Sean Penn visiting Free Library to promote his novel: 'It's the hand of anarchy offering a dance'

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“Sean Penn,” author of “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff,” comes to the Free Library on Thursday, March 29.

Actor Sean Penn is now author Sean Penn. And he’s bringing his novel Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff to the Free Library at noon Thursday. Tickets are on sale at libraryphila.tix.com. They cost $30, which includes a presigned book. (There’ll be no signing after Penn’s appearance.)

I say “his” novel even though at first, it wasn’t so clear. In the fall, Penn released a short documentary film about it, followed by an Audiobook version. We learned of one Pappy Pariah, purported storyteller behind Bob Honey.

Penn appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and Late Night with Stephen Colbert, and the mystery grew. Did Pariah write Bob Honey? Or did Penn? As of 2018, Penn’s name is securely on it.

Penn has won two best actor Oscars (for 2003’s Mystic River and 2008’s Milk) and is an accomplished theater and film producer, social activist, and published essayist. Bob Honey, his first novel, stars a septic tank salesman who decides to take arms against what’s wrong in our sociopolitical world. It’s a comic, hallucinatory excursion, with plenty of politics, antic wordplay, and 2018 wokeness.

Penn spoke with us in an e-mail exchange displaying many of the same attributes.

It’s hard for me now not to think of documentary, audiobook, and novel as all part of one enormous fiction. I’d love to hear about your aims in doing all that. Few create an artifice so elaborate, artistic, and deflective. 

Authorship of anything is an interesting subject to me. Film, where I spent most of my professional life, is a medium that is virtually impossible to singularly “author.” It’s a medium ingrained in collaboration, fraught with monetary restriction, and alternately complimented or devastated by personality incompatibilities.

I found that over the years (with some rare exceptions) even good collaborations frustrated my ability to move unhesitatingly into a completion of a dream as one hopes dreams to be – a freeing thing.

I wanted to go without a travel companion. I wanted to dream freely and laugh at my own jokes. To listen to the music and put it to page.

It’s not a new idea for an author to consider the muse, or music in one’s head, to come from places he or she themselves might only struggle to pinpoint in folly. Same is true here. So I gave that thing I was hearing a name and a character in the book of his own authorship. I called him Pappy Pariah, and, for a time, I thought I’d go ahead and think of him as something more than a dream.

Bob Honey speaks in a kind of supercharged poetry: “I am God’s squared-away man. I am Bob Honey. That’s who I am.” He’s a man on a mission. It’s a book on a mission. What is that mission, in your words, and why do we need it?

This is a perplexing question. It seems to require a level of truth-telling unbecoming of civility. A rather direct question of my intentions.

What is the mission? I’m just the guy who accepted the mission. There may well be no mission to speak of at all. I suppose whatever its reception and interpretations are will define that. Best I could do is say that I felt driven to accept it.

Three hallmarks of your writing (and the great rush of language!) are humor, implied violence, and compassion. Those three are somewhat at odds, tugging in different directions. Can you comment on the various uses/roles of the humor, the implied violence, and the compassion in Bob Honey?

Hmmm. I like your observations and the order of your values. Humor, implied violence, and compassion.

Once I knew Bob’s name, this giggly music started playing in my head. It was by no means a girlish giggle, but also far from a masculine guffaw. It’s exactly the fact that those three aspects are at odds with one another that makes me giggle. I suspect contradiction may be what triggers my funny bone, and, in fact, I take it back. It is a girlish giggle.

May I ask about your working methods as an author? Exactly when did a busy guy like you write this book? Some writers like to get on a roll and just keep on rolling, letting the music scroll out of them, and some go word by word, phrase by phrase, chipping, plugging, smoothing, constant revision, perfectionism. Where do you fall in that continuum?

This question is fun. It puts me back in the writing of the book period and the flat-out fun it was. I write in one of two ways: longhand at night, and by day I have the privilege of assistance. I can sit, stand, or  pace with a cigarette (cognitive thinking stick) and dictate to a trusted and computer-savvy assistant. But the short answer is that I use whatever means most available. If an idea comes to mind in a car, I might pull over and tap it into my cellphone (I have a cellphone) notes.

By those means, I wrote the book in two mad dashes over a two-year period. Because it’s a short novel, I was often and easily able to press a restart button by reading and rewriting from page one.

I do destroy too many trees. Once I’ve written, have transcribed, or dictated a new page or two, I have it printed. I’m a “paper in hand” addicted proofreader. I obsess every word and comma throughout the fever.

Bob Honey is pretty uncompromising. It does not seek to build bridges between the poles of our super-polarized political debate. So I’m wondering about the readers who are going to hate the book. What are your thoughts and feelings about them?

This, above all, is the single best question I’ve yet been asked about something I’ve written, and I’ll do my best to answer it. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is not an opinion piece. It’s the hand of anarchy offering a dance that readers may or may not accept in the privacy of their own reading space.

It seems in these modern days the language of public discourse and debate is increasingly without refinement and breeds anarchies of thought and soul in most devastating ways. It also seems that the thoughts and language of fiction have become increasingly contained. It’s a backwards quandary, and I sure like it when the language of fiction is not captive. That a reader may better vent in humor than active cynicism.

A comic once said of life’s woes, ‘I don’t know the solution, but alcohol is always my first guess.’ The escapism of that wit is familiar. I’d like to think that Bob Honey being read today will offer some humor of insobriety without looking away from our duty to the sober disaster.

It’s offered as an alternative to escapism. I’d encourage anyone who chooses to read it, despite a predetermination to loathe it, to experiment with treating the book as a drunken uncle who may be a colorful conversation at a family gathering.

Author talk

Sean Penn, 'Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff'

    • Noon Thursday, March 29, at the Parkway Central Library,  1901 Vine St. Tickets: $30 (includes pre-signed book; no post-appearance signing). Information: 215-567-4341 or libraryphila.tix.com.