With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: Raphael Bob-Waksberg already appeared to have mastered short-form storytelling as the creator and writer of BoJack Horseman, one of the best TV series of the last decade, well before the release of his own short story collection, Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory. But in speaking with Bob-Waksberg about stories that make up this collection, which is equal parts tearjerker and laugh riot, it became clear this was more a return for the author than a debut. Along with his favorite collections, Bob-Waksberg shared with The A.V. Club the books that inspired him to make his own literary “mixtape.”
Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: I first learned about Katherine Heiny when I was in high school. I took a creative writing class with Mr. Paul Dunlap at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. And one of the stories we read was the story called “How To Give The Wrong Impression” by Katherine Heiny, and I loved it. And I’ve been fascinated by it now for, you know, over 15 years. And then just a couple years ago, she put out her debut collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, including that story, which was over 20 years old, and I devoured the whole book. That story, “How To Give The Wrong Impression,” I think she—she just—how do I talk about her? It was the first story I ever read that was told in the second person, which I thought was utterly fascinating. And I do that a lot in my book. I have a lot of stories told in the second person.
You know, I think it was described to me by Mr. Dunlap, in some ways, that the second-person narrator is even more personal than the first-person narrator, and that’s definitely true of that story. What I love about her book is there’s thematic resonance between the stories. They all feel of a type, you know? It doesn’t feel like a greatest hits album or like a “best of” collection. It feels like these stories all belong in the same book. And that’s something I thought about a lot when I was writing my book. I have ideas for stories or little story-like things, but it doesn’t belong in this book. And what is the overarching thread or the spine of this book? I think Single, Carefree, Mellow does that very well. That you kind of read through the stories, and even though they’re not related by plot or character—although a couple of them do have recurring characters—it feels like you’re following a thread through all of them.
Some of these books I read a long time ago—I don’t remember them as specifically, I just remember loving them.
The A.V. Club: But it’s clear that they’ve made lasting impressions, if you’re talking them up so long after first picking them up.
Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
RBW: This book came [out before Single, Carefree, Mellow] but I read it much later. And when I read it, I remember thinking, oh, I wondered if Katherine Heiny had read this book. I wonder if this had an influence on her, because Lorrie Moore also has a number of second-person stories that are kind of modeled like how-to guides, which I have one or two in my book, as well. I think it’s a really fun way into her story. It’s a good format that allows you to go richer and deeper as you go, but start very light and playful. Lorrie Moore does that very well, and I think Katherine Heiny does as well.
What I also love about Lorrie Moore stories is they take me a long time to read. They’re not easy for me because each sentence, I feel like, is so rich and dense, it just sends me off in a thousand directions. I think about my life, I think about stories I want to write... it feels like there’s so many off-ramps that I have to then kind of go back and go, oh wait, I just read a paragraph and was thinking about other stuff. [Laughs.] I have to go back and read it again, which I mean as a compliment, because I feel like there’s so much richness in her prose that it can’t help but inspire me. It makes me want to write, which I think is very good in a short story collection if you are a writer. I pick up her book and I go, okay, yeah, I want to do this. I want to do this about the things that I feel the way she’s doing them.
AVC: I know it’s been a while, but do you have a favorite story from Self-Help, or maybe just one that still sticks out all these years later?
RBW: I just looked up the table of contents. [Laughs.] I’m looking at it now. I think “How To Be Another Woman” certainly is more influential on my work, and it is a story in the style of a how-to guide that then becomes a story. But I think actually my favorite story in the collection is “Go Like This,” which is about a woman deciding that she is going to kill herself. [Laughs.] You know, light stuff. A fun, playful story about a woman who is killing herself. But I also love, now that I’m looking at it, “How To Talk To Your Mother” is a great, little story. I’d say those three are probably my picks from that book.
AVC: I’m maybe cheating a bit by asking you for even more recommendations, but it’s always good to have an entry point. Still, I am aware that this is becoming a bigger ask as we go on.
