Legendary Comic Steven Wright On The Electricity Of Ideas And Writing His Novel, ‘Harold’

The debut novel from legendary stand-up comedian Steven Wright, Harold is about the kaleidoscopic mind of an ever-curious 7-year-old boy in the ’60s as he floats through his day; his rollicking inner monologue an endorsement for unrestrained imagination and Wright’s own boundless creativity.

Largely tapped out on Wright’s phone during periods of focus while sipping coffee on a mountain or sitting in his car, the book is, in every way, a product of its somewhat freeform creation. Harold didn’t even start off as a book. Wright had an idea, which turned into a bigger idea, and eventually became the kind of thing that warranted a front and back cover and some binding. Something that is not unpolished, but also not overly engineered or artificial. It’s got a full heart and Wright’s specific wit, but above all else it feels like something someone made because it made them laugh and they trusted their inner compass, not because they were listening to focus groups.

As Wright says in the middle of a lengthy conversation that will eventually touch on the battery of the thoughts expressed by Harold, the character’s fascination with death, and time management, “In my whole career, I’ve never planned anything.” And as with the rest of his career, this book (and this conversation, to be honest), benefit from Wright’s fearless penchant to jump from idea to idea.

I really enjoyed the book. I’m curious about the ambition behind writing a novel. What made you want to do this?

Well, in 1986, I wrote an article for Rolling Stone Magazine. It wasn’t an article. It was like a fairy tale about how the beach was invented, and you can see it on my website. It’s insane but it’s like a fairytale. And every five or six years I would read it just for the hell of it and I thought, “Oh, I really like this. I should write something else sometime.” But then I never would. Then about seven or eight years ago, I read it again and I thought, “I’m going to have to try something.”

So I just started writing this thing about this kid in a classroom, Harold, in elementary school, and I just was writing it for the fun of it because I liked having written “The Beach,” so I wanted to write something else. And I just kept going, not thinking I’m writing a book, not thinking anything, just I’m starting this thing about this kid in a class. And as it went on, I realized, “Oh, wait a minute. I know what’s going to happen.”

When I do my standup, it’s quick jokes, a couple sentences. Then the audience laughs out loud hopefully. It’s a very narrow window of creativity. I’m not complaining. I’m just explaining it, to just say a few sentences and have people laugh out loud. But as I started writing Harold, I realized I had a lot of stuff in my head about life and everything that would never go through that narrow window of jokes. It couldn’t be made into jokes. So I thought, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to put a funnel on Harold’s head and I’m going to pour into his head all this stuff that’s in my mind about life, religion, the universe, lawyers and love and time and life and death, and I could never say that through a window of jokes. So that’s how it happened.

Why do those thoughts translate into the brain of a seven-year-old? Why not a character that’s older or your age or even going through their 30s? Why was the device a child?

In my whole career, I’ve never planned anything really. I can’t. Why is he seven? Because I just started writing “Harold was seven in third grade.” I didn’t analyze him to be seven. I just make stuff up, make shit up, and it’s like, “Okay. Harold was seven in elementary school.” I didn’t think about, “Well, what does that mean?” I didn’t even think about it. I liked him in elementary school and I thought of my school, Wildwood School in Burlington (Massachusetts), and I poured all this stuff into his head. You read the book, he could never be thinking this stuff. He’s seven. But I didn’t give a shit. A lot of what I did, I didn’t analyze.

I think it works really well. There’s just this sense of wonder and this limitlessness to a child’s brain. I think back to when I was a kid, but I’m still very much the same person I was when I was 12 in a lot of the things I like, a lot of my attitudes toward things. I don’t mean to say that in a bad way. I think it’s okay. Others might differ, but I’m curious if you feel your age or do you feel you have a little bit of arrested development?

I feel my age from experiencing the world my age differently, just because of going this long. But that child, you said it. A kid is automatically completely a hundred percent curious constantly. I mean kids, I love watching them at the beach. They’re scientists, they’re digging. “Why does this move? Stand on this. Do this.” It’s total wonderment.

