Screenwriter, actor, and musician Jason Segel needs no introduction. We’ve loved him as burnout Nick Andopolis on Freaks and Geeks, as brokenhearted Peter in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and as the brother (and creator) of Walter, our favorite new Muppet. In his latest venture, Segel takes on the role of YA author, co-writing a dark and harrowing adventure with New York Times–bestselling author Kirsten Miller.
The first chapter in a planned trilogy, Nightmares! is the story of Charlie Laird, twelve years old and scared to go to sleep. Charlie’s mother has died three years earlier, and much to his horror and surprise, his father has remarried. A strange and creepy woman who’s moved into the strange and creepy mansion on their street. Our story begins three months after Charlie, his little brother Jack, and their father made their home in the creepy purple mansion, where Charlie is having nightmares that a red-haired witch seeks to eat and torture him. And now she’s started threatening to come into the real world and kidnap his brother. When she finally does, Charlie must venture into her terrifying nightmare realm, replete with ghastly creatures, to find and save his little brother.
Poetic and enthralling, Segel’s foray into literature is nothing short of magic, the kind of book one wishes upon children and the young at heart. The debut author took some time to talk with us about Nightmares! What follows is an edited transcript of our phone conversation. – Gili Malinsky
The Barnes & Noble Review: So I was at BookCon [and heard your talk about Nightmares!, but] tell me how this whole thing came about. [The book began as] the first screenplay that you wrote?
Jason Segel: Yeah! I had just finished a show called Freaks and Geeks, and when that ended I didn’t quite know what to do next. I was in sort of an in between phase, age wise — I’m like a giant man, so I was too big to play a kid anymore and too young to play a doctor or lawyer… And Judd Apatow took me aside and said the only way that you’re gonna make it is if you’re gonna start writing your own material. And he literally taught me how to write. And the first thing that I wanted to write…was Nightmares! I had terrible nightmares when I was a kid but, also, I think the tone that I most responded to was that Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey, Tim Burton, Jim Henson-y tone. It’s just who I am, you know, I’ve had Muppets posters on my wall since I was a kid. And so I set out to write Nightmares! in the vein of those Roald Dahl stories about the disenfranchised kid who finds out that he’s actually chosen for something special. I wanted to dig deep, too, about what kids’ biggest fears really might be. And the idea of a kid forgetting, and the people around him forgetting, his mother who passed away, it just seemed like not a surface issue. I was really interested in attacking that.
BNR: How do you mean not a surface issue?
JS: Well, it wasn’t like a superficial fear of being afraid of spiders. I wanted to dig deep into what fears are really based on… When we have nightmares, in my opinion, it’s your brain processing really deep-seeded fears and they sort of manifest in these archetypes, whether it be witches or spiders or snakes, but there’s usually something underneath it that’s deeper.
I think part of what the book is getting at is we’re told to dismiss our fears… This idea of Irish stoicism where people stop talking about their feelings because they’re afraid of being perceived as weak. Kids don’t communicate the way they used to anymore because there’s this Twitter, social media generation where, you know, one false word and you could get mocked by your classmates. Part of the message is it is OK to be afraid and it’s OK and even important to talk about those things with your friends and with your parents. I think that there are myriad reasons why a kid might not talk about some of the things that they’re actually afraid of.
BNR: So, just as an aside — if you had been told by Judd Apatow to write roles for yourself… What role would you have taken [in this film] – you must have been, like, 20, when you wrote this?
JS: Yeah, I always really related to [one of the nightmare creatures] Dabney the clown… He has really strong ideals but is also incredibly goofy and little bit odd. When I picture Dabney in a movie it’s done with complete seriousness but with, like, 10 percent overacting. The way a clown’s emotions are all 10 percent exaggerated.
BNR: I think probably 25 percent exaggerated.
JS: Yeah, well, when you start at 15 percent overacting it’s just 10 percent added.
BNR: You have the extra goof already built into your delivery.
BNR: So, you really wanted to delve deeper into the world of fears… How did you see this manifest, that this is a generation that is especially discouraged from being afraid or being vocal about their fears?
