An Interview with Raphael Bob-Waksberg

[Creator of Bojack Horseman]

Even a casual understanding of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s career would be enough to recognize the link between the sense of being caught between the dramatic and the comedic he felt in his beginnings as a writer and his current day creative output. The writer and creator of BoJack Horseman has a preternatural ability for creating narratives that tackle the bleak realities of life, while recognizing that humor is often found (and thriving) in the darkness.

Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Twisted Glory, Bob-Waksberg’s debut short story collection, charts the many perplexing forms that love can take, venturing out far from the borders of storybook romance. A dog does his best to understand the language of his companion so as to make their relationship work. A sister resents her brother for representing their familial trauma in a play. An average woman recovers from a fleeting love affair with a coworker. Bob-Waksberg approaches each story not only as an opportunity to explore a new set of characters, but also a new structure, new language, new formats. What binds these stories is their unpredictability—every aspect is created with such specificity that you’d be hard pressed not to feel pleasantly surprised while reading.

Ultimately, the collection isn’t so much an optimistic view of love as a realistic one. While some cynics lean on “realism” as a defense mechanism for their perspectives, Bob-Waksberg’s realism is the steady-handed literal version that encapsulates harbored adoration, anger, and everything in between. In speaking to Bob-Waksberg, the intention of his oft-melancholy work is abundantly clear: it’s not to wallow pointlessly in the disappointments of life, but rather to address the unavoidable despair and make room for all the other emotions that our lives contain, too. On the occasion of his debut short story collection being published, I spoke with Raphael Bob-Waksberg about his approach to writing both television and prose, the embarrassment of a first draft, and working to justify a somewhat kooky story structure. 

—Rachel Davies

THE BELIEVER: Two of the stories in the collection were previously published. I’m wondering how many of them you already had before this collection was planned and how many were written specifically for the book.

RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: I would say I had about a third of a book when I started making the book with Knopf, which was about three years ago. I also found some older things that I didn’t quite know were short stories that I massaged and turned into stories. It’s a real mix of things that I wrote about ten years ago and things that are more recent, but even the older things I edited and I worked on. I don’t think of this as a collection of stuff I had lying around. I really crafted it as a book with my editors. 

BLVR: Were there any older stories that you came across and you didn’t feel like it fit thematically?

RBW: Not older stories because if something didn’t fit I wouldn’t even consider it, but there was a story that I wrote for the book that my editor thought, “This isn’t quite there,” and I had to agree. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it while I was writing it, but there was a feeling that we were making something out of this book and some pieces fit and some pieces didn’t fit. It was only kind of when the book was done that I realized what we were making, but some lizard brain part of me was vaguely aware as I was collecting stuff. 

BLVR: You mentioned that there were older notes that you hadn’t realize were stories at the time of writing. Was that stuff that you had written as ideas for TV or just notes that you had?

RBW: A lot of them were Tumblr posts, just little things I would write up on my blog without really knowing where else to put them. They were maybe fictional, or ambiguously fictional, and I looked at them again thinking, “Could this fit in the book?” and “Actually, yeah, I think this could fit,” or “If I fictionalize this aspect, or maybe bring out the character a little bit, this blog post suddenly becomes more of a story.” A couple of them were short films that I had made that I then turned into stories. Different pieces here and there. There was a social networking app called List that folded after a couple of years, but I had written a couple of lists for that app, including “Lies We Told Each Other.” Different things here and there. I had a tweet at one point about a clone of all of the presidents and that kind of expanded to be the story. It really was a collection of notes, but some of those notes were in very public places. 

BLVR: Over the past five years while you’re working on BoJack have you been writing these stories on the side, for pleasure, like is this something you’ve continued to do over that time?

RBW: I would say not for fun, these stories started when I didn’t have a home to put all of my ideas. I was like, “Oh, I have this story for this character—an interaction, an observation—I’m going to write a little story about it because I don’t have anything else to do with it.” Then once I started doing BoJack, the need for that outlet subsided a little bit because I had an outlet. What I love about writing BoJack is that it’s a wide enough world that any sort of idea, or observation, or character I can come up with can fit inside the show somehow. That’s really been my outlet for the last six years now. When I got this book deal, I started working on the book again in earnest for the book, but it wasn’t on the side like, “What else can I do?” it was, “Oh, now I’ve got to write this book!”

