t just me writing and illustrating. Maybe another time, Yvonne. Maybe another time.

JC: Give us some perspective on the project. What was the idea behind it all? And what are you hoping people take away from it?

JG-L: Part of it is, if I were to sit down and try to illustrate a book, this isn’t what I would necessarily do. And I don’t think I could have ever come up with all of this stuff. That’s part of what I love so much about HitRECord -- it demonstrates what can happen when we work together, if people are willing to forgo their prideful ownership of things and just work together and share ideas. It seems that, in our culture, we’re sort of obsessed with ownership: ‘I’m the original!’ ‘I’m the author!’ The punk rocker in me is [saying to hell with] authors. The collaboration of ‘Tiny Stories’ was started in 2010 by an artist named Wirrow, who’s this anonymous virtuoso who lives in the U.K. He’s a brilliant writer and illustrator and animator and musician and he’s become one of my favorite living artists. He started this thing called Tiny Stories from something he wrote on a beer coaster at a pub, and now it’s become this thing that’s published by HarperCollins. He started posting some Tiny Stories he had made on HitRECord and it really caught on. I loved it so much and shined a light on it. I started participating and then thousands of others started writing stories and everyone built on each other’s work -- they drew pictures inspired by the stories or they edited the stories, or they’ll write a story inspired by an illustration. Everyone was sort of remixing each other’s work.

JC: Is it surprising that so many people are open to this idea of collaboration, given that, like you said, ownership and artistry seem to go hand in hand?

JG-L: It doesn’t surprise me because I actually think this is the more natural way of things. That human beings are instinctually communal with their creativity. I think that’s why it seems natural to us to remix stuff and it’s illegal today because the laws are set up to protect outdated business models from the 20th century. But I think if you go back -- back, back, ever so way back, back into human history -- people were gathering around and telling stories. And it wasn’t so much ‘Hey, that’s my story’ or ‘That’s so-and-so’s story”; they’d build off each other’s stories. We sort of got away from that. And technology evolved in such a way where these intellectual property laws have come into place. But there’s ways around it. The Internet is allowing us to get back to what’s really more natural, which is that storytelling is a shared thing. It’s our natural way to be communal.

JC: How did you go about selecting which stories would be featured in this collection? Are you not aware that you’re a busy actor?

JG-L: Oh, my, it was certainly a lot of work. But I didn’t do it alone. I’ll admit, I didn’t look at all 8,000 contributions. The community does a lot of that. The website sort of tracks who’s recommending which story and who is remixing which one. If a certain story or certain illustration is getting a lot of feedback -- or gets a lot of remixes -- stuff pops out. But it’s not democratic. It’s not like I’m counting votes. If there’s something that got a lot of recommendations that I don’t like, it’s not going to go into the book. It is definitely very much my personal taste -- that’s important to me because the stuff that we make on HitRECord is sort of a balance between a massive collaboration and still retains a voice of an individual. Once you lose that, it gets impersonal.

JC: Does one story or illustration stand out from all the others as your favorite?

JG-L: I have lots of favorites. The Tiny Stories do tend to fall into two camps: Some of them have a real punch line. When you read them live, they get a laugh. There’s one -- I don’t know it by heart -- but it’s about this orange that jumps off a kitchen counter and runs out the door and escapes its fate. Then there’s this egg that sees the orange and tries to do the same -- but what it sort of points to is that an egg would have a lot less success jumping off a kitchen counter. It’s really cleverly worded such that it gets a laugh at the end. And the illustration is great, showing this confident egg about to make its triumphant leap. You can see the orange running through door in the background, and you can see the frying pan, too -- what the egg is trying to escape. But then there’s stories that don’t have such a zinger at the end, they’re more whimsical and invite you to bring meaning to them.

JC: I’m impressed that you recall in such detail the stories and images.

JG-L: Definitely. I worked hard on this. This is not some sort of ‘Oh, yeah, the actor is trying to publicize this as his own without putting any work into it.’ HitRECord is my love.

JC: All of the illustrations are in black and white. Was there a reason you opted against incorporating color?

JG-L: We talked about making it color. Maybe for Volume 2 or Volume 3, but I have to say, I do love black-and-white drawings. It reminds me of the drawings I used to see when I read, like, “Charlotte’s Web” when I was a kid or “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.” There’s something really appealing about the simplicity of black-and-white images.

JC: How about the Occupy movements? Might we see more references to it in the upcoming volumes? You were pretty vocal about the movement, and documented what happened in Zuccotti Park in New York.

JG-L: Yeah, I managed to get down there and record some of it. Sure, it could pop up in those. I bet you there’s a story in there now that is applicable [he pauses to search his computer for an example]. The thing about Occupy is that the sentiment the movement embodies is timeless: Don’t be greedy, share. It’s really exciting that this movement is giving voice to these sentiments and that people are willing to stand up for it. For a long time, no one was interested -- not the media, or people in conversation. But it’s gotten to the point where people have started a dialogue.

Here’s one. It’s a picture of a handsome man in a suit who is in court, talking to a judge and he says, “OK, I’ll admit, I have a few skeletons in my closet. But they weren’t skeletons when I put them there.” That to me looks like a poster for Occupy.

-- Yvonne Villarreal