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From Comedy Writer To 'Famous Novelist'

Comedy writer Steve Hely details the journey of a young writer's effort to create the greatest best seller of all time in his new novel How I Became a Famous Novelist.

26:25

Other segments from the episode on September 16, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 16, 2009: Interview with Matt Damon and Steven Sodergergh; Interview with Steve Hely.

Transcript

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Damon And Soderbergh Team Up And Inform

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. After working together on the films
“Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13,” my guest, Matt Damon, and director Steven Soderbergh
have made the new film, “The Informant!” It premiered last weekend at the
Toronto Film Festival and opens nationally this weekend.

It’s adapted from a book of investigative journalism about a price-fixing
conspiracy involving the agri-business company ADM. The book also investigates
the ADM executive who blew the whistle and alerted the FBI to the scheme. That
whistleblower had his own secrets, and what he told the FBI wasn’t always true.

Damon stars as that not-always-reliable whistleblower, Mark Whitacre. Unlike
the book, the movie has an ironic, often comic, tone. Let’s start with a scene.
Whitacre has been working with the FBI undercover while continuing his job at
ADM. The feds have made their first bust, and none of Whitacre’s colleagues
have figured out he’s the informant. He’s intoxicated by playing the role of
spy, even though he sometimes unknowingly bungles the job. He’s with the two
FBI agents he’s been working with, played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale.
They’re talking about the bust.

(Soundbite of film, “The Informant!”)

Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (As Mark Whitacre) That was amazing. You guys should
have seen it. Oh, Perry(ph) was so scared, and Mick(ph) and the lawyers, they
were just, they were pissed.

Mr. SCOTT BAKULA (Actor): (As FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard) Yeah, that’s
super, Mark.

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) And the best part is, they thought you guys gave me
the once-over.

Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who did you tell?

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) What?

Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who else did you tell about the raid?

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) Well, I had to tell my secretary. Guys, I’m the head
of the bio-products division. You know, she has to know where to get in touch
with me. I told her months ago. So all I said was Liz, I’m doing some work with
the FBI. I might be out of touch for a while. That’s it. She had no idea about
our case. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the name Cathy Dougherty(ph) a time or
two. She is a trusted ally, and I didn’t want her to be scared.

Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Why did you do that, Mark?

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) I trust her. Guys, we can trust Cathy.

Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who else? Don’t jack us around, Mark.

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) Mmm. Kirk Schmidt. Schmidtty.

GROSS: Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Steven
Soderbergh, the movie starts with a disclaimer that says basically these
characters are all composites, and the disclaimer ends with - so there. What’s
the so there supposed to be there for?

Mr. STEVEN SODERBERGH (Director, “The Informant!”): I stole that, actually,
from a movie called “Airplane” that came out in 1980. At the very end of the
crawl in the film, the put so there at the end.

Mr. DAMON: I never knew that.

Mr. SODERBERGH: I’ve always wanted to steal it. And that was a card that was
going to be in our case at the end of the film, and I moved it up front because
I really wanted to remind everyone that this was a true story, because at a
certain point it becomes so absurd that I thought people might not remember
that it was true.

GROSS: So the - so there was to remind us that it was true, not to remind us
that you took liberties.

Mr. SODERBERGH: Yes, exactly, and also it’s kind of a mood-setter.

Mr. DAMON: Yeah, yeah, it sets the mood.

GROSS: Well, speaking of the mood, the mood is ironic, as opposed to
investigative journalism. We’re inside the character that Matt Damon plays,
Mark Whitacre, inside his head. Why did you want to go for that ironic tone?
The book that it’s based on is a straightforward, investigative book.

Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, let’s see. When the book reached us in 2001, I’d recently
finished “Erin Brokovich,” and Michael Mann’s “The Insider” had come out in
1999. I think our sense was we needed to do something different, that just
taking the standard approach wasn’t really going to be exciting or fresh, and
that’s when we started thinking maybe we should try and do it as kind of a
black comedy.

GROSS: Matt, when you decided to take the part, did you want to meet the real
Mark Whitacre or read the book or look at the court transcripts? How much of
this was about authenticity to you? Since the tone wasn’t quite the tone of the
book, the question of authenticity, I think, is a difficult one since you
weren’t being completely true to the tone of the story. You were altering that
and also kind of getting inside the mind of the character without knowing for
sure what was going on in the mind of the character.

Mr. DAMON: Right. Once Steven made the decision to shift the tone, it became
unnecessary to meet Mark and kind of inappropriate to meet him. You know, I had
originally thought I’d go down and see him. He was in prison at the time, and I
was going to go visit him, but it just became – it wasn’t about doing a
rigorous character study at that point. It was about, you know, trying to make
something that was more like a – Steven called it more like a subjective fever
dream.

So I actually have another movie coming out in a few months where I play a real
person, and I prepared for the role completely differently and spent a lot of
time with the guy. So just, it was more about the tone of this movie that kind
of determined how I’d prepare for it.

