Steve Hely’s debut novel How I Became a Famous Novelist
is a hilarious sendup of the book publishing world — which should come as no surprise to fans who will recognize his clever writing-style from previous gigs at The Late Show with David Letterman and American Dad. The protagonist, Pete Tarslaw decides to write a bestseller to impress his ex-girlfriend, who’s getting married. And thanks to a careful formula that combines the “best” parts of other popular reads, it works.
We caught up with Hely over email to discuss his real feelings about book critics, the truth about Hollywood writers, and the reason why literary scandals are so darn viral.
Flavorpill: I found the parts of this book that satirize the best-selling authors of the world funny because they’re true. But Pete is equally harsh when talking about book critics/bloggers. Were you ever worried about alienating the very people who could help you promote your book?
Steve Hely: I wasn’t worried about alienating critics — although perhaps I should’ve tried harder to do so? I seem to only hear about books when they infuriate someone, or if the author gets a bad review and goes nuts. But book critics should be able to take some mild ribbing from a fictional character without getting too wrinkled.
FP: Your background is in television writing and there are some priceless scenes where Pete meets with Miller to talk about adapting Tornado Ashes into a film. Do you find success is more merit-based for Hollywood screenwriters or is it even more screwed up than book publishing?
SH: When people invest $20 to 100 million dollars in something, they’re less inclined to screw around, so in movies there’s a fanatical devotion to the most proven kinds of storytelling. Even then, it’s a disaster about half the time. With books, they cost a lot less, so you can try crazier experiments, and there are fewer people keeping an eye on everything.
This is my sense, anyway, but I am totally confused by both businesses and the more I learn about them the more confused I get, so I don’t know.
FP: Have you (like Peter) ever slept, gotten drunk, or started a feud with a famous novelist?
SH: I do all three most weekends
FP: What’s the last good novel that you read? Do you really think readers of literary fiction are easier to trick because of “wordy spackle”?
SH: The last few good novels I read are already pretty famous (Netherland, Olive Kittridge, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) so I will go back farther in reading-time to mention Maynard and Jennica
by Rudolph Delson, which was neat and funny and told in an interesting way.
FP: Why do you think literary scandals are such popular blog fodder (I’m thinking everything from A Million Little Pieces to Alice Hoffman on Twitter)? I feel like something has to be a much bigger deal to get that kind of viral effect in other cultural genres, like visual arts, theater, or even music.
SH: Literary fame is compelling because all you need to do to get it is write a book. A Mormon housewife writes a book about vampires and suddenly she’s a famous millionaire. That is a dream people can have long after they’ve given up on being a famous actor or musician or athlete. You can even become famous at it years after you’re dead. If you are a hideous, poorly socialized, alcoholic weirdo who knows no one and lives alone in some remote backwater, you can still dream that you are a secret literary genius — and you might be right! So it’s a terrific, infinite reality show, full of exciting twists and reversals which people enjoy cheering on. I guess that’s part of it.
The other part might be that writers are sitting at their computers all day and desperate for distraction of any kind.
FP: Somehow we never stop liking Pete — even after the Decline and Fall. I think part of that is because he’s such an honest narrator, but it’s also because he seems to learned something from his missteps…
SH: I’m very glad you like him. It would be hard to read a book narrated by someone totally unlikable. Cause you’d flip through the pages and think “ugh, this guy.” But people who are purely good aren’t very fun either, and it’s harder to get them into horrible situations of their own devising. So that was a tricky balance.
As for the end — I guess you can wonder whether this narrator has learned something or whether you can trust anything this guy says anyway.