We always knew that Muppet lover and Dracula musical writer Jason Segel was a giant kid at heart, and now he’s planning to tell stories directly aimed at a very young audience. The first novel from the former How I Met Your Mother star will hit shelves Sept. 9, and EW has the exclusive first look at the cover of Nightmares!. Read on for more on Segel’s own weird nightmares, the first screenplay he ever wrote, and his experiences reading Infinite Jest while preparing to play David Foster Wallace in an upcoming biopic.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So the novel is about a group of kids trying to drive fear in the form of monsters and other scary creatures out of their town. What was the inspiration for Nightmares!?
JASON SEGEL: I had terrible night terrors when I was a kid. I’d have these terrible nightmares and then my parents would come in to find out why I was screaming and they’d wake me up, but my body would wake up but my brain kind of stayed in the nightmares. It’s really unpleasant and very disconcerting. It’s sort of like a cousin of sleepwalking. That has sort of stuck of with me because my dreams were so vivid. Also, growing up, I was inspired by movies like Labyrinth and Goonies and these movies that catch kids at a time when they need to be reminded that everything is possible — that you really could find buried treasure, you know? When I set out to write my first script in my early 20’s, I wanted to write something that or the other movies that most inspired me, the Jim Henson/Tim Burton-y type stuff.
What form did your nightmares take? Were they similar to what the kids experience in this book?
No, I had a very strange recurring nightmare. One was witches eating my toes, which I did use in my book because it’s such a strange visual and it was very specific — they didn’t want all of me, they just wanted my toes. And the other, I had this recurring nightmare until I was 13 or 14 about fighting Dracula, which is where my Dracula musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall came from as well.
What’s the basis for your interest in kids’ stuff?
One of the things I’ve learned from seeing the way kids read or seeing the way a kid interacts with Kermit, for example, their imaginations are more vivid than anything you could possible create on film. When a kid meets Kermit, you can often see the puppeteer right there with Kermit on his arm, and it’s amazing to see the kid looking directly at Kermit. There’s some suspension of disbelief where the child is kind of creating the universe and talking to Kermit, and it just really struck me. The same as watching a kid read. They are envisioning the world on this page more than you could ever visualize it, and that’s why I wanted to turn the script into a book. I thought, “Oh, these kids will do a better job imaging these nightmares than I would ever do on film.”
So how exactly did the screenplay for Nightmares! become a book?
What happened was that I sold that script when I was young. It was the first thing I sold as a writer. As I got more successful in the comedy world, that script was sitting on the shelf, and I made a conscious decision not to remind anybody that it was sitting there because I had developed this plan: When it became available, I would buy it back and turn it into a book. So I got the script back and then I got hooked up with Kirsten Miller, who is just absolutely genius. I had zero experience with writing prose, so I gave her the screenplay to read, and we formulated it into book form together.
What was that learning experience like?
It’s incredibly hard, and that’s where Kirsten came in. She’s an absolute genius and her Kiki Strike books are just wonderful. I think there was some benefit of having to written the script when I was so young. One, I was far enough away that I didn’t feel strange about changing things. I was very open to the fact it was more than 10 years later and it was worth reevaluating. But the other benefit was that I wrote that script with zero experience — I used a screenwriting book called The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is a brilliant writing book, and it also has a lot of diagrams as to where certain things should happen in a script. I was so new and naïve that I didn’t deviate at all from that structure and that advice from that book. So if nothing else it was perfectly structured and it made it very easy to translate into another medium. But literally if the book said, “the adventure should begin on page 25” my adventure literally began on page 25, I made sure of it. I didn’t understand page 27 would have been fine.
You’re a very busy guy both as an actor and a writer, and writing takes a lot of time anyway, were you writing whenever you had a second?
I’ve turned my hobbies into my jobs — this is what I would be doing at night if I had a day job. And so I’m very lucky in that I really enjoy the things I do. I think that in your 20s, there’s a lot about paying your dues, and I did that to some extent. Now I have the luxury of choosing to do things that I really enjoy. It very rarely feels like work, or feels like “Oh God, I don’t want to do this today.” Frankly, on those days, I don’t write because it’s not going to turn out well if you’re fighting the experience.
What kind of books were you into as a kid?
I loved the Roald Dahl books. I was also really fascinated with Edward Gorey. I really tried to do this with nightmares — and Labyrinth did this as well as Goonies — but there’s a certain tone that you can hit where as a kid, you almost feel like you’re getting away with something by reading it. It pushes you right to the edge of being too scared, maybe a little bit past it, where you kind of feel like you’re pulling one over on your parents, like they don’t understand how scary this book is.
Tell me about the cover.
I’m absolutely thrilled with the cover — it really captures the spirit of the book. The cover is our hero Charlie looking through the gates of a very spooky purple mansion, which plays a central role in the film. Our hero, Charlie, has become obsessed with a purple mansion on a hill in his small town and his exploration of that is what the book is about.
What are you reading now?
The last thing I read, which was quite an experience, was Infinite Jest, which took several months to read properly. I had a few friends read it with me, book club style, and we would read 100 pages a week and get together and talk about them. To be honest, that was the most important part of the process — having people to talk about it with, because the themes are so rich and complicated and it really is a masterwork. And it’s one of the few things I’ve ever read where the second you finish where you feel almost obligated to start reading again.