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Novelists in Hollywood: Away We Go

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Away We Go is something of an oddity. This new Focus Features film is attracting attention not for its star director (Sam Mendes) or its ensemble cast (John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, among others), but rather for its writers, the wunderkind couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. (They're married.) Most know Eggers from his hyper self-conscious memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2000. He is also the founder and editor of McSweeney's, a literary quarterly that has grown into what its detractors would call a publishing empire (though I would contend it's a very nice publishing empire). McSweeney's is unique for its dedication to the short story and its inventive packaging -- one issue is designed to look like a bundle of mail, with fake advertisements and stories hidden in addressed envelopes; another comes in a cigar box filled with reproductions of military-related ephemera, including a copy of George W. Bush's U.S. Air Force dental records. (Ah, the many rewards of the Freedom of Information Act.)

Vida is the editor of The Believer, a quirky, upbeat book review published under the McSweeney's aegis. (In addition to the quarterly and The Believer, McSweeney's has a book imprint, a DVD magazine called Wholphin, a oft updated website with original writing, and a national organization of non-profit writing centers based at 826 Valencia, in San Francisco.) She is also a novelist whose latest book, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, was a New York Times notable book in 2007.

The two began the project that would become Away We Go in 2005, while Vida was pregnant with their daughter, October. The inspiration for the script was Vida's experience as a "pregnant woman in the world": "I would laugh my ass off," says Eggers about the pregnancy arcana Vida would describe. "It was stuff that hadn't been mentioned, like vaginal flavor and tilted uteruses. We kept saying 'Boy, that'd be funny in a movie.'" Both writers were working on longer, more serious works at the time -- Vida was finishing up Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name; Eggers was in the midst of his autobiography-novel hybrid, What is the What -- and their discussions of the comedy of pregnancy were a welcome release. Though neither had previously written a screenplay, Eggers was familiar with the form through his work with Spike Jonze, with whom he'd been adapting the classic Maurice Sendak book Where the Wild Things Are. (That film is being released by Warner Bros. in October.) Once Eggers bought screenplay software -- he'd been laboriously using Microsoft Word -- the two were off and running. According to Eggers, the scriptwriting process "was very Dick Van Dyke show -- it was one of us typing and going, 'Yeah yeah, that's good!'"

The end result tells the story of Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), a thirty-something couple about to have their first child. It is here that the autobiographical similarities end: Burt is an insurance salesman; Verona an illustrator of anatomy textbooks. When Burt's parents suddenly decide to move to Belgium, leaving Burt and Verona anchorless in their Denver suburb, they set out, quite literally, to find a place to call home. We follow them on their journey, meeting a motley crew of old friends and family in a variety of cities, before they finally settle down.

When I spoke with Eggers and Vida, they seemed almost dazed by their good fortune. Eggers recalled the day that Mendes contacted him about the film "as one of the more bizarre days of my life, because we didn't know how the script got to him." They kept using words like "real," "kind," and "human" to describe the more seasoned filmmakers and actors connected with the project, thereby exposing themselves as outsiders to the industry. Vida at one point commented that making Away We Go wasn't all that different from producing a magazine.

What makes Away We Go important, despite its shortcomings qua film, is that it got made at all. Though Eggers and Vida are enormously well known by literary standards, theirs are not exactly household names -- the Mendes/Krasinski combo will draw far more audience members than the writers. Yet, on the strength of the writing alone, an experienced, talent-rich cast and crew coalesced around the script, ushering it into production and completion. It is a heartening prospect that as the country reads less and goes to the movies more, the movies continue to read.