Transcript from a video interview with Stephan Pastis

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Stephan Pastis. The transcript is divided into the following sections:



From lawyer to comic strip writer

My name is Stephan Pastis. I’m the creator of the Timmy Failure book series for kids and the comic strip, Pearls Before Swine.

Yeah. I have a very odd transition story. I think it’s pretty unique. I don’t know anybody else who has this same one. I was a lawyer for 10 years in San Francisco and I just didn’t like the job at all. In fact, I hated it. So I would draw at nights after work and on weekends. And the hope was that I could get syndicated. Syndicates are just the big companies that distribute you to newspapers. So if you’re a kid with dreams of getting your comic strip in newspapers, you have to go through the syndicate.

So what I would do is I’d come up with 24 to 30 different strips and I’d put them in an envelope and I’d send them to all the syndicates, and they would always get rejected. Everything got rejected, like every syndicate four or five times. So I thought I was going to be stuck being a lawyer forever. And then in ’99, one strip that I did where I paired this rat and pig, got some traction.

And United Features, which was the syndicate that had Peanuts and Dilbert liked it and so they put it online. They weren’t quite sure it should go in papers, but they put it online at first. And then Scott Adams, who did Dilbert told everybody to go read it and then it really took off. And so then they committed to putting it in papers. So it launched in January of 2002. So that was that transition.

Timmy Failure, kid detective

Yeah, the idea for Timmy came about because when I was thinking about what kind of kids book I could do, I noticed there was whole genre of, you know, kids detective stories. I had certainly read a lot of them when I was younger, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, and Encyclopedia Brown. And it seemed that they always had this one thing in common which is that the detective, the kid detective is always brilliant and he could solve anything.

Well when I read Encyclopedia Brown even at this age, you know, and the solutions are at the back of the chapter, I get maybe half of them. So I thought, well what if you had a kid who was a detective but he’s not smart? In fact, what if you had a kid who was a detective who was like the least smart person in the room but is simultaneously very arrogant about his skills? That sort of made me laugh. It’s sort of a theory I have about comedy which is the blind spot. Which is how a character perceives himself versus how others perceive him.

The wider the distance between those two things, the funnier the character if that makes sense. So my hero is this character named Ignatius Reilly, from a book called Confederacy of Dunces who thinks he’s this brilliant guy and really he’s just an unemployed slob. So another good example, a more modern example, would be Ricky Gervais’ character in The Office, the British Office. Thinks he’s a rock star, really he’s not. So that’s how I work, and that’s why I made him a detective, and that’s why I made him like he is.

Origins of a polar bear sidekick

Timmy has a sidekick who is a 1500 pound polar bear. The reason I chose the polar bear — you know, the true thing is, I don’t really think about stuff like this because when I write I do something very odd. I turn on really loud music and I just sit and I tap out whatever comes to my head. It’s the same way I do the strip. My theory is you want to work on the right side of the brain when you’re writing funny. You don’t want to logically think through it if that makes sense.

So the music distracts my ability to think logically, so it forces me to be on that side of the brain. It’s a very odd theory, but it’s how I’ve always worked. So the truth is when anybody asks me questions like that is, it’s what I typed. But then I know that’s not a satisfactory answer so I try to go back and I think, well why did I pick a polar bear? My theory is that Timmy doesn’t have a dad, so a polar bear is big, seems like he could be protective, but he’s also soft, has all this fur.

So kind but strong. So probably a dad substitute, you know, but that’s just — that’s a guess that’s as good as your guess.

Originally he was Fatty Tookus and that’s the one thing my publisher would not allow me to do. You can’t call somebody Fatty. Despite the fact that fat is in the book in other places. So I changed it to Rollo which made me laugh. And Tookus, being a rear end I think in Yiddish or something, I don’t know. Just, the word is a great word.

So I do names that make me laugh. Corrina Corrina is a Dylan song. I’m a big Bob Dylan fan. It’s an older song than Dylan, but he did it too. Yeah, so I like Molly Moskins. I like the alliteration. Again, all just stupid things I type with the music blaring. Yeah.

