The point of any debut novel is to make a splash and get the writer noticed. And in the case of Sean Penn, the author of Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff – well, he's had no trouble getting people to talk about his work. The book was controversial even before it was released once snippets were made public, quickly going viral over social media – especially since certain selective parts that discuss the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump were treated as fact, not fiction. Penn tells Rolling Stone that his work was simply taken out of context: "I think, we're in a sad state where fiction is attributed to opinion ... where fiction can't be just read as it is."
Penn's self-assured debut never backs down from provocation – and while you can say a lot of things about Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, you certainly can't say that it lacks ambition. He's created a slice of oddball Americana that may confuse readers with its loose narrative and satirical tone, but that seems to be what he set out to do in the first place. The title character is a sad, middle-aged man who does a number of jobs including selling septic tanks to Jehovah's Witnesses, setting up fireworks arrangements for dictators, accidentally rescuing imprisoned Hasidic Jews from foreign prisons, and, most notably, assassinating elderly people. A mallet is his weapon of choice. It's a strange book, coming out in (and reflecting) very strange times.
What concerns Penn isn't the reviews; rather, it's his legacy he's concentrating on. Though winning Oscars for his work in Mystic River and Milk, as well as being considered one of the finest actors of his generation, should be sufficient, the 57-year-old performer-director-writer is always looking to push his achievements further. For all of the formal loop-the-loops and head-scratching digressions in Bob Honey, it's somehow coherent with the narrative of a person who could play the ur-stoner teen Jeff Spicoli, California's first openly elected gay official and a convicted killer – and who would also risk his life to interview the notorious Mexican drug lord El Chapo for this very publication. If his debut novel succeeds in anything, it is adding another surprising chapter to Penn's unpredictable story.
You've written fiction for the public before, but it was in the form of movies you wrote – like The Indian Runner, which was inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song, "Highway Patrolman." Were there any events or things you experienced similarly that got you thinking about this story and about this character?
I guess everything. It was a sort of snapshot of where I'd seen the country was.
The writer Harry Crews has a part in that movie. Are you a fan of his work?
I'm a big fan of his work.
Who are some of the other writers who inspire you? I know there are comparisons to Terry Southern and Thomas Pynchon on the back of the book –
It should be understood that none of those comparisons were made by me and some of these authors I've never read. The influence that a writer can have on you is that you get a sense of how somebody has a freedom with words or something, and makes you want to find your freedom with words. I don't have the retention to be influenced by writers. So when I take praise or criticism it's something I absorb that I can't identify, or something that I misabsorbed that I can't identify. The last thing anybody wants to be, quote unquote, is influenced.
And so it's kind of that question you carry around, whether as an actor or as a writer, that's got everything to do with what you're not. You find a voice like you find a character and it's not from a movie – it's from life. It's not from a book – it's from life. In some way, it might be an exaggerated voice, it may not be depending on the style within which you're writing. But I think the only influence that we can count from those we've read is to see that there's a form here that allows for a certain amount of imagination to be invested in. Then you're where you really are when you're there and you're hearing the voices you're hearing.
Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff was originally an audiobook, and now it's a novel. Was that the plan the whole time – to turn the audio version into a book?
No, it was really a question that I had had of basic sketch of it. And then in my not having any experience with book publishing, understanding how long it was gonna take to get it out and having something of an interest in getting it out before the election. I opted to take the incomplete version and go Audible with it.
You take a lot of chances for a debut novel. Did you want to see how far you could push your voice?
I guess part of this is – and I'm gonna say for better or worse depending on who I'm talking to – that by the time 57 rolls around, you come to: "I'm gonna sit down and write a novel." You're pretty free. You're already gonna go all the way. It's gonna be responded to or it's not. But there's not gonna be an inhibition about the way you'd like to tell the story or pandering to the way you think readers might like to have it told or something. You just kind of go for it.
Had you ever tried to write a novel before?
I got a page or two into a novel in the past and then life interfered.
What surprised you the most about the process?
I think by the time I did it, when I knew that I wasn't gonna have life interfere, I had a lot of fun. There are periods – say, when you copy edit and things get technical and so on – that get a little bit irksome. But the rest of it was just a lot of fun. So, I guess what surprised me was why I hadn't done it sooner.
You mention that the idea for the book came out of a snapshot of where our nation was headed. In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, you wrote in an article: "We are in a happy country, there is a plague of loneliness and isolation." Is your protagonist Bob a product or a symbol of that loneliness and isolation?
Probably both. I guess while I've been on this book tour – which is a brand new thing to me – I've been trying to find my way around explaining this book and if that, as you've just described it, how it is, I suppose, [part of] the quicksand of the climate right now. I guess I tend to see it as: How does a fellow like Bob dance on that quicksand?
Do you sympathize with Bob? He's a killer.
I don't know about conscious sympathizing. I think that there were aspects of this character that have, even within the style of the piece, a kind of moral compass. Obviously there are ... to use the word moral is in contradiction to some of the choices that he makes and some of his activities. But anybody that has a clear view of anything in a chaotic society is going to be up against it and that would give me empathy for them.
He's a complex person and America is a complex place. That sort of thing.
America's a complex place that's doing all it can to be without any complexity at all.
Bob writes a letter to "Landlord," which is a not-so-veiled version of our current president that says, "We are a nation in need of an assassin." How was that received from your editor or publisher? Was there any pushback?
None at all. By means of attribution, I think that it's a temptation to all of us to connect what might or might not have been a current metaphor. But really, it lives so much in its own fiction that the outside influences may be clear ... and yet the intention of the storytelling would like to think it was going to be there with or without a reference points. Because, at the end of the day, the book isn't about leadership in our country. It's about the culture in the country.
In the poem that serves as the epilogue you ask, "Where did all the laughs go?" Was it a conscious effort to try and find humor in the darkness, or did that just come out in the writing process?
I think it was probably a necessity of the engine – that which made me need to write a book that, outside the [actual] writing of the book, I wasn't finding too many laughs.
"America's a complex place that's doing all it can to be without any complexity at all."
Also, in the epilogue you write, "And what's with this 'Me Too'"; it's called an "infantilizing term of the day." How do you feel commenting on the #MeToo movement fit in with the rest of the book?
I think, we're in a sad state where fiction is attributed to opinion, where fiction can't be just read as it is. And I'm very pleased to let less cheerful people dissect it the way that they will – this is fair game. But I think that they are missing the point and probably reading it out of context when they do it. Jumping on a kind of bandwagon, which is extremely ... people seek safety and there's safety in numbers.
What I worry about with everything today is that because there tends to be kind of apocalyptic prophecy in everybody's psyche, there's no particular concern for legacy. And so people are going to be very reckless in the way that they exercise their inclination towards shouting Freud, towards hatred, piling up on things. It's not my business at this stage of the game for me in this life. My business is to be clear that what I leave behind is going to be in sync with what I intended to leave behind.
Speaking of what you leave behind: You made a comment in a recent interview that you're not in love with filmmaking as much these days. What does writing fiction offers you that making movies might not?
The freedom from collaboration. I got to where I was not enjoying playing well with others as much as I used to.
So are you planning on writing more novels in the future?
Yes. Now, whether they get published or not… . [But] it is my intention to continue.
Do you feel a sense of peace doing it?
Yeah, I do. I do. I get the giggles and I think that, as my life becomes a more solitary one by choice, writing becomes a good way to exercise thoughts. I mean, in simplest terms, I enjoy it. I enjoy it.