Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Carter Bays: “I prefer a quiet office with four walls.”

Carter Bays is an American author, composer, and television showrunner renowned for co-creating the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, where he served as showrunner, writer, and executive producer for all nine seasons. A Wesleyan University graduate, Bays began his career writing for the Late Show With David Letterman alongside Craig Thomas.

His contributions extend to shows like American Dad!, Quintuplets, and Oliver Beene, and he co-created Fox’s The Goodwin Games. In 2022, Bays ventured into literature with his debut novel The Mutual Friend, published by Dutton Books, and served as executive producer on Hulu’s How I Met Your Father.

Hi Carter, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! To start, tell us about your journey from co-creating the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother to publishing your first novel, The Mutual Friend.

Thank you! After How I Met Your Mother ended, the first thing I did was move back to New York. I’d been living in Los Angeles and writing about New York for a full decade at this point, so I couldn’t wait to actually live there again.

Running HIMYM was an all consuming job, so to go from that lifestyle to suddenly kicking around Manhattan with nothing to do all day was the best kind of culture shock. I have such happy memories of that time. My daughters were starting school, my son was born, and pretty much all my time and energy went into being a dad and a husband. 

But I still had days to fill, so I started taking long walks, and on those walks I started imagining a new show to follow up How I Met Your Mother. I remember this absolutely weightless feeling that this new show could be whatever I wanted it to be. I would come home from walks full of ideas that filled the pages of notebooks, and soon the protagonist Alice Quick appeared, and like me she had the desire to do something big and consequential but struggled to put her phone down and actually do it.

There have been too many classic tales of writer’s block – the films Barton Fink and Adaptation come to mind – so I didn’t want to make writing her problem. I wanted it to be something actually life or death, so I landed on her becoming a doctor. Soon I had her signing up for the MCAT, with no idea how she was going to actually be ready to take it in just three months.

I brought this big heap of ideas to Craig Thomas, and he and I worked on it for a while, and we wrote it as a pilot, but it didn’t sell. We actually went out with it like two or three different times, but we couldn’t get anyone to buy it. Which is actually normal. Most pilots don’t sell. Selling a pilot means convincing someone to part with millions of dollars. That isn’t easy, and shouldn’t be. So when you write a pilot, and it doesn’t sell, the thing you do is mourn quickly, toss it aside, and move on to the next thing. I’ve done that many times in my career. 

But this time, for whatever reason, I couldn’t. There was too much of myself in this story. I was too invested in Alice Quick. I had to see it through to the end. Of course, writing fiction terrified me. It always seemed like some strange alchemical art that I would never be able to master, and I still feel that way. But I soon realised if I wanted to tell Alice’s story, writing it as a book was the cheapest option.

I was never driven by the desire to write a novel or be an author or anything like that. It was all in service of the story. I had to see if Alice could pull it off. I had to get her to that MCAT, by hook or by crook. And since nobody was going to give me millions of dollars to tell that story as a TV show, I opened up a Word file and wrote it as a novel.

How has your experience as a TV showrunner and writer influenced your approach to writing a novel?

Being a showrunner completely spoiled me. There is no better situation for a writer than being a showrunner, especially when it’s 2005-2014, and your show is a sitcom that does well enough  in the ratings that the bosses leave you alone. There’s no better outlet for a storyteller, because what you have in that situation is the best of all worlds.

Like a novelist, you get to tell a long winding story, but if you feel like writing a short story one week, you can do that. Like a screenwriter, you’re making movies, picking songs for the soundtrack, dreaming up camera angles… but unlike a screenwriter you have control over your material. Like a playwright, you get to collaborate with actors and a director who are there to serve your vision, but it’s a vision for an intimate little theatre with three million seats. It’s perfect.

All of that has now changed, of course. That’s why the WGA is on strike. Showrunners are constantly in a pinch between making a show with not enough time and not enough budget, or just not making it at all. But back then, there was some cushion. The money flowed a little more easily, and the craft was respected, and as a result we always had a big room of very talented writers, and making TV was a joyful collaboration.

I mean, the HIMYM writers did an annual writing trip to Las Vegas, where we’d break stories in a cabana by a lazy river with pina coladas in our hands! That never happens now, even on hit shows. I keep coming back to that Mencken quote about working in a newsroom, because TV writing in those days really was the life of kings. I miss it all the time. 

But as much as I loved it, and especially loved the collaboration… sometimes you don’t want to collaborate, you know? Sometimes you want to run the marathon yourself, to see if you can. Craig Thomas and I worked on the TV version of The Mutual Friend together, and if it ever does become a TV show, I hope we’ll continue that collaboration.

But when it didn’t sell as a pilot, I got Craig’s blessing to write it as a novel, and I discovered what a quiet, solitary business this fiction stuff is. It took getting used to. I was accustomed to a big room full of the loud voices of people much funnier than myself, catching every mistake, making everything better. Writing fiction, you have to sit down at your laptop every day and create that energy yourself, which can be a challenge.

By the end, though, I loved writing this novel, just like I still love writing TV. I love solitude, but I also love company, so I don’t know if I’ll ever be satisfied doing just one thing. I’ve moved back and forth between Los Angeles and New York three times now in my life, and we’re in the process of moving again.

