The list of acclaimed actors-turned-novelists is short. There’s Steve Martin, who smoothly transferred over his performative wit to the pages of Shopgirl and An Object of Beauty. There’s Carrie Fisher, who mined her own personal trauma for Postcards from the Edge and three other novels. And there’s … well, that’s it, actually. Ethan Hawke, James Franco, and many other would-be multihyphenates have attempted the transition, only to encounter well-reasoned critical resistance. And now, it appears it is Sean Penn’s turn to be instructed to stick to the screen.
A few weeks ago, the Oscar-winning actor published his first novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, and was immediately eviscerated by the literary establishment. “Repellent on one level, but stupid on so many others,” wrote The Guardian. “Sean Penn the novelist must be stopped,” cautioned The Huffington Post. “Ignore Penn,” bluntly advised the Chicago Tribune.
But like most things in life – cigarette-smoking bylaws, common wisdom regarding the seeking out of drug kingpins such as El Chapo – Sean Penn does not particularly care what anyone else thinks. Bob Honey is a purposefully maddening and borderline incomprehensible work – ostensibly a novel following the life of a CIA hitman, but really a dive into the murkiest corners of Penn’s consciousness – and the author will make no apologies for his creation. In fact, Penn has chosen to revel in the critical mudslinging, last week taking out a full-page ad for the book in The New York Times highlighting the aforementioned pans, and more. (“Honestly, shut your face Sean Penn,” writes Marie Claire.)
Penn continues his somewhat unprecedented and undaunted media tour for the book Thursday in Toronto, where he’ll discuss the novel with a perhaps surprising guest, astronaut and author Chris Hadfield (whom Penn calls one of “my best friends”). Ahead of his Toronto appearance, The Globe and Mail spoke with Penn over the phone about fame, critics and taking out the trash.
You’ve enjoyed a successful and wide-ranging film career, you’ve been involved with many charitable initiatives, you were in the hills of Mexico to interview El Chapo … for your first book, why didn’t you just write a memoir?
You know, I read a memoir of someone within my generational context and found it to be an embarrassing tour. If I make it to 77, maybe that’s when I’ll turn around and do that. But until that time, I’m a little busy living to be looking back at my life in that context.
So in that sense, how long has the story of Bob Honey been living with you?
Let’s say there are two answers to that. When I look back, I’ve probably been procrastinating writing a novel since I was seven or eight years old. I didn’t really know if I’d ever push past that, to actually do it. But then, I felt I had something very current to write, and I was just drawn to it.
When you say current, well, there’s some zeitgeisty material here, including some critical references to the #MeToo movement. Have those thoughts been floating around in your mind for a while, and it’s only now you felt you needed to put them out there?
No, it’s really been the last 15 years where we’ve had this cultural shift. It’s led us to where we are in the immediate sense, and relative to our relationships with advertising. Where once branding was the creation of an emotional bond between a human being and an inanimate object, now people are branding themselves at large. Detaching human avoidance becomes the celebrated way of the day. This is a sort of celebritization that has happened over the last 15 years, and it’s getting to the point where our arrogance is charisma, and where celebrity is the shallow depth that is pursued beyond anything else. And then the chaos ensues that we’re living in.
But in terms of branding, don’t you carry your own kind of brand?
My best answer to that, because I can’t speak to the perception of others, is that most of what people think of me as a brand, they’ve made up or other people have made up. Let me say this: I’ve never recognized an outside source declaring a brand on me that had any relationship to me or anything I’ve ever participated in. It was always someone else’s imagined idea, and certainly nothing I was selling.
In terms of selling this book, don’t you feel that your celebrity and brand certainly plays a part in getting this work out there?
Well of course it does. People writing a novel today have no access to getting on a talk show or do press interviews. But it isn’t for me to distinguish what for people is branding and how that might be attached to something I do. But that’s anyone’s game to decide for themselves.
I’m curious as to the thought process behind taking out these full-page ads excerpting the criticism that book’s received. That seems to take a thick skin, but also a keen sense of how to sell something.
You know it doesn’t take a thick skin when there’s no one else involved. It’s not like making a movie, whether I feel like as a director I’ve accomplished this movie or not. Because if a movie gets ridiculed, it implicates and injures all those people I worked with. With a book, it’s all on me. Also, I have a sense of not only how I’m perceived but how there are people who do one thing, and the inclination is that people stay in their lane. I could’ve anticipated the worst of these reviews, and I found it to be a funny ad.
How do you take that kind of criticism as a writer?
As I said, it was very anticipated. But a lot of people are reading the book and that affects me in a good way because then it’s in the reader’s hands, not in the critic’s hands, not in my hands. All of the writers I consider great have responded very positively to it, and I knew I was writing a challenging book. It’s very dense, it has determined alliteration, a kind of baroque language, and all of this takes patience to get. For those who are open to get it, the respond well.
In terms of the artistic approach, how different was writing it versus one of your screenplays?
It’s freeing in the sense that as soon as you write a certain sentence of scene description in a screenplay, you could take the budget up another $10-million. So you become self-censoring and the imagination doesn’t really get to ride. Writing a novel, you can go wherever you want, and there’s no money to it. Also, going to a studio, they can have many interpretations of what you’re writing depending on how you describe it, who you say you want to star, and then there’s a split between the financier who’s putting a lot on the line and what you’re delivering in a finished manuscript. With a publisher, you don’t feel the burden of having talked them into it.
Do you struggle with the guilt of talking someone into a project?
I have often bled over it for years. Every single time we try to go get money for a movie.
Do you see yourself, then, switching lanes into this more freeing literary territory?
No, because I think the whole idea of lanes is ludicrous. It’s the same thing to take out the garbage as to perform a scene in a movie as to read a book. It’s just an extension of how you’re living your life. The difference here is that I don’t have 150 people around and I don’t need a lot of money to do it. There’s no “lane shift” – that’s just something other people say.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Sean Penn appears in conversation with Chris Hadfield at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall on April 26.