As the applause and errant high-pitched whoops fade away, Jesse Andrews prepares to impart all the wisdom of his 31 years to the group of teenagers seated on the grass before him. A couple snack on red and white bags of popcorn. Some load freshly toasted marshmallows into their mouths. A girl with blue hair smokes an electronic hookah pen. After a brief introduction, he begins.
“Where do I start? Well, I wrote this book.”
His self-deprecation elicits a few giggles from the crowd and a few from Mr. Andrews himself. “This book” is his debut novel, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the story of an awkward teen filmmaker who is forced to befriend a girl with cancer. It‘s now being made into a motion picture and is in its last week of shooting here in Pittsburgh.
They are all gathered in the scenic Perry North backyard of Joe Ehman, a longtime Pittsburgh public school teacher and International Baccalaureate coordinator at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12. A large inflatable movie screen forms the backdrop to the diverse collection of high school film students and recent graduates from Obama and the now-shuttered Schenley High School. The agenda for the night includes some thoughts from the man of the hour and a brief Q-and-A before a screening of the film du jour, one of Mr. Andrew’s favorites: “Lost in Translation.”
In attendance is Barak Naveh, Mr. Andrews’ former teacher at Schenley, along with Mr. Ehman, his wife, Kimberly, and their two sons, Luke, 4, and Clark, 7, who munches popcorn, ferries soda and enthusiastically offers tours of the property.
“I had Mr. Naveh for IB History, and it was one of the best classes I’ve ever had. And Mr. Ehman ... is also good,” says Mr. Andrews, provoking another round of snickers. “I never had him as a teacher, but he seems pretty great. He’s hosting you guys! That‘s amazing. This is amazing.”
Mr. Andrews then begins to describe his haphazard path to novelist and screenwriter. He graduated from Schenley in 2000 and Harvard in 2004 with a degree in art history. He began studying applied math and physics, but two years into his degree he realized he had made a terrible mistake.
“The only thing with few enough requirements for me to graduate on time was art history. I liked art history. Also liked the gender ratio, especially compared to applied math and physics.”
With his debut novel a success and a movie deal, Mr. Andrews has a career that already is enviable, but he describes his early days as a hapless creative. After graduation, unsure of much else other than an intense desire to write books, he moved to Europe with money he saved up writing travel guides during his summers. Inspired by the “cardboard” characters but addictive, propulsive plot of “The Da Vinci Code,” he tried to create something that would be the “hardest possible thing” to read.
“Plot is the crack cocaine of literature. It just hooks you in. I’m gonna write something with no plot!” Mr. Andrews tells the students. “Characters just appear. They say stuff. They may be interesting, but they‘re not doing anything. They disappear for no reason. It’s a book that punishes you for reading it. It’s reader-hostile. I sent it out to agents like, ‘This is gonna blow your mind!’ ”
Despite his best efforts, however, industry minds were decidedly not blown. He spent three years revising that story before deciding to start a different book but one still just as “reader-hostile,” full of shock tactics he assumed were the mark of serious fiction. Mr. Andrews sent this new novel to agents as well, to no results.
“I had to sit down and ask myself, ‘Am I comfortable with a life where I’m writing books and they never get published?’ ”
After a bit of soul searching, Mr. Andrews found that the most important thing was the craft. Getting published would be great, but telling the story was better.
“Writing is more important than being a writer.”
All he wanted to do was make readers experience the “magic” of reading a novel. Waving his hands around his head, he describes the “miracle” of imagination and literature. He grabs his shirt. “You’re trapped in this! This is all you’re ever going to be inside. And yet, just marks on pages, just scanning them, you’re somewhere completely elsewhere and you’re someone completely other. ... That’s all I wanted to do."
He laughs. “But I also reconciled myself to the fact that you need a plot.”
Realizing that his rejection of plot outright may have been juvenile, he began working on a book for teenagers on the advice of a former Harvard classmate. He approached the process as a good writing exercise, at the very least. He stopped writing “like Stalin” and eventually created “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl.”
“It really changed me as a writer. I‘ll never write the same way again.”
He reflects on his time at Schenley with fondness, particularly the International Baccalaureate program, a series of college-level courses that all 11th- and 12th-grade students at Obama Academy are required to take.
“I wouldn't have gone to Harvard if I hadn't done IB. ... It was such a great group. It was so socioeconomically diverse. It was very nurturing. It was great to study at a very high level at this nonprep school, nonprivate school environment. Going to a place like Harvard where so many come from prep schools or have so much money ... you just know things about the world that they don‘t.”
In a touching moment, he calls out Mr. Naveh’s class as an integral part of his high school experience.
"I’m gonna embarrass the living crap out of you right now,“ he says, smiling in Mr. Naveh‘s direction. ”He made us feel very safe to be emotive. ... If something in class touches something in your life, it’s OK to share it. That‘s a really really valuable environment for learning and most people really don’t get to have it. You can go to a great school and never get that. He shared so much of himself with us. You can’t put any kind of value on that. Thank you for doing that.”
“Awwwww” says the crowd, before breaking into applause. Mr. Naveh was only 28 when he taught Mr. Andrews history. Now, his former student stands before him just two years older than he was then. He accepts the crowd’s applause, beaming.
After a peppering of questions, the group disperses, some plopping down to watch the movie, but most content catching up with their schoolmates and teachers.
As the night goes on, students mill about the yard and the house, coming and going as they please. As Mr. Naveh and Mr. Ehman discuss their teaching careers, several times they are interrupted by students headed out or just wanting to chat. Mr. Ehman’s sons change into pajamas and turn in for the night. Parents come by to say hello and pick up their teens. There is a feeling of a family. There is a feeling that although Schenley is gone, the community created there, the community Mr. Andrews was a part of not so long ago, will never close its door.
“I think the thing we had at Schenley and now at Obama, too, is that, for the most part, I really like all of our kids. ... They’re good kids. They‘re kids we like when they’re students and, now like Jesse, we like to see again after they’ve graduated,” says Mr. Ehman.
“Schenley and now Obama is such a unique program combined with such a unique student body,” says Mr. Naveh, who teaches IB history at Obama. “They’re all in this challenging boat together. It breeds a sense of solidarity and a sense of camaraderie. I feel so lucky to be part of it and to ... ”
Before he can finish the thought, another student needs to say goodnight.
‘“Going home? Well, it was great seeing you,” Mr. Naveh says. The student smiles and waves before heading out into the cool summer night.
“Hey, man, you too.”
Alexis Wilkinson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1581, or on Twitter @OhGodItsAlexis.