I can’t stay in Hollywood and I can’t quit it. I’m always jealous of the writers who convert the wood shed behind their house into a writing studio and then spend 50 years in there writing only one kind of thing. I guess I’ve learned to accept that that will never be me.

The Mutual Friend explores the theme of love and loss in the Age of Distraction. Can you talk more about this theme and how you wove it into the story?

It’s hard to talk about how these themes ended up in The Mutual Friend without talking about Ulysses by James Joyce. Which, believe me, I hear how it sounds. I don’t want to be the douchey MFA guy who pratters on about how Joyce’s deconstruction of narrative had a profound impact on my work but the problem is it’s true and I don’t know how to square that with my inner critic.

In the simplest terms, I read a book and I fell in love with it, and for a while there all my creativity got caught in its gravitational pull. Which is what we all want, right? Ulysses rewrote my brain in the way we all hope the next book we read will rewrite our brains in some big or small way. Except the more books we read, the less likely that is to happen. So when it does happen, attention must be paid.

Anyway, Ulysses, for all its turbulence, is a pretty simple story about a guy who’s 38 years old – as I was when I read it – and who, like me, has come to a point in his life where he’s looking back and realising he’s somehow gotten himself lost. It’s The Odyssey, of course, only instead of being far from where he used to be, our guy is far from who he used to be. And that whole idea just crackled at me like a bug zapper.

It got me looking at my own life at 38. How I Met Your Mother had just ended, and I was living in New York City again after years away, and in many ways my life was great and in many other ways my life was nothing like what I’d expected it to be, and things that once made sense no longer did, and it all kind of built up to me going full David Byrne, and asking myself: Well, how did I get here? And for someone my age, born in 1975, the difference between here and there – or as Joyce might put it, “Me. And me now.” –  is technology.

There is simply no way to answer that question without looking at computers and smartphones and the internet. Because in the last 25 years, that’s been the change. When we talk about big things like “love” and “loss,” technology has thrown out the script. It’s a brand new pageant. We grieve differently now. We fall in love differently now. And it’s not even necessarily a bad thing!

In many ways life is objectively better! But it’s crazy to be living through it and not acknowledging the craziness. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re emotionally and mentally equipped for all this. We evolved for a different world than the one we live in, and we’re fumbling our way through it, and that’s what The Mutual Friend is about.

The Mutual Friend is kind of a fugue of storylines, but they’re all variations on one theme: People trying to pretend they have a handle on our new way of doing business as a species, and finding out they don’t. Whether it’s the way our phones distract us from getting anything done, or how the promise of romance only a swipe away keeps us from ever committing to true love, or how the silly fun of sharing everything about yourself online can turn into a nightmare when the world decides to discover you at your lowest point.

All the characters go through some version of discovering that the ocean is rougher than they thought it would be. For some of them, it’s devastating, but mostly it’s growing pains. We’re on our way to a new world, and as an optimist I always think that new world will be better than the one we’ve got. But it’s a bumpy ride getting there.

Your book has been described as both hilarious and thought-provoking. Can you tell us about the writing process for The Mutual Friend? Did you find it challenging to balance humour with more serious themes?

I really wanted this book to be more than just one thing, which is why I’ve struggled with the question of genre. Early on, the publishers called this book a “Romance,” which made my skin crawl a little bit. Anyone who picks up this book looking for a traditional romance will not get what they paid for.

I asked pretty insistently to get it out of that category, and they agreed to call it “Women’s Fiction,” which still feels off to me, but the truth is, it’s all my own fault, because I honestly don’t know what genre this big old lasagna of a book belongs in.

There’s moments in it where I’m being cute, there’s moments where I’m being serious, there’s moments where it’s a love story, there’s moments where it’s sci-fi, there’s moments where I’m trying to explore some huge philosophical questions, and there’s moments where I make the dumbest, silliest joke I can think of.

It might be because it’s a first novel, and when you’re writing a first novel you’re not sure there will ever be a second one, so you try to fit the entirety of life between the covers. Which is what I did, or attempted to do. I like the simplicity of calling it “Literary Fiction” because at least then it’s not required to be any one thing. But truthfully, it’s pretty genre agnostic.

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

Ah, crap, I knew this question would come up eventually. My confession is this: I don’t have a writing routine at the moment. I had one, and that routine enabled me to write this book, so I’m very much a fan of writing routines.

But I think the combination of absolute exhaustion after hitting the publishing finish line, and then getting COVID and some pesky residual brain fog, have combined to make this a bit of a year of wandering. But being asked about this is making me look back and remember how I did it and how much fun I had doing it, so I thank you for that and hopefully talking about it kickstarts me into novel number two.

Okay, so step one is walking. I go on long walks. New York is perfect for walking. I’m not a fan of walking in nature. My brain is too broken for that. I need stimulation. Walking in New York is the closest you can get to the physical world experience of scrolling through social media. It’s an onslaught of faces and words and music and noise, and you can keep going forever and never run out of it.

So I walk and I think and I have ideas, and when I get home I jot them down, and when there’s enough to start writing, I start writing.

