You’re driven in limousines, you have Oscar and Golden Globe nods, you make deals in the millions. You’ve achieved the American Dream, circa The Age of Gawker — fame, Hollywood cred, and tabloid photos of you drinking takeout coffee and/or jogging in a headband.
So, naturally, you want to sit at a desk and do the hard work of writing fiction, work that George Orwell compared to “a long bout of some painful illness”?
One of the more unlikely modern trends is the number of actors, including, recently, James Franco, B.J. Novak, and Molly Ringwald, who are forging careers as fiction authors. We’re accustomed to actors extending their brands with memoirs promising backstage kisses and clashes, often co-written or ghost-written. But fiction? It’s the tougher choice, with the promise of “Shining” hours of writer’s block and an awaiting shark tank of skeptical critics.
“I consider the book a very glamorous form,” says B.J. Novak, the Newton kid who made good in “The Office.” “A lot of other people do, too, even if it’s a little dormant in how it’s expressed culturally.” Novak is about to release “One More Thing,” a collection of humorous, smart, and philosophically twisted short stories. Happily, at a time when most actors yearn for new diet regimes, he believes that being a literary writer is a most desirable aspiration.
“To me,” Novak says about going from acting to writing “One More Thing,” which is part of his two-book deal with Knopf, “it was completely a step up.” He connects his eagerness to publish fiction with the theme of his book: “There’s this illusion that if you only have one more thing, you’ll have everything. I have that illusion. I’ve had that with no success, I’ve had that with a good amount of success, I see that with people with more success than me.”
For James Franco, writing last year’s novel “Actors Anonymous” and the stories “Palo Alto” from 2010 was about finding another creative outlet. “For me, it’s not, ‘You made it as an actor, you should be happy.’ No, that’s not why I got into acting in the first place. I got into it to be expressive, to make art. So now writing is just one more inroad into that sphere of art.”
Franco says he loves having fiction — alongside acting and directing — among his tools. “When I write, I like trying to find how writing allows me into a person’s head in the way a movie can’t.” When he started taking writing classes in the 2000s while feeling creatively unsatisfied as an actor, he says, it felt natural: “I thought, I know this language. I know the music of books. I want to be able to learn that language for myself.”
Novels and story collections by actors are numerous enough to have become an informal genre of their own, one whose peaks have included Woody Allen, Carrie Fisher, and Steve Martin, as well as a spy spoof in 1996 by Hugh Laurie called “The Gun Seller.” The valleys? Pamela Anderson’s “Star: A Novel,” Macaulay Culkin’s “Junior,” and Chuck Norris’s “The Justice Riders.” The list of literary hopefuls who act goes on, including Ethan Hawke, Damon Wayans, and Gene Hackman.
Most of these actors face resistance from book critics, who are ready to accuse them of dilettantism and of using their fame — instead of their skill — to get big publishing contracts. Molly Ringwald, the Brat Pack actress whose “When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories” was released in 2012, says people are threatened when you break out of your box: “It’s hard for our society to accept that people do more than one thing. There’s a bit of ‘Why would you want to do that?’ and there’s a certain amount of ‘How dare you.’ ”
Ringwald, whose favorites include Raymond Carver and poet Mary Oliver, says her first book was a memoir — “Getting the Pretty Back,” in 2010 — because “that’s the accepted thing you can do; I wouldn’t dare write fiction.” She also considered using a pseudonym for her novel, which is about a couple in marital free-fall. But the older she gets — she’s 45 — the less she cares about others’ judgments: “I’m not going to spend two years of my life and then not put my name on it. That implies I might feel ashamed, which couldn’t be more wrong. I’m very proud to have written this book.”
Franco, always a lightning rod, says he fully expected the critical skepticism that he has received: “I knew that would be there, but I knew I wanted to write. The positive of being an actor is that I’m probably able to get my work published more easily than my Columbia classmates. But then I’m going to have to face criticism that’s not based solely on the work. Am I willing to pay that price? Yes.”
Generally speaking, Woody Allen and Steve Martin have been embraced as multi-taskers, he notes, “but there aren’t many who are spared.” Ringwald agrees: “They’re more ready to take you down.”
When you take a step back, you can imagine that for an actor, the idea of a break from the eyes of the world, and from the collaboration that’s required in movies and on TV, might appeal. After working with the “Office” folks for eight years, Novak says writing “One More Thing” was an act of self-definition. “I didn’t really know where my voice ended and the voice of ‘The Office’ began,” he says. “I knew they had a lot in common. For me, writing this book and standing alone and showing people what I’d done was liberating.”
Ringwald savors the author’s sense of control. As an actress, she says, she’s more at the mercy of the material: “At the beginning of my career, I was lucky to work with people like John Hughes, who was really talented and fun, and Paul Mazursky. And then later I was working with people who weren’t as talented, and I really do not like acting and trying to make things better than they are. And you don’t have that when you’re writing. It feels more powerful.”
‘When I write, I like trying to find how writing allows me into a person’s head in the way a movie can’t.’ — James Franco
Interestingly, there can be links between acting and writing. For instance, the process of creating the biography of a character for a movie, Ringwald says, lends itself to writing a character on the page.
Novak has found that in his years of acting he has gained an awareness of the audience that informs his fiction: “As an actor, you know what it’s like when people are connecting with you, when you’re offering something that’s relatable. And you know what it’s like when you lose their attention and when you’re being self-indulgent. To know that as a writer, to be able to feel it viscerally in your bones the way an actor does, is a great, great advantage.”
They’re not aiming for fame, these writing actors; they’ve got that. They write, it seems, because they love writing, because they find it worthy and satisfying. “Books are a big part of who I am,” Franco says. “I want to be able to converse in that world, and not just have it be a one-sided love affair.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.