BLVR: Did you pursue a book deal or did Knopf get in touch? I’m wondering if you had always wanted to release a book or if it kind of just came up.

RBW: I had a handful of stories and I think six or seven years ago, before BoJack, I went to my agent and was like, “Is this anything?” My agency has a book department and they set me up with one of their book agents there. She basically told me, “Ah, I don’t think this is anything… The market isn’t right for this kind of book, these stories need a lot of work, but best of luck.” Then a few years later when I had a TV show, I think Tim O’Connell at Knopf reached out to my agent to say, “Does this guy have any book ideas?” or maybe the original idea was that it would be something about BoJack or it would be set in the world of BoJack or something like that. Then I said, “I have this book of short stories I still want to write.” [Laughs] My agency then connected me with a different agent in their book department, and she said, “Oh, I love these,” and Tim was also very enthusiastic about the stories and he saw the potential for what the book could be. I certainly think being able to put “From the creator of BoJack Horseman,” on the cover changes the market dynamics of a book of short stories. I’m sure that helps. 

BLVR: Did you know you wanted it to be a book of love stories?

RBW: Yeah, that was the original pitch! The title was always Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory and it was always a book of love stories. The original plan—if I didn’t miss all of my deadlines which I did—was to release it around Valentine’s Day, which I don’t know if that’s a good idea honestly with how the book turned out. [laughs] I don’t know if these are the most romantic stories to give to your beloved. I don’t know if people give each other books for Valentine’s Day anyway, I don’t know if that’s really a thing. It makes much more sense as a summer read. I wanted to do love stories ‘cause I figured it was a loose enough framework that would allow a large variety of stories. Love is such a broad theme. It could be romantic love, it could be familial love, it could be love between friends. It’s all-encompassing in a way. It didn’t actually limit me, but it gave me a springboard to think about what fits and what doesn’t fit. In the crafting of it I was available to create a more coherent take on love and what the book as a whole is saying about it.

BLVR: What was your experience like working on the collection mostly in solitude after working in writers rooms for years?

RBW: It was less different than I think you might think because even when you’re working in a writers room and you’re talking it all out, at some point you have to go and sit behind your computer and actually write the thing. At least on my show, we don’t all literally write it in the room, even though I know some shows do that. When I’m writing a script on my own after we’ve discussed it thoroughly in the room, or sometimes when I’m rewriting another writer’s script, when I’m done there’s still that fear of, “Oh, I just wrote a thing, did I completely screw it up? I have to send it to someone now and get some validation.” There’s that moment of, “Uhhh… I don’t know about this one” when you send it off. That was very familiar to me when I would write these stories and think, “I don’t know about these ones!” and waiting on the response to come back. I also think my editors were very collaborative, it didn’t feel solitary in a way that I think I may have been afraid it would be. 

I think because with BoJack specifically I’m given a lot of freedom from the network, and I’m not overloaded with network notes, and I feel like with BoJack I get to express myself very cleanly and purely. It’s undiluted, it is my voice, it’s not a ton of, “Ugh, I’ve got to broaden this out.” I feel like because of that shifting to this book was less of a shock than it would be for someone who is more used to being beaten down by network notes and then finally had the freedom to write a thing in their own voice. [Laughs] I think BoJack is very much my voice, I think fans of BoJack who read this voice would probably agree that there’s a continuity of theme and tone there. It’s not like I’ve been beaten down and needed this opportunity to speak for myself.

BLVR: Do you feel just as inclined toward writing prose as you do toward writing for TV or do you think that your mind thinks of ideas for TV more naturally?

