Sean Penn pivots from actor to novelist at La Jolla reading
Some arrived an hour early for a chance at the closest unreserved seats, scores of folding white chairs lined in neat rows on the sidewalk and driveway outside D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla.
More and more people turned out as the appointed hour drew closer, a 2 p.m. Saturday date with the actor Sean Penn delivering the first public reading of his introductory novel, “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.”
By the time Penn made his way under the same wooden ceiling where giants like Allen Ginsberg and Gore Vidal shared their words with grateful audiences of the past, every seat was filled and 100 more peered into the tiny bookshop from their feet.
“I like trains, so instead of chapters there are stations,” Penn began. “This is Station One.”
The two-time Academy Award-winning actor explained his inspiration for the title character, a septic-tank king who dabbles as a government hitman. The name and story came to him a few years ago, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, he said.
“Bob is God’s squared-away individual,” Penn said. “He knows how to get up in the morning and just do stuff.”
Penn, who said he has wanted to write a novel for 50 of his 57 years, read for 15 minutes before taking pre-submitted questions that were read aloud by a childhood friend of his from San Diego. Penn lit a cigarette as soon as he finished and smoked throughout the discussion. Someone had placed a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue on the counter, but it went unused.
The first question was not about the book, but his 2015 meeting with the infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán for a Rolling Stone magazine profile.
“It was enormously maligned, and I still think it was a good piece,” said Penn, who said he was trying to draw the nation’s attention to the demand side of the drug war rather than to suppliers.
He also was asked about his work in Haiti, where an earthquake killed more than 300,000 people in 2010. The nonprofit he co-founded in the wake of the catastrophe now employs hundreds of Haitians and promotes health, education and economic development.
“My organization is doing well, but we are always dealing with political problems,” the author said. “Nationalism diminishes people’s interest in foreign aid. That makes things difficult.”
But the public appearance was about the novel, and Penn turned most of his responses back to the book. Critics have not been kind, but the author was fine with that.
“It’s much more melody than lyrics, in a sense,” he said. “I just told a story.”
Penn cited writer Jane Smiley’s assessment at a promotional event in Los Angeles just last week.
“She said about 25 percent would love it and 75 percent would loathe it,” he said. “I thought that was a much better ratio than I’ve gotten in my personal relationships.”
At one point, Penn described his title character’s response to a newly elected president that won the White House by exploiting the most divisive issues and stoking the worst fears of the American people.
“We don’t need an intervention,” the character says. “We need an assassin.”
The audience gasped — and applauded its loudest of the day. “The book is not an opinion piece,” Penn reminded the crowd.
In just under an hour, the event ended and the author retreated to an interior office. Readers lined up out front to purchase pre-signed copies of “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.”
Nik Schrager was impressed with the whole presentation.
“He takes history and American culture and combines the two,” the recent UCLA graduate from Solana Beach said. “It makes a really awesome narrative.”
Penn will appear Sunday at the University of San Diego for another discussion of the book. Tickets are available on eventbrite.com for $26 each and include a signed copy of the book.
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