His story is emblematic of the digital era. After five years in Hollywood, waiting tables and writing forgettable screenplays, Justin Halpern moved back home with his parents in San Diego, Calif. He was a boomerang kid at 28.
Luckily, his father, Sam, a doctor (now retired) of nuclear medicine at University of California, had a gift for pithy profanity. To amuse his friends, Justin started writing some of his father’s coarse quotes in his daily updates on his Google Talk instant message service. Then one of his friends suggested Twitter. On August 3, 2009, he started a Twitter feed called @shitmydadsays. By mid-August, he had 100,000 followers. By October, he had a book deal. By November, a TV deal.
A year later, his Twitter followers numbered more than 1.8 million. By fall 2011, they were up to 2.6 million. His first book, Sh*t My Dad Says, topped the New York Times bestseller list for 11 weeks. It has sold more than 1.2 million copies, and his Dad has been called “a scatological Socrates.” Justin’s second book, I Suck at Girls, about his youthful misadventures to lose his virginity and other encounters with the opposite sex, hit bookshelves this month. He got a TV deal on that one, too.
He sat down with The Globe and Mail recently, starving after a day of interviews, to eat steaks tips (“What are the tips?” he wondered nervously, poking at his plate) in an uptown Toronto restaurant. A tall, thin, balding man of 31, dressed in dark jeans and a brown lumberjack-print shirt, he discussed his larger-than-life father, love, shamelessness and the angst of overnight success.
Was it hard to write a second book in the wake of the first?
Horrible. The worst. I’ve never been so stressed out as I have been with this book. When the first book sells over 1.2 million, even if the second does a respectable 300,000 or so, you’re like, “That’s all?”
Did it come easily though?
No. I needed an idea, and I didn’t have any. Almost seven months later, I decided on writing about how I came to propose to my wife, Amanda, by thinking about my failure with women.
And you write that it was a temporary breakup with Amanda after three years of dating that partly caused you to return home in 2009. If it weren’t for her, you might never have started that Twitter feed.
True. Without her, nothing happens. And she always tells me, “That was the best breakup you ever had.”
There must have been other ideas for the second book.
Not really. I could have done a sequel I guess but I didn’t want to.
Ah, More Sh*t My Dad Says.
Yeah, or Diarrhea My Dad Says.
Were you concerned that a book with only limited amounts of your dad might not work?
Of course, there’s always the worry that people will say, “He’s only good when he writes abut his dad.” He’s such a larger-than-life character that he takes over the story when he’s in it, and when he’s not in the story, there’s a strong feeling of his presence missing.
It must have been difficult for you and your two older brothers growing up with him. It’s hard not to cringe at some of the things he says to you in the new book. He puts you down. He’s intimidating.
We feared him growing up. He wasn’t a guy who hit you. He never laid a hand on us. You just didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him because you would hear stuff about yourself you didn’t want to hear.
Did it concern you that people might think of him as a bad, slightly abusive father?
My first book was really a love letter to my father. He’s a fantastic father. He was difficult, and he’s the first to say, “I wasn’t a perfect dad.” But at the end of the day, I knew two important things. I always knew that I was loved. And I always knew I would get a straight answer from him. As for people who question him, he says, “I tried my best and if people don’t like it, they can go [expletive] themselves.”
Still, you got the upper hand by writing about him.
True, that’s very true. And I guess, for the first time, he saw my point of view about events that might be different from how he chooses to remember them.
The TV show based on your first book, starring William Shatner as your dad, flopped. Any thoughts on why?
My dad is unintentionally funny. In a sitcom, you have to be intentionally funny.
In the new book, you’re not afraid to make fun of yourself. We read about your bad dates, being dumped, your virginity, your lousy love-making. Is that desperate shamelessness?
It’s cathartic, actually. It’s not embarrassing if you’re the first person to laugh at yourself. I try to write universal stories that feel familiar to other people. That’s because I’m not a really interesting guy that you want to follow around to see what I do. I’m not a David Sedaris. He could go to a restaurant and find something interesting.
Your father’s advice about marriage was interesting: It’s an experiment and you can never be sure of the results.
The biggest thing he said is that a marriage is about constant evolution. There’s no such thing as being set. You have to keep working on it. And a marriage in year one is not the same as it will be in year 10.
Celebrity can ruin a marriage though. And you and Amanda reconnected just as your success started.
It was so weird; such an unlikely route to success.
Do you worry about the fame?
Well, the part of being a writer that I like is I get to be anonymous. I don’t put pictures in the book. I don’t even have an author photo. I like to be left alone. I don’t need to be patted on the back.
Does your dad have any advice about how to handle celebrity?
He said, “You’re not one.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.