Timmy Failure, the play

Yes, so Timmy’s been made into a play twice, once in Oregon, a big stage production and then most recently in England as a one man play. And I’ve seen both, and I like both. It’s very odd to — for someone who does — I suppose if I wrote for the movies it would be different, but I write for a comic strip. So I’ve never made a person talk. I’ve never made a real life person talk. None of my words have come out of the mouth of a real person.

So when you are in the audience of a play, and people are saying what you wrote, it’s a very odd sensation because you know where you were when you wrote it and you know how that decision was made. And sometimes it was arbitrary, sometimes it was silly, sometimes it was because of this. And these people are saying it like verbatim. And it’s a fun – it’s just a fun thing. And then the other fun thing is to see how they interpret the characters.

The woman that played Molly Moskins really turned her into a kind of a whining, fawning girl who had this high—pitched wail and it was actually funnier than I wrote it. And I didn’t see it that way, but that’s how she saw it and I think she made it better. So yeah, the whole thing’s a rush. That’s a cool thing.

Timmy Flop, Timmy Fiasco

Yeah, Timmy’s been translated into something like 35 different languages. It’s funny to see the covers of some of the books. Like in one country he was Timmy Flop I think. In one he was Timmy Fiasco. I don’t quite know how it translates. But yeah, in all sorts of languages and books that read what we would call back to front. Yeah that’s a real rush. And odd covers.

One of them put Timmy in a blanket. They covered his head in a blanket so you can’t even see him on the cover. Don’t quite know what they were thinking on that one. But yeah, it’s fun. It’s fun to see it in different languages. I don’t know how well it translates. You know, I never know because I can’t read that language. My family was particularly proud to see it in Greek because I’m Greek. So those copies were in demand, so I handed those out.

Comic strips on two levels

Yeah, so there’s — there have been 25 normal Pearls books, maybe more. So that’s just simply every strip that runs in the paper put together sequentially. And kids have always read those. I know because I do the book tours and I see who’s there and they’re always filling the front rows. So for me, I’ve never really seen a distinction. If you do a comic strip right and I don’t always succeed at this, I do fail sometimes, if you do it right, you should be able to do whatever you want without teaching the kids something he shouldn’t learn.

In other words, I heard Scott Adams say this once, and it’s really true, as long as the parent can just shrug and say I don’t know, you know what I mean? Like it’s a reference to something that if the kid doesn’t know, and the parent doesn’t tell him, he won’t get, then you’re bullet proof. So it has to work on two levels. Does that make sense? So I’ve always done that anyway, and I’ve never had a problem.

But my publisher wanted to do a series of Pearls books that was specifically for kids. So they’ve released these three books. I think the imprint is called Amp Kids or Amp for Kids and all they did was they went through, they took out some of the darker ones, which is weird because if you go to schools, kids are way darker than any adult audience I’ve ever been — if I ask for suggestions on Timmy, it’s oh, he gets killed by a blah blah, and then Corrina gets killed.

So they’re always much darker than you think, but anyways, they went through and they took out some of the dark stuff and then they took out cigarettes, sometimes even photo shopping them out, they took out beer and they took out swearing. But even the swearing’s not really swearing because it’s in a newspaper, so it’s just the little squiggles. So you probably could have left it as it was, but just to be safe they removed all that stuff. I’ve never seen myself as an adult author or a kid author.

Kids are — if you do that division in your head, kids are going to pick up on that right away. They’re going to know you’re talking down to them. Huge mistake. Write what makes you laugh and you will appeal to people of a certain sensibility whether they’re 10 or 50. Now maybe if they’re five, it’s too young. But I write what makes me laugh, and I don’t draw the distinction.

Illustrated books for middle schoolers

With the books, there are so many kids in that demographic, eight to 12 that are loathe to pick up a book in the first place. They have way too many other things they could be doing, things that move much quicker and, you know, I have two kids. I see what they like.

So the hook on these books is two-fold. One, in my case, I try to be funny. And in my case, I’m literally showing it to my kids the minute it’s done and I’m there with them when they read it. I’m seeing if I’m making them laugh. Because if I can make them laugh, they’ll keep turning the pages. So that’s one hook. The second hook is, while kids might not like, you know, Pride and Prejudice, they’ve always liked comic books.