GROSS: The character that you play, Matt Damon, who’s based on a real
character, Mark Whitacre, who is the whistleblower on ADM and a price-fixing
conspiracy, he – once he decides to talk to the FBI and wear a wire, part of
that process drives him crazy, but part of the process is really seductive to
him because, you know, he’s seen the movie; he’s seen “The Firm.” He’s watched
the James Bond films. He kids that he’s 0014 because he’s twice as good as 007.
Since you’ve been in a series of spy films, “The Bourne Identity” films, what
was it like for you to play somebody who wants to be that character and isn’t?

Mr. DAMON: It was a lot of fun. It was, you know, the opposite of doing the
Bourne movies. Yeah, I think – and it was always something that I thought was
interesting about the character, that he did enjoy – you know, he did see
himself as embroiled in the middle of this, you know, this drama, and he did
constantly refer to Michael Crichton novels, and the character actually became
addicted to the movie “The Firm” and saw himself as Tom Cruise in “The Firm,”
and he would go, and you know, he would tell his wife he was going one place,
and he’d go back to the multiplex and sit there and watch “the Firm.”

So there is that aspect of the character, of him, that was enjoying the work
that he was doing. But on the other hand, he was taking extraordinary risks. He
was doing really courageous things, gathering all this evidence, but ultimately
his lawyer, the defense - one of the defenses they used was look, these FBI
agents go out and do undercover work, and they’re trained for it, and they
crack, and here’s a guy with absolutely no training who went out there for two
and a half years, and you know, obviously when he was diagnosed as being
bipolar, they realized that all of this pressure that he was under was just
exacerbating that, and he started to deteriorate, you know, pretty quickly by
the end.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how you stand or walk or move
differently as Jason Bourne in a genuine spy thriller and as Mark Whitacre in
“The Informant!,” somebody who is an executive at ADM but is wearing a wire and
really wants to be the spy, kind of, thriller person, but isn’t?

Mr. DAMON: Yeah, to me the whole – you know, the way you walk, and the way you
stand, and the way you sit, those are things I think a lot about and always
come out of hours and hours and hours of whatever kind of training or research
I’m doing.

In the case of the Bourne movies, one of the examples I use is that character
always stands angled off on whoever he’s talking to because the guy who was
teaching me, you know, how to handle all these weapons out in the desert in
L.A. was a former SWAT shotgunner, and he always stood angled off to me. And I
realized that after I’d spent, like, a couple hundred hours with him, and I
said: Why are you always standing like that? I mean, is it to present less of
an angle or something? He said: Well, it’s that, but really I just do it out of
habit because I wear my gun on this hip, and I always keep my body between
whoever I’m talking to and my gun.

So I’m convinced that there are thousands of little things like that that are
signals, that you don’t – when you look at a movie, and sometimes you walk out,
and you know, I’ll say to someone, hey, did you like that performance of that,
you know, whatever actor? And a lot of times somebody will say, no, I didn’t,
not really. And I’d say, well, why? And they’d go, I don’t know. I don’t know.
And they can’t quite put their finger on it, but I’m convinced that there are
hundreds of little details and little signals that you’re sending to somebody
who’s watching the performance that add up to make a performance believable or
not, and so I geek out on that stuff all the time and think about that stuff.

You know, in the case of this movie, putting on the weight, and you know, a
bunch of the external things really helped, the wardrobe, the wig I was
wearing, the moustache. I had plumpers – plumping things in my cheeks that the
dentist made for me, a nose thing at the end of my nose because Steven was
convinced that the character shouldn’t have any hard edges at all. You know, he
should look kind of hard to define, hard to pin down.

When your body changes, and you feel clothes hitting certain parts of your body
they don’t normally hit, and it just affects everything. It’s like a kind of a
way to immerse yourself into that other guy.

GROSS: So if in “The Bourne Identity” you stood at an angle when talking to
people to separate your gun – to put your body between your gun and the person
you’re talking to, how did you stand as Mark Whitacre in “The Informant!” when
you were talking to people?

Mr. DAMON: Straight, just right straight facing somebody, like a guy who’s got
nothing to hide.

GROSS: What kind of conversations do you have with each other when you’re
making a film? Like, Steven Soderbergh, do you give a lot of directions to the
actors? Do you have conversations about motivation and that kind of stuff?

Mr. SODERBERGH: Boy, you know, I try not to.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. SODERBERGH: Honestly. I don’t want an actor – this sounds terrible – I
don’t want them thinking. I want them just behaving the way the character
would, and…

GROSS: But wait, wait, but Matt Damon said he kind of geeks out on the details,
thinking about…

Mr. DAMON: That’s preparing.

Mr. SODERBERGH: You’re preparing so that when you’re in the moment, you’re
responding as the character would respond, but it’s been my experience that
when you can give an actor practical things to do, physical things to do, that
that really helps them lock into the character, and I really don’t like to
engage in philosophical conversations while we’re shooting because I feel like
it puts them in their head, and I don’t want them in their head.

Mr. DAMON: That’s exactly right, and I mean from an actor’s perspective, too,
that’s exactly right, and the things that I geek out over, it’s just when I’m
thinking about it. It’s a totally different stage of the, you know, of the
whole deal.

