When you talk to Jesse Andrews, he sounds a lot like Greg Gaines, the protagonist of his debut novel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—that is, pathologically self-deprecating and given to near-constant swearing. Nonetheless, he insists that, despite surface similarities, particularly the Pittsburgh setting, the novel and its upcoming film adaptation aren’t autobiographical. For one thing, Greg is a much more entertaining teenager than he ever was. “I definitely wanted to be funny when I was that age and failed,” he says. “A lot.”
Those years of comic failure paid off in his debut novel, which manages to tackle morbid subject matter—Greg’s mom guilt trips him into spending time with his middle-school girlfriend, Rachel, after she’s diagnosed with leukemia—in a hilarious fashion. This plot has resulted in inevitable comparisons to that other teens-with-cancer book—John Green’s tear-jerking bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars—but Andrews isn’t terribly concerned about that, he’s just thrilled at Dying Girl’s warm reception.
Before the success of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Andrews was floundering. After graduating from Harvard, he spent his twenties bouncing around dead-end jobs and writing two unpublished novels, which he deems “huge failures.” Even his endlessly supportive parents started to worry. “There was just so much rejection and failure and fucking up for so long and I really got kinda comfortable with it,” he says. Then a college friend who worked in publishing suggested a change in direction—why didn’t he write a young adult novel?
Writing Me and Earl and the Dying Girl introduced Andrews to the conventions of screenwriting, since the novel’s film-obsessed narrator renders many of his encounters as scripts. Thanks to that conceit, producer Dan Fogelman ended up suggesting that Andrews adapt the script himself—and offered to walk him through the process. “It was like a master class,” Andrews says, describing Fogelman as a “wise old teacher from a parable who does everything by doing nothing.”
Andrews is excited to spend the summer on the set of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, learning more about the filmmaking process in preparation for a slate of upcoming projects that includes writing more film adaptations of books and, potentially, directing his own film. But even after so much change, he’s not worried about the future. “You’re just going to make the best thing you can make and everything else takes care of itself,” he says. “That’s craft.”