And this genre, which has a big long name like illustrated novel for middle-graders, I call it Wimpy Kid style books, this genre sort of shoots the gap between, you know, your Pride and Prejudice and your superhero comic book. It’s kind of in the middle. By that I mean it’s part text and then it’s part drawing. It’s about 50/50, maybe 60/40 text. So it’s easier on the eyes, my paragraphs are not big and dense, it moves quickly.

So that’s what the format is designed to do. So I think between the humor and the format, it works. I mean, Wimpy Kid is great proof of that or Big Nate. Yeah. It works.

The power of storytelling in the graphic novel

I think there’s a prejudice against comic books and I think it comes from our youth. That was you are wasting time, read a real book, so we start with that notion. That notion gets in the way because as it turns out, graphic story telling is a very powerful way to tell a story.

Or how I do it, which is text leads to drawing leads to text leads to drawing. It gives you a whole — it’s as powerful to literature as, say, movies to just still photos. It’s like a director has all these tools he can show you, you can hear it, you know, you can do all these things. With a book like that, I get an extra tool. I get not just the written word, I get the drawing.

So I can reach people in a bunch of ways, and if I interact the two correctly, if I integrate it all correctly, then it really works. So in the case of a lot of those graphic novels, it’s really powerful. Like Mouse or like – it’s really powerful. I think we just have to get past the notion that some people still have that that’s not reading. It’s reading, like there’s words there. You’re reading it.

And also a lot of it is taking place in your head. You know, they don’t show you the transition from panel to panel. That occurs in your head. So for people who say, you know, watching TV is a very passive activity, reading should be one where you’re engaged. You’re engaged. It’s not moving for you. You make that leap. So it’s powerful. It’s a great way to tell a story. It requires a particularly odd set of skills where you have to be able to draw and to write at least a little bit of each well.

But yeah, I think that’s why it’s effective and I think the sooner we get past that prejudice that comes with us from our youth, the better we’ll be, you know?

Yeah. And also you can really have fun, like in the case of Timmy, Timmy is what somebody in literature would call an unreliable narrator. You just don’t know what you can believe. So what I have fun with is Timmy says one thing and you see something that’s not what he just told you. So you see right away how in left field he is and that’s something I would have trouble doing in just a straight textbook unless I switched narrators or, you know, and that’s really fun. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you could do with it.

Yeah, it’s powerful. Like there’s a scene in the first Timmy book where his mom makes him give up the bear and so they have to part. And you know because of the way the book is what a chapter should look like but in this chapter there’s no words. He only gives you the drawing of him hugging Total. And there’s something powerful about that because you know he normally talks to you, so if he doesn’t talk to you in this one chapter and he only shows you a picture, it must be something too painful to talk about.

So that’s what it can do. Like I couldn’t have done that with straight text.

Cartoon emotion

I mean especially with a cartoon character, it’s all in the eyes and the mouth. In my case, the eyes because Timmy doesn’t have a mouth. But it’s all in the eyes. So yeah, you convey a lot. I mean think of Peanuts. Think of – I mean I could just rattle these off and you’ll know every image I’m saying.

You know, Charlie Brown with the broken kite walking home or Charlie Brown laying on the mound having just had all his clothes knocked off or laying on the ground after kicking the football or waiting for the little red—haired – I mean, all those images are stuck in your head. There must be something powerful about them. Cartoonists are artists and in the case of Schulz, he was a great artist.

That’s another prejudice I want to get past. I don’t know why we don’t look at them that way. Because it’s simple? To me, simple is harder than complex. When you only have two lines to convey emotion, you better not waste anything because they’re all there. And if you think it’s simple, try to draw Charlie Brown. It is shockingly hard. Even the shape of his head. I mean that’s great art. Maybe someday we’ll see it that way.

Influences, starting with Peanuts

Well, when I was a kid my gateway to reading since we didn’t have graphic novels at that time, my gateway to reading was Peanuts. My aunt had all these books on the shelf and I just roared through them all. And if there were words I didn’t understand like psychology or theology, I looked them up. I mean I didn’t even know what grief meant like in the phrase good grief. So Peanuts taught me a ton.

