The New Yorker has been publishing ex-Brooklynite Simon Rich’s comic novella “Sell Out” on its website this week in daily installments. It tells the story of an early 20th-century immigrant living in Williamsburg and working in a pickle factory accidentally sent forward in time to the present day, when he meets his great-great-grandson Simon Rich, a script doctor, with whom he stays. We spoke to Rich by email about whether he knew his own grandparents and whether Brooklyn is really so bad as he makes it seem.
I heard you don’t live in Brooklyn anymore—is that true?
I’m out in California these days, working on some movie projects, but I’d love to move back home someday. I really love Brooklyn, despite having written this hostile take-down of it.
“You” are one of the main characters, which makes a lot of the comedy self-deprecatory; were you worried about seeming too disapproving of present-day Brooklyn?
I’ve always wanted to write a story about meeting my ancestors, ever since watching Back the Future Part III. I don’t know why “Sell Out” is so self-loathing. I guess I was just trying to be honest. I genuinely believe my great-great grandfather would be disgusted by the way I live my life.
Did you know your own grandparents? Great-grandparents?
I never met the real Herschel, unfortunately, but a lot of stories about my great-great grandparents did get passed down to me. I’m really inspired by what my ancestors risked to come to this country. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from exploiting their legacy for cheap laughs.
You don’t spend much time on the actual mechanism of the time travel. Do you like time-travel stories?
I’ve always loved time travel stories, and New York time travel stories in particular. “Rip Van Winkle,” obviously, is the main inspiration for this one. But I also tried to rip off Time and Again as much as possible.
What are the advantages of releasing a story like this on The New Yorker‘s website? And disadvantages?
Seventy pages is a weird length—too long for the magazine and too short for a stand-alone book. I’m really grateful The New Yorker found a way to get it out there. Also, Bendik Kaltenborn’s illustrations are super cool. Thanks, Bendik!
Is present-day Brooklyn really so bad?
I think it’s great! One of the reasons I wrote “Sell Out” is because I feel guilty for taking so much in Brooklyn for granted.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart