In The Haters, a trio of teen jazz musicians, burdened with more ambition than talent, take to the road in a comic adventure. PW spoke with Jesse Andrews, whose 2012 debut, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, was released as a movie in 2015, to find out what makes his characters tick and what the weirdest band name of all time might be.
What was your inspiration for The Haters?
I was in a lot of bands growing up. I started playing music around 13 or 14, played jazz in high school, and played other stuff in college. After college, I tried to make it as a musician. I lived in a big squalid house full of dudes outside of Boston. We were all musicians. We built this studio in the basement, and played there all hours of the day. There were some really interesting friendships and relationships, and even rivalries. I wanted to write about that, and to set it on the road. I also wanted to avoid the sense of wish fulfillment, where everything goes well and everyone meets their goals. I wanted to write about the kids who maybe won’t make it as musicians after all.
How did your musical background help you with this book?
I was trained in jazz, which I love. In the book, jazz camp is a terrible experience for the characters. My own experiences were pretty positive, but I was well enough acquainted with some of the more ambitious kids to know that if you got a critical mass of them together, it would be awful. I thought it would be funny and real to depict that. They’re teenage guys. They’re trying to figure out who they are, so they’re trying on personas, and attaching them to something they’re good at. Maybe it’s not going to work because it’s a fedora or a vest, or they’re talking in slang from a different era, but they’ll try. Adolescence is a weird time, and it’s fun to write about it in a way that lets it be funny.
Did you do any other research besides your own experiences for this book?
I drove across the country by myself, recently. It wasn’t all that direct; it was the sort of America you’d see if you stopped to check things out. It wasn’t a particularly stringent trip, but it helped set the tone and got me in the right frame of mind. This book was personal enough that it didn’t need a lot of research.
Was there anything that surprised you while writing this? Did characters do anything unexpected, or was there stuff you had to leave out?
I wasn’t expecting one of the main characters to have sex. Early on, I knew he was a virgin and as he was talking about it, I realized he’d lose his virginity by the end of the book and it had to happen in some relatively unexpected and interesting way. I wasn’t preparing to write that scene when I wrote page one. Eventually, I did find myself writing it, and it was funny.
Something that stands out about your style is the experimental manner in which you convey information: through Wikipedia entries, screenplays, dialogue-free sections. Is that planned, or did that develop organically?
That’s organic. It’s generally me getting bored and wanting to do something different. My attention span snaps shut and I have to do something else. I think that playing with the form is entertaining. It’s an easy and quick way to subvert expectations, and subverting expectations is one of my basic prerogatives as a writer. It’s like with Wikipedia articles – they have to feel a certain way, so combining that format with a character’s voice is intrinsically funny. It’s a cheap way to get there. I’m always looking for a way to make this stuff easier. I think every writer has these tricks. However, it’s actually a lot of extra work. If you’re going to get inside a form, you have to really research it and look at it and get a feel for it. But it suits my restlessness.
You wrote the movie adaptation for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Did you have a lot of involvement with the final product?
I did. I made myself available. I didn’t want to be overbearing, but I established a good relationship with the director and he included me. I was on the set all the time, rewriting little things if they weren’t working, or if we wanted to do something else for a scene or a character. The movie was actually shot at the house I grew up in, and at my old high school, which I hadn’t anticipated. Greg’s bedroom was my bedroom. It was almost indescribable, seeing it like that on the screen.
In The Haters, your characters enjoy “poisoning the well,” or finding reasons to hate the bands they love. Do you do this?
Everything can be hated on. My tastes are pretty varied. For instance, I love Wilco. But it’s considered dad rock. It’s one of my favorite bands, and yet I find it impossible not to think of myself as a dad-in-training when I listen to it.
Your characters come up with ridiculous band names and then dissect them on the basis of the names. Were any of them your favorites?
I have a soft spot for What The?! My bandmates and I came up with it while brainstorming, although we eventually called ourselves Teen Plants. Then there was Meow Meow Kitty, which was actually my first band. We were in middle school. A guy named Corey came up with it. He was my best friend and played guitar. I played bass. We had another guitarist and a drummer, and one song. The song had no title and just four chords in a row. That band was rudimentary, and we mostly just watched movies and avoided rehearsal. We were also Area Toaster: The Secret Government Eggo Project. Corey was into conspiracy theories, and he wanted to make it about waffles.
What’s next for you?
I’m headed to Los Angeles, to meet with potential cast for a movie that I’m going to try and direct possibly this summer, more likely next year. I wish I could tell you who I’m meeting with. But it’s going to be awesome.
The Haters by Jesse Andrews. Abrams/Amulet, $18.95 Apr. ISBN 978-1-4197-2078-9