Why did you write this book?
Most of the time, it’s difficult to identify the exact moment that a work of art springs to life. In this case, it’s a little easier. At the end of 2008, I did a special limited-edition art book project with Hotel St. George Press called Correspondences: it was a beautifully constructed box with fold-out flaps, and the stories in it mostly concerned letters and letter-writing, and the way they affected (mostly doomed) relationships between people. I always knew that it would have a second life as a more traditional book, and when Harper Perennial approached me about exactly that, I was ready with nine more similarly themed stories.
By similarly themed, do you mean that they are all the same?
Of course not! Similarly themed! They are about the gaps that open up between people, but the set is very diverse. Some are comic and some are tragic. Some are realistic and some are surreal. One takes place in the 19th century in Northern Africa. One takes place on the moon. To date there has not been a single reader that likes all the stories in the same way. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that each reader responds to different parts of the book differently. The story on the moon is a good example. Some love it. Some hate it.
Many people know you as a funny writer, because of Superbad, your first book, and because of your association with McSweeney’s. Are you saying that some of this book isn’t funny?
It’s funny in that it looks at the human comedy. But these are, for the most part, less experimental stories. They have recognizable characters and discernible plots. There’s nothing here like “Blurbs” or “What 100 People Real and Fake Believe About Dolores.” But it’s not like there’s an absence of playfulness. Several of the stories are witty or quirky or surprising. And there’s a companion website, Letters With Character, that asks people to write letters to their favorite fictional characters, and that is frequently explicitly comic.
Who are your inspirations?
Without getting all sentimental about it, I’d say my creative friends: I have a close friend who is a YA author. Another who is a singer and songwriter. My wife is an art director and has a great ability to bring ideas into reality, visually. These people have success in their field, certainly, but they still struggle with the process. They still need recharging. They still need to learn to both drill down inside themselves and rise above themselves. Of course, books are still my central inspiration. I read widely in most genres. I love mystery and thriller writers, the more hard-boiled the better. I love reading poets just to see how they use language. But I am most interested to see how people I know, whose lives I know, negotiate the various issues of creativity, productivity, intimacy, failure, success, fear, and glory.
Music is a big deal in your work. You wrote the funk/rock novel Please Step Back, in which you invented a Sly Stone-like protagonist named Rock Foxx, last year. Do you listen to music while you write?
Constantly. But for a book like this, the main way that music figures is that I think of short-story collections as albums. Sequencing is important. In that sense, there’s a kind of classic-rock-album frame of mind. There’s a long story in here, the next-to-last one, called “What We Believe But Cannot Praise.” That’s like the “Layla” of this book. It’s followed by a short piece called “Her Hand” that closes a door opened by the first piece, the title story. That’s like “The End” from “Abbey Road.” And so on.
You are very prolific. Since 2008, you’ve produced Correspondences, Please Step Back, What He’s Poised To Do, and a forthcoming book that Harper will release in October. What’s that?
It’s called Celebrity Chekhov, and it takes the great short stories of Anton Chekhov and drags them into the present by using as characters our modern American celebrities. It’s hilarious and tragic and a cheap shot and a deep cut.
In addition to all those books, you write regularly for places like McSweeney’s and The New Yorker, and many of those pieces are explicitly humor pieces, like the current-events musicals (“Fragments from LeBron! The Musical,” “Fragments from Palin! The Musical”). Do you consider these distractions from your important work, or are they somehow related?
I think they’re related. They deal with some of the same issues: ethics, sadness, whether celebrity is light or heat or both. But if they’re perceived as distractions, that’s fine, too. They are certainly more entertaining, in the immediate sense.