Novel by Schenley grad Jesse Andrews headed for big screen



You don't see many books dedicated to a high school.

But then, you don't see many books like "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," which dares to make you laugh while finding no redeeming value in early death.

Its author, Point Breeze native Jesse Andrews, graduated from Schenley High School in 2000 and dedicated his first published novel to his alma mater.

"To Schenley, which Benson is not," the page reads, in reference the book's fictional Benson High.

"Me and Earl" (Amulet Press) is the story of Greg, a teenage anti-hero trying desperately to get through high school without being noticed, and whose mother guilts him into befriending a girl who has leukemia. Meanwhile, Greg and his wildly profane buddy, Earl, are secretly making the world's worst films (think psychotic fake-German-speaking Spanish conquistador attacked by a house cat). Pittsburgh references abound, including an explanation of "yinzers."

The author pulls no punches in his hilarious, dead-on depiction of adolescent subgroups, angst, gross-out humor and sex obsession. And he defies convention with a protagonist whose main reaction to death is the failure to process it.

Already in its second printing, "Me and Earl" has been published in France, Australia, the Netherlands and Finland and is scheduled to come out next year in Germany and Italy.

It's also Hollywood-bound. The film rights have been acquired by Indian Paintbrush, the production company that made Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Darjeeling Limited."

Mr. Andrews has completed the screenplay after many drafts -- "I'd never even seen one before," he said -- and Dan Fogelman ("Crazy, Stupid, Love," "Tangled") has signed on as producer.

"We're shopping for a director," Mr. Andrews said. "It's always a long shot for any project to be made, so I'm trying to remain pessimistic, but so far my expectations have been wildly surpassed."

The author will be in Pittsburgh Thursday as keynote speaker for the Ralph Munn Creative Writing awards, Carnegie Library's annual contest for high school students in Allegheny County. The event is by invitation only.

Readers can't help rooting for Greg, always on the verge of punching himself in the face for some perceived failing. But they should be prepared for rougher language than the average young adult novel contains.

"It's ridiculously profane," Mr. Andrews said. "I was pleasantly surprised how much they let me keep, because there's realism in all of the swearing."

There's also a complete absence of sentimentality.

"There's a certain trope in young adult fiction," he said. "A young girl gets cancer and becomes this radiant person who's a fountain of insight. Everyone who encounters her is changed for the better. That doesn't happen all the time. The whole thing is much more difficult to process. Adults have trouble with it, so why shouldn't we expect teens to?"

The movie deal came about through his agent at William Morris, which has a book-to-film department. He's finished another screenplay and, at the suggestion of his agent, will be moving to Los Angeles this month. But he still can't quite believe his good luck.

"I spent the first six years out of college [Harvard, art history major] rootless, writing the unreadable, playing the unlistenable, living in squalor, eking out an existence very low to the ground from little jobs like editing text books and teaching music.

"The last two years have been an incredible reversal. I'm flabbergasted and delighted."

He believes the book has cross-over appeal.

"Young adult fiction is getting more popular among adults because the writer is trying hard all the time to maintain the reader's interest. Young adults are honest readers. They won't stay with a book unless they have a reason, so it has to move along.

"I wrote a couple of earlier manuscripts that went nowhere, which makes perfect sense because they were heavy-handed, really pretentious and narratively inert. This one has some momentum."

As for the dedication to Schenley, the author called its closing "a colossal shame."

"I understand that budgets everywhere are being hacked to pieces, but it's very sad that it closed. I'm so happy my parents sent me there, it made me who I am. This is a way to keep its memory alive a little bit."

If the movie does happen, maybe filmmakers could convince the school district to reopen Schenley for the shoot?

"That," he said, "would be awesome!"

books - moviesvideo

Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610. First Published August 1, 2012 4:00 AM


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