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Jesse Eisenberg is best known as an actor – his films include The Squid and the Whale, The End of the Tour and The Social Network, for which he received an Academy Award nomination – but he's also the author of three plays – Asuncion, The Revisionist and The Spoils – and a contributor to publications including The New Yorker and McSweeney's. His debut short story collection, Bream Gives Me Hiccups and Other Stories, will be published by Bond Street Books/Doubleday Canada next week.

Why did you write your new book?

Ten years ago, I took my girlfriend to a fancy Japanese restaurant to celebrate our anniversary. At the table next to us was a family having a casual dinner and we were so surprised to see children in this otherwise special-occasion-only restaurant. Initially, I thought it would be funny to write fictional restaurant reviews from the perspective of a privileged nine-year-old boy who gets dragged around to these glamorous spots – hence the title, Bream (an expensive fish) Gives Me Hiccups (a childish reaction). But as I started writing, the character and the world took on a different tone: It became the story of a thoughtful child watching his newly divorced mother teeter on the brink of insanity. So although the stories, which are written in the style of restaurant reviews, are comedic, there is an underlying sadness at the heart of their unusual relationship.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

George Saunders. I have never read someone who manipulates lowbrow expressions and abbreviated shorthand into complicated thoughts and poetic sentences. The Semplica-Girl Diaries is the most unusual and fun combination of blunt form and heartbreaking content.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

The actor/writer Bob Odenkirk told me to stop writing impersonal comedy. When I was a teenager, I wrote broad comedy screenplays and even sold a few to movie companies. But as they inevitably lingered without getting anywhere near produced, I met Bob and begged him to read one. His response was, "You're a sensitive guy. You have something to say. Why are you wasting your time with these generic stories?" After the initial disappointment wore off, I began writing personal plays and essays and have been much happier. It was the best discouragement I've ever received.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

I just finished performing in my third play, The Spoils, where I played a troubled and angry narcissist who is surrounded by four well-meaning and well-adjusted peers. And in my previous play, The Revisionist, I played a selfish American and Vanessa Redgrave played my comparatively lovable second cousin. As the playwright, I identify with all of the play's characters and they are as much a part of me as the misanthropes that I play. But I am always asked why I only write about mean-spirited people. I think there is a tendency to associate actors with their roles in a way that is understandable but inaccurate.

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

A few years ago, I had terrible insomnia. I think I slept an hour a night for two weeks. Luckily, I had picked up a copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at an airport (I had heard author Junot Diaz speak in Central Park a few months prior) and started reading it. I think it probably exacerbated my insomnia (because I was staying up to finish it) but it at least made me enjoy those long nights.