Seinfeld Writer Peter Mehlman on New Novel: "The Entire Book Was Inspired By Annoyance"
Longtime Seinfeld writer and producer Peter Mehlman aims higher than laughter with his debut novel, as he examines racism, religion, tragedy -- and feet. A reflective social commentary, It Won't Always Be This Great is both comic and poignant. From beginning to end, the novel artfully cultivates a philosophy opposed to spending life in search of concrete answers.
"Why limit yourself?" he asks. Mehlman considers that if things don't make sense, maybe they're not supposed to.
For one Long Island podiatrist, it takes an impromptu act of vandalism just to make him aware of his own being. He stumbles on a bottle of horseradish and hurls it through the window of a popular teen fashion store. This one out-of-character impulse turns his life vivid and terrifying, triggering waves of fear, crooked cops, and suspicions of antisemitism, both accurate and paranoid.
"This is a whole opportunity for him to just have the floor about what he feels and thinks," says Mehlman. "Most people don't get a sustained amount of time to consider what's going on in their own life."
When the truth is stranger than fiction, there may only be one person other than yourself who can process it: somebody who probably can't hear you. The narrator's four-day break from examining feet leads to a hilarious, albeit rather long-winded, verbal confession of his trivial crime -- the unlikely catalyst to personal panic and community-wide crisis.
"When he finally decides to tell someone, he's telling someone who's in a coma, who not only can't interrupt him but can't even really grasp what he's saying," says Mehlman.
Mehlman's fictional town found its origins in an outrageous story about Long Island told by a friend's parents over dinner.
"The entire book was inspired by annoyance," says Mehlman. "Thirty pages into it I realized I was writing a novel."
He was angered to discover that within one Jewish community, a substantial amount of Orthodox Jews were discriminating against who were less observant of Judaism.
"They would throw their economic weight around. You know, like if you opened your store on a Saturday in a town they would not patronize your store," he says. "Anybody who impinges their religion on anyone else just bugs me."
Equivalently, the book's most religious characters tend to be the most hypocritical, while the protagonist is more of an "atheistic cultural Jew." And when Mehlman realized he'd reached 100 pages without giving him a name, he decided to embrace the randomness of the universe.
"Oh, what the hell, I've gone this far, might as well go the whole way," he says.
Rather than making plans or goals, Mehlman prefers to let go of the reigns and follow life wherever it takes him.
"People need to find some kind of iron-clad reason for why everything was done," he muses.
Photo courtesy of Peter Mehlman
Consciously or unconsciously, he crafted a story that chuckles at the way we tend to impose reasons onto randomly occurring events.
"I think randomness has paid off for me in big ways," he says. "I think of some of the Seinfeld storylines that I came up with and it was just pure random luck that they came to me. I just happened to be in my car at the exact right moment when I heard that Today's sponge birth control was going off the market, and that's what led to the whole sponge-worthy thing."
Mehlman meandered into television unintentionally, when he was hired based on his first attempt at scriptwriting. Even his journalism career at the Washington Post had unusual beginnings.
"I actually wrote the job letter as a woman," he admits. Our very own reverse George Eliot, Mehlman became Michelle after he "heard a rumor that they weren't hiring any white males." After his letter received a positive response he decided to come clean, after which point he was invited in and offered a job. "I can't believe I did that," he laughs.
Amidst all the chaos of It Won't Always Be This Great is one unchanging variable. The narrator's refreshingly healthy marriage to Alyse, "the girl of his dreams."
"Maybe 50 pages in, [the narrator] says a joke about his wife that, when I wrote it, was really funny, and yet it felt so wrong because at that point I felt like I really liked her and I didn't want to be making classic wife jokes. So all of a sudden I was thinking, you know, what if this guy really loves his wife and the marriage is actually really great?" Mehlman says.
This led him to craft a relationship charming enough to bewitch a man for a lifetime. The secret? He's never accepted that he's good enough for her.
"He's been married 24 years and still feels like he's trying to make a good impression on her," says Mehlman, who believes a good relationship occurs when both think the other is too good for them. "Funnily enough, I've never been married."
Now that Mehlman has surpassed simply being funny, he's a novelist to look out for. Though he hopes for some laughs, he hopes they don't "overwhelm the more serious points that are being made in there, which is a real danger because, you know, laughter is a really strong spice and it's hard to taste anything else."
Without a dull moment, It Won't Always Be This Great will have you laughing as you freak out about how tenuous life is.
Peter Mehlman on It Won't Always Be This Great: A Novel, with Larry Bud Meyer and Joe Clifford; Sunday, November 23, 2:30 p.m., Room 7106 (Building 7, 1st Floor, Miami Dade College)