Raphael Bob-Waksberg on BoJack Horseman and Writing Surreal Love Stories

The writer talks about his debut short-fiction collection, which channels much of the same caustic humor and heartrending dialogue as his Netflix series.

Julie Lake / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Years before the BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg would earn critical acclaim for his animated Netflix show about a depressed equine actor, the writer attempted a different kind of artistic leap: He tried to woo a woman with his own version of a mixtape. Over the course of a month, he assembled all of his favorite poems, short stories, and articles into a document that he then photocopied at Kinko’s.

Speaking at a diner in New York City late last month, Bob-Waksberg recalled thinking, “She’s really going to see everything that I feel, and she’s gonna know me so well.” But the would-be recipient rebuffed his attempt to give her the scrapbook in person, so he kept working on it for himself. And Bob-Waksberg still carries the influences he charted back then. The BoJack showrunner’s debut short-story collection, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory, channels much of the same caustic humor and heartrending dialogue as the Netflix series. The stories alternate between surreal, sci-fi–inspired tales and more grounded vignettes, but many are a poignant mixture of both tones.

The collection’s opening story, for example, begins with a fairly mundane setting: A first date takes a curious turn when a woman is offered salted circus cashews by her suitor. Bob-Waksberg heightens the tension slowly. The story goes on to detail the message written on the cashew can, which reveals the woman’s ambivalence—in the past, she’s encountered a series of cans filled with snakes. It’s an absurd premise, to be sure, but the trepidation resonates. The fine print on the can’s label ends the story: “This time is different; I promise you it’s different. Why would I lie to you? Why would I want to hurt you? This time there is no snake waiting. This time things are going to be wonderful.”

Not every story in the collection ends so hopefully, but Bob-Waksberg still conveys a tenuous reverence for love and those who continue to seek it even in the face of disappointment. He traces the tenor of both the show and the new book to many early inspirations: among them, the author David Rakoff’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel; Jonathan Safran Foer’s “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”; Katherine Heiny’s “How to Give the Wrong Impression”; Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments; and the work of George Saunders.

Ahead of his book’s June release, The Atlantic spoke with Bob-Waksberg about the book, writing across different formats, and the role art plays in shaping expectations about love and romance. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hannah Giorgis: How did you approach writing short stories as opposed to TV?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: A lot of these stories predate BoJack … I think all writing is an attempt to express yourself and to articulate feelings that you feel. I am often surprised when people take something away from my writing or relate to it because I think, No, it’s about me!

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Freaks and Geeks. [It’s the kind of show] where I am shocked that anybody else could like it because it feels so personal and specific to me. I don’t think that is because of the incidents or the characters. I think it’s something about the writing and the acting that wormed its way inside of me, and that is kind of the writing that I aspire to.

I try to think of new ways to describe things that I feel and hope that some of those feelings will be either universal, or will be so convincing that you’ll think they’re universal when you read them. You’ll be tricked into thinking, Oh, I’ve had this feeling. Have you? Or did I just do a good job of describing it? [Laughs]

Giorgis: Did you think in terms of visuals as you were working on the stories?

Bob-Waksberg: Working on a TV show has really helped me to think visually, because I [naturally] think in terms of dialogue, or internal thoughts, first. Often, as a reader, I am less interested in scene description … I don’t have a lot of character descriptions [in the collection] because I like the idea that people can read this story and feel like, Oh, this is me. I think when you hear, “Her blue eyes sparkle,” you might go, Oh, I guess it’s not me then.

Some of the stories, I realized, as I was working on them, that the gender didn’t matter. It’s like, what if I just got rid of all the gender indicators and let this be ambiguous? Sometimes that ambiguity gets in the way, but that’s a challenge. You don’t want to [create] this vague everyperson.

Giorgis: Sure, especially when the category of “everyperson” has so often not been neutral. It’s usually meant as “white male.” How did you think about establishing moments of specificity, as you do with some of the characters’ names, which nod to specific ethnicities?

Bob-Waksberg: That’s a great question. Emika [from one of the last stories in the collection] is named after a friend of mine from high school [who’s] half Japanese. I wanted my book to feel diverse without me putting on voices that I didn’t have the authority to put on. And so I tried to, yes, sprinkle in some names that were indicative of some things, as well as names that were not necessarily indicative of anything and open to interpretation. And then also, sometimes, not naming characters.

Giorgis: Can you tell me a bit about the surrealist elements in the book? The thing about love, of course, is that your predicament always feels like it’s the most dramatic, earthshaking thing in the world, even—and perhaps especially—when it’s fairly ordinary.

Bob-Waksberg: Like we’re superheroes, right? But we’re just people … I think often when the idea for a story comes to me, there are two hooks. There’s the first hook, which is the first paragraph or page of like, Look at this crazy world we’re in. And then after I play around with that [premise] for a little bit, I gotta figure out what this story is really about. Because otherwise, it’s just a shtick.

I started in sketch comedy, and that’s not what I’m doing anymore. I don’t want my short stories to feel like a comedy sketch. I try to find in all of [my stories], what is the emotional hook? What is this story actually about? What is this character going through?

I want to make sure the form matches the function, that the fun gimmick and the story go together. I think if the story comes first and you gotta come up with a fun gimmick, it feels forced. But if you have a fun way in and you’re like, All right, how do I justify this? That’s a challenge ... How do I ground this in something real, and how do I slowly pull back the layers to reveal this thing that it always was—

Giorgis: I’m gonna breeze past the obvious Trojan-horse jokes here—

Bob-Waksberg: We do that a lot on BoJack, too. A lot of how we find stories is like—all right, what’s the silliest thing we’ve done? [Early on in the show] we have this adult woman dating this character who’s [really just] three kids stacked on top of each other in a trench coat. So that is very silly. But what does that [joke] say about the lies we tell ourselves to be in a relationship? Or how can we, when they break up, feel a little bad for them even though this whole conceit is very silly? My book is a lot of that, a lot of finding these fun worlds to play around with and then finding the real heart.