JS: Well, I think that one thing that I kept at the front of my brain is my sense of childlike wonder. I never really lost that and movies like Goonies sort of caught me at an age where you’re at a fork in the road and there’s this track that you’re about to get on. Elementary school leads to junior high leads to high school leads to college leads to your job. And catching kids at an age where you can remind them that there is magic was a really important thing to me. I’ve always kept that in my mind and it served me really well. I’m not really afraid of much because I’ve found in my own life that it’s doing the thing that you’re afraid of that always leads you to the greatest reward. And that was just the message I wanted to pass on. You see it a lot in math class. At some point, at some age, kids just decide, “I can’t do this anymore.” They make this weird proclamation, “I’m not good at math,” and it really is just fear of getting through being bad at something until you’re good at it.
BNR: But how did you know that this particular generation is more afraid than others? Are you looping yourself into this generation so that you can say, I have experience being told, in particular, that I’m not allowed to be afraid?
JS: Well, I can’t really speak to other generations because I only know my own experience… But I think that the business that I’m involved in, and I’ve been doing it since I was 17, is a scary one. And I have my hand in a lot of different things – I write music for the movies and I write the scripts and I wrote this book and I act in them and in my opinion, I think there’s some things I’m very good at, but it’s not that I’m gifted at all of these different things… It really is that I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid at something not working out and not afraid of being bad at something until I’m good at it. And I just felt like, as adults, you look around and you see people in various states of fear and it can make them be defensive or it can make them be afraid to try new things. It just seemed to me like fear is behind all of that and [I wanted to] remind kids as they enter into this world… To be afraid is an important thing.
BNR: You’d seen it manifested in the adults around you and [you decided,] this is gonna be for kids. About them dealing with their fear, uprooting it from the beginning.
JS: Yeah, because they’re about to enter into this world and there’s not really an off ramp once you get going.
BNR: So it was always going to be for kids?
JS: Yeah, it’s always been for that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Labyrinth, Goonies-age, which I think adults can enjoy as well because I think all of us have sort of a childlike wonder about us if we dig deep enough.
BNR: I think you’ve definitely hit on something that is universal.
JS: Aw, thanks! I think Harry Potter did it really well, too. Giving people wish fulfillment… I think that the reason, like, Harry Potter or Charlie and Chocolate Factory and hopefully Nightmares!, people respond to it — of all ages — is that everybody’s big desire is that they’re meant for something more. You have this mundane life and you’re plucked out of it and thrust into this world where you’ve actually been chosen.
BNR: Right, there’s something special about you that enables you to see something deeper [as Charlie is able to, having been granted the power to enter the nightmare realm]. That Harry Potter franchise, though… J. K. Rowling knows what’s up.
BNR: I hope that you guys get to meet and that she reads Nightmares!
JS: Ugh, that would be amazing.
BNR: So tell me how this ended up being a book.
JS: Well, I think it was around when I did Muppets. I got to see kids come into set and interact with Kermit and the other Muppets. And when I saw the suspension of disbelief that goes on where kids are looking directly at the puppet, even though there’s a puppeteer sitting right next to it, I realized that there’s something really special about a book. The kid has their own personal experience with [it]… They get to imagine it however they want. And I thought it was really neat to let the story live that way for a little while where a kid got to create their own nightmare world. That’s the neat thing about nightmares. They’re birthed by your own imagination.
… [I] got in touch with Kirsten Miller, who’s an amazing author, and started talking about how to structure it as a book and together we conceived of Nightmares! as this trilogy.
BNR: Let’s talk about Charlie. He’s a troubled kid with a really good heart. Tell me about developing that character.
JS: Sure. Charlie, who’s sort of our hero, when we find him at the beginning of the book is paralyzed by his fear. He’s an angry young boy who feels very isolated. He has an amazing group of friends around him who are trying to support him, but he hasn’t learned to communicate what it is that he’s really afraid of, even to himself. So the story is really about Charlie, with the help of his friends, learning that his feelings are OK, and it’s OK to walk through them… And he doesn’t have to put on a happy face anymore. The nightmare world is really a metaphor. It’s a vehicle for him to go on this journey of acceptance.
BNR: Charlie’s true fear really comes into fruition and he has to deal with it head on. Do you think that, deep down, he knows what he’s [been] afraid of?
JS: I don’t think he does. I think that where Charlie is now, and I think where a lot people are, is they know they have uncomfortable feelings, they know they’re angry but sometimes those feelings are scary. People know deep down that when they confront those feelings, they’re going to reach the conclusion that it’s they themselves that have to change. That’s at the root of everything. The only thing you have power over is yourself. Charlie is not ever going to be able to bring his mother back, so it’s going to be his feelings that have to move.
