Books

Carter Bays Had to Set Aside the “Output Mode” of Sitcoms to Write a Novel

The co-creator of How I Met Your Mother still loves to bring a lot of disparate plot lines together at the end, though.

A man in a sport coat and checked shirt stands in front of a river.
Carter Bays. Denise Bays

“When How I Met Your Mother ended, I was a little bit lost,” Carter Bays said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d been writing TV for so long.” The co-creator of the sitcom, which ran for nine seasons on CBS, returned to the books he loved, like Anna Karenina (from which HIMYM’s Robin Scherbatsky is named)—and that convinced him to move from the “output mode” of running a series to the slower pace of novel-writing. The result is The Mutual Friend, out now, which tells the story of Alice Quick, a 28-year-old woman in New York City trying to get her act together to sign up––and study––for the MCAT. She’s constantly distracted by all that’s around her, whether it’s her rambunctious roommate Roxy, her Buddhism-chasing-brother, or just her damn phone. I spoke with Bays about writing without a collaborator, the pleasure of interconnected plot lines, and the HIMYM Easter eggs (both purposeful and accidental) in his new novel. This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Hannah Docter-Loeb: Writing nine seasons of a TV show is different than a self-contained single novel––how did that change your storytelling?

Carter Bays: There were skills I had developed writing for TV that I tried to bring to this novel, like coordinating all these different storylines all at once, and all the setups and payoffs that we used to love doing on How I Met Your Mother. But I actually tried to steer it towards doing everything that I couldn’t do with a TV show, exploring interior lives of characters. I really relished the opportunity to write something that couldn’t possibly be a TV show.

TV is collaborative, and you’ve had a partner in crime along the way, your co-creator Craig Thomas. Did it feel different to be doing this on your own?

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I love Craig and I love working with Craig. When I first had the idea, I brought it to Craig, and we tried to develop it as a TV show, and it didn’t sell. You write enough pilots and you realize you suddenly have this stack of scripts that’s just a bunch of Chapter Ones in all these stories that never end up getting told. This one’s about this young woman, Alice, who’s got this dream of becoming a doctor, but she can’t put her phone down, and can’t focus enough to study. And I wanted to see if she could pull it off or not. And so, with Craig’s blessing, I took it and turned it into a novel.

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It’s a lonely process. I liked the rhythm of the writer’s life when you’re writing fiction, where you just go into your office, and it’s a thousand words a day. I love the routine of that. It’s especially good as a parent to be able to do it that way as opposed to the long nights of TV writing with constant deadlines. But I do miss collaboration. When you write for a TV show, if it’s a really good writing staff, it’s like working at a cocktail party. And that I definitely missed.

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Throughout the book, there seem to be these motifs that also appear in HIMYM. What will fans see in this novel that will play with their love of that story?

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I’ll say there’s a bunch of Easter eggs in the book, and there’s one character from HIMYM that makes a brief cameo in this book. But it’s such a small character that you’d have to really know the show to spot this character.

I wanted to write something new. I wanted to write something that really pushed me in a direction I hadn’t gone before, but at the same time, I tried to use the skills that I had and had developed over the years of writing How I Met Your Mother. There’s a lot of mysteries in the book. There’s a lot of traps that get laid and sprung on the reader 100 pages later.

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It’s quite possible that I was imagining Easter eggs, but because I do have the chance to ask you: In the book, there’s this remark that the neighbors were playing bagpipes. Were they actually playing bagpipes, or was it a little euphemism as in HIMYM?

That’s funny because that actually wasn’t even meant as a reference, but I had forgotten that entire episode of HIMYM, to be honest with you. The story is set in Morningside Heights in New York, which is where I lived for a few years, and my kids went to a school right across the street from Columbia University. There was one night I was there, and I just heard someone playing bagpipes. It’s such a great part of life in New York City that, every now and then, you’ll hear something like bagpipes. And I registered that moment in my head, like suddenly I’m in the hills of Scotland, walking around on West 114th Street. I felt like that captures New York for me, just the randomness of that. And I totally forgot the HIMYM double meaning. That’s really funny.

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In HIMYM, the main characters are pretty clearly modeled after you and Thomas, especially with the connection to Wesleyan, where you two met. But the cast of characters of The Mutual Friend feels very different. Yes, Bob went to Wesleyan, but what else connects you to Bob, and the other characters?

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I think that the job of a novelist and of a storyteller is to give the characters humanity and dignity, even the awful ones. I make it a point to find a point of connection between myself and all the characters. And with Bob, there are ways that I’m definitely not like Bob, and hopefully in all the right ways.

I got married in 2010. That was right before all the dating apps came out. And I think, like a lot of people who got married around that time, I’ve been watching this thing happen from afar, and there’s an amount of curiosity about it. With Bob, I tried to imagine a guy my age who didn’t get married in 2010, and instead just got onto these apps, and marinated in these apps over the course of 15 years. What would that do to a person? How would that affect someone?

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By the end of the book, everything seems to really come together and the reader realizes just how much everything is related. This is a feature that The Mutual Friend shares with HIMYM. Do you have one of those detective boards with strings connecting different people?

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It’s one of my favorite things to do and it’s one of the most difficult things to do in the book. But I used some software. I used an app, called Eon Timeline, and it allowed me to keep track of everything that was going on over the course of this one summer. The fun of writing a novel is just keeping all this stuff in my head. With HIMYM, you’re telling this long story, but the whole world is looking over your shoulder as you tell it. And with this book, it really was a fun challenge having to just carry this all on my shoulders for three or four years while I was writing it and not sharing it with anyone and having to keep track of everything. You kind of go crazy in the process.

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Is there anything else that we can we expect from the Carter Bays cinematic universe of fictional characters who went to Wesleyan?

I don’t know. Gosh. Yeah. I feel like now I need to just keep adding to it. I’ve got my pencils, I’ve got my paper, I’ve got my index cards all set, I just don’t have an idea. But when I have an idea, I’m sure Wesleyan will make an appearance in some way or another.

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