Giorgis: I have to ask you about “Rufus,” the story told entirely from the perspective of the titular dog. What inspired it?

Bob-Waksberg: People are shocked I wrote the story, because I was never an animal person. And then I started dating this woman who had a dog and now we’re married. And now he is my dog. And I love him so much. His name is Stilton. He’s a very good boy. I’ve really become the thing that I hated because I never cared about other people’s dogs. When I first started dating this woman who’s now my wife, I simultaneously didn’t want her to know that I felt this way about dogs, but I simultaneously wanted credit for how good I was with the dog.

I think there’s a wide range of literature and film from the perspective of dogs. But I felt like in most of the stuff that I’d seen, either the dog was really stupid—including on my show—or [it was] the opposite, the dog is all-knowing, and he thinks he’s the master. And I wanted to aim for something more in the middle. I wanted to delight in the language of thinking like a dog … But then in the end, I didn’t want it to be a story about humans from the perspective of the dog. I really wanted it to be a story about the relationship of this dog and this human.

Giorgis: How did you think about writing about guilt, especially in stories such as “We Men of Science,” which follows a man who transgresses in a series of small ways that ultimately prove disastrous?

Bob-Waksberg: Guilt? Well, I mean, I’m Jewish. [Laughs] As is the character in that story, actually. I think he’s the only explicitly Jewish character in the book, and he’s the most guilty.

Guilt is a funny thing. What I’ve been more surprised by in my recent adult life is when I don’t feel guilty. And I think there was a big lesson I learned, a transition between being in my 20s and being in my 30s. I always thought of myself as someone who attempted to be a decent person, who had flaws but good values and wanted to do good by others. And I really trusted my gut and that when I did things that were bad, I felt guilty. And, therefore, if I didn’t feel guilty about something, that meant it wasn’t bad. That was a logic puzzle that I created for myself, that got me into some trouble. And looking back, I am shocked at what I have been able to rationalize and justify for myself.

I think “We Men of Science” is a little bit about that. It’s about the guilt the character feels, but also the guilt he doesn’t feel, and how he convinces himself that what he’s doing is not wrong. Part of being an adult is learning that you can’t always trust your gut.

Giorgis: There’s a poem that came to mind a few times as I was reading the collection, by the Somali-British writer Warsan Shire, from her book Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth: “Two people who were once very close can without blame or grand betrayal become strangers. Perhaps this is the saddest thing in the world.”

Bob-Waksberg: That’s usually what it is, right? I’m always weirded out when I see stories where everything’s going great and there’s a big fight and they break up. I’m like, Why would they break up? They were just having a fight! But if things have been bad for a while, and this is the slow unraveling—I think that’s more what it is. Well, I’m trying to think back to the breakups I’ve had. Some have felt like, “I thought things were going 100 percent great. And now you are dumping me, I don’t understand this at all!” But most times I felt like we both knew something wasn’t working.

Giorgis: How did you balance the sense of hope and despair throughout, even the title—

It’s funny because it’s a very long title. I started getting emails for “the Damaged Glory press tour” and I was like, “What if we call it the Someone Who Will Love You press tour? Let’s use the happy part instead!”

I’m kind of a sweet and salty kind of guy. That’s always been my writing—a little bit of both. But as I’ve gotten older, I have gotten less cynical. There was a long time where I was like, I’m gonna be single forever. Relationships are doomed to fail. Nobody can really know you ‘We live alone in the house of the heart.’  That’s Brian Doyle [who famously considered the capacity of humans to love], another influence.

But now I feel known and I feel loved. So I would like to think that future books I write will be able to maintain a little bit of everything. I’ve allowed myself to change and write in ways that reflect how I feel about things now. Some of the stories in this book I could not write now, so I’m happy to have this record of them.

Giorgis: One of the things the stories do is really challenge the idea that love can fix a person or single-handedly diminish their sadness. Is that a trope you’ve been frustrated by in pop-culture depictions?

Bob-Waksberg: Yes, all of them. I understand why sometimes it’s nice to have a happy ending. I have some stories that are exactly that: They’re in love at the end and it’s fabulous, good for them. But I do think overwhelmingly we are told as a culture that that is the happy ending. I think we, as a culture, have internalized this idea that once you find the person that you’re supposed to be with, you will be happy. And then if you are not happy, it either means you’re doing something wrong or you did not find the person you’re supposed to be with. I think both those ideas are really dangerous.

I try to counter that a little bit in my work or suggest that, no, you cannot depend on a person to make you happy. A person can be a part of that and should be. If a person is making you unhappy, that is a bad situation. But I don’t want to suggest the problem is just that you need to find a better person.

Giorgis: How did you convey the sense of both risk and reward inherent in love and relationships as you wrote the stories?

Bob-Waksberg: The first big story in the collection is the one about the people getting married. That to me is such a happy story. It’s about this couple that clearly loves each other and works together and the power that this man feels for this woman even in spite of their challenges. It’s maybe more typically what you would expect out of a book of stories about love. And I wanted to put that in because I do want that feeling to exist in my book and not feel like, Oh, this is a book of people complaining about how hard love is.

Because I think when it works, it is wonderful. I think it’s a thing worth striving for—it’s why we put up with the rest of it, right?