Jesse Eisenberg and other actors embark and literary path

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Jesse Eisenberg understands why most people don't associate actors with quality writing.

"It's probably not the most logical link," says the Oscar-nominated star of "Social Network" and published author, whose debut story collection, "Bream Gives Me Hiccups," has just come out. "Just by virtue of the idea of acting, it attracts a person who is going to be more social, more comfortable in groups and comfortable on sets and onstage. Writing usually attracts people who kind of avoid those things.

"For me, I don't know why, I enjoy both. I can sit home for three months in my room and never leave the house and write and I can be on sets with a lot of people and enjoy it."

Actors' books usually mean chatty, ghost-written and at least semi-confessional memoirs or self-help guides. But Eisenberg and other performers are following a more literary path, publishing in McSweeney's, The New Yorker and other magazines and releasing fiction, humor and essays that are most certainly written by them.

Mary-Louise Parker has a collection of thoughtful and emotional personal essays out in November, "Dear Mr. You," that received blurbs from Leslie Jamison and Mary Karr. During a recent telephone interview, Parker said she usually didn't bother reading books by actors because she "didn't have any interest in reading about an actor's experience." Parker's work, some of which has run in Esquire and The Riveter, is addressed to various men in her life, but drops no names and sticks to such universals as family, sex, self-esteem and mortality.

"Anybody who wants to read a book about an actress might be sorely disappointed; it's not that kind of book," she said.

Ethan Hawke's third novel, the medieval parable "Rules for a Knight," comes out in November. Andrew McCarthy of "Weekend at Bernie's" and "Pretty in Pink" fame has become an accomplished travel writer. Tom Hanks' short story "Alan Bean Plus Four" was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and he has a deal with Alfred A. Knopf for a story collection.

"I don't see a reason to be skeptical before reading: If a person is talented in one creative art — acting — it doesn't mean that he or she can't also be talented in another," New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman wrote in a recent email.

"Not everyone does cross those borders successfully, of course, and we've said 'no' to stories by a number of other aspiring writers in the movie industry. Ultimately, we have to feel that the story has something to offer as a story, regardless of the byline, whether it's entertainment, intellectual stimulation, or an emotional impact."

Eisenberg, eating a late breakfast at a Greenwich Village cafe and speaking in the same alert, nervous style he's known for on the screen and stage, said he's been writing jokes since childhood, jotting down material on Post-it notes. He was encouraged to try stories after reading humor sketches by Woody Allen, who also started out as a gag writer.

"He wrote pieces that were longer form and character-based and now he makes movies," said Eisenberg, who will be appearing in Allen's next (and currently untitled) film. "It doesn't rely on just humor. It has pathos and characters and unusual twists that are not funny or not intended to be funny."

Eisenberg's book, blurbed by Sherman Alexie and Andy Borowitz, among others, includes variations on modern dating ("A Post-Gender Normative Woman Tries to Pick Up a Woman at a Bar"), sports riffs ("A Marriage Counselor Tries to Heckle at a Knicks Game") and imagined moments from the past ("Alexander Graham Bell's First Five Phone Calls"). Some of his work first appeared in McSweeney's, even if Eisenberg was reluctant to take advantage of his fame.

"Jesse started submitting through our general Web submissions inbox about five-six years ago," says Chris Monks, the magazine's Web editor. "He never went out of his way to say that he was 'that' Jesse Eisenberg, even after I had rejected his work a few times. Finally, after accepting his first piece, I asked if he was indeed 'that' Jesse Eisenberg and he confirmed that he was."

The title section of the book features reviews of everything from a sushi house to a TCBY, as narrated by the young son of a divorced mother. Jokes about a child's view of adult behavior give way to the boy's understanding of the strains of single parenthood and of his mother as an individual with a life apart from him. Eisenberg said he began the stories after dining at a high-end Japanese restaurant in Malibu, California, and being surprised to find children there.

"I thought it would be initially funny to write about a series of restaurants from the perspective of a privileged child who gets dragged around to these fancy spots that the kid doesn't want to go to," he said.

"What happens to me is I start writing something that I want to just be funny and jokey, and end up infusing it with characters and sadness and drama, because that's my inclination as an actor. I sign on to movies that I want to be funny and I end up wanting instead to do the dramatic version of the movie."