Simon Rich, NEW TEETH

Simon Rich, NEW TEETH

Zibby is joined by author and screenwriter Simon Rich to discuss his latest book of comedic short stories, New Teeth. One of the youngest writers to be hired on Saturday Night Live, Simon shares how his writing has become much more optimistic since becoming a father, where he finds inspiration for his absurdist fiction, and why his primary goal for the future is so simple.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Simon. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Simon Rich: Thanks so much for having me. Great to be here.

Zibby: I really loved your short story collection. At times, I laughed out loud. I read The New York Times review of your book. I was like, I felt the same way. That was so funny. It’s really nice when a book can make you do that after a long day. Thank you for that.

Simon: Thanks for saying that. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Tell me about how this book came to be. Why did you start writing these stories? How did you pick the ones you included in the collection? All that good stuff.

Simon: I really was trying to write about my kids. I have two kids. I have a four-year-old and a seven-month-old. It was really out of sympathy towards what they’re going through that a lot of these stories originated. There’s a story in the book called The Big Nap, a kind of hardboiled, noir, detective story. The detective happens to be a two-year-old baby.

Zibby: Which was hilarious.

Simon: He is trying to make sense of a world that he can only partially understand. He is visited by this very mysterious other baby, an eleven-month-old girl who we the reader know as his baby sister, but he’s not really sure about that yet. She wants him to find her missing unicorn. He doesn’t really trust her because there’s this mysterious backstory. Some people say that she came from the hospital. There’s also rumors that she once lived inside of Mommy’s tummy. He just doesn’t really know who to trust. A story like that, it really comes from a place of me sympathizing with just how baffling and confusing the world can feel to young kids. I, as a full-grown adult, feel baffled and confused most of the time, especially in the last couple years. I can’t even imagine how strange and frightening and overwhelmingly the world can sometimes feel to little kids.

Zibby: It’s almost like you’ve taken Boss Baby and turned it on its head with the voice being so developed from the point .

Simon: Boss Baby, he knows what’s what.

Zibby: That’s true.

Simon: My baby protagonist is in way over his head. He is barely keeping it together. He’s hitting the bottle every day. He’s constantly waking up in strange places. He doesn’t know how he got there. He’s barely hanging on.

Zibby: It’s so great to turn it all on its head. So much writing and literature and just so much of our brainpower is about how the parents feel and how we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re upset by this. We’re trying to manage this. This is the advice we need. To put the point of view from the child, it’s just great. It is. None of it makes sense. It is crazy.

Simon: It’s so baffling. I was on a plane once with my daughter. Somebody handed her some crayons, a flight attendant. I was teaching her “please” and “thank you.” I said, “What do you say?” She remembered “thank you.” The flight attendant said, “You’re welcome.” Then my daughter turned to another random person and said, “Now what do you say?” When does this arbitrary chain of meaningless statements end? How long do we continue this script? They’re really just trying to pull it all together. It’s hard not to sympathize with what they’re going through.

Zibby: Oh, my god, my littlest guy is six. I have four kids. We were talking about cells. I made the misguided thing of — he was like, “Mommy, are you going to have more kids?” I was like, “No, I had my uterus taken out.” Everyone’s like, “Oh, Mom, why’d you say that?” I’m like, “Sorry.” Anyway, so then it comes into this whole thing about cells and this and that. He was like, “You have jail cells in your body?” I’m like, “No, cells.” For a brief moment, maybe that’s what it was. Maybe I had tiny, little jail cells all over me. Who knows?

Simon: That would be, I think, pretty cool to have jail cells in your body.

Zibby: Right? You could take that for your next story.

Simon: I would just claim that. I would just say, hey, be careful, I’ll lock you up in here.

Zibby: Exactly. It’s amazing. Tell me about how becoming a dad has kind of shifted — aside from the fact that now your perspective is from a two-foot-tall man instead of however tall you are, how has it changed your writing in general? Did you notice it right away? Were you like, oh, now I have to pivot to this? Has it changed your perspective on — maybe that’s too random.