When it’s happening, you need practical – you know, in fact, I’m working with a
first-time director right now, and I jokingly told him that he was on a shot
clock, that, you know, if he can’t say it in 15 seconds, I just start hearing
white noise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAMON: Because – now if you want to have philosophical conversations,
that’s great, and I’ll go out to dinner with you in pre-production, and we can
talk for hours and hours and hours, and sometimes that’s really helpful good,
and talk about, you know, thematically what’s happening, and you know, all
that’s great, but shooting a movie is a very different kind of stage of the
process.

And to talk about Steven’s direction for a second, I would say it’s how I feel
about a bunch of the directors I’ve worked with who all work very differently.
But, like with Gus Van Sant or Clint Eastwood or Francis, like, their direction
is always necessary and helpful.

So they don’t give me any more direction than I need. But like, an example
would be in this movie, there’s a scene where I apologize. I’m in court, and I
apologize to the community, and I apologize to all of these people right before
I’m sentenced. And on the first take, I did it as I thought he would have done
it. It was this very heartfelt apology, and Steven said cut, and he came over,
and he just sat down next to me, and he went, no.

And I said what do you mean? I thought that was really, that was honest. I felt
something there that felt pretty real. And he goes, no, no, it was good. He
said it’s just in the wrong movie. And this, the tone of this movie was so
specific that all the actors were really relying on Steven to kind of have the
view from 30,000 feet at all times because we can get lost in a moment or in a
scene and go off the rails pretty quickly, and that’s what had happened to me.

And so I said okay, well, all right, what do I do? And he thought for a second,
and then he said: Do it like an awards acceptance speech.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAMON: And that was it, and that was my direction, and it’s brilliant
direction, and it’s what – it’s why I love working with him and why I’ve gone
back to work with, you know, Gus and Francis, and I’m going to go back and work
with Clint again. The best ally you can have, you know, I have such trust in
somebody who can give me a perfect piece of direction that, you know, doesn’t
bog me down, that doesn’t take me out of it but just basically is utterly
helpful.

GROSS: Steven, what made you think of an awards acceptance speech as being,
like, the right tone?

Mr. SODERBERGH: I guess it’s because I knew that part of him liked standing up
and having everyone look at him and listen to him, that he liked that kind of
attention. And so I wanted to have a sense of that, of the pleasure of that,
and it contributes to the fact that he’s often disconnected from the context in
which he’s operating.

So it just – I don’t – you’re always trying to find the right metaphor to give
somebody an idea, and for some reason, I just, I thought of him standing up
there sort of with an Oscar in his hand, and what would that sound like?

GROSS: My guests are director Steven Soderbergh and actor Matt Damon. Their new
movie is “The Informant!” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Steven Soderbergh and Matt
Damon. They worked together on the “Ocean’s” movies, starting with “Ocean’s
11,” and now they’ve worked together on “The Informant!,” which opens Friday.
Steven Soderbergh directed it, Matt Damon stars in it as a whistleblower at
ADM, and it’s adapted from the true story as reported in Kurt Eichenwald’s
book, “The Informant.”

Let me take you on a tangent for a second, Matt Damon. You did one of the
really funny videos. This is really one of the funnier moments of recent TV
history, I think. It was a video that Sarah Silverman made for the Jimmy Kimmel
show, and at the time this was on, they were a couple. I don’t know if they
still are. But anyway, so she comes on his show and says I have something very,
very important to tell you, and then it cuts to this video, and the video is
her saying I am blanking Matt Damon. I can’t say the word, but you’ll get what
it is. It’s a word I can’t say on the radio. I’m blanking Matt Damon.

And then it cuts to you, and you’re there, looking very handsome on a couch,
and you say, yes, she is blanking Matt Damon. Then it goes into this whole kind
of song-and-dance video thing, and you know, there’s like parodies of, like,
hip-hop dance videos and, you know, like, love scenes from videos. How did Matt
Damon become the person who she wanted to brag to her boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel,
that she was blanking?

Mr. DAMON: Well, it started – there’s been a kind of a running joke with Jimmy
and me, and I don’t know how he picked me. He told me that - he does this thing
at the end of his show where he says my apologies to Matt Damon, we ran out of
time, and it’s this running joke that I’m sitting waiting to come on, but I was
basically bumped by whatever guests he has on the show that night.

GROSS: Which is something that typically happens to up-and-coming people or the
writer who’s on the end of the show, the unknown comic, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAMON: Exactly, exactly, and they end up doing an extra segment with one of
the people, you know, one of their headliners, and that guy gets bumped, and so
it started because he had such a depressing show one night, he said I had,
like, a ventriloquist and a guy in a gorilla suit, and you know, it was one of
these shows where I had this feeling, like, nobody was watching and just as
kind of a throwaway at the end of his – you know, when he was saying goodnight
everybody, he said my apologies to Matt Damon, you know, we ran out of time.

And his producer, who was standing by, you know, on the other side of the
camera, just doubled over laughing, and so he just started doing it every night
because the two of those guys thought it was really funny, and then it kind of
took on a life of its own.

I started to hear about. People came up to me, you know, what’s the deal with
you – are you really – did you really get bumped from, you know, Jimmy Kimmel?
And I knew what it was – I mean, I knew what it was. I watched him, and I saw
him do it. I thought, oh, that’s a really funny idea.