RBW: Oh, it’s fine. [Laughs.]
AVC: As we talk about these collections, they feel thematically relevant to to your book as far as looking at love and loss and how they’re intertwined, and how sadness isn’t just relegated to breakups.
RBW: Yeah, I mean, I would say all these books are somewhat related to my collection—certainly, I would say all these books are influences on me. And I think of myself as a writer who wears his influences very transparently. I think, maybe, they might be more opaque to other people looking in. To me, I feel like, oh, this is bordering on plagiarism now. I’m really such a fan of these pieces, and a lot of times, I will think, well, what would be my version of this? Usually, not so consciously. Usually, it’s after the fact. I look back and go, oh, this is very much influenced by that. Like I said, I think Single, Carefree, Mellow has a really interesting thread of relationships, or more infidelity, in that book. And Self-Help, I would say, its interest in interiority—maybe that goes without saying, because that’s kind of a point of prose fiction as opposed to TV or the other stuff that I’ve written—but I certainly think my book is more interior than my other work, and probably that’s because of the stories that I love.
AVC: How does the experience of writing your book compare to working on something like BoJack Horseman?
RBW: Well, it’s like, when I think about it, I also think, in some ways, my stories are less interior than a lot of my influences, maybe because of my TV experience, and that I think I am somewhat more incident-focused and dialogue-focused and event-focused than some of these stories. Like Lorrie Moore, a lot of her stories are very kind of slice-of-life and kind of like, okay, we’re going to spend some time with these characters kind of figuring themselves out. And I think my stories might have a little more action than that, mostly because the way I really learned storytelling was through writing television, which has different demands. But I think compared to my television work, my stories are absolutely very interior and slice-of-life-y, if that make sense.
What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
RBW: I brought this book on my honeymoon to Australia. I was reading this book on the beach, and the ending of the first story in the book made me gasp. Literally, I gasped. I physically went [gasp] as I was reading. And I loved that this book made my body do a thing. [Laughs.] I thought that was so cool. I was so invested, and it just surprised me. And I think that’s something that I certainly aspire to is I want that kind of control over a reader. I want to made their body move. You know, certainly laughter is a form of that, but I want my book to physically affect people. I think that is a goal I didn’t realize I had until I read this book. I think another thing that I really enjoyed in a few of her stories is the the unself-conscious magic of the world. It’s kind of like, oh yeah, magical things happen, and that’s not what it’s about, though. You know, like yeah, that’s part of it. And that certainly was an influence in how I thought about some of the magic or sci-fi elements that predate some of the stories in my book.
RBW: Now, the fourth book is maybe a cheat, but it’s A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I believe she calls a novel, although I believe she has been coy with it. I think she’s referred to it as both a novel and a collection of story stories. I feel, myself, as a big fan of short stories and the short story form—I feel like it is almost an insult to refer to this book as a novel, because I think of it as a marvelous example of what a collection of short stories can be, despite the fact that they’re all interconnected, I think each story stands on its own beautifully, and as you read through it, you gain a larger understanding of the world in which these stories inhabit, and again, the thread that links them together. But I think that’s just an example of a good collection of short stories. I think we all should aspire to be that cohesive. You know, not necessarily in terms of plot, but in terms of feeling and emotional rhythm. And I also love that she’s able to do that even though formatically so many of the stories are different—you have third-person stories, first-person stories, second-person stories. One story that’s a PowerPoint presentation, another feels like a celebrity profile written by David Foster Wallace, but each of them have their own power.
I wonder if the idea of calling it a novel is to kind of read it in the order that it’s presented, because I know a lot of times when I read short story books, I kind of, you know, peck around and see, oh, you know, what’s the shortest one first? Or I pick something just to get a taste. But [A Visit From The Goon Squad] is a novel, so no, you’ve got to start at the beginning. But I think it’s a wonderful book of short stories. I love it on those terms, and I would love to celebrate it on those terms.
