In Conversation: Jesse Andrews

Jesse Andrews is the author of Me and Early and the Dying Girl, published in 2012. Andrews later adapted the book into a screenplay for the 2015 film adaptation, which won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film FestivalBoth the book and the movie are quirky, emotional coming-of-age stories, that focus on two friends' connection to a girl diagnosed with cancer. It is equal parts funny, sad, and brilliant. I had the chance to speak with Jesse Andrews about writing and how the public relates to books, the difficulties in transforming a story into a film, and how expectations affect the approach an author takes towards their next work. 

This conversation includes spoilers. 

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What I’m mostly interested in is the relationship between an author and their work - but also the public and the work. There can be kind of tensions and differences between those three parties. What is your main focus when you are trying to create a story, is it your own vision or is it creating something that other people can relate to?

Yeah that’s something that comes up a lot especially because my path to becoming a published author included a number of things that ultimately did not get published before I wrote Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I wrote two books that are not, almost a surely never will be published - and each took about three years when I was writing and then interest people in it and getting notes. A number of things happened - I had to consider the idea that maybe I would never get published. I had to ask myself whether I wanted to continue writing and if that was a possible, maybe even probable, outcome. I just decided that this is still something that I’m always going to want to do. 

I’m never going to not want to write, and there was something very clarifying about that. I think that both of those first two books suffered from is this kind of aspirational quality,  the desire to be seen as a certain kind of writer - a very serious one and one who is just really ambitious and trying to do eight different completely incompatible things. 

It’s interesting to see that struggle because it seems like there is this cliché where they say 'write what you know' but sometimes nobody is interested in what you know.

I don’t write for myself, but I also don’t write with the hope of getting the biggest possible readership. I think one thing you have to try to tackle as a writer is the idea that there is just a single monolithic readership out there, and that if somebody reads a book and doesn’t like it that’s a failure. There is just no way to please everyone and if you can’t please everyone, using any kind of target becomes a little conservative. It limits your vision.

"If it happens once then it's a miracle. All you can do is create the conditions for that connection to happen"

Other writers might disagree, but if you make something that is alive, that has some truth in it, and some originality, then no one else could have made it. You were the one who had to make this, so then that’s going to reflect your authority or identity. That’s the thing that’s worth putting in the world, and people will respond to that. Some people will hate it, some people will like it a lot, but it it’s just a book.  It’s always a dialog between the writer and the reader, and any kind of successful connection is enough. If it happens once then it's a miracle. All you can do is create the conditions for that connection to happen.

The book never exists in two different people’s heads and in quite the same way and that can lead to a bad place, people tend to find something kind of ugly in your book that you wouldn’t want them to have found and you hope that it isn’t actually there, that you hope it is some projection from the readers but that’s just part of the business. it’s an absolute lack of control.

"I think the more you try to curate people’s impressions of your book the more you're going to fail"

It’s like sending a kid off to school -you just kind of hope the kid makes friends and the kid doesn’t get beat up, doesn’t get ostracized. Whatever happens, it’s out of your control. And of course there’s always the desire to control the conversation around your book. Especially now in the age of social media it’s very easy to try to do that, although achieving that control is completely impossible. I think the more you try to curate people’s impressions of your book the more you're going to fail - you just have to let the book speak for itself no matter what people think of it. It’s like that for a movie too. Although the movies are kind of different because you’re asked to talk about it more, at least in my experience. Maybe that’s just because the movie is flashier.

That’s interesting because it seems like the movie is something that you as the author had even less control over.  You wrote the screenplay but it seems like there are so many other competing factors between you and creative control.

Yeah definitely, and I’m sure that it doesn’t always end well enough for people, but I drafted the screenplay, which was a measure of control. Then all of the people who came in who added themselves to the story and the vision for the movie, it was a really interesting experience. It was really wonderful to watch this thing moving away from me and become other people’s vision, and still realize that there was enough there for them to make it their own. The actors; Thomas, RJ, Olivia. Alfonso [Gomez-Rejon, director], the productions designer, the costumes, all the department heads. As a screen writer you hope you have given everyone else enough - enough of the world, enough of the story that there is room for them - because there's a hundred artists that you’re working with and they all have cool stuff to add if you let them. Some writers can build a big enough platform for that, and you just hope that what you produce accommodates them even a little bit.

And when it comes to changing the story - It happens, but it happens for different reasons. They suggest changes, but changes that make it richer - lets add layers to it that will reward the viewer more.

Years ago I got the chance to speak with another author who was in the process of selling the right to a book, to actually a branding production company and she eventually came to the conclusion that she didn’t want to do it because of kind of like artistic reasons that she was very anxious of letting it go and seeing it become something else, would that be something that was worrying for you?

No. I would say that I was just happy to be published in 2012 so that superseded any anxiety issues that I had. I managed to get a book on the shelves! Then when it became time to sell the movie rights, it was through one of my reps that we met and the other a woman named Anna Deroy who was just someone I immediately really trusted. I knew that the book was in good hands, that she understood it, she connected to it and it’s wasn’t just a source of profit, which is often the case in the movie world.

