Relationships And Rocket Ships In 'Last Girlfriend'
Everyone has relationship problems, even God — at least, according to humorist Simon Rich. His latest book of short stories, The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories, is quirky, surreal and sometimes a little dark. It's divided into three sections: Boy Meets Girl. Boy Gets Girl. Boy Loses Girl.
"It is a pretty honest and personal book," Rich tells NPR's Rachel Martin, "which is a strange thing to say about a book that's filled with so much time travel, and rocket ships, and talking trolls and magical goats, but it is actually a pretty honest book."
Rich says he always tries to write about high stakes, "and I think for most people in their late 20s [like Rich himself], dating is about as high stakes as it gets, and trying to write about these experiences we've all had, these experiences of falling in love, and losing someone and wanting someone, and getting dumped, or having to dump someone, it only felt natural to write about them in these extreme, bizarre high-stakes arenas, like science fiction and horror and crime. Because when you're living through it, it does feel about as extreme as things can get."
Rich comes from a family of writers; his father is former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, and he's famously the second youngest writer ever hired by Saturday Night Live. "I've wanted to write as long as I can remember," he says. "When I was 5, all I wanted to do was write like Roald Dahl. I read his stories obsessively, and I just wanted to copy him, and rip him off as much as possible, and that's still all I do, is just sit in a room trying to rip off Roald Dahl as much as humanly possible."
Rich describes Dahl as a premise writer, someone who hooks the reader fast and doesn't let go. "Not necessarily even comedy writers, just people who snare you with a story you can't put down. That's really always been my goal as a writer."
One of the stories in this collection that's sure to hook readers is "Magical Mr. Goat," a parody of Victorian children's literature that takes a painfully familiar turn when heroine Olivia discovers that her magical talking goat companion is actually in love with her. "This is a story based on an experience that I think a lot of young men have had and young women," Rich says, "where you're in what you think is a very good, fun, stable platonic friendship, and then ultimately it turns out that one of the people in that friendship has ulterior motives."
Rich is still writing for the screen as well as for print. "Every medium's got its major advantages," he says. With fiction, you know, the big advantage is you don't have to worry about production costs. You can blow up the world, and it just costs you a sentence. But the advantage of TV is, you have all these wonderful collaborators," like Bill Hader and Andy Samberg at Saturday Night Live.
"You know, I grew up watching Saturday Night Live, and it was really surreal to actually, physically be there," Rich says. But the pace and pressure of the show suited him. "I liked the rhythm of it, throwing out 50, 100 sketches a year and seeing what'll stick. That's how I write books, too."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News .I'm Rachel Martin. Everyone has relationship problems, and I mean everyone.
SIMON RICH: (Reading) On the first day, God created the heavens and the earth. Let there be light, he said, and there was light. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening - the first night. On the second day, God separated the oceans from the sky. Let there be a horizon, he said. And, lo, a horizon appeared and God saw that it was good. And there was evening - the second night. On the third day, God's girlfriend came over and said he'd been acting distant lately. I'm sorry, God said, things have been crazy this week at work. He smiled at her but she did not smile back. And God saw that it was not good. I never see you, she said. That's not true, God said. We went to the movies just last week. And she said, lo, that was last month. And there was evening - a tense night.
MARTIN: Now, when you're in conversation with people when you're really serious, do you just say, lo?
RICH: I love lo. I think lo is underused. I don't know how that fell by the wayside.
MARTIN: I know. I'm glad you're bringing it back. Simon Rich's latest book is called "The Last Girlfriend on Earth." He joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Simon, welcome to the program.
RICH: Hey, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, the book is divided into three parts. Boy Meets Girl is the first part; Boy Gets Girl; Boy Loses Girl. Are you trying to tell us something about your personal life, Simon?
RICH: It is a pretty honest and personal book, which is a strange thing to say about a book that's filled with so much time travel and rocket ships and talking trolls and magical goats. But it is actually a pretty honest book.
MARTIN: Is that a safe place for you to find comedic fodder, in romantic relationships, in personal relationships? All joking aside, those can be serious, often painful places to explore in your own psyche.