So Sarah called with this idea of - because, you know, she was his girlfriend,
that originally it was going to take – the show was originally, it was going to
air on his - what was going to be his 40th birthday party, but the writers
strike happened, and it ended up being done at a different time. But that was –
but basically, I mean, I can take absolutely no credit for that, you know,
video. It was a great idea that they had and that Sarah – you know, Sarah
showed up in Miami. We shot in, like, two hours because I had to go to a
parent-teacher conference, and I wasn’t expecting it to have even that much
production value.

There was – I got there at 7:00 in the morning and they had, you know, red
jumpsuits and backup dancers, and I was like, oh, okay, this is funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAMON: So it was basically just I was the beneficiary of some very funny
people doing some really good writing.

GROSS: You both had success when you were very young. Steven Soderbergh, when
you won, when “Sex, Lies and Videotape” won the Cannes Film Festival top award
you were the youngest person ever to win that, the youngest director. And Matt
Damon, you were in your 20s when you got the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Mr. DAMON: Affleck was younger than me, though, so he’s the youngest
screenwriter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. So I guess I’m curious how what you think you want out of life
and work has changed since having that young success, you know, now that you’ve
had a lot more experience.

Mr. DAMON: I think we both just want to try and win more awards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Good going.

Mr. SODERBERGH: That’s what drives us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. SODERBERGH: No, I think, speaking for myself, I think the danger is always
that you get frozen in the moment of your success because you’re afraid that
it’s going to go away, and I looked at it as just an opportunity, that the sort
of crazy luck that we had was going to present me with the opportunity to
explore a little bit, and I tried to take advantage of it, and I’ve continued
to try and take advantage of it. And so early on, because I’d read a lot about
the careers of other artists, not just filmmakers, the artists that I admired
the most kept evolving and adapting, and so, you know, I felt that’s, you know,
in a weird sort of way the only safe thing is to take a chance.

GROSS: Interesting. Okay. Well, listen, good luck with the new movie and
everything else, and I really want to thank you both so much for talking with
us. Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, thank you.

Mr. DAMON: Thanks a lot.

Mr. SODERBERGH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Matt Damon stars in the new film “The Informant!” It’s directed by
Steven Soderbergh. “The Informant!” opens this weekend. Here’s music from the
soundtrack composed by Marvin Hamlisch. I’m Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
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From Comedy Writer To 'Famous Novelist'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

My guest, Steve Hely is a comedy writer who has worked on "Late Night with
David Letterman," "American Dad," and now writes for "30 Rock." His new book is
the satirical novel about bestselling books. The main character is a young man
who tries to figure out the formula for writing a bestselling novel so that he
can show up his ex-girlfriend and so that he can issue pronouncements like; a
writer makes it his duty to be midwife and doctor to an idea being birthed. The
bestsellers Hely created for his novel sound like the real thing, like this
one, “Caesar, CEO: Business Secrets of the Ancient Romans.”

Steve Hely, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write a book about bad
books?

Mr. STEVE HELY (Comedy writer, author of "How I Became a Famous Novelist"):
Well, I like going to bookstores and I'm always just taken aback and awed by
the shear number of books that come out every year that are lining the shelves
of bookstores and I love just like rifling through them and finding the weird
crazy books. And each one represents some person's fanatic interest. And it
takes a lot of energy and effort to write a book and there are so many of them,
and so many of them are so crazy that I thought it'll be fun to write a book
that sort of played with the idea of people who are writing these books and
authors trying to invent this version of themselves and people trying to write
books - maybe not for the best motives and whether there's a difference between
people who are trying to do it for the sort of noble motives of art and whether
it's possible to sort of fake your way into that and come up with a book just
sort of with the most crass and commercial mode as possible.

GROSS: And the later is what you’re author tries to do. He has ulterior
motives?

Mr. HELY: Yeah. Exactly. He's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: He's interested in money and fame and humiliating his enemies.

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. HELY: And whether it's possible to sort of bluff your way into writing
something that people could consider good.

GROSS: Okay. Let's start with the title that he comes up with, "The Tornado
Ashes Club." What does the title meant to communicate, because everything he
writes is meant to sell this book?

Mr. HELY: Right. Well, he makes a study of the bestseller list. The main
character makes a study of The New York Times Best Seller List. And he
discovers that they're a lot of common tropes and things that seemed to be in
popular sort literary books. And one of them is like clubs, people who are in
clubs. One of them is natural disasters sort of sweeping American landscapes,
long journeys - and he compresses all these things into a crazy wild narrative
that involves people trying to throw the ashes of his grandmother's long dead
lover into a tornado, which seem like the most - to him seems like the most
sort of poetically ridiculous image he can come up with.

GROSS: To more fully describe the book, let me read the blurb that the writer
writes, hoping that this will be the bestseller blurb.

Love, loss, and the soul of truth are explored when a wrongly accused man goes
on a road trip with his grandmother and an American folk singer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Yeah. Although, later his editor changes the American folk singer
into a Ranchera singer, a singer of Ranchera music because she thinks that
might appeal to sort of Hispanic market.

GROSS: He has a lot of rules. Your author has a lot of rules he came up with
for creating a bestselling novel. As you mentioned, you know, have the word
club...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...in the story.

