Is following your dreams always a good thing? In “The Ambulance Driver,” B.J. Novak’s favorite short story from his debut collection One More Thing, an expert life-saver decides what he really wants to do is sing, and he asks two friends for guidance. “I think it’s strange and empty that we prioritize following your dream over everything else in our culture. I think it’s a truly, deeply wonderful thing, but it’s hardly the only thing,” Novak tells Vulture. To help narrate the story for the audiobook, Novak cast his Saving Mr. Banks co-star Jason Schwartzman and Katy Perry as the driver’s pals, a classroom of 826LA writing students as the group of singing kindergarteners (“Like everyone else in Hollywood, they’re playing younger,” Novak said), and his brother Jesse Novak on guitar. Listen to the entire story here:
The story is personal to Novak, who recalls life as a frustrated actor on The Office. “Rainn Wilson once gave this interview where he said, ‘The universe will tell you what it wants from you.’ That really haunted me,” Novak says. “I really wanted to act at that time, but I was clearly better as a writer. I thought, What part of me is chasing the fun and thrill of this job and how much of me should actually be doing this? I felt kind of ashamed and inquisitive. It really challenged me, even if for all I know [Wilson] got it from Chicken Soup for the Soul.” The driver's song featured in the story is doubly personal: Novak's father, author William Novak, wrote it when he was a child. Well, except for the last line, which was tweaked from And then I was dead to And then I went to bed. "My dad thought it was kind of a sellout."
Novak read all 60 stories in the collection aloud repeatedly before live audiences as part of his months-long workshopping of the material. He asked Perry to be the girl who gives the driver advice because of “the really deep empathy that comes through in her singing voice,” but cast Schwartzman against type as the driver’s more pragmatic pal. “He usually plays the dreamer, not the realist. Then I remembered, oh, right, the kid from Rushmore. Jason can be pretty hard-nosed, too.” As far as Novak’s concerned, Schwartzman’s character is the story’s hero. “I mean, following his dream is not a good thing. People will die. I just hope I’m a better actor than the ambulance driver is a songwriter.”