RICH: I always try to write about the highest stakes. I'm in my late 20s. I think most people in their 20s, dating is about as high stakes as it gets. And trying to write about these experiences that we've all had, these experiences of falling in love and then losing someone and wanting someone and getting dumped or having to dump someone, it only felt natural to write about them in these extreme, bizarre high-stakes arenas, like science fiction and horror and crime. Because when you're living through it, it does feel that is as extreme as things can get.
MARTIN: You come from a family of writers. How old were you when you decided to start writing?
RICH: I've wanted to write as long as I can remember. You know, when I was five, all I wanted to do was write like Roald Dahl. I read his stories obsessively and I just wanted to copy him and rip him off as much as possible. And that's still all I do. Sit in a room trying to rip off Roald Dahl as much as humanly possible.
MARTIN: What specifically inspired you about his writing and what have you kind of latched onto personally that you try to replicate?
RICH: I've always been attracted to premise writers - people who hook you really fast and don't let you go - guys like Roald Dahl and T.C. Boyle and Stephen King. Not necessarily even comedy writers, just people who snare you with a story you can't put down. That's really always been my goal as a writer is more than anything is just to write something that people will want to finish voluntarily.
MARTIN: There is one story in here that we'd love if you could just read a little bit of. This piece is called "Magical Mr. Goat." The main character of the story is a young girl named Olivia. Can you tell us about her?
RICH: This is sort of my Victorian story. There's a young imaginative girl trapped in the country estate with her governess and forced to eat Marmite and learn songs. And she wishes something exciting would happen. And lo and behold, a magical talking goat pops through her mirror and they have adventures together and become close friends, then it takes a turn.
(Reading) Zurkity, zurch, Mr. Goat cried. What a wonderful, sunderful day. He got on all fours and Olivia hopped on his back. Giddy-up, she cried. At your service, milady. She laughed as he barreled down the staircase and out the door, galloping willy-nilly across the grass. After a time, they collapsed in the meadow at the edge of the estate. They lay on the soft earth laughing uproariously amid the wildflowers. Oh, Mr. Goat, Olivia cried, the last few days have been ever so much fun. Mr. Goat leaned in and kissed her. Whoa, Olivia said. What was that? Mr. Goat flushed with embarrassment. I'm sorry, he stammered. I thought. Well, you thought wrong, Olivia said. We're just friends, OK?
MARTIN: Poor Mr. Goat.
RICH: This is a story based on an experience that I think a lot of young men have had and young women, where you're in what you think is a very good, fun, stable, platonic friendship and then ultimately it turns out that one of the people in that friendship have ulterior motives.
MARTIN: You were one of the youngest writers to ever write for "Saturday Night Live," which is a really big deal. What was that like? I mean, just walking around the halls and, like, you're collaborating with Bill Hader and Andy Samberg and all these amazing people. That had to have been a complete trip.
RICH: It was really fun. I, you know, I grew up watching "Saturday Night Live" and it was really surreal to actually physically be there. It did feel on some nights like you'd walked into a TV screen, you know, like you were living in this alternate reality. And it was really high-pressure. But I like the rhythm of it, throwing out 50, 100 sketches a year and seeing what'll stick. That's how I write books too. You know, for "The Last Girlfriend on Earth," there's 30 pieces in the book. I can't even imagine how many I must have written that didn't make the cut - at least 100 beyond that.
MARTIN: Would you mind reading us out on page 178?
RICH: Yeah. This is a personal ad.
(Reading) You - you are an intelligent woman with a sweet and caring soul. You're mature and sophisticated but you know how to let loose and have a good time. Your first name is Chloe. Me - I am a thoughtful, intelligent guy with a sense of humor. I like to stay up late talking about the big questions. I have a large and irremovable tattoo of the word Chloe on my chest from a previous relationship.
MARTIN: Simon Rich joined us from KQED in San Francisco. His latest book is called "The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories." And the book is out this week. Simon, thanks so much for talking with us.
RICH: Hey. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.