Mr. HELY: Yeah, he's got to have his club.

GROSS: There's got to be club or a mysterious secret society, shy characters,
surprising love affairs. Also, the novel must have scenes on highways making
driving seem poetic and magical. Why is that important?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Well, he wants to tap into the audio, to the rich audio book market,
so he's got to have scenes that make people who are driving feel like they're
being included in this lyrical mythic journey across America's rugged
landscape, even if they're just driving to Costco.

GROSS: It has to involve music, which you have through the American folk
singer.

Mr. HELY: Right. Exactly. Yeah. Because a lot of bookstores are also selling
music so, you know, there's possibilities for crossover, a movie soundtrack.
The fake author of this book is targeting a multiplatform media distribution
landscape. He's very savvy about how he's going to sell things.

GROSS: And dull points, include descriptions of delicious meals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: I find when I'm reading I'm always usually hungry. And like, as long
as I'm reading I'm always also thinking about getting up to get a sandwich and
so if a book is sort of like stimulating that sense, it will probably keep me
going a little bit longer than it might otherwise.

GROSS: And finally, the prose must be lyrical. And how do you define lyrical?

Mr. HELY: Lyrical means resembling bad poetry as far as this guy can figure
out, so it should be easy enough for him to do and he does a little practice.

GROSS: Well, give us a taste of the novel that your factious novelist writes,
hoping it will become a bestseller...

Mr. HELY: Yeah, there's excerpts...

GROSS: ...and following all the rules that he came up with.

Mr. HELY: There's an excerpt at the beginning of the book: (Reading) Away from
them, across the field of low Durum wheat, they saw Evangeline's frame,
outlined pale in shadow against the highway sky, as it trembled. That's the way
it is with a song, isn't it? she said. The way it quivers in your heart.
Quivers like the wings of a little bird. In a story too. He spoke it softly in
a voice that let her know how close they were. That's the way it is with a
story. Turns your heart into a bird.

GROSS: Oh god, I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is something that your author doesn’t mention as one of his
rules, but to talk about the magic of the story is also a really important
thing in some bestsellers.

Mr. HELY: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Well, the strange thing is that, of course, that is true. People do
love stories and...

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. HELY: ...stories grip people and people get excited about them. But, of
course, authors and writers and people who are interested in stories often sort
of get hyperbolic in talking about how powerful and evocative these things are.
And it just seemed fun to play with that idea of a guy who's sort of faking it
and he's coming up with this totally crap story that means nothing to him but
trying to present it as this sort of like transformative mythic religious
experience and hoping he can bluff people into believing it.

GROSS: So, when you were writing this book and going to a lot of bookstores and
seeing a lot of books that struck you as really crazy or merely bad, did you
start keeping a notebook of particularly purple phrases that you'd come up with
or stop phrases that seemed to be recurring in a lot of different novels?

Mr. HELY: Yeah. It seemed like lyrical. The word lyrical appears on the back
cover of almost every sort of work of literary fiction. And sometimes it's
accurate and means that the prose is like incredibly musical and falls lightly
on the ear, and sometimes it just sort of means that like they're going to be a
lot of adjectives and it's sort of crazy writing, and the simplest act of every
author is described in the most sort of luscious purple prose possible. So that
seemed like a pretty key one to hit.

But I was also sort of focusing on what story elements seemed to be really
popular. The amount of murders that occur on The New York Times Best Seller
List is just incredible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Very few books get on The New York Times Best Seller List unless
someone has gotten murdered in them. And this is true of TV shows, too, and
movies as well. People love reading about murders.

GROSS: So you had to put a murder in the novel within the novel?

Mr. HELY: Yeah. Of course, you’ve got to have one.

GROSS: You know, your writer writes his outline for the novel and he ends with,
a stunning literary debut told with lyrical prose – check -

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Right.

GROSS: gentle humor and an artist's eye. "The Tornado Ashes Club" is a novel
for anyone's who’s had love or lost it, learned a wise lesson or a dark secret,
or felt the magic of the story that is America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Right.

GROSS: That's so great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: That is - he's this guy who's sort of basically just trying to write
the purplist(ph) description he can and nails it and it's shameless...

GROSS: And who hasn’t had love or lost it or learned a wise lesson or a dark
secret? And but it...

Mr. HELY: Or it felt the story that is America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It felt the magic of the story that is America. But that's another thing
that he thinks is key. You know, talking about like the magic of America. Why
does he think that's important to include in the book?

Mr. HELY: Somehow, I mean, that seems like a very popular and recurring theme
in American fiction and especially popular American fiction that it often takes
place in some rugged or strange place. It's strange to, you know, the people
like you and I that work in the media and you know, sort of fantasize West
Virginia and western Texas and the plains of Montana, although we don’t bother
living there, but we sort romanticize it. And I there's a sort of a hunger for
that authenticity among people who are sort of looking for experiences in books
and doing a lot of reading who sort of crave that idea of the American wilds.
And there is something magical about it.