Peanuts is also the formative strip for any comic strip guy post 1950. It’s to us what Brando was to acting. You know, it seems like every art form broke open there in the 50’s, right? And Schulz did that for comics. Didn’t have to be slapstick anymore, the tone didn’t have to be outrageous, it could be subtle, you could go out on a quiet note instead of a loud note, you didn’t have to have a character going — at the end because – like it was just sort of – he modernized the comic strip.

You could get in any of your thoughts. You know like Dylan did for rock, you know, like doesn’t have to be silly love songs. Schulz did all of that. So he is the air that we breathe. Then, when I was older, the big three had a big influence on me. Breathed, who did Bloom County, Watterson, who did Calvin and Hobbes and Larson, who did The Far Side, Garry Trudeau with Doonesbury, Scott Adams with Dilbert.

They all influenced me.

The three-panel strip

In the case of Dilbert, I literally read through the books trying to figure out how you pace a three panel strip because Pearls originally was only three panels and three panels is different than four panels. It’s all very – I could bore you all day on this topic. Well you have to because if a three panel strip. I don’t have any time to waste.

So Schulz could waste time. Schulz could have a pause in the third panel. He could set it up in the second panel. If you do a three panel strip, the premise has to be there in the first panel whether that means like wow, you just dropped me right into that, you know, you just — it all has to come out in the first panel because the joke is usually in the second, so it’s really quick.

And the third is a comment on the joke more or less. It doesn’t always work that way. So Dilbert does that. Dilbert’s always three panels, the dailies. So I went through it and I figured out how to do it and then I went through – I’ve got to be the only person to do this. I went through the complete Far Side. I have these two big volumes with a little piece of paper and I wrote down what made each one funny.

And I came up at the end with these six areas that were usually involved in the strips. So like anthropomorphizing, deanthropomorphizing. So an example of the latter being the woman who’s cleaning the couch that’s taking the cushions off and finds her husband stuck in there with the change, you know? Making a human like an object, you know? So I figured that out and then I applied that.

Self-expression through drawing

Yeah, young people can definitely express themselves through drawing, through strips, through all that. I know that for a fact because when I do the book tours, I always ask how many of you like to draw and I also ask how many of you like to write. Usually I ask the writing question first. I would say a third to a half of the hands go up on the writing question. The drawing, it’s the whole room.

What’s really weird though, something happens. I saw this with my own kids. They do this art when they’re six, seven, eight, nine, 10, before puberty. It’s brilliant stuff. Like all of my kids’ stuff line our hallways. And I don’t just do it because they’re my kids. I really like looking at them. The colors of the — they don’t fear judgment in any way.

And then they hit puberty and it all falls apart. They think people are judging them, looking at them. It becomes much more conscious. So yeah, I always encourage kids to do what they’re doing and to keep doing it and to be unafraid because they’re naturally that way. We change them. So I really try to encourage them. If anyone shows me their drawings at the things, I encourage them. Yeah, drawing expresses a ton of stuff.

Be anything you want to be

But people who discourage you, and you never forget that. And it can really derail a kid, you know? I remember any comment a teacher made like that. To this day you remember it. You know who’s great with that? Dav Pilkey, who does Captain Underpants. I’ve done a lot of signings with him.

Dav is — if a kid comes up to him — so Dav had every malady known to people as a kid, ADD, all the diagnoses, that was him. So kids come up to him saying I’ve been diagnosed with that too and Dav takes so much time with that kid to tell him you’re great, keep doing what you’re doing, draw, don’t listen to them. He really takes time. It slows the signing line down tremendously, but it’s great and that kid leaves feeling really great, you know?

You got to be really positive with those kids. You really have to — to me, they’ve got to leave the room thinking they can be anything they want to be because if you do anything to discourage that, who knows who you’re pushing out the room that one day might have been something great. You know, because you remember those comments. You remember any teacher who did that to you and you also remember any who really praised you.

So give them a chance to draw, give them a chance to create, give them the freedom to do it the way they want to do it I mean within some structure, I suppose. And talk to them when they’ve completed it as you would to an adult. I don’t know why we don’t do that. It’s really a strange thing. They’re way more brilliant than we give them credit for. Their instincts on people are as on as yours, if not more on and they’ll say it.

