From Freaks and Geeks to Forgetting Sarah Marshall and How I Met Your Mother to The Muppets, Jason Segel is one of the most beloved names in comedy today. His latest venture was born as a screenplay written by a 21-year-old Segel in the wake of the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks, but has now found new life as a children’s novel. The book, entitled, Nightmares!, is a collaboration between Segel and Kirsten Miller (author of the Kiki Strike series), and is due out in September.
The book, the first in a planned trilogy (plus, Segel said, “a few companion books and who knows where it goes from there”), follows Charlie Laird. Charlie is a seventh grader who recently lost his mother, has been forced to move to a new home with a stepmother he can’t stand and has started having debilitating nightmares. Though he assumes these nightmares are safe in the sense that they are not real, he soon finds to his terror that the witches of his nightmares have kidnapped his younger brother, Jack, and taken him into the netherworld, (a.k.a. the nightmare world). With the help of some of his friends, Charlie is forced to head into the netherworld and face his fears in an attempt to rescue his brother.
Segel recently attended the first ever BookCon in New York City and spent the better part of an hour discussing Nightmares!. Below are some details he shared about how his own life and world outlook informed the work. (Click on over to this article to see what Segel had to say about his influences and writing process, as well as the projects he is most proud of up to this point in his career.)
From the word go Segel was open and honest with crowd in attendance, beginning the session by sharing his initial inspiration for Nightmares!.
“I think I’ll start with how it began, because it’s very personal. I had terrible, terrible nightmares growing up. I had a really vivid imagination. I wore a Superman cape under my clothes until I was like 12 or 13 years old [awws from crowd] ––Now it’s ‘aww,’ then it was so weird–– It was something that really defined who I was, ‘cause at night I was living this life that was really horrifying.
“At some point, when I was about 21, Freaks and Geeks had been cancelled...and my friend and mentor Judd Apatow took me aside and said, ‘Listen, you’re kind of a weird guy, and the only way you’re going to make it is if you start writing your own material.’ I sat down to write, and what happened was, I wrote a script for Nightmares!. It was sort of the defining thing in my life, as a child ...I realized that a kid can imagine what I was trying to put on a page, so much better than what I would be able to put on the screen. A kid’s imagination is just so vivid and so powerful. I also realized that a kid has their own personal experience with a book, so it’s different for every reader, and that was very exciting to me.”
He went on to explain a bit about the blend of emotions readers can anticipate when they dive into Nightmares!, and who exactly he imagines might enjoy it.
“It’s funny and it’s scary and I think it pushes you right to this edge where you kind of feel like you’re doing something naughty by reading it, which is sort of my favorite area.” He would later add, “Life is funny and scary. I really like things that are in the tone of life, I don’t think things have to be just one thing.”
“I think that around 10 is the safest place to start reading, up to our age. I would have read this book when I was 7 and loved it! I would have stolen it from my brother’s bookshelf and secretly read it. I think there’s something really exciting about hiding under the covers with your flashlight reading and being really scared and not quite knowing why.”
Segel also reflected on some of his own nightmares, past and present.
I had one that was so peculiar, a recurring nightmare about witches eating my toes. They didn’t want any other part of me, just my toes. And then, I had a dream, this will show you about the power of a kid’s imagination. I had a dream about fighting Dracula, in Dracula’s castle. It started out terrifying. He would chase me around and almost catch me every night, but over the four or five years I had this dream, the layout of Dracula’s castle never changed. At around 12 years old, I found a secret room in Dracula’s house, that even Dracula didn’t know about. From that point on, I would run to that room. It was filled with couches and video games, and I would just chill out in there. It was great.
Yes, I still have nightmares. ...now if Dracula is in my nightmare, I’m pretty sure it’s a dream, so those aren’t the things that scare me anymore as I’ve gotten older. I think now the things I’m scared of are like, I’m not prepared for something I need to do. So I try to be really, really prepared in general. Talk about not being afraid, I write music for some of the movies I do and I sing the songs, and sometimes I write the scripts and I do acting in them, I’m not actually great at all that stuff, that would be impossible, but what I am is I’m not afraid to be bad at something for a while until I’m good at it. ... There are a lot of moments when I’m trying to learn an instrument for example, where I’m really bad at it, but I just try to tack the words ‘right now’ onto the end of it, and just walk through until I’m decent at it. I think most of my nightmares days are that I can’t do something and then I wake up and decide, ‘Yeah, really? Watch this, nightmare.’
As well as a childhood memory that informed how he wrote Charlie and Jack.
"In a lot of ways, I am Jack, the younger brother. I had an older brother, I have an older brother named Adam who is one of my best friends in the world...now. Like I said, I wore a Superman cape under my clothes for the longest time, my brother was the star athlete of his high school. I wore the Superman cape underneath 'just in case,' is what I always said. Well, one day, my brother was playing in a basketball game, like heading into the state championships and there was like a minute left and they were down by seven points. At which point I realized, this is the time. I’m like experiencing this all over again right now. So, I stood up in the bleachers and I took off my sweatshirt and I pulled out the Superman cape and I ran down to the side of the court and started running up and down yelling ‘Go, Adam! Go, Adam!’ and I have never forgotten the look in his face. He said, ‘Sit. Down.’ I think that sort of summarizes the relationship between Charlie and Jack. Jack is a well-intentioned and precocious young guy, but Charlie is embarrassed by that. Charlie’s at that age where stuff becomes embarrassing."
And the way a classic video game played into his world-building.
Do you remember a video game called, Myst? Well Myst came along with a companion book and it had like a map of the world, of the Myst world and I remember carrying that thing around––I was so weird. I remember carrying that thing around and really thinking I had found like some secret map of this world. I think when you’re telling any fantasy story it has to hold up to logic, so it was really important to both Kirsten and I that the netherworld is an analog for the real world that Charlie lives in. it’s a sort of bizarro, upside-down, left-to-right version of the town he lives in. Because really, ultimately our nightmares are manifestations of what we’re dealing with real life.