RBW: I think I like both. I certainly think my experience in TV has informed my prose writing in a way that I think is good. I think I am maybe more incident focused than I might have been if I had just started with short stories and not written for television. I want things to happen in my stories, I want interactions to occur, I want there to be change between the beginning and the end which I think kind of gets beaten into you when you’re writing television and I think prose fiction is less interested in. I think some of the storytelling foundation that I built up through my TV experiences I think has made the stories more interesting. I also think the experience of writing these short stories helped on the show. For example, we did an episode of BoJack last season that was just BoJack talking for twenty-five minutes. I felt confident that I could sustain a narrative through one character’s voice because of the work that I’d been doing on my book. I don’t know if I would have had the guts to do that otherwise. 

BLVR: I feel your stories usually subvert one’s expectations from the beginning, taking a turn where a reader isn’t expecting it to, which I think is somewhat related to what you were just saying. What is the impetus to a story for you? Where do you start and how do you structure your stories in the beginning stages?

RBW: Whatever I’m most excited about doing, that’s where I start. I don’t necessarily outline it, or start at the beginning and work my way through. Sometimes I’ll have a funny interaction in my head or way that a character talks and I’ll start writing in that voice not necessarily knowing where I’m going. For me, one thing that connects a lot of my stories and BoJack as well, is finding a silly or absurd way in and then uncovering that and finding the grounded emotional story underneath. So a lot of times with the silly, absurd way in and that’s my into the story. Like, “What I think would be funny is if a short story did an impression of a play. What do short stories think of plays?” Then as a writer I’m like, “Okay, but what is the actual story here?” For me, in my writing, I think you need both. I think you need the fun thing, a fun pool to dive into, and you also need the more emotional, grounded story at the same time. For me, I start with the fun thing and then as I’m working on it I find the truth underneath it. I figure out what the emotional story that necessitates this weird format I’ve come up with and how I justify it so it doesn’t just feel like a comedy sketch. 

BLVR: When you first started writing, or creating, were you first interested in telling jokes and comedy and you came to storytelling through that?

RBW: Yes, I was in a comedy group in college, that then moved to New York and made videos on the internet called Olde English and simultaneously I was a playwriting major. I was very interested in very serious plays. I would write on the one hand these very fun, silly sketches, and then I would write these heavy, heavy emotional plays. I would get annoyed at other people in my playwriting classes who would write little trifles ‘cause I would think, “That’s sketch comedy. That’s the other thing that I do. A play needs to be serious.” At some point in college I combined the two ideas and started writing very funny, very sad plays and I thought, “Oh, that’s my sweet spot. That’s fun.” I don’t want to have to give up one or the other. 

BLVR: Do you find working with really dark subject matter cathartic or do you get bummed out? What’s your experience of the process of writing?

RBW: I would say both. I think in the process of doing it, it does bum me out a little bit, and sometimes it’s hard to get out of that space, but I think the act of doing it excises it. When I’m done with it, I feel like, “Oh, I just went through a thing and that helped me go through it.” There certainly have been moments where I think, working on this long running depression television show, “Oh, is this show depressing because I’m bummed out, or am I bummed out because this show is depressing?” But more often I feel the opposite, when people meet me they’re surprised at how easygoing and well-adjusted I am because my work is so dark and melancholy. I do think I get it out in my work. I think I didn’t have these outlets it would come out in other ways so I’m happy for that. 

BLVR: Were you always interested in animation or did you come to that through your friendship with [BoJack Horseman production designer] Lisa Hanawalt?

RBW: I really fell into it. I was out here in Hollywood, I was pitching a lot of stuff, working on a lot of stuff, and one of the things was this animated show. That happened to be the thing that went forward and the other stuff I was working on didn’t go forward, so now I’m kind of an animation guy. I’m working on two other animated shows and it’s kind of become my thing. I certainly enjoyed animation prior to that, I loved The Simpsons growing up, and all the Pixar movies. I had a general awareness of the animation landscape, but I really became delighted in doing it by the possibilities that it affords and the kind of storytelling you can do and the kind of storytelling that has yet to be done in that world. I think it’s a really exciting time for adult animation and there’s a lot of interesting things happening so I’m excited to be a part of it. 

BLVR: Do you think you’ll go onto work in live action or are you just reveling in animation right now?