Simon: Yeah, I think it has. It has in subtle ways. I don’t know how much it’s changed my style as a writer. I still tend to write pretty unusual stories that are mostly about robots and pirates and talking animals and things like that. I’ve been doing that since I started out. I think my stories have gotten a little bit more hopeful and redemptive and positive. The world can seem like a really dark place, especially when you’re looking at it from a parent’s vantage point. You’re thinking about all the danger that’s out there. I just, with my stories, want to add a bit of brightness to it if I can. I pretty much will scrap a story if I think that there’s no way for it to have a happy ending. Whereas in previous short story collections, I’d be like, yeah, the world’s like that sometimes. We’ll just roll the dice and leave this one in. With this collection, New Teeth, I really only included stories that I thought ended up in a somewhat redemptive place, even though, often, they start off in a complete nightmare scenario.

Zibby: It’s funny. I had dinner with a friend last night. I was talking about some situation I wasn’t happy that my kids had to go through or something like that. She was like, “But that’s good because real life, there are so many bad situations.” You can make your home into this cocoon of perfection or whatever where you’re intellectually stimulating your kids and entertaining them and everything’s okay. They’re going to go out in the world and meet people who are terrible. You might as well just have them experience it when you can be there to be like, oh, yeah, that’s an example of a terrible thing that can happen.

Simon: Totally. You have to somehow teach your children to be able to cope with reality, as painful as reality can be. There’s a story in New Teeth called Everyday Parenting Tips, which is this parenting how-to. How do you help your child if your child is afraid of monsters? Over the course of this how-to, you gradually realize that it takes place in the midst of a monster apocalypse where monsters are everywhere and completely real and absolutely after your child. Your child has every reason to be rationally afraid of monsters. That was my attempt to figure out a metaphor for dealing with what society is going through right now. How do you teach your kid to be resilient as opposed to just lie to them and say, yeah, everything’s fine? Sometimes the monsters are actually real. The threat is real. If you tell your kid, no, I looked under your bed, there’s no monsters, they’ll know you’re lying if there are.

Zibby: That’s true. There are no monsters. Yet if you move this two-inch piece of fabric from your mouth, you could be stuck in your room for two whole weeks. What?

Simon: My wife and I are learning, bit by bit, how to — we feel completely baffled most of the time. That’s what a lot of the stories are about too, is frightened, confused children, but also frightened and confused parents. One of the most personal stories is about these two pirates, Captain Black Bones the Wicked and his first mate, Rotten Pete the Scoundrel. They are these ruthless, murderous pirates with peg legs and eye patches and the whole deal. They find this four-year-old stowaway girl on the ship. They have to figure out how to coparent her, which is much harder than any treasure quest they’ve ever been on.

Zibby: Yeah, pretty much harder than anything. Forget the pot of gold. Just keep the ship going for a few days with the four-year-old running about. Abort mission. Simon, tell me about how you got into writing to begin with. Did you always know you were a writer? How did this whole thing start for you?

Simon: I really did. In fact, I’m in my office right now, I have this thing. Let me show this to you. My mother framed this for me for a birthday. I made it when I was five. You can probably barely see, what I want to be when I grow up.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. “When I grow up, I want to be a writer of kids’ books.”

Simon: It’s sort of backwards. I think this is what it says. I had really terrible handwriting and still do. I had slow fine motor skill development, so I couldn’t hold a pencil right until I was twelve.

Zibby: Go right to the iPhone.

Simon: It says, “When I grow up, I want to be a writer of kids’ books. I want to write kids’ books because you could write anything in kids’ books.” Then I go on to say, “Maybe I’ll get the ideas from other books.” I’m already actively trying to plagiarize.

Zibby: Good for you.

Simon: Then I mention my favorite writer, Roald Dahl, which is spelled R-O-L D-O-L-L, Rol Doll.

Zibby: It’s a tricky name. It’s not an intuitive spelling. It’s okay.

Simon: Nothing’s really changed since I was five years old. I think that even though my books are aimed at adults, there’s still something, hopefully, a little Roald Dahl-esque about them. There’s still a kind of surrealism and absurdity that I shoot for even though it’s sometimes dealing with more adult themes.

Zibby: I am like sixty-five pages into Matilda. I’ve been reading a page or two every night with the kids. Although, the illustrations are propelling us farther along, so I feel more accomplished. I’m like, wow, this is odd. This is totally odd, but I’m loving every minute. I saw the play a while ago.

Simon: Matilda and The Witches were probably my two favorite growing up, I thought just such perfect metaphors in both cases for the indignities of being a kid. The Witches really gets at the way that kids often feel, which is that there is this grown-up conspiracy keeping you from living your best life. Then Matilda, what a great wish-fulfillment fantasy, the notion that you could somehow have agency and power in a world that is constantly trying to get you to be quiet and sit still. I loved those books and still do. He’s still probably my favorite writer.