Comedy is rhythm

Yeah, so man, I could talk about comedy all day, because I’m so endlessly fascinated by it.  I’m convinced that comedy is rhythm.  It’s all rhythm.  It’s more akin to poetry and music than anything else, which is why I play music in part when I write it.  And if you don’t believe it’s rhythm, if you believe comedy is something that’s more intellectual and received intellectually, then I would give you this test which is watch a stand-up comic tell a joke like a George Carlin or a Richard Pryor and they have this big build up.

And when they hit the punch line, they miss a word.  But then they restate the word.  Joke’s ruined.  Well it shouldn’t be ruined because he’s going to be still giving you the idea.  You got it a quarter of a second later, but no, it’s ruined.  So what’s that like?  Well that would be like a guy playing the piano who misses the final note.  Even if he hits the right note after, it’s ruined.

That’s what it is.  That to me proves it is rhythm. It’s all rhythm.  So when I’m — so whether you’re a standup comic or you’re a cartoonist or you’re a graphic novel person who’s trying to make people laugh, it is all the same thing.  So when I don’t write well, which is often, I come home to my wife and I don’t say, oh I couldn’t think of anything.  I say I couldn’t hear anything.  Because it’s a rhythm.  You hear it.  I don’t know how to describe it.

I can watch a commercial — I could read somebody else’s strip or watch a commercial and hear a joke and go oh, that word, they could have said that word with one syllable.  It would have worked so much better.  Or they didn’t need that other word at the end or they — if you’re writing a funny line, the operative word should come last.  You don’t want it second to last or third to the last because then the rest of the words just trail.  So that’s all rhythm.

For me it’s instinctual when I write on the days that it works.  On the days where it doesn’t work, I have to figure it out intellectually, like oh I think this is something that’s funny.  But I’m not hearing it, so yeah, comedy is all rhythm and you’re just trying to get into that groove.  And yeah, I’m so fascinated by this topic because it really — and I wish everybody could experience it.  The biggest high for me ever on earth is when it’s just rolling.

And it’s then when I understand what I think I’ve heard other writers and artists much greater than me talk about which is that you’re more of a discoverer than a creator.  It’s just formed.  It’s just given to you.  And when you’re open it just comes through you.  You know what I mean?  I don’t know if that sounds too weird or arrogant.  I don’t mean it to be either of those things.

When I see a strip and it’s funny, I’m so pleased because I feel like I’m the first person who got to see it.  I don’t see myself as the creator so much.  I see myself as — because it comes out formed.  The best stuff you do comes out formed.  It’s really odd.  I don’t know if you tap into some rhythm or I don’t know if an artist’s skill is just being — having the receptors.

Maybe we’re all the same, but an artist is more attuned to receiving whatever that is, right?  I think the Greeks, like Plato and forms, right?  Isn’t that what that is?  So like the Pieta exists in an even more perfect form in this other world and daVinci just brought you the closest we could get to it.  You know what I mean?  It’s just a — I know it’s right because I know when it comes out, you know?  Like I had nothing to do with it.  I just watched it.  I really just watched it.

If I had any skill, it was knowing to step aside and let it happen, right?  I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant.  I don’t mean it to sound like I’m especially skilled.  I don’t think I am.  I’m just fascinated by how creativity occurs, you know?

Passing the note

This is a tip I give to a lot of — both adults and kids. They say how do you write funny? And I say, okay you’re at a party with a bunch of your friends and somebody says something funny and your other friend says something funny and then you go to comment. Do you do this in your head? I will now make a comment on that other comment and I think it’ll be a little ironic, but to this part of the room it will mean something a little bit different.

You don’t do any of those things. You go like that — so when you write and you’re trying to write funny, you go like that — with the same urgency, like when you’re a kid and you wrote a note to make your friend laugh about the teacher, right? That little, that. Do that. Write a note to your classmate. Tell a joke to your friend. That’s what you should be doing when you write.

Something really weird takes over when you do it and even today when I write anything, the strip or the books, it’s the dominant voice. It’s this weird voice that tries to make you please this big, wide audience. And it doesn’t — you shoot big, you’re going to miss everybody. You shoot very small to make you laugh, the person next to you laugh, passing the note. You go big, does that make sense? Yeah.

