Photo credit: Mindy Tucker
Describe your book.
Not Quite a Genius
is my first book. It’s the culmination of a decade of doing comedy in New York City, first as the artistic director of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and then as a writer at Funny or Die. I live in Los Angeles now, but don’t let that dissuade you —100% of this book was written in New York City. Just so you know. In case where a book was written matters to you. Some people are particular like that — I know I am. I only listen to music from the Pacific Northwest, I only drink wine from Argentina, and I only kiss women from Lafayette, California, because that’s where my wife Miranda is from. Look, the book is a collection of comedic stories and essays. Please read it. My wife won’t kiss me if you don’t.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I went through a pretty hardcore Ishmael
by Daniel Quinn phase in high school. In middle school it probably would have been a tie between Sphere
by Michael Crichton and Hatchet
by Gary Paulsen. In elementary school, it was 100% Calvin and Hobbes
all the time.
When did you know you were a writer?
Ha. I still don’t know if I’m a writer. I still just feel like I’m pretending and hoping that nobody tells me I have to stop.
What does your writing workspace look like?
It usually looks like a laptop with a cat on it. I try to sneak in as much work as possible wherever I’m seated before our cat, Renly Baratheon, comes and sits on or within swiping distance of the keyboard, at which point I have to pay attention to her until she allows me to continue writing.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
My sister, Courtney, and her friends have turned this question into a game, which they call "Priorities."
Gameplay proceeds as follows:
- One person in the group is selected to go first.
- The other group members give a list of approximately five items for that person to rank in terms of priority. The items can be vague like “friendship” or specific like “sriracha aioli as a sandwich spread.”
- Privately, the selected person ranks the items on a piece of paper.
- Once the list is written down, the other group members debate the list that they think the selected person has made. The selected person must keep a straight face and betray nothing, even as his/her friends say things like, “Nate clearly loves sriracha aioli as a sandwich spread more than friendship.” Once they reach a consensus, they write down their own list.
- The lists are compared.
- The game is repeated for each group member.
So, I guess my answer at the moment is that I care about that game more than most people around me.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I make homophone errors all the time in my writing. I once mixed up “I” and “eye” in an email. I am not joking. My brain just loves the way words sound and doesn’t pay too much attention to how they are spelled.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
My friend John Babbott has a novel that isn’t published yet, but I read an early draft of it, and once it is published I think he’ll be a big-time famous writer guy. In the meantime, though, you can check out his McSweeney’s
piece, “I Will Not Write Unless I Am Swaddled in Furs
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
I imagine this is something of an obvious answer in the world of bookstore Q&As, but Stephen King’s On Writing
is so beautifully demystifying. I just read it again last year, actually, as I was about to embark on the revision process of Not Quite a Genius
, in order to have my head on straight. There’s a part in particular that talks about how greatness might just come down to dumb genetic luck, but if you’re average, you can work really hard to go from average to good. That seems like it could be discouraging, but I found its honesty refreshing and affirming. I can work hard, and if I consistently keep working, maybe I can go from average to good. Yes.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Internet videos of skateboarding tricks.
Top five books that are funny but also sad.
The sweet spot for me in literary pleasure is a book that wings you back and forth between laughing out loud while you’re reading it alone in bed and causing you to tear up later when you’re reading it on the bus on your way to work.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
by George Saunders
I could list any work by Saunders and this would remain an accurate list. I chose CivilWarLand
for this list because it does an impressive job of delivering both laughs and tears within the same story. The titular story in particular does this for me in a way that I don’t think any other short story does. I won’t spoil anything about it here. Go read it.
The Sirens of Titan
by Kurt Vonnegut
is my favorite book of all time. I read it every few years to re-center myself, in terms of what matters to me as a writer and also as a human. Vonnegut does an incredible job of concocting premises that are absurd to the point of hilarity, but then within that he crafts delightful little moments with details that make me smile so big. A spacecraft powered by the Universal Will to Become? The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent? Wormlike creatures called Harmoniums living under the surface of Mercury that are able to communicate telepathically, but with only two messages (“Here I am” and “I’m so glad you are”)? I love it all so much.
Everything That Rises Must Converge
by Flannery O’Connor
I’m not sure if people usually think of O’Connor as funny, but I think she must have had a deeply dark sense of humor. Much is made of the religious themes in her work, which resonate with me since I grew up devoutly attending the United Methodist Church. My favorite of her stories is “Parker’s Back,” which for me best encapsulates the tragicomedy of humanity that so many of her stories deal with: that despite our best, bumbling efforts to achieve the most glorious aspirations, we are doomed to our mortal existence.
No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July
Saunders said that July’s stories are “infused with wonder at the things of the world,” which is the best way to describe what makes reading her such a treat. My absolute favorite thing that she has ever written, though, is “Roy Spivey,” which isn’t in this collection. “Roy Spivey” is the type of story that I just remember out of nowhere from time to time, and I have to stop and think about it for a bit before I can move on with my life.
One More Thing
by B. J. Novak
I love this collection. It’s one of the few books that when I finished reading it, I immediately started over and read the whole thing again because I wanted to try to better understand how Novak did what he did with each of the creations therein. Novak’s a master of walking the line between funny and sad. My favorite story, “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg,” does this beautifully. I just wrote out a three-sentence synopsis, but I deleted it because it cheapened and ruined it. Just go read it, okay? And then, after you’ve read the five books listed here in their entirety, and also all of the other things these authors have written, please give my tiny book, Not Quite a Genius
, a chance. Please and thank you.
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grew up in the mountains of Evergreen, Colorado, where he enjoyed running on dirt trails and reading Kurt Vonnegut. Formerly the Artistic Director at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Dern is the current news editor at Funny or Die. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their cat, Renly Baratheon. Not Quite a Genius
is his first book.