I saw Jesse Andrews on a panel at this year’s Bay Area Book Festival, and he’s one of the best speakers I’ve ever listened to. When he asked the audience who had bought a copy of his new book, MUNMUN, I held mine up proudly. Though Jesse Andrews is mostly known for YA realistic fiction like ME, EARL, AND THE DYING GIRL, MUNMUN offers a unique lens into the reality of social inequality through a fantastical premise.
In an alternate reality a lot like our world, every person’s physical size is directly proportional to their wealth. The poorest of the poor are the size of rats, and billionaires are the size of skyscrapers.
Warner and his sister Prayer are destitute—and tiny. Their size is not just demeaning, but dangerous: day and night they face mortal dangers that bigger richer people don’t ever have to think about, from being mauled by cats to their house getting stepped on. There are no cars or phones built small enough for them, or schools or hospitals, for that matter—there’s no point, when no one that little has any purchasing power, and when salaried doctors and teachers would never fit in buildings so small. Warner and Prayer know their only hope is to scale up, but how can two littlepoors survive in a world built against them?
I love your narrative voice, both in your stories, and on your website. When did you know that you’d finally found your writing voice? (Or are you still finding new ways to discover it?)
I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable calling a voice *my* voice. There are writers who have A Voice and then there are writers who are shapeshifting mimics who can only sound like other people and never themselves. Because they have no true selves! They’re completely contingent beings who only become people in reaction to other people or situations, and I am definitely in their category. That’s why I only write in the first person, from the perspective of characters who aren’t me and who have voices who aren’t mine.
So, that’s what I believe about myself, and yet it’s almost definitely not true, because with all three of my books so far plus a lot of the scripts that I write, the people who know me are always saying things like, “I read your book/script and it was like you were reading it in my head. I was just hearing your reedy nasal voice the entire time.” So I guess that pretty much *is* my voice.
Here’s a way better answer: I found my voice when I stopped trying to show everyone how smart I was. Before Me and Earl I wrote two novel-length manuscripts and about a dozen short stories and I was trying to smush the maximum of (what I thought of at the time as) intellect onto every single page. None of it got published. For Me and Earl I tried to just relax and let people sound like people. It went a lot better.
And it’s a beautiful story as a result. Like Me and Earl, MUNMUN has an excellent premise, and it offers an interesting exploration of inequality and dreams. In what ways do you hope society can close some of these gaps?
It’s going to be difficult for me not to be political in this answer, because the synagogue where I had my bar mitzvah was shot up by a maniac yesterday morning, and both his racist hatred and his capacity for violence were demonstrably enabled by the Republican Party. So I think we can begin by limiting that party’s power in every way possible. I think there’s at least a case to be made that the party itself should be outlawed, the way a democracy might reasonably outlaw a modern Nazi Party if one were to attempt to participate in its elections.
This is also a tough question because novelists are more at home describing and not prescribing. But one driver of inequality is people’s indifference (if not hostility) to the welfare of other people who aren’t exactly like them. So an obvious prescription is more empathy, in the form of more (and better) stories about more kinds of people. This is not a new or original point, but what I’d add is, let’s maybe tell fewer stories about Hero versus Villain, a banal and fundamentally conservative framework. If you believe some people are just evil and deserve punishment, you’re probably pretty into Fox News, or will be in ten years. If instead you believe—as anyone who actually studies this sort of thing for a living can tell you—that people’s attitudes and behavior and outlook are overwhelmingly shaped by their environments and peer groups and circumstances, and that people can change when those things change, then there’s hope. For both them and you!
But I can’t suppress my own certainty that the right wing must be put out of power as soon as possible, for as long as possible. The current presidency’s widest-reaching achievement is inarguably the sheer volume of fear it has manufactured. Monstrous, and monstrously unnecessary, fear. “I can’t just let my people get slaughtered,” said a man whose “people”—despite what his favorite websites told him—are not being slaughtered in any way, and in fact enjoy almost limitless power in this country. Then he took a (legally owned) weapon of war and massacred 11 of the gentlest and most thoughtful human beings in the world. I know because I grew up with them.
We are all definitely thinking about the community involved with the shooting in Pittsburgh, and I am so sorry for the loss of those amazing people who were so seminal in your life, and the lives of others. You are definitely right that there should be more layers of nuance in our society, and I hope that kind of change, both external, and internal, can happen soon. You also co-wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of ME, EARL, AND THE DYING GIRL, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (I also loved your adaptation of EVERY DAY!). What do you love most about writing screenplays?
The best part by far is the collaboration. You work with artists who can do things you could never, yourself, in a million years, do. How is acting even possible? How do you just become someone else?
I also love the economy it enforces. Novels allow you to be expansive and really sit in a conversation like a nice long bath. In a script, if you can’t say it in four lines, you’re probably wasting everyone’s time. That kind of pressure makes you a much better writer. It’s also pretty stressful. So maybe I don’t love it. I’m grateful for it, let’s say that.
And obviously it’s pretty cool to get to hang out with Nick Offerman sometimes, who is about as fantastic a dude in person as you would hope. (Also a great writer! Get his books too!)
Oh, wow! I definitely will! What are some of your current projects?
I’ve been working on the script for a movie at a major studio since January, and I’m actually not allowed to say publicly what that movie or studio is. But the studio is one of the good ones! And I think the movie will be too. Check back with me in a couple years.