Interview: Simon Rich, Free-Range Chickens

Simon Rich is having some communication troubles. The 24-year-old author and Saturday Night Live writer is staying at a cabin in Maine, but a recent storm has knocked out the power, including the phones.

I eventually reach him on his cell, where the signal is spotty but, for the time being, serviceable. “This is my only link to society,” he deadpans, adding, “I don’t need supplies. I’m totally safe. What do people normally say — something nice to their families? Yeah. Something nice and generic to my family.”

Rich, whose family includes father and New York Times columnist Frank Rich, has several projects on the go, but the occasion for our interview is the recent publication of Free-Range Chickens, his second collection of humour pieces in as many years. Like 2007’s Ant Farm, the new book is a slim but concentrated flurry of mini-essays, lists, and imagined dialogues that, while hilarious, are also firmly rooted in unease.

“The original title for the first book was Horrible Situations, and my editor said it was too blunt, and not subtle or artful enough,” he says, “so I had to change it to Ant Farm. In my head, the real title for Free-Range Chickens was Even More Horrible Situations. So the stakes have gotten slightly more horrible, but they’re remarkably similar books.”

Rich has a terrific knack for mining fresh material from everyday experiences that you’d think comedians would have long since wrung dry. Free-Range Chickens gets excellent mileage out of talking animals and a bumbling God (who, when asked why He struck an innocent man with a lightning bolt, replies, “Don’t tell me there are two Joshua Alperts”), but his real strength is the endless terrors of childhood. In one memorable piece, Rich imagines a dialogue between the monsters living under his bed as a kid, whose ranks include a murderer he saw on the news, his needle-happy doctor, Freddy Krueger, and “Dead Uncle Whose Body I Saw At An Open Casket Funeral.” In the middle of plotting, Krueger announces, “I’ve wanted to kill him ever since he saw my movie.”

“I write pretty much exclusively about fear,” Rich admits. “That’s why so many of my pieces are about subjects that you would typically find in horror writing, which is one of my favourite genres outside of comedy.

“Like those pieces I wrote about Dracula — I’m obviously very afraid of Dracula. I always have been, since I was a small child. So writing those pieces was a very exciting project for me, because it was taking something I was terrified of and turning it into something amusing. A happy by-product of the writing process is definitely a sense of peace that comes from figuring out a way to live with the very real presence of Count Dracula.”

Above all else, Rich prizes brevity. His favourite piece from the two books is “Dalmatians,” which is all of four lines long: “Hey, look, the truck’s stopping.” “Did they take us to the park this time?” “No… it’s a fire. Another horrible fire.” “What the hell is wrong with these people?”

It’s a virtue Rich picked up from his time at Harvard, where he was president of the illustrious humour magazine The Harvard Lampoon, which focuses on precisely these kinds of short-form pieces. (It is also the world’s oldest humour magazine, and has served as a training ground for everyone from Conan O’Brien and The Office’s B.J. Novak to John Updike and William Randolph Hearst.) Now Rich approaches his books with the same mindset.

“My main goal as a writer is always to write something that wastes as few words as possible and that someone will finish reading voluntarily,” he says. “One way of doing that is by writing a great book; if you’re worried about pulling that off, you can at least write a very short book.”

But by no means are Rich’s talents confined to 200-word essays about encephalitis and Duck Hunt. He’s also been a writer for Saturday Night Live for the past year (touted as the youngest writer they’ve ever had, though he’s skeptical of that claim), as well as a contributor to The New Yorker and the public radio show The Sound of Young America. And somewhere in there he’s managed to write the first half of a novel.

Before I can ask him about any of this, however, his shaky cellphone signal cuts out for good, and the line goes dead. SEE Magazine wishes him a speedy rescue from the woodlands of Maine.

Random House, 144 pp, $20, hardcover

(interview originally appeared in SEE Magazine, December 24, 2008)