Despite being a five-time Academy Award nominee and two-time Academy Award Winner for Best Actor, Sean Penn is the latest celebrity to put away their silver screen ambitions and opt for the quiet writer’s life.
Sure, Penn has written about his political views, and has even traveled to faraway places in support of fostering international democracy and peace: in 2002, five months before President Bush announced the start of the Iraq War, Penn took out an advertisement in the Washington Post to publish a letter calling into question Bush’s Iraq policy. He has also traveled to foreign countries, interviewing former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in Havana and writing articles for the San Francisco Chronicle from Iran. However, most people surely did not expect Sean Penn to forego his professional career and so readily embrace political satire as a novelist. Indeed, reviews of his first book, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, have been highly critical. However, the negative reactions from literary critics have just seemed to encourage the actor and director in his writing career. Penn is already planning to pen a sequel (no pun intended).
Penn recently spoke about Bob Honey and the complex political happenings of today at DC’s famed bookstore Politics and Prose. In a conversation with Laura Lippman, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Penn discusses the writing process for the book, as well as the surprisingly scathing commentary of literary critics in response to the novel’s publication. Penn also discusses his work in the context of the Trump administration, which Penn has frequently lambasted.
The writing process
Penn’s novel, published in early 2018, is a more expanded version of a 2016 audiobook also published by the former actor and director. The actor, who used to write film scripts with a typewriter and still has yet to use a laptop, enlisted the help of writing assistants who wrote Bob Honey as he dictated to them. A lot of dictation was involved in the writing of Penn’s debut novel.
Dictation sessions for the novel could last anywhere from 5 to 12 to even 30 hours, depending on how much energy Penn had and how much he had to say on his “runs,” as he calls them, in which he would smoke cigarettes, pace, and dictate his novel to his assistants. This required the help of many writing assistants in a given day. Each assistant worked with Penn for four- or five-hour shifts. After the dictation session, Penn would settle in for the night, making handwritten notes for the next day of dictation. Then he would go to sleep, wake up, and repeat this process again.
Penn tells Lippman, “I originally approached [the first draft] very much in the kind of tangential way that I speak an often gets either interrupted or walked away from,” Penn explains. “So I wrote the book, the origin of the book, in about 30 days, and it took me two years of rewriting and graphing.” He continues, “It’s a short book, also; I don’t know how the process would be for me with a very long book, because I have to go back each day and read everything from page one aloud to start the next bit. So it’s a lot of reading and writing.”
What Sean Penn thinks of his book
Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff details the life of a disillusioned divorcee and part-time international assassin named Bob Honey. Penn has said that he has written Bob Honey as a reaction to political movements such as the #metoo movement which sought to end sexual harassment, and student movements to promote gun law reforms after the Parkland tragedy.
A political satire, Penn’s novel is meant to be a thinly-veiled – or perhaps blatant — criticism of Trump-era politics. “I think there’s this thing that happens where as you get older and you and you, you recognize especially, you know, because we’re in very challenged times to consider hope without considering that you’re hoping against hope,” Penn tells Lippman. Indeed, the current political landscape has painted a bleak future for the Democrats, who have become more fractured and polarized than ever. Having lost the Presidency by a few electoral votes while clinching the majority of the popular vote with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Democrats hope to retake Congress in the 2018 Midterm elections and are bracing themselves for Trump’s newest pick for Supreme Court Justice on July 9.
How has Bob Honey been received by the critics?
The criticism of Bob Honey has been fierce from the mainstream media outlets. “What is Sean Penn Thinking? His debut novel is a mess,” opined Mark Athitakis of the Washington Post. “What have you done this time, Sean Penn?” asks Jeff Giles of the New York Times. “Critics are urging him to ‘never quit his day job,’” summarizes Lexy Perez of the Hollywood Reporter.
The reviews have been “savage,” Sean Penn says, but he expected them to be negative, particularly after the mean-spirited commentary he received in response to his interview with Mexican druglord El Chapo. “I felt like I really gave that my all and it got virtually slaughtered. I felt like I didn’t want my name to be the baggage of [Bob Honey] initially.” So, after publishing Bob Honey, Penn says, he expected similarly bad reviews to pour in. And they did.
What Sean Penn Thinks of the Book Reviews
Penn doesn’t care that the book has received negative reviews. For one thing, the book is meant to be a satire, and nobody should take anything too seriously, anyway. “As the reviews came in,” Penn says, he anticipated them, and resolved to “definitely” write another book. “In my head I’m deeply into [my second novel] and on paper I’m two pages into it,” Penn says regarding a sequel. “But I’m feeling the same. It might as well have been a break in the same novel at this point because it’s still about this guy.”
It’s unclear when the sequel to Bob Honey will be released or what the character’s next adventures will be, but Sean Penn does not seem to be giving up the writer’s life any time soon.