Who would have thought?
If you’re a gal who was 15 in the mid-1980s (or even a bit older), you may have had a “thing” for Andrew McCarthy, the actor who came out of nowhere at 21 to snag a lead in the 1983 movie “Class,” then appeared in other films that became iconic: “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and “Pretty in Pink” (1986).
Flash-forward three decades. Across the country this month, McCarthy has been telling those very same fans that he recently and rather unexpectedly “had to channel my own inner 15-year-old girl.”
The actor-director, 54, also now an award-winning travel writer, has published a first novel, “Just Fly Away,” which he wrote for the young adult (YA) market in the voice of Lucy Willows, 15.
You can bet when McCarthy appears at the Decatur Library on Thursday near the end of a long book tour, the audience will be full of middle-aged women who once swooned over him. There’ll be younger women, too.
“The majority of adults who read YA are millennials,” says Justin Colussy-Estes, manager of Little Shop of Stories, which is selling books at the event hosted by the Georgia Center for the Book. “For them, the division between adults’ and kids’ books isn’t that hard and fast because they grew up with Harry Potter.”
At the start of McCarthy’s story, Lucy learns that as a result of a fling, her dad is the father of an 8-year-old boy. While this rocks Lucy’s world, her younger sister is oddly nonchalant upon hearing that half-brother Thomas lives nearby in their New Jersey town.
Lucy’s mother still calls her father “Darling.” But Lucy thinks that Dad’s past affair may be one reason that her mother has a glass of wine in her hand every night.
Even today, McCarthy has that preppy-young face. In an hourlong phone interview, he gives every sign of still having that quiet, easygoing charm that once made him a heartthrob.
He didn’t set out to write a YA book. Amid traveling as an editor at large for National Geographic Traveler magazine and such things as directing episodes of “Orange Is the New Black,” he spent seven years working on an adult novel about a man wrestling with the fact he has a son through infidelity.
“I was interested in writing a book about secrecy in a marriage and how that corrodes a marriage,” says McCarthy, who lives in Manhattan. He has a 15-year-old son from his first marriage, and a 10-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son from his current marriage to Irish playwright-screenwriter Dolores Rice. (In the acknowledgments section of “Just Fly Away,” he thanks Rice, noting “there really isn’t much without her.”)
A couple of years ago, McCarthy was on an airplane, still trying to work on his book. “I had by then discovered that Lucy was my favorite character,” he recalls. “I wrote, ‘My dad is (a jerk) with another kid.’ Once I found her voice, it came very quickly. I was as surprised as anyone to realize that I was now writing a YA book.”
Did he ever consider changing Lucy to a boy?
“Never for a second,” he says. “I was so familiar with that family and their world. I had tried to make the story follow my lead for years. Maybe the dad (Michael) was too close to me. Once I heard Lucy and could react viscerally, it was so much easier. It was liberating.”
Like him, Lucy can at times be careless and unreliable, he says. For some validation that he was on the right track, McCarthy asked a 15-year-old neighbor to read his manuscript. “She said, ‘Yeah, this sounds just like me and my friends.’ ”
Along this tour, people at signing tables have shared stories about their own secret siblings, about a stepfather who turned out to be their real father, and so on.
“It’s nice to know there’s a core of truth.”
Other readers say they can relate to a rather sad secondary theme in the story: a cold relationship between Lucy’s father and grandfather.
“I’m very interested in the father-son theme, in the sins of the fathers, and what we don’t know about our families,” McCarthy says.
Because much of McCarthy’s experience has been in film and TV (directing “Orange Is the New Black,” which he’ll do again, “is like herding cats”), he “thinks visually when writing, always trying to capture what I see in my mind’s eye.”
There’s been “some chatter” about a “Just Fly Away” film adaptation. If that happens, he might like to write the screenplay, but wouldn’t want to direct.
Among his fellow Brat Packers, McCarthy remains in touch with “Pretty in Pink” co-stars Jon Cryer and Molly Ringwald. Back when making that film, he “saw it as a silly movie about a girl who just wants to go to a dance.” But looking back now, he believes “Pretty” and others in that era “were the origin of YA cinema. It’s those movies that first took YA seriously.”
McCarthy has started another book, but he’s getting set to produce and also direct several episodes of “Condor,” a spy-espionage series starring William Hurt that DirecTV plans.
So his travel writing may need to go on hold. In 2010, the Society of American Travel Writers named him Journalist of the Year.
“Like any award, it makes life a lot easier,” he says. “Suddenly I’m brilliant. The day before, someone wouldn’t answer my email.”
“Just Fly Away” by Andrew McCarthy (Algonquin Young Readers, ages 14 and older, $17.95).
McCarthy will speak, answer questions and sign books:
7 p.m. April 20. (Doors open at 6:30 p.m.) Free. Decatur Library auditorium, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. To get in signing line after the talk, books must be purchased from Little Shop of Stories (either beforehand or at event). Author will not sign any memorabilia. 404-370-3070, ext. 2285, www.georgiacenterforthebook.org.