Jason Segel, actor and musician, can now add author to his résumé. With Kirsten Miller, author of the “Kiki Strike” and “Eternal Ones” children’s series, Segel, 34, has co-written “Nightmares!” The middle-grade novel, the first part of a planned trilogy, is about 12-year-old Charlie Laird, who must face his fear of bad dreams to rescue his brother from the world of nightmares. Segel, who has starred in hit TV shows (“Freaks and Geeks,” “How I Met Your Mother”) and films (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Sex Tape”) also has racked up screenwriting credits (“Sarah Marshall,” “The Muppets,” and “The Five-Year Engagement”). The first-time children’s author talked about writing fiction while in town Sept. 12 for a Harvard Book Store event.
Q. Why a middle-grade book?
A. Children’s stuff is really special because it’s a space that doesn’t have cynicism, if you do it right. Or controversy. It’s very pure. There’s something about tabloid and celebrity culture that has become very snarky, and worse.
Q. I understand “Nightmares!” began as a screenplay. Have you always wanted to write a book?
A. I started writing it when I was about 23, when I was in a dry spell acting-wise. I was caught in the in-between age where I was suddenly too old to play a kid and too young to play a doctor or a lawyer. This is right after “Freaks and Geeks.” Judd Apatow, my mentor, said, “What you do right now is you start writing. That’s what you do.” There’s a great tradition of nonstandard leading men who make it by writing. The Albert Brookses and the Woody Allens. Writing is something I’ve always had when I’ve needed it.
Q. Talk about the decision to collaborate with Kirsten Miller, an established and successful kids book author.
A. The thing about a book is that it is itself a collaboration. It’s a collaboration between the words of the author and the images of the reader. Children get to experience the book however they please, which I think is a cool thing. I teamed up with an amazing collaborator, Kirsten Miller. I’d rather team up with someone who’s amazing at what they do and have something turn out great, than do it alone, out of pride, and have it be less good.
Q. How did the writing process work?
A. I had a completed screenplay, in essence. I had a plot and the tone and quite a bit of dialogue. It started by me giving that to Kirsten and talking about it to make sure we were on the same page in terms of tone. And that she liked it! The original screenplay was planned as part one of a trilogy. The second two chapters were unwritten, so we talked through my ideas. She and I created a vision together of how the trilogy would unfold. From there it was a kind of handing back and forth. She would write a chapter and hand it over to me. Then I would take the chapter and do my work on it. We would proceed back and forth, which I was used to in writing screenplays. Someone will take act one; someone will take act two.
Q. You’d never written fiction before, though. Scene-setting, description, a character’s inner thoughts, and so forth.
A. That’s where Kirsten was really helpful. What I would do in stage direction, she taught me how to do with prose. It was a real learning process.
Q. On “The Colbert Report,” Colbert razzed you for trying to one-up James Franco, another “Freaks and Geeks” alumnus turned writer.
A. We come from a similar [background]. Look at what Seth Rogen [also in “Freaks and Geeks”] has done. We are a group of really ambitious young guys who started from a similar place of “Do everything you can,” because this isn’t easy, this business, the life of being an artist. We felt like “Do everything you can at every possible moment to be great.” It can go away really quickly.
Q. What do you hope children will take away from “Nightmares!”?
A. There’s a magical age where you can catch a kid, before they get on the life track of middle school to high school to college to your job. You can catch them and remind them that there’s magic. Roald Dahl books do it really well, the notion of the Golden Ticket, or that you might take off in this peach. It’s magic. It’s a special way of thinking. I think that I’m well suited for it.