Sean Penn, Oscar-winning actor, has other passions these days.
“I’m not in love with the job of acting anymore,” says Penn, whose films include “Milk,” “Mystic River,” “Dead Man Walking” and many others. “In fact, what I want to do is write books.”
Penn fears the world is so overwhelmed with “content” that even great movies are quickly forgotten. But he still believes in words. This week, Penn joins such literary heroes as Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac, not to mention such acting peers as Ethan Hawke and James Franco, as an author of fiction.
Penn’s novel is called “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff,” a title not out of place for someone whose off-screen adventures have led to encounters with everyone from Mikhail Gorbachev to El Chapo. “Bob Honey,” its volatile and alienated protagonist like/unlike the writer himself, is a hot tour of the United States and beyond as a Trump-like figure known as “The Landlord” rises to power and Bob Honey longs to be “Unbranded, unbridled and free.”
“Bob Honey” has an improvisational style and a trail of alliterations (“Quite intentionally, to a fault,” Penn acknowledges). The plot involves septic tanks, lethal mallets and fireworks for dictators. The book’s back story also follows a scattered path. Last year, Penn released a brief audiobook under the pseudonym Pappy Pariah. He expanded on it and published a hardcover under his own name, although he says that opinions contained within, including a poem that chastises the #MeToo movement, are not necessarily his own.
“A character’s thought pattern,” he says of such lines as “A platform for accusation impunity?/Due process has lost its sheen?”
During a recent interview with The Associated Press, the 57-year-old Penn talked about writing, movies, #MeToo and his changing tastes in books. He has more trouble in mind for Bob Honey, depending on whether he thinks the public will care. Some reviews have been rough (“Sean Penn The Novelist Must Be Stopped” reads a Huffington Post headline), but the novel has made the top 100 on Amazon.com and hit No. 1 in a category Penn should appreciate: absurdist fiction.
On why he wrote the novel:
“I needed to step away from the news cycle some time during 2015-2016. It was occurring to me more and more that the debates I had found even myself part of in the public arena had become that which were dividing us as a country more and more, that we entered the conversations now as 3-year-olds and to be in the conversation was to be a 3-year-old. The only way I felt I could respond to it was a kind of satire — to choose to laugh, instead of vent, or instead of rage.”
On some favorite authors from Mailer to Cormac McCarthy and what they have in common:
“I realized after I wrote this book that my reading of fiction has been, and I hadn’t thought about it before, almost entirely mono-cultural. It’s almost been entirely American men, the authors I have read. I’m anxious to change that. … My real history of going to bookstores and buying a book has been the rugged men tale tellers and I find that my interests do go beyond that.”
“I was early on a reader of Louise Erdrich, but I haven’t read any of her writing in a long time. I’d like to go back and see what she’s been doing. I’m a big fan of Sharon Olds as a poet. Whenever she has a book out, I grab it.”
“One of the interesting things that I note has not come up in the discussion of sexual abuse, be it by a partner or a parent or a legal system, and it’s sort of surprising that there isn’t within any of these movements any express concern or dialogue when it comes to the age consent in this country.”
“Here we are talking about sexual abuse and you’re still seeing in this country teenagers being married. I think for a movement about protecting young people, about protecting women, that if we are to add to our empathy those who were exploited for their ambition, among the other things, which is not my business to say that that’s a fair thing to be protected from or not. The expectation for me in my adulthood was that I was responsible for that. We are all different and people have different strengths and weaknesses at different times in their lives. But when we’re talking about kids, it’s just clear.”
On a possible movie of `Bob Honey’:
“A couple of people have talked to me about that. I think that if one of these talented directors really wants to do it, then it would be a lot of fun to see them go do it. But I don’t want anything to do with it other than pay whatever it is to buy a ticket and see it.”