Sparky said that, Schulz said that in a way that was much more eloquent, but yeah. The most personal is the most universal. So stop trying to make that laugh, whatever that is. Scott Adams writes to his brother. I asked him that, how do you write your books. I write them for my brother to laugh. How do I write Timmy? I write them to – because I can see Thomas, my son, laughing or not laughing.

Drawing Timmy Failure

Draw Timmy? Timmy is in the words of the director who’s going to make a Timmy film a seriously messed up little kid. He thinks he’s the world’s most brilliant detective but he is the dumbest person in the room. And he wears the big scarf all the time. I offset one of the little eyes to the side a little because it makes him look a little nuttier.

But he’s sweet. I think he’s got a good heart, you know? I think he’s got — he’s got a good heart. He has a single mom, you know? I think deep down he wants the whole family to be okay, you know? Thinks he’s going to make a good living being a detective, pay for everything. He won’t say it that way. He’d say it in a very arrogant way, but yeah. But he’s that thing I was talking about — not a smart guy but thinks he’s brilliant. Not a clever guy, thinks he’s super clever. Not a good detective, thinks he’s the world’s greatest detective, you know?

And then he’s got a sidekick that’s a big, giant polar bear — your pen’s dying on me, but I think I can just get through this – that may or may not be real depending on how you read the book. I’ve had people read it convinced that he’s real. I’ve had other people convinced that he’s part of Timmy’s imagination. And I think fairly you can read it either way. My wife had a good theory. My wife’s theory was the polar bear is sort of a manifestation of how hurt Timmy is.

Like when he is — the more you see him, the more Timmy needs this in his life, the more there’s something he’s missing in his life. Does that makes sense? Like he’s sort of a — yeah, sort of like an imaginary friend you created when you were a kid, you know? So anyways, that’s Timmy. That’s the polar bear.

Pastis reads an excerpt from Timmy Failure

Yes, I’ll read the very, very short first chapter. I like to get people right into the action like a James Bond film. The cold open they call it. It’s an image first off of Timmy in a Cadillac like all kids’ books start in a Cadillac having crashed through somebody’s house. And he says — it’s titled A Prologue that Story-wise is Out of Order. He says it’s harder to drive a polar bear into somebody’s living room than you’d think.

You need a living room window that’s big enough to fit a car, you need a car that’s big enough to fit a polar bear, and you need a polar bear that’s big enough to not point out your errors like the fact that you’ve driven into the wrong house, which when it comes to cars and living rooms, is bad. I should back up. The story, not the car. So that’s a good example, by the way, of the rhythm I was talking about.

The opening sentences. A living room window that’s big enough to fit a car, a car that’s big enough to fit a polar bear, a polar bear that’s big enough — it just has a rhythm. I don’t know. I could be totally wrong.

Fascinated by the creative process

I love talking on the topic of creativity. I could do it. If I meet another cartoonist, I will go on and on and on asking about their process. I don’t care about — most people focus in on the results like the fame or the people they met.

I focus in on when they create, where do they create, what room of the house, is the door closed, is it open, is there music on, is there not, you know, do you watch what you eat, do you do it after you eat, do you do it hungry, do you do it — I’m fascinated by that. And so when anybody says anything, a painter or anything about how they create, I’m riveted. Like Brian Wilson putting sand around his piano. There’s a lot in that.

Or Dylan doing his lyrics on a typewriter. Or what comes first, the melody, the song or the words. Paul McCartney had no words for Yesterday. It was scrambled eggs, like I was scrambled eggs, like something, something. And then they later got something for it. But it is such a gift and it’s such a — I wish everybody could feel it. It’s so cool. There’s no high that’s that high.

Quiet time

Yeah, you know, I don’t want to be an old man telling kids to get off my lawn, but I do think we’re losing a little bit of something with video games. My son’s habit of playing for eight hours drives me a little bit batty. My wife and I argue about this a lot. He’s so brilliant. He’s the only person I’ve ever showed my work to who has the same sense of rhythm that I have. He can hear it. I know he can hear it.

