Q&A

BJ Novak on his short story, “The Impatient Billionaire and the Mirror for the Earth,” which pivots on a misunderstood TED Talk

Posted by: Elizabeth Jacobs

“If only the earth could hold up a mirror to itself …”

Say no more, thought the impatient billionaire in the audience at the TED conference, who found the speaker’s voice as whiny and irritating as his ideas were inspiring and consciousness-shifting. He already knew the part of the speech that was going to stay with him: a mirror up to the Earth — amazing, unbelievable. Tricky but doable. He got it. Let’s make it.”

So begins BJ Novak’s charmingly absurdist story about a man who misconstrues a big idea shared at a TED conference, taking a famous Shakespeare line as a call-to-action. In “The Impatient Billionaire and the Mirror for the Earth,” one of the 64 vignettes featured in Novak’s debut book, One More Thing, a man short on time but long on money decides to build a giant, full-length mirror for the planet, so that everyone can watch themselves and others. Three years, and billions of dollars later, the mirror is built. And the world is never the same again.

This quirky, introspective story can be found on page 58 of the book, which Novak started writing to tie together his unexplored story ideas after nine seasons as a writer, actor and producer for The Office. At times side-splittingly hilarious and at others thought-provoking, together the stories in the book offer a gentle meditation on life’s biggest questions. (Don’t miss the book’s wonderful trailer, above, which features Novak and his Office co-writer Mindy Kaling recreating the aura of literary pretense of the French New Wave.)

We caught up with Novak on his book tour to discuss writing, inspiration and what world-changing idea he would share on the TED stage. Below, an edited transcript of that conversation.

The book is called One More Thing. Do you see this as an extension of your earlier work, or is this new, uncharted territory for you?

This is new. I’ve done many different things, mainly The Office. But even on The Office, I did many different things and I never quite had a creative home base — something that I thought was, first and foremost, my voice and my style, what I wanted to say, the type of jokes I wanted to make, and stories I wanted to tell. I never had that. I’m a standup comedian, but my standup has never become that personal. For me, this book became the extra things I wanted to say.

So this book is really a new beginning for me. I had been burnt out from all these years in The Office — I started there when I was 24 and was there for eight years. So it really was where all my ideas went for a long time, and I loved it, but I didn’t know where my own voice started and where the show’s voice stopped. I didn’t exactly know the difference between something I would write and something Paul Lieberstein would write, or Greg Daniels, or Mindy Kaling — though Mindy has a very distinct voice.

After I left The Office, I had accumulated all these ideas over the years that I really loved and believed in, but didn’t have an outlet for. They didn’t fit in the Dunder Mifflin universe, and they didn’t go together into a single screenplay. So this was my way to reclaim my voice, to be true to all these ideas that I loved and put them down on paper. And I came to love it even more than I expected. 

Do you see a theme running throughout the book — is there a central idea that you’re exploring?

Yeah. I wrote it with the intention of it being very scattered and jagged. I thought that would be the most fun type of book to read. Everything was a surprise, compared to what had come before it. A very long one might be next to a very short one, a very silly one might be next to a more serious one, one that takes place in the distant past and then one that’s very present day. I love that, and I thought I would purposefully have no theme at all, and that would be the theme.

But when I looked at it in the end, I realized what had been on my mind.  Inadvertently, all these themes had come up again and again. The main one is this idea that perfection is just one or two clicks away, and if we only had one more thing, everything would be what we wanted it to be, what we needed it to be. I realized that beautiful illusion that we are just one thing away from perfection — from transcendence, from what we want — came up again and again in the stories. Whether it’s the hare, who just needs to rematch the tortoise and everything will be okay, or it’s Sophia, who just thinks she can always just get one more conversation with the man she loves.

The elusive search for perfection is a theme that’s definitely present in “The Impatient Billionaire” — it’s a story of someone trying to find the one big thing he can contribute to society, but he doesn’t quite understand it. The story plays with misinterpretation — the billionaire makes an old saying the spark for his world-changing idea.

Right! Absolutely. There could probably be a TED Talk just about that — misinterpretations that led to breakthroughs.

What’s the story behind this story in particular?

I had a real affection for two things. For this sort of Steve Jobs, stop-at-nothing relentless pursuer of greatness. But even more so, for the guys who try to be like him, and maybe don’t understand everything as well as they wish they did. I don’t really know any Steve Jobs-es, but I know a lot of people who have read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. So this is really about a guy who wants to be like that, but he’s a little impatient and a little blustery. And yet that kind of person often forces his way into the realm of greatness too.

What was fun for me about the story was taking this situation that’s easy to satirize — an impatient billionaire without much understanding of science and metaphors or the patience to learn — and just wants greatness right away, on demand. Sometimes that is the important thing — those people often just elbow their way into greatness. I really like the idea that I would start with this satirical figure and portray him with real affection and mercy.

Would you say you’re a fan of TED?

Yeah, everyone is.

Do you have a favorite talk? 

I love Tavi Gevinson’s TEDx talk on youth and positivity. I loved that someone 16 years old could use the standards of what makes something excellent, combined with a voice that could only be yours at that age, and make something relevant.

Yeah, her talk is great. And if you had gave a TED Talk, what would it be about?

Is this my invitation?

Maybe…

Well, I’ve always wanted to give a talk. It’s very important on my white-person resume. What would my TED Talk be? I don’t know if I’m an expert in anything. So I guess I’m not qualified yet. But if I had to give a TED talk, I think there’s something that I’ve been able to learn on The Office about the integration of comedy and honesty and emotion. I really learned it from Steve Carell and from Greg Daniels and the tone they set among the cast and the writers. I think we helped establish a zone in which you’re never really thinking about whether something is funny or not, because you’re invested in the emotions, so the comedy takes you by surprise. And I would love to investigate that zone between where honesty — emotional honesty — turns into a nexus for comedy and plot. I think The Office was very much standing on the shoulders of shows like The Sopranos. If I had to give a TED Talk, and I had to think of something that I knew about, that’s definitely something that I’ve learned and would love to investigate more.

You shared live readings of your stories as you were writing this book. How did performing your stories on a stage help you hone your voice as a writer?

It’s been extremely important to having my voice evolve, and it’s been, more than anything, my inspiration. When I know that I’m going to read a story live, in front of 100 people, standing alone on a stage, I work much, much, much harder than I would if I could just email it to a friend who might write back, “Great story! Brilliant!” Because I know that I’m going to have to stand there for every boring line, and every lackluster detail. Every flaw I’m going to feel in my bones, standing in front of people. That makes me work so hard. And every success in my story, every laugh, every surprise, I’m going to reap all the benefits for too. I’m going to hear laughter live, I’m going to see people smile with surprise. So all those things make it extremely personal and really motivated my writing. I learn much more in the hours before I was about to read the stories than I did even on stage, because it was just that anticipation making it personal.

That energy definitely comes out in the book — it has a very conversational voice. So you signed a two-book deal, what can we expect to see in the next book?

I’m going to take a little bit of time first but I would love to write stories that went in even more ambitious directions. Maybe fewer stories, with more twists and depth to them. But I’m not sure exactly yet. Right now I have this children’s book, The Book With No Pictures, that I’m now focusing on. I’m finalizing that.