An Interview with jesse andrews
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Jesse Andrews is an award-winning young adult author, having written the novels Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Haters. He is currently at work on his third book, Munmun. He wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. In June 2017, Andrews revealed that he adapted David Levithan’s bestselling novel Every Day for the screen. You can find him on Facebook at @jesseandrewswriter and Twitter at @_jesse_andrews_. His website is jesseandrews.com.
TMR: Besides writing novels, you've also dabbled in screenwriting, having written the script for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and you've been hired to write other screenplays. What draws you to writing a script, as opposed to a new novel?
JA: When it's going well, by far the most appealing part of writing a script is that it's a means of collaborating with brilliant people who do things (act, design, shoot) that you never could. Writing books is (at least for me) incredibly solitary and recently I've gone a little bit insane doing it.
It's definitely true that some stories make more sense in movie form than in book form, but I don't know if I would say that about any of the scripts that I write. My focus in writing anything usually drifts to character and voice and idiosyncrasy and I think those are equally explorable in either form. Screenwriting allows me to do way less work in that department and shift onto an actor the burden of truly actualizing a character.
TMR: In several interviews, like your talk with comingsoon.net, you mention the books you attempted to write before Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. You've called them "not publishable." What were these books about? What made them "unpublishable"?
Every time I was blocked, which happened a lot because I wasn't telling any kind of a story, I would have a character hallucinate something elaborate and pointless. Holy shit, is that not a good way to write a book.
JA: The answer to the first question is, "basically nothing," so that more or less answers your second question too. At that time I was so preoccupied with trying to create an unusual and transgressive style that I didn't even realize that I had no story to tell.
I haven't looked at those files in so long that I don't even really remember the shape of them anymore. There were just an assload of lengthy hallucinated fantasias, I remember that. Every time I was blocked—which happened a lot because I wasn't telling any kind of a story—I would have a character hallucinate something elaborate and pointless. Holy shit, is that not a good way to write a book.
TMR: How many projects would you say that you've put a lot of work into, only to end up scrapping them? What makes you give up on a piece of writing?
JA: I just counted the number of project folders on my computer and there are 31 script folders and 16 book folders, which is more than I thought there would be. I guess I have given up on most of those by now, which is a sad thing that I don't want to fully admit to myself. But a lot of those ideas are things I never got very far with. Here are the entire contents of one (movie) folder. It has one document with six sentences in it.
Teddy Gunderson used to be a superhero. Then he fucked up in some major way and was disbarred by the superhero U.N.
Now he is old and mostly retired. So are all of the dudes he used to be superheroes with, and the villains they used to take down. Most of them sit around watching Superhero CNN. It's all about the new young superheroes and supervillains running around acting like no one has ever threatened or saved the world before.
The end! I probably gave up on that one because it feels like an SNL sketch, and also I don't really like writing superheroes, because they are not real people and it always feels a bit stupid to try to give them any real-people things to feel or say.
In general I would say that I give up on something either because it's not working or because it doesn't interest me anymore. Usually it's the first one.
TMR: In a Reddit AMA from 2016, when asked about your writing process, you said: "i write in my office/guest bedroom and usually shut off the internet on my computer. but there is still an enormous amount of goofing around and wasting time in my process. basically i can only write if there's something else i'm supposed to be doing." How did you discover that this was the best way for you to be productive?
JA: This is not the method that I would ever choose. This is just the way my disorders manifest in my work. It's infuriating and maybe I should go on medication or something.
TMR: What are your thoughts on Donald Trump's decision to defund the National Endowment for the Arts?
JA: I think Donald Trump is so specifically loathsome that we can lose sight of the fact that every major Republican since Reagan has been foaming at the mouth to cut funding to the arts, along with pretty much everything else that makes our society worth living in. Trump is just the current vile incarnation. The next one will be even worse.
TMR: In an interview with The Guardian you discussed a feeling of fear you had when Me and Earl and the Dying Girl initially came out—"a little bit the feeling of a parent sending their kid out in the world and knowing they can't protect the kid if someone wants to punch the kid in the face." With your second novel, The Haters—both books having been well-received—does that feeling still stand?
JA: Oh, of course! Even if a book is well received, it's still going to get punched in the face by some people.
TMR: In an interview with EW for The Haters, you discussed your past as a musician. You were once the bass player in a touring band. What brought you from that to writing? Why not also pursue music as a career?
JA: I was writing at the same time as I was playing music, and after a while I just realized that I was better at one than the other. Writing also seemed to me much more forgiving of aging than music. I was worried about the long game even then. I'd like to be in a band again though—some chill local thing where I can just show up and play bass and not worry about whether we're going to make it big.
TMR: In that interview, you said that the hardest thing about being on the road was "wanting to be great and amazing and perfect, and not coming remotely close." When it comes to books, there's rarely ever any changing them once they're out to print. So when you finish a novel, do you feel that it's as amazing as it can be? What lets you know when you've done your best?
A novel, a painting, a movie, a song—every work of art is just a process of creation that was frozen at some point.
JA: This is an excellent question because it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. No, my novels never reach some perfect stopping-point beyond which they cannot be improved. But no one's do. Because that stopping-point is a mirage. A novel, a painting, a movie, a song—every work of art is just a process of creation that was frozen at some point. And maybe it's the artist alone who chooses when to freeze the process, but in my line of work it's more the publisher or the producer—the artist's market-minded overlords. I say this with love because my publisher (Harry Abrams) is tremendously patient with me. I owed them a draft of my third book in March 2016 and I hadn't even started it yet. (I delivered it in January and it will publish in spring 2018.)
I guess in some universe where the artist has all the control, the time to finish a work is when your changes are no longer clearly improvements, but just lateral changes—shifting the mood, or the tone, or the outlook. Because that's when you're just updating something to reflect changes within yourself. At that point it's time to let the work be and begin to subject that process to some other poor document.
TMR: Will The Haters end up becoming a film, as possibly evidenced by this tweet?
JA: I am working on it! And that is about all I can say right now. It might be more of a TV show though.
TMR: Writing young characters in the "modern age," yet being from a slightly older generation, how would you say you are able to make your characters relatable—not only to people that are your characters' ages, but people of all ages?
JA: "Older generation"? What the hell is that supposed to mean?!
Just kidding. I am definitely not in the same generation as anyone in their teens or twenties right now. Actually I feel older than other 34-year-olds. I already have an adversarial relationship with all of my technology. A conversation I am having a lot recently is, "Have Apple products gotten way more annoying to use, or am I just an idiot now?"
Vis-a-vis relatability, some things are generation-specific—certainly technology fits in there, and class, and politics—and some things are more universal. Desire, resentment, insecurity, dread. What's important is to be honest. Being a teenager is a goddamned nightmare. Even when it's going well, it's awful.
TMR: In an interview with booksss0k, you said that your next book, your third, is a "kind of hybrid." Can we know a little bit about this book?
JA: Yes, absolutely. I am in revisions right now and it's terrifying and exhilarating because this book is so strange. The book is a social novel set in an alternate reality, which is basically our own but amplified with a great big world-defining metaphorical device. I don't want to say what that device is yet, but it made the book pretty fun and wild to write.
The title is Munmun which is the word for "money" in the world of the book. The main character is a teenager who jokes about stuff, so it has that in common with my other books. But it's also an attempt to triangulate a more Dickensy coming-of-age-in-various-social-milieux thing with a George Saundersy kind of funny-sad trippiness and then, most notably, the big honking social-commentary device a la Invisible Man or 1984 or Atwood or Vonnegut.