And I know, because there’s a game on my phone that I play constantly, that’s pretty far from being able to create. It’s such an adrenaline rush in your head and you don’t need the creative stuff. And so when I’m doing that, I’m not creating. That can’t be good. I don’t think that’s good. You certainly can’t hear anything when you’re doing that. You know, I was talking about hearing the rhythm. You’re very far away from that. So that’s probably not a good thing. It can’t be healthy.

There’s a lot of parents that would go — to that. It drives me crazy when I see my son doing it because to me that’s a waste of a brain that is so alive and can do so many things. But it’s an attractive option for a kid. It’s a fun thing to do, you know? It’s a fun thing for me to do. If I had had all those things available to me that that age, maybe I would have done it.

You know, that’s an interesting point, because when I was a kid I had the 13 channels you did, what — half of them, seven channels. I had Mad Magazine. I had some Peanuts books, I’m running out. I was — I had no cable. I had nothing beyond those channels. And the result was I sat in my room and I wrote or I drew. So if I’m that kid now as I still am in some ways, I go on YouTube and fall down the rabbit hole and watch everything.


It just keeps – whatever you can think of you can watch, Dylan interviews or – I just keep – I mean there’s so many thing you can take in. That kid has a thousand channels. He has a limitless option on the internet. He has video games that are like you’re in the room playing it. That is a hard kid to reach. So I don’t know what the answer is. I think we’ve probably overdone it.

You need that quiet time for sure or you can’t hear anything, you know? Sometimes when I’m totally stuck, I’ll either go for a long drive or a long walk, you know? And then things quiet down and you can hear again.

A high-wire act of writing

So I sit down, I turn on the really loud music, incredibly loud. I have my own studio apart from the house so no one can hear it. I light incense. I drink tea. I turn off all the lights except for the glow of the computer screen and I write. And I love seeing what happens. Now what ends up happening by about page 80 is by page 80 you go I don’t know where I am in this book. This better go somewhere.

Like there’s a lot of risk involved, because it’s a high wire act. If you fall, there’s no net. If you’re at page 80 and there’s nothing there, you’re stuck. But I picked this — I started this book with nothing. So I thought well I better get something. This is really loose. So I did basically the movie script structure. I hung five clothespins effectively.

The open, the end of act one, the middle of act two, the end of act two, the end of act three. If I know those five points, then I’m not — then the train has some direction. And then what I would do is, okay, so here’s the end of act one which is page 70 in my book. I need to have Timmy here. So I just have fun, have fun, have fun, but make sure by then you’re there.

I think it’s a lot like Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO. I think it’s how he does — like to me, that’s a really funny comedy. But if you look at the script — so a half hour television show should have a 30 page script, right, a minute per page. His script is like eight pages, so all it is for the scene is by the end of it you have to know Jeff’s buying the car. And then have your conversation. Talk about the Dodgers, talk about whatever you want.

But at the end you got to get that. But he kept that loose so you could have the spontaneity, which I think a lot of comedies do that now. So I’m doing the same thing but with books. One time — I’ll tell you this — quick story because it’s funny. Makes me look like a bit of an idiot. I was at the UCLA book festival, or USC, one of the two, and they made the mistake of putting me on the stage with these other writers, one of whom was a professor of literature at UCLA.

And the question was how do you prepare to write your books. So the professor just looks like a professor with the tweed jacket and the whole bit. He takes the mike and he goes I begin by writing 10,000 pages, 10,000 pages of notes on the characters. I know what they eat for breakfast, I know where they were when they were six, I’m not going to use that in the book, but I know everywhere they’ve been. It’s about a two year process. When that’s up and I know everything, I begin writing the book.

And so the answer was a lot longer than that, but that’s the gist of it. So they hand the mike over to me. I turn on really loud music and type as fast as I can. He thought — he must have looked at me like God, why am I on the stage with this guy? I make fun of it but I think he’s losing something. I think he’s losing something. There’s so much to be said for spontaneity. You’re so much funnier like that than you are when you ponder it and ponder it. You kill jokes that way. You overthink them.

My least funny jokes are the ones I think about too much. I also will swing and miss completely when I do it that way. But I do hit some homeruns. I don’t know. That’s my theory. I’m sure there are many ways to do it, but that’s how I do it.

"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller