A talk by Steve Hely at the Word Festival, Christchurch, 2016.
“What I like about books is you can really get into someone’s head. In books you can have inner monologues.” Steve frequently contrasted his work for tv talk shows and comedy shows with his much more personal journey with book writing.
Hely’s first novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. While that sounds fantastic for a debut, Steve’s work on The Offce, American Dad! and 30 Rock probably helped! His latest project is part travel book, part pop history and part comic memoir. Titled The Wonder Trail it follows his journey to South America.
He wrote sample packets for many shows while trying to “break in” to the comedy tv circuit. He heard that the David Letterman show was always firing people and sent them a packet. The writing environment surprised him as there was a high degree of isolation. Like writers working away in isolated cubes. They’d find little stories and blow them up.
When Steve moved to sitcoms he found the writing teams to be a lot more collaborative. 30 Rock writers came from all over and Tina Fey was inspiring. “She could inspire 80% of the show.”
Every show runner’s personality is going to infuse the team, he explained. “On the US version of The Office we needed to avoid making it a dumbed down version of the UK show.” Steve also learned to trust the actors as well. “They embody the character and can often give insights.”
His book Famous … led him to question the differences between genuine and pretentious. “I intended the book to be reflective of real life. You do well as a writer if you split yourself up into parts and over-emphasise those parts, no matter whether they’re the good bits or the bad.”
Is there a grand Hely theory on art? What is the difference between Grisham and a Pulitzer-prize winner, he asked. For example Da Vinci Code is stupid and thin in parts, but is thrilling and engaging. He says these are questions for society, about what we favour and reward.
“We can never know what the next big thing will be. People talk about LA and Hollywood being fake, but everything is fake – a dream – until it takes off. And anything can work – for example Avatar.”
The Wonder Trail is also about travel writing. “What does it mean to go somewhere and report back. It used to be a big genre. And South America is a huge continent and their people have a huge impact on North America.”
As well as the headline-grabbing escapades, Steve said travel really makes you feel alive. “You’re in touch with your senses. Where will I get drinks, food, etc? Who will I meet? Your ordinary routines no longer apply.”
Returning to his non-novel life, Steve enjoys the process when writers bring in small or personal items and a team will riff on it. And a word of caution. “The Great Debates are based on snippets that may or may not be completely accurate. Don’t take them literally.”