RBW: I imagine I will, I’d like to do a little bit of everything. This show I’m working on with Kate Purdy right now, Undone, it’s for Amazon and it’s rotoscope which means we shoot it live action, or some version of live action with the actors, and that’s been a really fun experience for me. It’s gonna be a cool one. I’m definitely interested in pushing my experience and not just doing what’s comfortable, or doing the same thing over and over again. I want to try and figure out what else I can do and keep things fresh for me. 

BLVR: Do you think that working with rotoscope has changed the way you’re approaching writing at all?

RBW: It’s a very different show, a very different process, and that show is being run by Kate Purdy so it’s less just my baby. It’s interesting because I think the form of the show is dictated more by what the show is than what the show is is dictated by the form. I told you earlier that a lot of the stories I write kind of go into form first, I’ll come up with a fun gimmick, or in the case of BoJack I’ll be like, “Alright, let’s do an episode where nobody talks for a whole episode. What would that look like? How would we justify that? Let’s come up with a story.”

With Undone, it really came the other way. It came together when me and Kate were talking about the kind of story that we’d want to make and what that would like. In talking to Kate, and in talking to our animation director on it we came to this idea to rotoscope it because that would aid the storytelling that we wanted to be doing. I think those things always have to go together at some point, you have to be thoughtful of form and function but it doesn’t necessitate that one has to come before the other. I think it’s a mistake to think, “We have to come up with a story first and then we’re going to come up with the proper way to tell it,” I think it’s perfectly fine if you’re excited about a certain way to tell a story to come up with that first and then figure out the story that’ll justify the thing you want to do. I read an interview with Robert Zemeckis once that I thought was really interesting because he’s a director that’s clearly very interested in pushing special effects forward in really innovative and interesting ways. I think in his better movies—Back to the Future, Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, what have you—it always feels like the story comes first and then he comes up with these cool tricks to try to tell the story that he wants to tell. He did this interview where he says, “Yeah, a lot of people think that but it’s not true. I’m more inspired by the cool thing that I want to do and then I find a screenwriter and we figure out what story we could tell to do this cool thing. How do we work this interesting sequence into this movie?”

That was a really eyeopening statement for me because when you see his movies, they’re so cleanly done that you wouldn’t know it. You’d think, “Oh, this guy really wants to tell this story about this alcoholic airline pilot and in order to tell this story he has to have this cracker jack set piece at the beginning that’s an upside down plane.” Then to think, “Oh, no, he had the idea for the upside down plane, figured out a story to go with that, and the movie is no better or worse because of that,” I found really inspiring. Sometimes it can be worse, sometimes things feel shoehorned in or unnecessary if you can feel it. If you can craft your story in a way that feels organic then I think there’s no shame in starting with the weird thing you want to try. 

BLVR: Going off of that, with your short stories did you feel that that was coming into play too?

RBW: Yeah, almost all of them. I would start and I would go, “‘Lucinda, the average of all possible things, woke up very averagely.’ Oh, that’s a fun way to start a story. What does that mean? What does it mean to be the average of all possible things? How do I choose that to tell this story about this woman and have that in a way that she sees herself.” Or oh, I’m going to do this thing where this guy is talking about what it’s like to be the president, and as you’re reading it, you’re going to gradually realize, “Oh, he’s talking about being a president at a theme park of presidents.” Then you go, “Okay, well now I have the setting, or the voice, or the way in, what’s the story?” Or “Rules For Taboo” was the same thing, “I’m going to use this party game rule packet to allow a couple to be passive aggressive towards each other. Can I introduce an arc with that? Can I make it feel like there’s some movement or momentum? What am I saying about these characters?” I got a great note from my editor on the serial monogamist guy and important city landmarks which is the story told in sections about the different places this woman has been to that remind her of her various boyfriends. Originally, each little section was completely distinct from itself, there was no relationship between them. My editor said, “I want to feel like this is all the same woman. Can we cross reference some of these boyfriends between the pieces so it’s clear that it’s accumulating.” So I did that, I would have a mention of Eric where I’m writing about Boris or what have you and make it clear that these things are adding up and this is a larger story about this woman, it’s not just these isolated places. To find the story within the gimmick I think is the challenge, but for me at least, I’m not really done with the story until I’ve done that. 

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