This was just a little book, it’s not like everyone is going to come after it to try to buy it. When a book becomes a best seller, it might not end up in the right hands because it might go to the highest bidder. Of course that’s not always the case but this was the debut of an author - an utterly unknown quantity. There was never any point that it felt ominous - that it felt like I was making a mistake. At the same time, I got to tell the story once, and of course the movie is going to be different from the book. That’s just how it works. I do find the expectations of fidelity to the book are often part of a misunderstanding about what it means to adapt a story from one form to another.

"If they hadn’t changed it would have made for an inferior movie, really kind of a disappointing and weak one I think"

You are not trying to just put the book on the screen in the most literal way, because that’s just absurd - they’re two different mediums. What a movie can do is very different from what a book can do, and the requirements of the movie are different from that of a book. In adapting this book, plenty of things had to change. If they hadn’t changed it would have made for an inferior movie, really kind of a disappointing and weak one I think. There is some reason why the outcomes of this book feel appropriate. The movie that the boys made for Rachel in the book is just awful, , it’s false. It absolutely falls short as a way of connecting her or celebrating her. It’s pretty strong, and at the end and it’s just an embarrassing saddening moment. I think in the book that it works, but it doesn’t work for everyone. There are plenty of readers to hate that aspect, but still that’s the kind of realism, the naturalism, that I saw was appropriate for the book, it just seems like the connection between Greg and Rachel is very incomplete, very partial. That’s one of the things that he is mourning by the end, that’s the tragedy. That’s what the book is supposed to do. 

However if you were to go onscreen on the movie and then be shown its horrifying, terrible movie at minute 90 it would be like a sick joke. You couldn’t put that on a movie screen, it needs to have connected to her more - the rhythm, the tide, the pacing of the movie demands that. And so there’s somewhat of a big difference between the movie and the book, but that’s absolutely necessary and demanded by the nature of the movie.

It seems like a really mature thing to see the difference. Was that a hard thing to learn or was that obvious to you from the onset?

It’s easy to say in retrospect that it felt more intuitive, but I think it did. It was the function of the people who I was working with, and it was actually done very gently. I had never thought seriously about writing a movie and so I made myself open to my team. I asked them tell me what was allowed and what wasn't allowed. And actually they refused to do that at first, I was told to just get in there and make some mistakes. They said some mistakes would be corrected and then some mistakes would actually be interesting, unusual stuff. 

But they were clear from the beginning that some stuff had to change. That was one of the first conversations that we had. They said ‘We love this book, we like the characters and the voice, those things cannot change”. But the story itself had to change in some ways, just because the mediums are so different, and different things work in each format. 

So going forward, how do you deal with expectations? because there is a great privilege in just having your first book and your first movie have great critical success There are a lot of expectations and you are allowed to kind of make mistakes, do you feel any different as you are continuing on and working on another project?

Yeah it is and it is really a good problem to have if you write something that has a pretty good critical reception on the whole. It’s hard to kind of stimulate the head space for myself that I was in five years ago. Writing in general, it just means making something honest and funny. I’ve been doing that for the past year and a half , so I have a new book coming out in April.

"I think once you try to write something that you think that most people will like, you just kind of lose yourself and your identity"

I always hope for the best but expect the worst and really try to emotionally protect against the bad things. Bad things are going to happen. It would be disappointing to me if I didn’t put the work in and wasn’t trying to be my best writer self - to borrow from Oprah. That’s the only thing that you can control so you just put that out in the world. You can’t choose an audience reaction either.I think once you try to write something that you think that most people will like, you just kind of lose yourself and your identity.

So that’s it, and it’s amazing. If Me and Earl is the best thing that I ever write, that’s terrific. It’s great to get even to that point. It’s a little sad if I go downhill from here but i’m very grateful. I’m very happy to have gotten this far.

When you talk about just trying to maintain to be the best writer you can be and that sort of thing, Is it obvious what that means to you? The moment you are sitting down with the blank page, is it obvious what it is you have to do to get there? Is it kind of emulating what you did writing Me and Earl, or something different? 

There are a few principles to it. Am I being the most empathetic person that I can be? Are all of these characters behaving in ways that real people behave? I have to make sure I’m not leaning on or characteristics, or clichés or generalizations, of whether I’m using observation as much as I possibly can. That’s more in terms of style. I know what my problems are as a writer and one of those is not being economical. One thing that I ask myself a lot is ‘is each sentence doing this work?’. Is this paragraph doing enough work or has the momentum slowed, is there just not much meaning in what is happening here, and so on. 

Me and Earl is a funny book. At some point maybe I try to write something that is not very funny, but with the first book the question was always whether the jokes work. Is this something I have seen before? The moment I see that something’s funny I have to stop; what’s in there, what is this, how will other people feel, and how do I feel about it. It’s probably the thing that I worry about the most. You want to make the joke that will blow people open, they have the book down for a while.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is available in bookstores everywhere. Andrews' next book The Haters is scheduled for release in April 2016. You can find more information about the movie at meandearlmovie.com

InterviewDuncan FieldComment