A Conversation With Jesse Andrews: Author of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl & The Haters
Hello all, I was able to have a conversation with Jesse Andrews, the brilliant author behind Me and Earl and the Dying Girl & The Haters (now in stores). Jesse also wrote the script for the adaptation of his novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which made a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival and winning the Grand Jury Prize + the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. He is set to come back to film with the upcoming picture, Empress of Serenity, in which he is both writing and directing.
And now, on with the interview...
I think that I want to just start this off by saying a few things. I really loved both of your novels and you are one of my “automatic buy” authors, so I see this as a huge (and nerve-wracking) opportunity to be able to talk to you about your novels and various other projects. Congratulations for all the attention you got at Sundance last year for the adaptation of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I thought that adaptation was brilliant. It isn’t everyday that we get to see an adaptation that captures the spirit of the original source material, so I just wanted to applaud you on developing the screenplay from your own novel. Now that I have said that, I will give you the interview questions. And thank you again, I cannot thank you enough.
Jesse: Dude, thank you. it means a lot particularly to be an automatic buy for anyone.
Question: I want to enter this interview with talking about your newest novel that released in April, The Haters. Can you just give a short description about the book for those who may not have heard of it yet?
Jesse: The Haters is about three teenagers—Wes, Corey, and Ash—who run away from jazz camp to be a real band out on the road, playing shows and winning over tough crowds. Unfortunately for them, this is a terrible idea and cannot possibly succeed. This book has all three of the cliche triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but I think my contribution is to make each of those as awkward and unglamorous as possible.
Question: Was it hard to follow-up a debut novel like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl that received so much praise and made impressions with many readers?
Jesse: It was! I feel a little funny saying that because it feels weird to acknowledge that my first book was any kind of hit at all. But it made it into a lot of hands, especially after the movie came out, and I worried a lot about being able to follow that up. On the one hand, I wanted The Haters to satisfy all the readers who liked Earl, but I also really wanted it to be its own thing, with its own style and its own distinct characters. So that was a sometimes agonizing balancing act that made me spend a lot of hours of a lot of days lying motionless on the floor of my apartment.
Question: In both of your novels I really found myself admiring the way you captured the teenage spirit and put twists on the coming-of-age story that seem so authentic. How do the events in your books relate to your own coming-of-age experiences or are the storylines based on what you knew?
Jesse: I think the way I borrow bits and pieces from my life (and the people that I know/knew) is pretty similar to how most authors do it—it's about balancing observation and imagination. The observation grounds it in the real, the imagination cleans it up and adds to it and makes it compelling and sparkly.
My method for creating teenagers is kind of oppositional and comes from my own 90s adolescence, when I would watch shows and movies and read books with teenagers in them and they were not even a little bit how me or my friends or classmates behaved. We were way more awkward and complicated and unessentializable. I try to keep that in mind when I write teenagers. Every teenage generation tends to be short-changed by the adults writing about them—turned into simplistic caricatures, given a kind of monolithic hivemind quality that ignores their individuality.
Question: How did you go about rewriting your novel into a script for the film (even though Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was borderline written in script form) and how different were they to accomplish or was it easier because it was already in the format between a novel and a screenplay?
Jesse: The script passages in the book Earl are fun to read but (probably for that very reason) not really filmable—they had to be rewritten/replaced/removed. This will probably sound horrifying, but I ended up spending more time on the script than on the book. This process was actually how I learned to write scripts—I had never done it before—so there were lots of drafts.
My adaptation philosophy was roughly this. The idea of a "truest" adaptation of a book is fundamentally kind of ridiculous—a book just isn't a movie. So the purpose of an adaptation is not to be the most faithful to the material. Instead it's for the artists involved—director, cast, crew, everyone—to produce their best art. And the notion of fidelity to the source material is going to be specific to each artist in ways the author can't and shouldn't control. So the role of the script in all that is just to make room for all these other artists. You can't act on the page for the actor, you can't move the camera on the page for the DP, etc. So basically I just tried to make the most useful and fun script for these amazing artists that I got to work with and gave up on the idea of writerly control—which is a bit different from the book side, where the writer is in complete control, at least until the reader's brain gets ahold of the text and turns it into something other than words in a row.
Question: So, I know it may be too early to talk about your upcoming film, Empress of Serenity, in which you are writing the screenplay and directing. (Which I want to congratulate you for because the vague concept I have found sounds very good and getting more great talent, apart from yourself, on board.) How did you come about this project (or project come across you) and do you see yourself working in both the book and film mediums?
Jesse: This was just a script that I start writing on my own about five years ago and have been trying to put together since last summer or so. I feel bad telling you this, but most of what there is to read about it on the internet is either out of date or was never true in the first place. Entertainment journalism is sort of problematic that way. Hopefully there is some news to report soon and we can start shooting in a few months.
I feel disgustingly lucky to get to work on both films and books. The film world lets me work with people and learn from them and exchange ideas and get outside of myself; the book world lets me be in control of every single word on the page and work in complete solitude for days on end like a maniac, growing disgusting beards and forgetting the most basic mechanics of human interaction. So they're both great!
Question: Do you have any plans after this film to return to the young adult genre or do you want to try another genre that might peak your interest? I am positive you could do something great and original in another genre if you saw an entry point into writing a book of another genre.
Jesse: The book I'm currently working on is a kind of hybrid—my publisher and I have yet to discuss how it will be packaged or marketed, and I honestly have no idea what the outcome of that discussion will be. It's definitely a departure from Earl and Haters in some important ways. It does a lot of world-building and goes to much more intense places. And yet I do think most people who liked those books will like this one too. I'm trying to give it a comparable sense of humor and depth of character.
Question: Finally, what do you want the people who read/see your work to take away from it and what do you want those people to remember your work for?
Jesse: I just want the characters in my books to feel really alive, and worth spending time with. The most incredible part of reading a book is that you get to be the people that you read. I'm just trying to make characters worth being.
I would like to extend a huge thank you to Jesse Andrews for both being an amazing author and incredible interviewee. Thank you so much.
More information about Jesse Andrews:
Jesse Andrews is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Abrams Books, 2012). He is also the writer of the feature-film adaptation of his own book, also entitled Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It was released in theaters in summer 2015 and is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital HD. His second book, The Haters, was be published in April 2016 by Abrams Books. He continues to write both books and screenplays.
He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, and is a graduate of Schenley High School and Harvard University. He currently makes his home in Boston, MA.