This guy doesn’t know anything. He is living in, you know, suburban Boston and
doesn’t know what he's talking about. But he knows that that is a thing that
people crave when they're reading books and he crams it in there as much as
possible.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Steve Hely and he's written a new
really funny satirical novel about the book world, which is called "How I
Became a Famous Novelist." Hely has also written for David Letterman, for
"American Dad," and now he writes for "30 Rock."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

Mr. HELY: Right.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Steve Hely and his new comic
novel is called "How I Became a Famous Novelist" and it's a satire of
bestselling books and of authors who write them. And Hely has also written for
"The David Letterman Show" and "American Dad," and he now writes for "30 Rock."

In your novel, "How I Became a Famous Novelist," you come up with your own
bestseller list. It's...

Mr. HELY: Yeah.

GROSS: So, I'm going to ask you to read a few of the fiction and nonfiction
entries on the bestseller list that you wrote for the book.

Mr. HELY: Sure. The New York Times Bestseller List is a just great piece of
writing. They always have these terrific summaries of books that are obviously
very weird and oftentimes difficult to summarize and it's just an amazing kind
of poetry that I love reading every week. So here's some of my fake ones:

"Mind Stretch." Trang Martinez suspects her Pilates instructor may also be a
vicious serial killer. "Great Fish." The Biblical story of Jonah, retold from
the point of view of the whale. "Kindness to Birds." On a journey across the
Midwest, a downsized factory worker named Gabriel touches the lives of several
people wounded by life. "Expense The Burberry." A young woman in Manhattan
spends her days testing luxury goods and her nights partying and complaining.

So those would be some fiction. Here's a couple of nonfiction: "Cracked Like
Teeth." A memoir of petty crime, drunken brawls, and recovery, by a writer who
was addicted to paint thinner by age nine. “Empanadas in Worcester.” Traveling
from Khartoum to Madras to Rhode Island, a commentator for CNN suggests
globalization means a stranger but friendlier world in the 21st century. "Bonds
Sealed In Freedom." An account of the signing of the Declaration of
Independence, focusing on the friendship of Washington, Jefferson, and a
little-known Philadelphia orphan.

GROSS: I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know I've read these books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: You may have had them on.

GROSS: I may have had them on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The bestseller list usually also reflects the culture wars, because
you’ve got the books from the left and the books from the right, and they're
always vying for the top spots.

Mr. HELY: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: So you’ve come up with like your right-wing author Donny Vebber. Tell us
about him.

Mr. HELY: Oh yeah. He's sort of a radio host that the main character of my book
listens to on the way to work, just to sort of try and stimulate some emotional
excitement in him and he's a radical, he wrote a book called "Tax the Jihadi's"
that talks about how he wants to deport illegal immigrants to Iran and see how
they like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: And sort of our main character listens to right-wing talk-radio as I
and some people I know, have to sort of - it’s just a way of like sort of
getting yourself worked up emotionally. And gradually, as he becomes
emotionally deadened, he realizes that even this isn't doing it for him
anymore. He just can't get worked up and he becomes more and more indifferent.

GROSS: You’re getting interviewed right now and I'm sure you’ve been doing, you
know, a bunch of interviews for your new book as authors always hope to do in
order to get the word out about their book, so did you study book interviews...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...both to write your book and also to like perform after the book was
published?

Mr. HELY: I have studied book interviews. I love reading interviews of the
authors because they are always terrific. I think the interview that Cormac
McCarthy gave with Oprah is one of the most amazing pieces of television that
has ever occurred. I mean one of the first questions Oprah - this is Oprah
remember - asked Cormac McCarthy is, you know there aren't a lot of women in
you books and Cormac McCarthy just looks at her and goes, I've never met a
woman that I understood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: And it's true. This is just an absurd meeting of American culture,
two geniuses who are trying to have a conversation with each other. But yeah,
you know, I have studied author interviews. They're a lot of authors who are
great at presenting an image of themselves which is awesome and incredible.
They come up with the best character possible is themselves. I feel like I'm
going to make my life a lot easier if I just tell you the truth as best as I
can.

GROSS: Preston Brooks is the bestselling novelist who's the kind of a part
model part rival for the writer in your novel. He says - and I think this is,
if I remember correctly, this in an interview. He says, I found a tattered copy
"Of Mice and Men," maybe from an angel's hand, maybe just a lazy schoolboy, but
I read it and John Steinbeck showed me that there was stronger stuff than
whiskey.

Mr. HELY: Right. This is from a moment in the book where Pete Tarslaw, the main
character is watching this interview on TV and seeing this guy and he can't
believe the just reams of garbage that's coming out of his mouth, the absurd
statements that he's saying, and he's thinking to himself oh, I can totally
pretend to be that guy. And part of the story of this book is, is it possible
to pretend to be something you’re not in order to become really successful? Can
you bluff your way into this? And some, you read interviews with authors and
you wonder how much of it is true and how much is fake.

I love the author Mark Helper, and I don’t know him, I've never met him. All I
know about him is what I read in interviews and his interviews are crazy. He
just wrote this book called "Digital Barbarism" where he's sort of responding
to people who criticize him on the Internet. And it includes so many remarkable
just sort of castoff passages about his own life, which - I don’t know if
they're or false - but he talks about, you know, when I was 14 I went off on a
bike ride across the United States and he talks about these encounters he had
with corn farmers and stuff.

