If we could meet our ancestors, what would they think of us? Writer Simon Rich poses this question in his new film, An American Pickle. The movie — based on Rich’s novella Sell Out (which was first featured in The New Yorker in 2013) and his 2015 story collection, Spoiled Brats — stars Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum, an immigrant in 1920 New York City who dreams of creating a better life for his family. While working at a pickle factory, he slips into a vat and is subsequently preserved in brine for 100 years. After waking in present-day Brooklyn, Greenbaum meets his great-grandson, Ben (also played by Rogen), who has abandoned the many traditions Herschel brought to America.
Rich, now a father, was inspired to write the story after wondering how his own ancestors would feel if they saw him today, living a life he considers extremely privileged. Though Rich has had quite a prolific career — writing for SNL, working at Pixar, adapting his stories into films and television shows — he anticipates his ancestors would still want to beat him up.
Vulture spoke with Rich about the process of adapting his novella into a film (premiering August 6 on HBO Max), raising a child during the pandemic, and why he likes writing from the perspectives of inanimate objects and animals.
How have you and your family been during this very strange time?
We have a toddler, so we’re just really happy that she’s unaware of the situation. She’s too young to have been in school, so she doesn’t miss it because she’s never experienced it. So we feel really lucky that she’s not even slightly older because my friends who have children who are 4 or 5 years old … that leads to more difficult conversations, I think. I can’t imagine having to try to teach a child to read now.
What inspired you to write a story about an early-20th century immigrant who gets transported to the present day?
The story is extremely autobiographical. I recently took a 23andMe test and found out that I’m 99.6 percent Ashkenazi Jew and .4 percent Neanderthal. So every part of me that’s human is Jewish. And Herschel is a composite of all of my ancestors who were these hardscrabble Eastern European immigrants who came to the United States about 100 years ago, fleeing violence and oppression. Their lives were extremely difficult and treacherous, and in contrast, my life has been unbelievably easy and privileged in every conceivable way. I’ve always felt extremely guilty about how coddled I’ve been compared to my ancestors, and I always believed that if they saw me they would probably be disappointed and possibly want to beat me up. So that’s really where the story came from: They sacrificed so much so that future generations could live a better life, and yet despite their incredible sacrifice, I’ve lost touch with so many aspects of my heritage. I am not very observant as a Jew. I know very few Yiddish words, and [the ones I know] all mean “penis.” So the story was really born out of a lot of self-hatred and shame.
How did Seth Rogen come onboard?
He’s the only person I pitched it to. After it was in The New Yorker, I started thinking about adapting it, and my very first call was to him. I met with Seth and Evan [Goldberg] and just begged them to read it. They probably thought I was insane because I just came in and was like, “Will you make this extremely Jewish movie and play two parts in it?” They had just done This Is the End, and I was a fan of that movie. I’ve been a fan of theirs for longer than my career. I grew up watching and loving Freaks and Geeks. I loved their work on Da Ali G Show. I was so excited for a chance to work with them and learn from them.
How long did it take, from writing the novella to now, to get the film into production?
It’s been about ten years since I started writing about Herschel. That’s how long these things take. It’s never fast. That’s why you have to focus on the writing itself and not on if or when anybody will ever actually see it.
In the novella, you wrote yourself into the story as “Simon Rich,” a writer who gets work punching up scripts, one of which is about a “monkey winning a break-dancing competition on the internet.” Did you have a realization similar to your character’s that those projects weren’t actually what you wanted to work on?
I feel incredibly lucky to get to write at all for a living, especially when I compare it to the kinds of jobs that my ancestors had, which were super-difficult and usually consisted of backbreaking labor. I actually keep a black-and-white photograph of a shoe store my ancestors founded and used to work at on my desktop.
Where was that?
In Washington, D.C. They ran grocery stores. They were peddlers. None of them, to my knowledge, sold pickles, although they might have.
Judaism is a major part of the novella and the film with both characters coming from very different perspectives on their religion. Did you intend to make it such a major factor in the story?
It’s impossible to separate Judaism from my own family’s story. It’s the reason why we came to this country. It’s easy for me as a secularized 21st-century guy to deny the importance and role of Judaism in my existence, but it’s inseparable from who I am. A lot of my favorite writers have wrestled with that. Philip Roth writes a lot about the Jewish American diaspora and the disconnect that his characters feel from their ancestors. That kind of disconnect is at the core of a lot of my favorite Jewish writers’ work.
Your stories often include fantastical elements like time travel, monsters, and robots. Do you ever struggle with the feeling that you need to keep the world you’re writing in logical?
I try to write about the things that I’ve experienced in my life in a way that is truthful to how the experience feels as opposed to how it literally transpired. And I’m always looking for a strong metaphor to dramatize a universal experience. That’s why I read so much nonfiction and so much genre fiction, because it helps me find good stand-ins for my life experiences. If I wrote about my actual literal life, it would be unbelievably boring.
How many drafts do your short stories normally go through?
I’m more inclined to cut my short stories than I am to revise them. Typically the strongest ones I write relatively quickly. I’ll edit them a few times, but they don’t take that long. The thing that takes so long is generating enough of them. It’s more about the trial-and-error process than the endless tweaking. I’ve never been the kind of writer who will stare at a 25-page story for six months, fine-tuning every sentence. I’m more likely to write five more [stories] and then cut the weak ones and then polish the one or two that work.
Do you outline your stories beforehand or dive right into it and find the world?
My scripts are pretty structured. With my stories, I’m a little looser. I usually know how the story will begin and how it will end. If the plot ends up being overly complicated or redundant, I’ll type out beats of it. Sell Out I originally conceived as a novel and outlined it to be novel length. But as I was writing it I felt like I was repeating myself, and it ended up being this odd length. It’s important as a fiction writer to know when a story really only wants to be about 30 pages.
You just get a feel for it?
The big thing is if it’s not fun to write, it’s probably never going to be very fun to read.
You know when it feels forced.
Yeah, but you have to write a lot of bad stuff before you can find the right angle. For Sell Out, I came at that story from multiple angles before I figured out I should tell it from Herschel’s point of view.
At this stage in your career, are you still getting rejected?
Absolutely. Every single day. But every year it stings a little less. At Saturday Night Live, I would write hundreds of sketches a year and maybe a dozen would see the light of day. That’s just how it goes. You have to just really love doing it, because otherwise it’s exhausting.