February 07, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

“Let’s see exactly where I would go.” B.J. Novak is running a finger along the shelves at the Last Bookstore as he attempts to locate the future home of his first book. “Colum McCann…Cormac McCarthy…Jay McInerney…lots of Irish writers, I guess…Steve Martin…Murakami…wow, I’m in a good section…Joyce Carol Oates — we’ve gone too far! If you hit Joyce Carol Oates, you’ve gone too far.”

The eclectic indie store is Novak’s favorite place to browse for books in L.A., and one of the places he staged a reading while his own short stories were still in the teething stage. “This isn’t the best bookstore to find what you’re looking for,” he notes. “But what’s looking for you, you find at the Last Bookstore…. This is the glamour of the accidental discovery.”

He may soon be one himself. Best known as the writer-producer for The Office who played slippery temp-turned-salesman Ryan (and who previously served as Ashton Kutcher’s prankster-in-crime on Punk’d), the 34-year-old multihyphenate transformed years of his jotted-down ideas for Hollywood projects into One More Thing, an impressive collection of short stories that reverberates with off-kilter imagination, pop cult whimsy, and stealthy intimacy. An enthusiastic New York Times review made inevitable comparisons to the aforementioned Martin and a couple of guys in the S‘s (Sedaris, Saunders), but these tales are decidedly Novakian. “A good friend read my book and she said, ‘I love your book more than you,'” he says. “That was the highest compliment that I could get, that this book is warmer than me. It’s a side that I’ve had trouble showing. I certainly couldn’t show it as my character on The Office very much. This is the first thing I’ve ever done that is really, really me. It’s so me that I don’t think I could live up to it.”

One More Thing is vast in scope and voice, whether chronicling a woman’s overly detailed “Missed Connections” ad on Craigslist or To Catch a Predator host Chris Hansen’s dilemma about attending a Justin Bieber concert with his daughter. What themes did Novak set out to explore? None. Which ones seeped in subconsciously? “Fate. The limit and limitlessness of greatness. Transcendence. The mundane,” he rattles off. (He shifts from quipster to scholar mode at will.) “When I was a kid, I was always wanting to be the greatest at whatever I was doing, and thinking there was some ultimate level to get to — the man behind the curtain running all American culture. If I could only get to the other side, I’d see it all.”

Novak’s father edited The Big Book of Jewish Humor and ghostwrote autobiographies for Nancy Reagan and Magic Johnson. He himself won a national writing contest in elementary school with an essay about why he loved to read. But growing up in Newton, Mass., he never dreamed of a literary career. “I was like, Who wants to do the boring old thing their dad does? I want to be famous! I want to be on the cover of Time!” he says. “My dad teased me when I asked if any kid had ever won the Nobel Prize.” Alas, his fourth-grade blueprints for a time machine and teleportation device didn’t pan out (“The science seemed to make sense”), and he went on to major in literature at Harvard. His postcollege stand-up act led to the jobs on Punk’d and The Office. Multitasking for eight seasons on NBC’s mockuseries was “the best education ever created,” he says, reeling off the daunting challenges the show faced: “It had to be funny enough to be America’s favorite comedy, it had to be realistic enough to pass as real life, and you had to tell love stories. It would take a lifetime to learn all the lessons we learned on this one show.”

A pivotal one that paved the way for OMT came from an unlikely source: his former assistant’s mother, a.k.a. Jane Seymour. “She said, ‘What season are you in?’ I said, ‘Season 4.’ She says, ‘Let me tell you what’s happening. You’re frustrated, you’re beaten down, you want to leave. They never let you do the interesting stuff. You could create a show 10 times better.’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’ She said, ‘Don’t. This is lightning in a bottle…. It happens once in your life. So write down every idea you have in a notebook — and do not touch it until you’re done with The Office.’ I’d been keeping track of my ideas, but she gave me the confidence to stick with that. So I kept all these notebooks because Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman told me to.”

In 2011 he rented a Malibu house and spent two weeks condensing dozens of notebooks filled with opening shots and dialogue snippets, figuring he’d turn them into screenplays, TV pilots, and stand-up bits. He left The Office the following spring, and during a beach walk in Mexico, an idea for a tweet morphed into an idea for a Tumblr that blossomed into an idea for a collection of short stories. He holed up at home for a few months to churn them out. “It was what an insane old man says: ‘I’m writing short stories from my house,'” he notes. “It sounds terrible, really pretentious, out of touch, and self-indulgent. So I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing.”

Novak emerged from his sequester later that summer and started workshopping the stories in live readings. Former Office mate/ex-girlfriend Mindy Kaling says she was “blown away” when he shared his pages. “B.J. is the best writer that I’ve ever met — he’s also my friend, and I’m incredibly competitive with him,” says Kaling, who, along with celebrities like Emma Thompson, Katy Perry, Lena Dunham, and Jason Schwartzman, lends her voice to the audio version of OMT. “When I read it, I was almost intimidated. This is the thing I want to remind people: He wrote a book of short stories before he published a short story. He just wrote them all in, like, eight months. And they’re excellent. I think people are going to be surprised.”

It has certainly yielded the unexpected for Novak. “This has evolved into what I always hoped stand-up would be but never was,” he says, “which is my creative home base.” He plans to finish his two-book deal with Knopf with another short-story collection, and Penguin will publish his children’s book, The Book With No Pictures, in the fall. He’s currently writing a big-screen romantic thriller and adding to his film résumé (Inglourious Basterds, Saving Mr. Banks) with a role as an antagonistic Oscorp employee in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Plus, he’ll pop up this spring on Community (and possibly return to Kaling’s The Mindy Project, on which he has guested as actor, writer, and director). Wait, wait — he also wants to create a kids’ show, star in a horror movie, and open up a chain-themed restaurant called Chain that has only a single location. One more thing: He just met with investors about starting a tech company involving lists. “Everyone thinks in lists. I want the ultimate place for them. That’s all I’ll say right now.”

The list of places you’ll soon find Novak: (1) Possibly everywhere. (2) Definitely between Nabokov and Oates.

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