Now maybe this is all true, I don’t know, but certainly he's having, he's
presenting an image of Mark Helper in which is awesome and admirable and which
you want to, you want to know more about this guy. So, I think that they’re –
whether they are fake or real is – is part of the fun of figuring it all out.

GROSS: Now, your previous book, which you co-authored, was called, “The
Ridiculous Race.”

Mr. HELY: That’s right.

GROSS: Describe the premise of that book.

Mr. HELY: This was another television writer, a friend of mine named Vali
Chandrasekaran and I had an idea to have a race around the world in opposite
directions without using airplanes. We were both living in L.A. at the time and
we agreed that I would go west and he would go east and we would circumnavigate
the globe without using airplanes. And the first guy to get back to L.A. from
the opposite direction would win an expensive bottle of scotch. And we set off
to do this journey. And I went around the world without using airplanes. I did
not get back to Los Angeles first, however I still consider myself the winner.
And I had a lot of adventures along the way in China and Mongolia and the
Pacific Ocean and so forth. And Vali had his own set of adventures too. And
hopefully the book is funny and entertaining and people will enjoy it.

GROSS: Now I have to tell you, that’s a genre of book that I tend to really
dislike. I consider it like the pointless exercise designed for the sole
purpose of getting a book contract to carry out the pointless exercise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Oh well, it was absolutely a pointless exercise. We absolutely just
wanted to do it. We were lucky enough to find a publisher that would sort of
fund us to do it and sort of, as our part of the bargain, we wrote a book that
we hope is funny and entertaining to readers. And I think, you know, it should
basically even out. But I absolutely confess to it being a pointless act that
we just wanted to have a race around the world.

GROSS: Now, I want to read an explanation you gave of how the race began. You
wrote, it was at the Magnificence Consortium, a society I’d founded. The
members - myself, Vali, and our delightful young associate Leila(ph) - met
weekly for the purposes of wearing preposterous suits, inventing cocktails,
attempting to cook forgotten foods of the 1920s, drinking wine from the 99 Cent
Store, sampling expired medicines and proposing toasts to one another.

And I wasn’t sure if that was for real or not because in that you have some of
the elements that the writer in your novel decided has to be included in any
book to be a bestseller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You have a society, you know, a club.

Mr. HELY: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely…

GROSS: You have like food, you know, like forgotten foods of the 1920s.

Mr. HELY: Right.

GROSS: …recipes of forgotten foods.

Mr. HELY: I tell you that all of that is true. Most of the foods in the 1920s
were supplied by the one lady in the society - Vali and I can’t cook at all.
But all of those things did occur. They did really happen and I won’t deny that
we were definitely pretending to be more awesome than we were but we did do
these things. So, I can vouch for that being 100 percent true.

GROSS: Why did you have a magnificence consortium, a little…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …a little society? And, why do you see it as something to be satirized
now, you know, all the books that actually have, you know, clubs or…

Mr. HELY: Well, we all – well, people love clubs. There’s a reason why people
form them and people have them. I have nothing against clubs. I’ve been part of
quite a few awesome ones and I’m proud of them. And there’s no - and book clubs
are certainly a big way to get books across in a way that people talk about and
love books. Now, if you were a absolutely cynical person and you wanted to -
and if all you’re thinking about is how to make your book popular, then you’d
certainly want to appeal to book clubs because those are people - those are
groups of 10 and 15 people who are going to buy books.

And you’d also want to appeal to people who are reading on their own and sort
of dream of being a part of a cool club. Now, I was lucky enough to live with
my friends and we formed this little society, which was short-lived because it
was so ridiculous. But we did form it and it did exist. And I – despite any
satire, I endorse clubs and encourage people to join and found them.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Steve Hely and he’s written a
new, really funny satirical novel about the book world, which is called, “How I
Became a Famous Novelist.” He has also written for David Letterman, for the
series, “American Dad.” And he now writes for “30 Rock.” Let’s take a short
break here and then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Steve Hely. He’s written a comic
novel about the book world, specifically about somebody who sets out to write a
best-selling novel, and it’s called “How I Become A Famous Novelist.” Hely has
also written for David Letterman, for “American Dad” and now he writes for “30
Rock.”

Well, how did you break into television? I know you edited “The Harvard
Lampoon,” when you…

Mr. HELY: Yes, I was president of “The Harvard Lampoon.” And then I, after
graduating college I sort of just sat around my parent’s house and worked and
just tried to write samples of packets for television shows. This is how you
sort of just write a sample of the shows that you like. And I wrote a bunch and
tried to get hired on different shows. And then, sort of, through a lucky break
I was able to find someone who would send my packet to “The Late Show With
David Letterman.” And they liked what I’d written. And I got a job interview
there. And then I didn’t hear back from them for two months and I moved to Los
Angeles to try and look for work there. And then immediately on arriving in Los
Angeles I got a job and I had to move back to New York to work on “Letterman.”

GROSS: That’s funny.

Mr. HELY: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you do 10 best list?

