On Thursday 6 April 2017, Andrew McCarthy – actor, author, director – visited Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company to read from and discuss his debut novel, ‘Just Fly Away’. The story is about Lucy, a fifteen-year-old girl who decides to explore some family secrets after learning that “her father has a child from a brief affair”. (Link: Elliott Bay’s book overview) She encounters life along the way. For a lot of us, the mention of Andrew McCarthy in conjunction with the teenage years evokes nostalgic thoughts of Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero. Turns out that Mr. McCarthy can write about teenagers in addition to playing them on the big screen.
On Thursday, Mr. McCarthy explained to his audience how he found himself writing a novel from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old girl. He also discussed how his childhood, acting, and love of travel helped fuel his writing. For a self-proclaimed introvert, he made the discussion look easy, eloquently combining humor and personal anecdotes to shed light on how and why he wrote the book.
He started writing what would become ‘Just Fly Away’ while working on another book, which he viewed as his main effort. He’d write some of ‘Just Fly Away’ and then set it aside, telling himself that he was already working on a book. But he’d come back to it every now and then, and then one day he realized that he knew what happened next with the story of Lucy, and he knew where things were headed.
Mr. McCarthy acknowledged the challenge of writing a story through the eyes of a female teenager. But he was able to apply his own childhood and his experiences in “YA cinema”, where the protagonists often yearn simply to be seen, to telling the tale of a child who realizes that her parents had and have lives that don’t revolve completely around their children. Still, Mr. McCarthy took the prudent step of confirming the story’s authenticity, explaining that he gave a copy to a neighbor, a fifteen-year-old girl, for some feedback. She said, “Yea, this sounds like me and my friends.”
After reading a few passages from the book, Mr. McCarthy fielded questions about what prompted him to start writing, how he got into travel writing, why he took on a novel, and his experiences working on films. Mr. McCarthy pointed to a failed attempt at making the basketball team at 15 that steered him toward acting and writing. His mother suggested he try out for a school play. Initially skeptical, he mentioned that when he walked out on stage that first time, there was an awareness, this realization that he was in the right place. He described that realization further with a quote from Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’: “It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow…”
Mr. McCarthy later started keeping journals, something he claims he was not very good at. It resembled record keeping more than writing. But on an overseas trip (Saigon?), after passing even his formidable ability to go long periods without talking to anyone, Mr. McCarthy left the hotel and met a young man who insisted on showing him around town on his scooter. The young man was persistent. Mr. McCarthy finally relented and spent the day seeing the city through that young man’s eyes, getting a sense of his story and his place in the city. When Mr. McCarthy got back to the hotel, he wrote it all down, just kept writing and writing, experiencing again that sense of being in the right place, doing the right thing.
After that he started pitching editors with story ideas. He finally convinced an editor to let him write something by telling the editor that if he didn’t like it, he didn’t have to pay him. Interestingly, Mr. McCarthy didn’t use his name recognition to open doors. He knew that as soon as people found out he was writing, the inevitable response would be, “Oh look, the Pretty in Pink guy thinks he’s a writer.” Mr. McCarthy wanted the next response to be, “Oh, wait, it looks like he’s actually written a few things.”
A few side notes. Having grown up with movies like Pretty in Pink and Less than Zero, I was grateful that Mr. McCarthy didn’t bristle at questions about the movies he made as a young actor. I can understand how artists don’t want to be locked into an association with one film or book, but it’s nice when they are later able to look back and recognize that most fans aren’t trying to discount an artist’s other works by expressing appreciation for something accomplished earlier in a career. Mr. McCarthy seemed genuinely happy to discuss his earlier films. I think one of his funniest lines (paraphrased) of the night was, “Are you sure you don’t want to ask about Molly?” The second best line of the evening was when Mr. McCarthy, who’d already written a memoir and stories about travel, told a friend he was writing a novel. His friend replied, “Good, you can put in there all the things you were afraid to include in the memoir.”