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Andrew McCarthy on channeling a teenage girl for his debut YA novel, Just Fly Away

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Brian Harkin

Andrew McCarthy is already an actor (Pretty in Pink, The Family), director (Orange Is the New Black, Gossip Girl), and travel writer (2012’s The Longest Way Home). Now, with Just Fly Away, he adds YA novelist to his stacked résumé. Here, McCarthy tells EW how he ended up writing from the point of view of a teenage girl, and why he doesn’t pick favorites amongst his varied career paths.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In Just Fly Away, 15-year-old Lucy finds out her dad has a young son from a past affair, and then heads off on a solo trip to her grandfather’s house in Maine. Why write from her point of view?

ANDREW MCCARTHY. It started as an adult book about a marriage — a guy has a one-night fling, and five years later he tells his wife about it. It was about how [that secret] destroys their marriage — how a secret incrementally, like water torture, just sort of drip, drip, drips and creates this distance between them.

I was working on that book for six, seven years and could never quite crack it. One day I was on a plane writing, and I was like, “My dad’s an a–hole. He has this other kid across town.” It was completely liberating, and what had been a constant struggle for however many drafts and years suddenly revealed itself, and I was just sort of along for the ride. In the earlier incarnation of the book, there was none of the girl running away, going up to her grandfather’s [home in Maine] and all that. But this book sort of took off — she just started driving, and the only thing I was good enough to do was listen. It was one of those experiences where you start a sentence and you don’t quite know how to finish, and then you’re like, “Oh my god, well, if she gets on that train, then she’s going to New York. And if she’s going to New York… she’s going to Maine! She’s going to see her grandfather. It was a really nice process, especially after struggling for so long.

How did you find Lucy’s voice?

I have no idea — who knew my muse was a 15-year-old girl? I suppose it’s a bit like acting in an accent, where suddenly you’re just messing around and you start saying words you would never say in your real life. You’re liberated by being behind this accent. I just understood her. I remember that time very clearly in my own life, that sense of isolation, that you’re completely alone and different from everyone, no one quite understands you, no one appreciates you enough, and all those kinds of things. But it surprised me. I probably wrote 100 pages before I took it seriously. I wrote about of half this [new version of the] book before I acknowledged to myself that I was rewriting the book. I said, “I already have this book. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m just messing around.” Because you know, we play tricks with ourselves.

How did you decide to make the book a YA novel?

That’s an interesting question, because of course I could have written it as an adult book about a 15-year-old girl. I just sort of knew… making it into an older, an adult thing would have put some distance between her and the events. It was very different in tone and timbre than the other book that we were talking about. It just sort of was.

Are you an actor-director who writes? Or a writer who directs?

They’re different manifestations of the same thing—I locate myself in all three of them. The first time I acted, I went, “Oh, there I am.” And when I started writing [it was the same feeling]. On an overt level, what they have in common is storytelling. But it’s more just an internal thing, where I feel like “me” when I do them.

Do you tend to rotate through your projects? If you spend a lot of time directing, do you start to crave writing again?

I don’t consciously do that, although I like to be doing at least two at the same time. I like to have my brain active, thinking on different levels at the same time. I don’t like to be doing just one thing. For years I acted and did a job and just waited for the next job. I couldn’t bear that feeling. So once writing sort of emerged in my life and directing came up in my life, I actively tried to keep all of them simmering at different points and stages of development. There’s just something wonderful about having characters in your mind when you’re walking down the street. And being away from writing, when I have time to direct or something, it gives [the writing project] time to be off on its own, doing whatever it’s doing, so when I sit down again — “Oh, there it is.”

A version of this interview originally appeared in the March 31, 2017 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on stands today, or subscribe online at ew.com/allaccess.

Just Fly Away is available now.