Mr. HELY: I did write top 10 lists, yeah. And sometimes we would get home - the
most fun of working on that job was that sometimes we’d write a top 10 list,
and then we’d stay at work late. And, you know, it would be 11:30 or so, we’d
be going home in a cab and the cabbies would be listening to the top 10 list on
the radio, which is always fun to actually hear someone enjoying the work you’d
just done that day.

GROSS: Did you write top 10 lists for politicians? Sometimes Hillary would come
on and do her top 10 list, which I always assumed the writers wrote.

Mr. HELY: Yes. I don’t remember any politicians when I was there. I’m sure
there were some. I remember one really fun one we wrote was like, we had to
write a top 10 list where there was going to be a team of Army, you know,
Special Forces guys rappelling off the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theatre - the
14th floor of the Ed Sullivan Theatre. And we had to write things for them to
yell as they were rappelling off the roof.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: I don’t remember all the good ones but it was fun to write for those
guys. I remember - I don’t even know how I wrote this joke but I just remember
an Army paratrooper jumping off the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theatre yelling:
dude, you’re getting a Dell. And was just rappelling…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: …down the side of 14th – 54th street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you’ve also written for “American Dad,” which is an animated series.
What’s it’s like to write for cartoon characters as opposed to people?

Mr. HELY: Oh, it’s great because you – it’s a lot easier than dealing with
actors because it’s, you know, you can have them record it 50, 60 times and
it’s not that stressful for them. And you can manipulate the sets a lot more
easily. There’s no physical restrictions. You can move people around and have
them in different countries and invent new characters whenever you want and all
you have to do is find a voice to supply it. And there’s also a long time-lag
in the time between you write something and when the actual cartoon appears on
the air.

So, when you’re working on a late night show, like “Letterman” for instance,
there’s people running around in costumes and you have to get stuff done in
five minutes. And you got to run it down to the stage. And it’s frantic and
show-bizzy(ph). And working on an animated show is a lot more relaxed because,
you know, you write something and then it’s going to take nine months for
someone to draw it and process it and color it and get it all back. So, it’s a
little more laid back.

GROSS: You’ve been writing for “30 Rock” since June. So, this is your first
period. We haven’t seen any of your shows yet, right?

Mr. HELY: Yes, I just started working there.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HELY: I can’t take credit for any of the genius that they’ve already done.
But I’m excited to be a part of that team.

GROSS: So, what’s it like when you join a show that’s already in progress? Is
there like…

Mr. HELY: Oh, there’s absolutely brutal hazing. It’s merciless. No, it is –
it’s a little weird because there are people there, you know, who have been
there since the beginning and they’ve – they’ve gotten down the voice of the
show and they’ve figured out how to work with each other. And they know what
they’re doing and they know what works and what doesn’t. And you sort of have
to figure that out very quickly on the job and hopefully make a contribution.
But, it’s tough. And especially a show like “30 Rock” that, you know, has set
the bar for comedy brilliance, you really want to bring your A game and do your
best.

GROSS: Let’s get back to your novel, a second.

Mr. HELY: Sure.

GROSS: Your satire about the literary world and about somebody who tries to be
a best-selling writer. You know and he knows that when it comes time to be
interviewed for his book, he could present this super awesome version of
himself…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Exactly yes.

GROSS: …to help interest people in him and his book. So, if you were taking
your life…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Oh, the best version of my life.

GROSS: The best version of your life.

Mr. HELY: Well, I was young…

GROSS: To be an awesome version of yourself.

Mr. HELY: I was a younger child and I always had to struggle for attention my
whole life. And I scrappily managed to work my way through the town of Needham
Park and Recreation System…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: …slaving away at the town pool in the bowels of misery. But through
there I found comedy offered me a way out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: And I worked my way up to Harvard where I got on “The Harvard
Lampoon” and showed those rich kids what was what. With my witty satire, I
entered the circles of the aristocrats. And from there I managed to break into
Hollywood. But soon I found that Hollywood disgusted me with its…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: …deplorable, silicon lifestyle and values degraded by wealth and
pools. And so I came back to New York City, the only place where a writer could
be. And I took on the publishing world. The towers on 14th Street, sorting out
America’s literary world, I told them that I would show the emperor had no
clothes. And so I’ve done with “How I Became a Famous Novelist.” And I intend –
I don’t intend to rest until I’ve destroyed the entire facade of American
publishing and shown it for what it truly is.

GROSS: And now you can make it in Hollywood too because the book has been
optioned, your book has been optioned.

Mr. HELY: It’s true, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: My - now finally I’ll go back and I’ll put it on the big screen and
of course those bastards in Hollywood will probably tear it apart and put a
happy ending on it and ruin everything. But, I needed the money for my whiskey
and women.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Is that the person – is that the version you’re looking for?

GROSS: Very good, very good.

Mr. HELY: Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s tiresome to pretend to be a
character, although very fun.

GROSS: Well Steve Hely, we’re out of time. I want to thank you so much for
talking with us. It’s been really fun and…

Mr. HELY: Sure, my pleasure.

GROSS: I really enjoyed your novel. So, thanks a lot.

Mr. HELY: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Steve Hely is the author of the new satirical novel, “How I Became A
Famous Novelist.” He also writes for “30 Rock.”

You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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