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Here’s a book that’s not about nothing.
Former Seinfeld writer and co-executive producer Peter Mehlman released his first novel, It Won’t Always Be This Great, on Monday. The novel’s tale, narrated by a Jewish podiatrist living in New York, begins with an uncharacteristic act of vandalism, and spirals out of control from there.
There’s a false arrest, flirtations with an attractive young patient and the looming threat of the narrator being found out. And while Mehlman says Seinfeld didn’t inspire the novel any more than any of the many other parts of his life, there’s plenty of neurotic humor for fans of that era of his work to dig into.
Seinfeld certainly took inspiration from real life. Was that the case here?
It’s completely made up, which is both gratifying and reassuring. Everyone always goes, “it’s based on a true story!” Why is that so appealing? It just drives me crazy. Why isn’t anything ever hyped as “from the imagination of a good writer?”
Unlike the typical midlife crisis story, this one features a guy who is happily married. How did that come about?
Having a character that complains about his wife just seemed so common. To have somebody who’s been married 20-plus years who is still crazy about his wife, that seemed like something different. In a way I think that’s what the story is about. I think it’s about a guy who is crazy about his wife.
How long did it take you to get this all right?
A few years. I started it in a February, then I whizzed through June and then I had this other project that sidetracked me for a while, and then I was heavily back to this in September and I pretty much had the first draft by the end of the year.
So it wasn’t a long, painful process.
It reminds me of when George Costanza was pretending to be an architect, and he was saying he was designing the new wing of the Guggenheim and he says, “It really didn’t take me that long.” That line keeps popping back into my mind.
Did you work on that episode?
No, but those are the kinds of lines in Seinfeld that I loved. The ones that don’t seem like they are that funny on the surface, but in the context they are unbelievably funny. “It really didn’t take that long.” It’s not enough that he’s lying that he’s an architect and that he designed the new wing of the Guggenheim — he has to throw in the extra lie.
Does Seinfeld inform this book at all?
I don’t think Seinfeld informed it much more than a lot of other things. But Seinfeld definitely had an impact on my sense of humor, as did working for Howie Cosell. Seinfeld was definitely helpful in understanding story structure, which I never did before that. It didn’t inform the novel any more than journalism [Mehlman once worked for The Washington Post and as a freelance magazine writer]. Hopefully everything you do impacts where you are. That sounded pretentious, but I don’t want to inflate the value of Seinfeld over everything else. You know, it was helpful, but one of a million things that’s helpful.
You’ve said you aren’t used to publicizing your work. What has that aspect been like?
I actually wrote the blurb solicitation letter for my publicist, and in it I basically said “I’m the publicist for Peter Mehlman’s book and much to my dismay he refuses to solicit blurbs from anyone he knows or has worked with.” So I went after people who I didn’t know, who I just admired from afar. I got great blurbs from Aaron Sorkin and Steven Soderbergh. So that was really great. I guess that’s as good as the publicity part could get.
On a whim, you recently did your first stand-up gigs ever. How did that go?
My personality is so out of style for stand-up comedy that in a way I was like an intermission, because everybody else has so much energy now — Robin Williams wouldn’t have even seemed that energetic now. I am not energetic up there. I had no nervousness. I felt like I was cheating a little bit because I wasn’t nervous at all because I don’t have much at stake. I was trying it purely for the experience
How do you think the book will be received?
I have no idea. The weirdest thing is everything else I’ve done I’ve been confidant enough to have an accurate assessment of the quality. If somebody says it’s the worst book ever, I would be surprised. If somebody said it was the best book ever, I would be surprised — but nothing in between would surprise me.
You started off in journalism, moved to TV and now this. Did you plan it out this way?
I never had a big plan. I did want to be at The Washington Post after college. Back then it was the coolest place in the world, in the post-Watergate era. Then I wanted to move back to New York and I got the job with Howard Cosell, which was pretty great, and then I just started freelance magazine writing, which is a pretty scary profession. You’re totally on your own and you’ve got to really take stock of your own laziness.
Melhman’s novel, It Won’t Always Be This Great, is available from Bancroft Press.
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