For the actual writing, I need to do my work in a physical place where no other part of my life takes place. I’m a fuddy-duddy and not nearly as bohemian as I’d like to be. I can’t write in a hotel bar or the dining car of an overnight train or anything romantic like that. I prefer a quiet office with four walls.

When I wrote The Mutual Friend, Craig and I were renting a two bedroom apartment that we used as an office. I loved this place so much. It was right on Gramercy Park, and my room had nothing in it but a desk facing the window, with a postcard view of trees and buildings and sky. The walls were free of decor. It was me, desk, laptop, view, and that’s it. 

I’m big on Pavlovian cues, so at the beginning of every writing session I light a candle, and the scent – in this case it was Santal 75 by Le Labo – tells me it’s time to get to work. Also, having an open flame going in your periphery while you think gives the whole ceremony a touch of the mystical. It’s very “Shakespeare with his quill and parchment.” There’s something religious about it – you stare into the flame and access hidden worlds. I don’t know, maybe I just like fire. It’s my inner Beavis.

When the writing starts, usually around 9am, the big thing for me is word count. I think no matter how high you fallute, this is factory work, and at the end of the day you must hit a quota. It takes however long it takes. (As long as I’m at my kids’ school pickup by 3pm.) I usually have a notecard nearby, and at the end of every session I write the current word count on the card. Then at the start of the next session, I look at that last number, add 1000 to it, and keep that new number in my head as the number I must hit before I’m allowed to get out of this chair. And for the most part I’m able to do it. On good days, I end up way past that number, but never below.

You could argue this kind of rigidity robs the passion from the process, but for me it’s actually a super helpful yardstick for making sure the passion is there to begin with. I’m a big outliner. And when you outline a lot, the danger you run is that by the time you get around to writing you forget what excited you about it in the first place. If I’m up to the part of the outline where it says, “After the concert they walk back to the car and discuss how they’re going to break the news to Carl,” one of two things will happen.

I’ll either think, “Oh score! I get to write this scene today!” and those 1000 words will come flying out of me. Or I’ll think, “Oh shit! I’m not a fan of this scene but I guess I need it,” in which case I probably actually don’t need it, so I’ll cut it. (Or just convert it into past tense and literally cut and paste from the outline to the manuscript.) What I don’t do is make myself write a scene that I dread writing. Because if I don’t want to write it, that means I probably don’t want to read it, and that means neither would the reader, so instead I’m going to skip ahead to the next part of the outline that really grabs me, and write that! 

The point is, I don’t look at those 1000 words as 1000 obligations I have to fulfil, but as 1000 bucks I get to spend on anything I want. So every day, I’m treating myself to the most fun-to-write bits, which I’d like to think is treating the reader to the most fun-to-read bits, so that in the end it’s all fun-to-read bits, which is what a good novel should be, right?

Of course this only works if you spend a lot of time – a lot of time – outlining, and you generate so many ideas that it’s like this giant cache of acorns stored up for the winter, so many acorns that when the writing part begins you can throw out half of those boring acorns and just focus on the tasty ones and still have plenty for a novel. 

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I hate to say Shakespeare, but Shakespeare. Obviously his output was the greatest of all time, but what doesn’t get discussed enough is how fast he did it. In one year – ONE YEAR – he wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. Imagine a year like that. I can say with absolute confidence I would have stopped at As You Like It. That would have been an amazing 1599, and I would have stopped there. The idea of looking up and seeing time left on the clock and then tossing off Hamlet? Are you kidding? There’s a very good writing routine there. 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite recent reads?

I’m making my way back through Sense and Sensibility. I hadn’t read it in ages, though I’ve seen the Ang Lee film a hundred times. I have no shortage of awe for Jane Austen, but this time around has given me a newfound appreciation for Emma Thompson and her screenplay adaptation.

The thing I admire most about Austen is her discretion with description and dialogue. She gives you just enough to catch you, then invites your imagination to fill in the gaps and write the book along with her. It’s a brilliant tactic for novel writing, but it makes you realize how much of the book is like, “And then Willoughby said the most witty, charming thing anyone’s ever said before, and it made Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood laugh and smile, and for days afterwards they repeated this clever line amongst themselves and laughed all over again, for it never got any less witty, in fact it got more witty, for it was that brilliant of a thing to say,” and somehow Emma Thompson had to figure out what the fuck it was Willoughby actually said. And pretty much every time, she stuck the landing.

Another one I’ve loved recently is The Years by Annie Ernaux, who just won the Nobel Prize. It’s all about how memory does a number on us as we get older, and the first line – “All the images will disappear” – grabbed me and I couldn’t put it down. Also, a biography of Hawaiian surfer/lifeguard/superhero Eddie Aikau called Eddie Would Go by Stuart Holmes Coleman. Everyone should know about Eddie, and this is a great telling of his life and legend. And I just started a new novel by Susan Petrone called The Musical Mozinskis that I’m loving. Plus I’m reading The Hobbit to my kids, which I recommend very much. 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I’m in between workspaces at the moment because I’m moving, but I’m attaching a picture of my Gramercy Park aerie. I hope to recreate this exact room somewhere else very soon.

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