Oh yeah, take things apart. I used to do that when I was a kid, wrecked all my parents’ electronics, take everything apart, see how it worked. Still do it to a certain extent.

(Laughs) But as a creative person, at least in my life, that’s based on curiousness too, wonderment. Because all the material I’ve ever written is because I noticed things and people who are creative I think notice more than people who aren’t creative. So that’s connected in the sense like I’m wondering, I’m noticing things like I am seven, maybe not to that extent, but all the creativity is from noticing.

So it wasn’t a big deal for me. Him noticing when he’s seven is automatic, but I’m noticing like I’m seven also, but I get to use the words of an adult. I definitely feel connected. You were asking me, you said you feel 12. I feel like all ages. I’ll add it up. Part of me is eight, part of me is 27, part of me is 40. There’s a control room in your head. Different ages are running through in the control room, running the show at different times.

(Laugh) Harold obviously has, I don’t want to say a fixation. It feels more like a fascination with the idea of death and the afterlife. Does that mirror something that was in you at a younger age?

No, not at all. That started coming in my 20s and 30s and it’s something in there where he’s always thinking about it in the book, but that was from my older version of me just putting that in. I never thought about that when I was his age.

I like how Elizabeth, the girl, Elizabeth says, “Why are you always thinking about death so much?” And then he says, “Because I think if you think about dying and then look at life, work backward, you can see it clearer for some reason.” But yeah, no, I never thought of that when I was his age.

Do you feel that thinking about death now and in your 20s and in your 30s, is that a useful thing? Do you feel the same way as Harold with regard to gaining a deeper appreciation for life? Or have you had to kind of work up to feeling like that?

Well, I think the more you think about it, especially more now in my 50s and 60s, it’s clear the end is there and it makes you be just aware of it. Your behavior might change a little bit because people waste time, including myself. Say the water was time. I mean you put the shower on and then you just leave. You go to the store, you go to a restaurant and the shower is still going. That’s how people waste time. People act, including myself, like they’re going to live to be 800 years old. “Oh, I’ll do that then. I’ll do that.” But then when you really go, “Wait a minute,” it can affect you and you get more out of it.

Like in the last few years, I’ll just think of someone and I used to think, “Well, I’ll call that guy up sometime.” I’ll call him up. I call him up immediately. I’m still a procrastinator on many things, but being aware of it. It makes it clearer that the present… you appreciate it. It’s heightened, I think.

I agree. I’ve realized that I’m wasting time. I don’t know that I’ve done enough yet to activate not wasting time. It’s like a hurdle and I’m kind of just straddling the hurdle.

Well, the fact you’re even aware of it, that’s good in itself.

See, sometimes I think yes and sometimes I think awareness can be somewhat like having night terrors. Like you’re having a nightmare but you can’t necessarily shake yourself out of it. So there’s another layer that one needs to achieve beyond awareness.

Mmm, yes, I see the other side to it also.

That’s the cause and effect. You know the cause. You just need to activate the effect.


Harold talks about wanting to celebrate the day you’re going to die. Would you want to know the day and method of your own demise?

Absolutely not. A lot of the things in the book, as I wrote it I remembered these things that I thought of over the years and they weren’t jokes, they weren’t anything. Just thoughts would come into my mind as I wrote the book. It was like these things would just float up that I would think about occasionally over the years. But that thing about knowing which day you’re going to die, I thought of that many, many years ago. Everyone passes that date but they don’t know it. And it just fascinated me. But no, I wouldn’t want to know. I have a joke in my act where my girlfriend says, “If you could know how and when you were going to die, would you want to know?” And I say, “No.” And then she says, “Forget it then.”

Would you want to know?

God, no. I’m a hypochondriac so I assume every day is the day I’ll die. That’s how I live my life. It’s like today’s the day, right? I know I had that cough, so I’m sure today was the day. Yeah, no, I love a surprise.

(Laughs) You love a surprise! Hilarious.