Zibby: My kids are like, “Mom, you must love this because you love books so much just like her.” I was like, “Yes, that’s it.”

Simon: I loved having a protagonist who loved books as much as I did. That was really exciting to see.

Zibby: What types of stuff do you read now?

Simon: I love short stories. A lot of my favorite writers are novelists, but I like their stories more. T.C. Boyle is an example, or older writers like Shirley Jackson. I like a lot of writers who write genre fiction, short stories in other genres. Obviously, somebody like Bradbury or Stephen King is a huge influence on my writing. People are always surprised when I bring up somebody like Richard Matheson or horror writers. I’ve always just really liked short stories that take big swings. Whether they’re funny or not doesn’t really matter to me. As long as there’s an alien spaceship landing on page two or a monster coming forth from another dimension, I’m totally on board. If it’s funny, that’s great too. A lot of my favorite short story writers are more like premise writers. I like the adult stories of Roald Dahl a lot too, which are very strange and absurd and sometimes funny and sometimes just kind of creepy.

Zibby: I haven’t read them.

Simon: A lot of my favorite writers wrote the short stories that Twilight Zone episodes are based on. Bixby is another one. I read across all genres.

Zibby: Is there something in your life you’re trying to escape from in some way? All these books and all these stories and the way your brain works is very much twisting reality and going off in another direction. It’s sort of escapist, in a way.

Simon: Right. What’s so interesting is that even though the stories I write are ostensibly very far removed from reality, they’re always very autobiographical. A story in the new collection is about a corporate robot. He’s an android named Chip. He finds out after toiling away in his cubicle for twelve years that he’s been replaced by a Chip 2.0, which is a better-looking, cooler version of himself. He wasn’t programmed to have a personality or social skills. This new robot is taking over. That’s one where, on the face of it, it’s science fiction, but what I was really trying to write about is just how it feels to not be super young anymore and to start to feel like, in some ways, you’re becoming obsolete, which is something that anybody over thirty can relate to on some level. I come at these stories from a pretty emotional, grounded place. I always try to find a metaphor that dramatizes how it feels to go through something as opposed to how actually occurred. If I were to write about my actual life in a realistic way, people would be bored to tears.

Zibby: I don’t know. You never know. What about the fact that — I feel like it’s harder to really get a collection of short stories out there. The market for them, so to speak, is much tougher than selling fiction or a full-length novel or something like that. To have that be your preferred genre — I was just talking to somebody who writes poetry. She’s like, “This is just it. It’s been like this my whole life. I’m a poet. I like to write poetry.”

Simon: It’s a weird thing to devote your life to, absurdist short fiction, but I love it. I’ve always wanted to do it. I feel really lucky to get a chance to do it. I’m just really grateful I get to write them.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Simon: More of the same. More stories. I’ve written now, eight books. Six of them are short story collections. I have published a couple of novels, but I really prefer the short stories. What I love about them is you can just take enormous swings. You can really take risks that you can’t always in a three-hundred-page novel. I wrote a story in New Teeth that’s from the perspective of an antique LaserDisc machine. I feel like if it were three hundred pages long, it would start to overstay its welcome. People would get pretty sick of the narrator. At twelve pages, a reader might be patient enough to go with you on such a weird journey. That’s what I love about short stories. You can really just go full tilt. You can sprint as opposed to jog.

Zibby: When you write them, do you write them all at once? What’s the normal length of time to write a story for you?

Simon: It takes a couple weeks. I outline them. I have a lot of premises that I write down. Then I have to outline them to see if they have legs. Some of the premises I come up with, they might make me laugh, but they’re more like sketch comedy. They don’t have a story potential. The character isn’t strong enough. It doesn’t really suggest a narrative. Those, I abandon. Then once I’ve outlined it, I’m always trying to figure out, is there a way for it to have a happy ending of some kind? A lot of my premises are rooted in some disaster nightmare scenario. It’s always like, is there a way to kind of have this character learn something or make some connection or realization by the end that makes us feel happy that we have read about this character’s plight as opposed to just depressed and cynical?

Zibby: Hand me the next book that will make me feel even more depressed than I was when I woke up this morning.

Simon: I know. When you’re reading a collection of short, comedic stories, you don’t want any of them to bum you out.

Zibby: You’ve done so much already. You’re still so young. How old are you? Do you even say that?