AVC: Maybe it’s because school habits die hard, but I usually go cover to cover. I don’t think I’ve ever “grazed” that way before. Is that something you took into consideration when planning the order of your own collection?
RBW: Well, I do it less now. I used to be more of a pecker. And I think, maybe recently, I’ve decided if I read a book of short stories, I’m going to commit to the whole thing, so I may as well start at the beginning. But I used to get a book of short stories and look at the first story, and it’s like 35 pages. Then I’d look at the table of contents and see one with that’s eight pages, so I’m trying the eight-page one. Let’s just see how I do. So when I was designing my own book, I put a couple of real short ones right at the beginning just to kind of ease people in. That way, if you are a hunter and pecker, you can go, “Oh! There’s a couple of real short ones. I’ll start there.” And that kind of lulls you into it. And you have the first, more substantial piece, which is the third piece.
I kind of designed the book with that in mind, that people might peck around a little bit. But also, now having written my book of short stories, I am more respectful of the order in other collections. I think about the thought I put into the order of the stories, and how I did want to create that thread and that momentum of them and how they build off each other, you know, like a good CD. [Laughs.] I don’t know why I said CD. When was the last time anyone listened to a CD? Or even album or a mixtape? But you know, I really thought about my book like a mixtape, and I thought about, you know, what follows what, and what is the momentum that is built. After a long one, you want a little short one to catch your breath, then you’ll dive into another the long one. I thought about the momentum and what are we starting with, what are we ending with. I was very thoughtful about that.
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
RBW: So my last book is maybe also a cheat, but I guess you could say it’s 300 very short stories. [There’s a story in my book] at the beginning called “Short Stories,” which is 10 very short little fictions, and it is very much influenced by Sarah Manguso. They are, in some ways, my tribute to her and her writing, because I’ve been a fan of hers for a while.
I think 300 Arguments is a real tiny wallop of a book. It looks very slim, and at first, each little two-sentence or one-sentence thing kind of stands on its own, but again, as you read it, you get sucked into the momentum of it, and the whole of it is much larger than the sum of its parts in a really beautiful way. And there’s a precision to her writing and an exactness that I am I wildly envious of. You know, I’m sure you deal with this too as a writer, but a lot of times, it’s easier to write a very long thing than it is to write a very short thing, and the challenges of, like how do I pare this down to the most essential elements? And I think Sarah Manguso does that beautifully, where it just goes like, “Oh my God, you packed 30 pages worth of incident into two sentences, and it floors me every time. She has a piece she wrote a long time ago called “Things I Realized In 2002” that my friend Chioke Nassor made into a short film, which I think is on Vimeo. You can probably post a link to it. But that was my first introduction to her. After I saw that little short, which I think Chioke did a beautiful job with it, I immediately looked for other stuff I could read by her. So I’m a big fan. And that’s my list.
AVC: I have just one more question about your recommendations, given how they may have influenced your own collection that looks at the whole cycle of love—the infatuation, the relationship, the break-up and, sometimes, the heartbreak. Of the collections you recommended, which one do you think might be the most appropriate reading for someone who is going through a breakup?
RBW: [Laughs.] That’s a good one. I think... well, in some ways, I’m inclined to say What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, because I feel like it’s the most escapist. If you don’t want to dwell, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky kind of takes you to a different world, and lets you kind of think about people other than yourself, which I think is helpful when you’re going through a breakup. But it depends who you are—for me, there are a lot of stories about people other than myself, which is why it feels escapist for me. But I’m sure there are a lot of people who would read that book and recognize themselves more than I would as a white American man.
But if you want to dwell, then I’d say Single, Carefree, Mellow or Self-Help would be better for that, although Single, Carefree, Mellow I think is slightly more optimistic. I think Self-Help is good if you want to really get in your feelings, and Single, Carefree, Mellow is a pep talk from an old friend being like, “It’s rough, but it’s going to be okay,” you know? Single, Carefree, Mellow might be the best for that.