BNR: Yeah. So, you touched on this just now when you were talking about the metaphor. I think what’s really interesting about reading this story is because we’re seeing it through Charlie’s eyes, he is essentially creating these two worlds for us: the nightmare world and reality.
BNR: Which is really cool. As an adult reading it, I feel I get to decide if [the nightmare] world is even real or he’s just seeing it because he needs to see it.
JS: That’s right, yes.
BNR: Because we’re talking about two worlds that he has essentially created, tell me about the nuances of Charlie that inform the characteristics of these worlds.
JS: Well, the nightmare world, as all nightmares are, they’re sort of an analogue of what we deal with in real life. We really deconstruct our version of the real world. So the nightmare world is sort of Charlie’s real world experience with his fear manifested. It’s manifested in the architecture and the landscape and also the tone of the creatures that inhabit it. So Principal Stearns is President Fear and President Fear is how Charlie feels about his principal. In the nightmare world, what you really get to see is how Charlie feels about the real world.
BNR: Right, and everything is heightened. So tell me, what is a hero?
JS: Oh, I always think that the best version of a hero is somebody who walks through their fears. I really spent time thinking about the hero’s journey when I first wrote this. I had just read a book called The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is sort of an extrapolation of Joseph Campbell’s teachings. So Charlie really does go on the hero’s journey. He’s a young guy who has issues he needs to deal with. There’s a call to adventure and in rescuing his brother he has to deal with the things that have been holding him back. It’s a classic hero’s journey.
BNR: So a hero is less of a person that exists as a hero and more of an action that they have to go through.
JS: I think so… You know, we’re not talking about a superhero, but even the best superheroes have to do this. A real world hero is somebody who does things in spite of being afraid. It’s not somebody who’s not afraid. It’s somebody who takes their fears head on.
BNR: I know both from five minutes ago when you mentioned it, and from the talk that you gave at BookCon that [magic] is this looming thing in the air that’s a presence in your own life. But tell me more about it. Tell me what magic is.
JS: I think that… You know I’ve never tried to define it but thinking about it now I guess I think magic is the promise that more exists than what we’ve been told is possible. I think we’re sort of told what the rules are, you know, of life. In a right-on-the-nose kind of way, a magic show, you know the rules of physics and gravity and then you watch somebody defy them. I think that in a greater, real world kind of way the magic I see is when somebody defies the rules of how we’ve been told things have to operate. You’re only capable of this, you should accept that this is the way things are. And then to watch somebody break out of those shackles, you know, real world Houdini, kind of makes me believe anything is possible.
BNR: So can you give an example in your own life?
JS: I mean the odds of me doing any of these things I do are stacked against me incredibly. The odds of getting a movie made and getting a book published or writing songs that end up in a movie, everything is telling you this is not possible.
BNR: But it’s happened and it keeps happening.
JS: Yeah, that’s right. And I really do believe that it’s strictly because I’m not afraid.
BNR: So how does magic manifest itself in Nightmares!?
JS: I think that one of the ways it manifests itself is this one plus one equals three element of friendship. It’s one of the lessons I learned from the Muppets, this idea that we’re stronger together than we are apart. Charlie’s mother, when she passes away, says to Charlie, two will always be stronger than one, talking about Charlie’s relationship with his little brother, Jack. The book and the series will end up being a real discovery of that lesson. That the two of them combined don’t just equal two. The power of family and the power of friendship creates something much greater than the sum of its parts.
BNR: How much you can achieve by working with people and believing in other people…
JS: Yeah, people are really afraid to ask for help and there is an amazing strength and power in collaboration.
BNR: So what lies ahead for Nightmares!?
JS: Well, we started working on book two. We have a really, I think, beautiful and exciting plan for the way the trilogy unfolds that includes prophecy and some other neat adventures that the nightmares themselves go on. Seeing the nightmares venture out of nightmare realm is one of our plans.
BNR: Oh, cool. Oh my God I can’t wait. I’m gonna be buying this book for, like, every birthday.
JS: Oh that’s so cool because I’ll tell you, one of the things that was really important to me, a remnant of when I was a kid, was the book as an object. Being able to hold the thing and have it feel special and use the best material… Was a really neat thing to me. Something that people can hide under the covers with and read. There’s nothing to me like holding a book that you feel is special and your own.