Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Interview with TV writer and novelist Steve Hely

Steve Hely is the author of How I Became a Famous Novelist and a writer for The Office, 30 Rock and American Dad.

How did you get into writing for TV?

I'd always been interested in writing stories and plays. When I was in fourth grade I tried to produce a play at my elementary school about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but some wise teachers put a stop to it. Then when I got to Harvard University, I became a member of the Harvard Lampoon magazine. It's the oldest continuously published humor magazine in the world, and many graduates from there have gone into TV writing. So I learned for the first time that TV writing was really a job you could get. And that doing it was basically just like sitting around with your funny friends. So after I graduated I wrote samples for several shows I liked. I ended up getting my first job writing jokes for The Late Show with David Letterman in New York City.

Why comedy? What do you like about writing comedy?

Every human is basically a sack of water walking around worrying about its inevitable death. We have these incredible minds full of beauty and wonder, but then we're trapped in these helpless decaying bodies that need to eat and want to mate with each other. You can either see this as tragic or absurd - I generally end up seeing the whole situation as pretty funny, so I veer towards comedy.

What is it like to work with other comedy writers? Are they as funny as their writing?

The best ones are hilarious. I've been lucky to work with some of the funniest people in the world, and it's just a wonder to be around them. But there are also many amazing, hilarious writers who are very quiet or reserved in person. I worked with a guy named Jon Vitti who wrote some of the all-time best episodes of The Simpsons, and he's nearly silent in person, very polite and dignified. But there's the other end of the spectrum, where people are sticking pens up their butts and so forth.

How different are the processes of writing a novel and writing a television series?

On TV shows we work in collaborative groups - you go over each script with a bunch of talented writers. It's a system that's developed over time to fight the horrible loneliness, debilitating procrastination, and generally bad habits of writers working solo. It's a great solution to problems that come from writing alone, like alcoholism and insanity. But on the other hand, the product is never entirely your vision. When you're writing a novel, it's all yours.

How did you come to write your novel? What did you enjoy about writing it?

Being in bookstores, and seeing the vast numbers of books published each year - each one of them the product of someone's incredible work and imagination, and most of them doomed to obscurity - got me started thinking about the comedy of writing.

A novel is the best form for telling a story through a character's eyes and mind. That opens up whole new opportunities: you can tell a story with a strong, skewed point of view. It makes for whole new realms of comedy, satire, and emotion. That's what I enjoyed about writing it.

How I Became a Famous Novelist is available in all good bookstores. You can buy the ebook from Readings ebookstore and Apple's iBookstore

Steve Hely is a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival

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