Simon: Thirty-seven. Just turned thirty-seven.

Zibby: Thirty-seven, oh, my gosh. Happy birthday.

Simon: Thank you.

Zibby: What’s on your wish list still? It sounds like you’ve accomplished your framed childhood mission of, essentially, writing for kids, or adults who feel like kids on the inside, which is basically all of us. What else do you want to do? You’ve done so much already.

Simon: Just more of the same. It’s a boring answer, but I’m always trying to get better. I’m always trying to get sharper with the stories, to dig deeper. I always try to improve from book to book. That’s kind of it. Sort of a boring answer. I love writing short fiction. I want to keep doing it until they tell me to stop.

Zibby: Can you tell me a little preview of whatever it is you’re working on? Let’s say we turn off the Zoom and you go back to life and everything. What world are you in today?

Simon: Writing about animals today. Writing a story about animals in a forest trying to learn moral lessons and coming up against difficult amoral situations and encountering a lot of gray areas. That’s the world that I’m writing in this morning. We’ll see if it turns into anything.

Zibby: Love it. It’s so cool. It’s amazing to think of all these writers sitting all over with all these different worlds that they’re creating and putting on the page. You can envision it from above like little fantasy worlds all over. Never mind.

Simon: No, I think about that too. With my favorite writers, I’m always thinking, I wonder what they are working on right now. The great thing about being a writer of books is that if something doesn’t work out, you can just throw it away. Nobody will ever see it. That’s another thing I really love about it. You have so much freedom because nobody’s watching you write. When you’re a standup comedian, you’re out on stage and bombing half the time. It’s incredibly stressful. Whereas if I write a short story and it ends up being boring or unfunny or derivative or depressing, I just leave it on the desktop. Nobody ever sees it. It’s a very relaxing kind of profession in that way.

Zibby: Hidden failures, the life a writer…

Simon: Exactly. It’s great.

Zibby: Last question. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Simon: What advice? I would say the best advice I think that I have is just to really only write the stuff that you would want to read. It’s tempting to try to write something that you think will appeal to some group of people or some demographic or some professor or critic. It never really works, in my experience. Whenever you try to write something that you don’t actually love, other people are not going to love it, as a rule. If you write something that you love, odds are there are other people in the world who will love it too, or at least like it. Maybe it will be a small group, but that’s something you can’t control. You have to just, for better or for worse, be yourself. If you keep that as your North Star, then eventually, you’ll find some people who have the same taste as you. They’ll come along, hopefully.

Zibby: I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to terms with the fact that none of my emotions or feelings about anything I consume content-wise or otherwise, really, is that unique. If I love something, even if I feel like it’s kind of out there or whatever but it’s making me laugh or I’m loving it, somebody else is going to feel that way. It’s not just me.

Simon: Yes. What I always say is, somebody told me once, the best gift to get somebody is not something you think they’ll like, but something you think everybody would like. When you’re writing something and you’re like, I don’t really like this, but I think other people might, you’re on the wrong track. Go back to writing what you love even if you think other people are going to think it’s ridiculous.

Zibby: I’m rethinking all my recent gifts now.

Simon: Oh, no. I’m sure they’re great. I’m sure they’re crowd-pleasers.

Zibby: I also am of this — I can’t remember what I’ve gotten people. I’m sure I’m repeating myself. People are too embarrassed to tell me. I’m like, pretty sure I got you this last year, but I know you’re going to love this coffee table book about home design because, wow. Who would’ve ?

Simon: They can have a matching set of two. It’ll look great.

Zibby: Exactly. Then they can give it as a gift. I gave somebody a bottle of wine. I was like, I’m pretty sure you just gave this to me last week when you came over, but here you go.

Simon: Oh, yeah, trading the same bottle of wine around the friend group for years.

Zibby: Same bottle, ridiculous. Anyway, Simon, thank you so much. This is really fun. I’m sorry I couldn’t find the actual book as we talked. I like to have it with me.

Simon: All good. It’s white. It’s pink.

Zibby: I know. It’s been literally in my purse as I’ve changed bags for the last — I like to keep them around me, all the books that are coming up, so I can read little bits. Especially with short stories, it’s so great. I could stop. I’d be twenty minutes early to meet somebody. I could be reading a short story. It’s perfect.

Simon: Right size. Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Take care. Buh-bye.

Simon: Bye.

Simon Rich, NEW TEETH

NEW TEETH by Simon Rich

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