(Laughs) Is there any kind of cataloging of some of these thoughts that didn’t necessarily turn into jokes that you wound up reaching for? Or was this all just stuff that was just in your head that you pulled out?

Most of it was just in my mind. I mean I had a few things written down, but it’s interesting you’re asking me that because somehow writing the book caused my creative memory to send things up to my consciousness that I had thought of years ago. It wasn’t all written down. Maybe a couple of things, but I don’t know why or how that happened. It was like all these ideas that had nothing to do with Harold or any book would float up randomly and then I would think, “Oh, I can just put that in here.”

Like the thing about his analogy of the inside of his head is full of thousands and thousands of tiny birds at the beach representing a thought, and if they go through the rectangle (there’s a little rectangle in his head), and if they go through the rectangle, then that’s the thought he thinks of consciously. Well, I thought of that 10 years ago for no reason. Your mind just thinks of stuff on its own. And then I remembered it, as I was in the beginning of the book, I remembered that. I’m like, “Oh, I know. I’ll have Harold think that his mind works like this. I’ll just insert that right here.” So barely anything was ever written down. It was just my mind sent up these things that I thought of years ago. Thoughts to me are very electric. It’s exciting when you have good thoughts.

You may not have given this thought and I would understand completely if you hadn’t, but if you think about Harold as an adult, is he a particularly happy adult? Does he maintain his sense of wonder?

Wow, I’ve done so many interviews and no one asked me that. I didn’t even think of that, but my immediate gut reaction is yes, he would be a happy person and he wouldn’t stop wondering. That would be real with me ’cause I haven’t stopped wondering either.

We see Harold as a kid just lost in imagination, every little thing is like a new light flashing, a new thought to jump to. I don’t have kids, but I see kids out in the wild. I know when I was younger, a lot more distractions were starting to become available. Do you feel like a Harold couldn’t exist now where a kid would just be in his mind and in his imagination, he’d be too distracted by cellphone, tablet, video game, et cetera?

It’s a very interesting question. Again, very interesting. Maybe it wouldn’t be as much in his mind because there’s so much outside of his mind to focus on, like you’re saying. Maybe that would stop him from basically wondering unless he wondered about the stuff that he was seeing. He could be wondering on that also, but one thing connected to that is I was born in ’55, so I was a kid in the ’60s in suburbia, rural suburbia. There were no games. We had to make the games up and then play the games. We would go out in the woods and chop trees down for no reason ’cause we got hatchets for Christmas.

We weren’t looking at the screen. We were wandering around in the woods and riding bikes and skating. And at that time too, there was never a point. It wasn’t regimented where “Oh, we got to meet, we’re playing soccer at 3:00 and then we’re going over here and doing this at 4:00 and then Saturday we’re doing this.” All we had was Little League, but other than that, there was no schedule. What I’m saying is when you don’t have any planned out activities, your mind has to make the activities up. So not only are you playing the game, you invented the game, and that I think exercises that part of your mind.

Yeah. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and it was definitely not a life on rails as I feel like it is now. Thinking back on Harold and reading the book, I just kept thinking to myself how it was such a quaint time when a kid’s mind could just be freeform.

Did it make you think at all when you were in elementary school?

Oh, a hundred percent. I was exactly like Harold.

(Laughs) Yeah.

I was just lost in my imagination, drawing during class or something and just thinking about basketball or baseball or girls or whatever, anything other than what I was supposed to be thinking about. I was lost in daydreams.

You’re in the class, you know what the teacher’s saying a lot of the time. You have to react and you’re involved in the class, but meanwhile, your mind is going outside, going, like you said, basketball, and you’re in both. You’re in the class and you’re in the circus of your head.

My priority was my imagination and thinking whatever I wanted to think, and my secondary priority was just trying to keep an ear out enough so I didn’t get into trouble for not paying attention. To a certain extent, that’s still the case to be honest.

(Laughs) That’s hilarious. Just enough to not be in trouble.

‘Harold’ is available wherever fine books are sold.