Pancakes for the soul

On NBC's "The Office," Rainn Wilson comes off as the ultimate corporate schemer — a man seldom inclined to question his own judgment, let alone the spiritual side of life.

But Wilson is quick to point out that Dwight Schrute, the former assistant to the regional manager at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Co., is just a role. And it's not the role he'll be playing when he visits Barnes & Noble in Huntington Beach on Thursday.

Earlier this year, Wilson oversaw the production of "SoulPancake: Chew on Life's Big Questions," a book of essays, famous quotes and illustrations that deal with God, death, love, creativity and other subjects. (Wilson's main contribution, text-wise, was writing the lengthy foreword; much of the book invites the reader to pencil in his or her own observations.) He also runs http://www.soulpancake.com, in which people from around the world can discuss and debate the same issues.

Wilson, who visited Surf City on family vacations as a kid, spoke with the Independent about "SoulPancake" and how his life — yes, even when playing Dwight — is a spiritual mission.

Is this your first attempt at writing a book?

Oh, yes. To say that I wrote a book is a little misleading. I wrote an essay, and then we came up with these challenges and fun ways of organizing the material about life's big questions. We kind of put it together, but there wasn't a lot of actual writing that went into it. But yes, I have not written anything before.

Was it your idea to make the book interactive — having people fill in their own answers?

Yeah. One of the books that we referenced in making it was "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. It's a work book. You carry it around with you and do different exercises in the morning. We knew we wanted something fun and irreverent that had the feel our website does, and we wanted to challenge people to go deeper and look deeper. It wasn't going to be a book filled with text. It needed to be a book filled with art and things that would inspire you and touch you on a different level.

When you talk about the book to audiences, are there any questions you often get?

You know, the most common one is, why is the comic actor from "The Office" doing a book about philosophy, spirituality and life's big questions? That the No. 1 question.

What do you tell them?

That, mostly, I'm an artist. I'm an actor, and I happen to do comedy. But I'm an artist, and my journey to this point has been a very artistic journey and a spiritual journey at the same time. I just wanted to share that. I wanted to do something positive on the Internet and get people thinking about life's big questions in a fresh, fun way.

Did you learn anything about yourself in the course of writing this book, something about God or death or creativity that you didn't know you believed?

I think that what really became clear to me is that I really am a transcendentalist. I really am of the Ralph Waldo Emerson-Henry David Thoreau school of thought — that we all, as humans, have a longing to transcend, and that's what makes us great and noble and special. And whether that's through the arts or service, or community or family, having religion or faith, connecting with God, going inward through meditation, we all have a yearning to be more than just monkeys.

In your foreword, you talk about how there's a really rigid debate in modern society about whether God exists or religion has merit, and that both sides seem to be equally set in their ways. Have you gotten reactions to your book from both ends of the spectrum?

The great thing about the website is that the website is filled with atheists as well as born-again Christians, Buddhists, agnostics and everyone in between having civil discourse on these ideas. Whether you're a born-again Christian or you think God is preposterous, we all have to deal with things like heartbreak, love, considerations of the soul and free will. So people have been pretty open to it, I have to say.

Do you hope to be as famous as an author as you are as an actor?

No, I don't really think so. I love writing, and I'll probably work on some other things as a writer in the future, but acting is my great love. It's what I do best. It's my greatest service. It's my acting and entertaining people and playing characters, and that's really how I want to be known.

When you do a reading of "SoulPancake," does your acting often come up? Do you have people in the audience asking whether Jim and Pam are a couple in real life?

I get that. I mostly get the joke questions [related to the Dwight character] like "Which bear is best?" and "Do you like beets?" We had a reading in New York City, and they were really militant about "no 'Office' questions allowed," but then there were all these "Office" questions asked. They're fans of the show. It's fine. We have a peculiar and intense crowd of people who are really devoted to "The Office." It's not something that's just on TV in the background. We have diehards.

Finally, you probably knew I was going to ask this, but I can't resist. Do you think Dwight would like this book?

No, Dwight would think this book was a colossal waste of time. Life's big questions, I think Dwight has all the answers to them, and he would view art as a waste of time and even taking time to ponder them as a waste of time. He would follow the Schrute code of ethics, and he would be happy to teach that code to anyone who would listen and follow.

If You Go

What: Rainn Wilson discussing and signing "SoulPancake: Chew on Life's Big Questions"

Where: Barnes & Noble, Bella Terra, 7881 Edinger Ave. No. 110, Huntington Beach

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Information: (714) 897-6201

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