Interview: Jesse Andrews
Jesse Andrews is the author of The New York Times bestselling novels Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Haters and Munmun. He also wrote the film adaptation of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. We spoke to him about his inspiration and reading habits.
Your acclaimed 2012 YA novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opened to critical acclaim in 2015 at Sundance Film Festival. Can you tell me a bit about adapting the story for screen?
I had never written a script before, so it was a crash course in screenwriting that ended up taking a few years. Parts of the book are written in screenplay format, and I think this gave the producers the impression that I had some fluency in the form. But I did not. Really I just wanted the book to be funny, and I think screenplay format is inherently kind of hilarious. Words are often IN CAPITALS in a kind of RANDOM SHOUTY WAY. And I find something kind of enjoyable in taking naturalistic shapeless dialogue and exalting it on little pedestals the way the format does:
uhhh. well i guess nothing
Anyway I was lucky enough to have a very patient and talented writer mentoring me. His name is Dan Fogelman and his unimpeachable wisdoms were too numerous to count. Unfortunately, I remember none of them. “You’re going to want to cut most of this,” is a thing he often said.
The story goes against clichés in portraying an honest teenage experience of dealing with cancer. As a review in The Guardian described it: “there was no soppy professing of dying love or magical journeys, just teenagers being teenagers in hard circumstances.” Was that something you were passionate about when you wrote the story?
I don’t know if I was passionate about it so much as just interested in seeing if it could be done in a readable way. Usually when a writer announces that they’re going to fight cliche and depict people as they truly are, the result is mind-bendingly dull. The entire point of stories is that they make more sense to us than the messiness of reality. So I like to get as close as I can to that messiness without succumbing to it.
Where did the idea to write the story come from?
It certainly wasn’t taken from my life or anything like that. I just knew that teenagers with cancer were often exploited as a source of swoony doomed romance in fiction, and I wanted to do something that was pointedly not that. Specifically there was something appealing and funny about approaching a tragedy by examining the kid standing awkwardly next to it—the emotionally limited teenage boy whose mom had positioned him there.
You’ve since written another book The Haters, which was based on your own experience with road-travelling bands. And you have a new book out called Munmun. How much does your own personal history shape your novels?
Munmun is a book set in a parallel reality much like our own, except that everyone is proportional in size to how much money they have, and the main character is six inches tall. So this is not terribly related to my personal history. Although it is about power and inequality, which affects all of us.
The Haters takes a lot more from my life, because I was in a bunch of bands, none of them particularly successful. Struggle is a much more interesting subject to me than success.
Struggle is a much more interesting subject to me than success.
I’d love to ask you a bit about your reading habits. What were your favourite books as a Young Adult? And which authors inspired you to become a writer?
I was a teenager in the 90s, and the world of YA wasn’t the bustling metropolis that it is today. But also I was a very strivey aspirational kind of kid, and so the books I was reading tended to be Great Works that I did not really understand but was nonetheless conspicuously frowning at on the bus. Writers who actually broke through and influenced me are too numerous to list but I’d start with Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, and George Saunders.
What’s your favourite YA author and why?
MT Anderson, and there are plenty of reasons but the foremost is his ear for how people talk. He is a master of voice.
What books are currently on your night stand?
The Story of a New Name, a galley of Nic Stone’s Odd One Out, Crazy Rich Asians.
Do you fold the page or use a bookmark?
Bookmark always. Usually I use an unopened bill. Legally, if you don’t open it, you don’t have to pay it! I can’t believe more people don’t know this.
Do you read the book first or watch the movie?
You know, we often pretend that we would never ever watch the movie first. But we do it all the time! I’m fine with watching the movie first. The movie can only ever be a cousin of the book, not a clone. The storytellers are different. Their prerogatives are their own.