Pitt alumna makes NYT Bestseller list


Photo courtesy of Alyson Derrick

Pitt alumna Rachael Lippincott (left) has been on The New York Times’ best-seller young-adult hardcover list for the past 11 weeks because of her novel adaptation of the movie “Five Feet Apart.”

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Staff Writer

Not many recent college grads have gotten the chance to adapt a major motion picture into a best-selling young adult novel, but one Pitt alumna has.

Rachael Lippincott has been on The New York Times’ best-seller young-adult hardcover list for the past 11 weeks because of her novel adaptation of the movie “Five Feet Apart.” “Five Feet Apart” is the story of two teens with cystic fibrosis — an often fatal genetic disease that affects the lungs — who fall in love in the hospital, but must keep at a distance in order to protect their health.

“It’s really cool to go to the bookstore and see your book on the shelf, especially wanting to be a writer for so long,” Lippincott said.

Lippincott’s novel was published in November 2018 and the movie, starring Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson, will be released in theaters on March 22.

Hailing from Yardley, Pennsylvania, Lippincott graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English writing in December 2017. A few short months later, in early March 2018, she received a call from one of her Pitt professors, Siobhan Vivian.

Vivian, a professor of creative writing, is a young-adult novelist who teaches Writing Youth Literature I and II. She received a call from a contact at Simon & Schuster, her publisher, looking for any recommendations for a young writer to adapt a screenplay into a novel on a tight turnaround.

Vivian immediately thought of Lippincott, whom she had met in her Writing Youth Literature I class in 2015. Lippincott later became Vivian’s TA and a standout in the professor’s Writing Youth Literature II class.

“It was really in that class that I could see she had the potential to really do this for a career. She was very, very good at deadlines. I think she ‘broke her teeth’ in terms of novel writing,” Vivian said. “It was my experience working with her that I felt comfortable putting her name forward for this opportunity.”

It was in this class that Lippincott, too, felt she could pursue writing as a career. Transferring from The New School in New York City to Pitt after her first year, Lippincott was on the pre-medicine track. Within two weeks of starting Writing Youth Literature II, she dropped all of her science classes and dove into English writing.

“If I hadn’t met Siobhan, I don’t think I would be prepared to do any of this. She really taught me how to write a good YA book,” she said.

Vivian put Lippincott’s name in the running, and shortly after, Lippincott received the screenplay and was writing a sample first chapter. About a week later, she found out she had gotten the job.

“It was mind-blowing,” Lippincott said. “I just remember sobbing. I think I called Siobhan before I called my mom. It was crazy, for sure.”

From here, Lippincott had to work on what she referred to as a “crash-course deadline.” She wrote the first draft of the novel in 14 days. Over the course of five months, she spent her days eating, sleeping and editing, producing a total of four drafts of the manuscript.

Throughout this process, she was determined to make sure cystic fibrosis, or CF, was accurately represented in her writing. She watched YouTube videos and scrolled through Reddit forums to learn more about what it is like to live with CF. She also spoke with the film’s CF adviser to ensure accuracy regarding medical terms and procedures.

In her discussions with screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, they referred her to YouTuber and CF activist Claire Wineland. Wineland, who passed away in September 2018 at age 21 after a lung transplant, used her YouTube following of more than 540,000 subscribers across two channels to bring CF to light and speak candidly about her experiences living with the disease.

“When I got the screenplay, a lot of research had already been done. Going from there, I talked to the screenwriters and the first thing they told me to do was to watch Claire’s videos and I absolutely did that. I binge-watched them,” Lippincott said.

Wineland was a sort of inspiration for “Five Feet Apart,” according to her mother, Melissa Yeager. Wineland had met director and “Jane the Virgin” actor Justin Baldoni in 2015 during a screening for an episode of “My Last Days,” a show on the CW Network hosted by Baldoni about the lives of six individuals with terminal illnesses spending their last days making a positive impact on the world.

According to Yeager, Baldoni and Wineland hit it off and remained friends after they finished production on her episode, even visiting her in the hospital and going out for sushi lunches.

“They developed a really beautiful friendship,” Yeager said. “Claire was the first person [Baldoni] had met with cystic fibrosis and he was very curious about her life and the disease. They became so close that Claire would attend his children’s birthday parties.”

Yeager said her daughter understood that this major Hollywood production would have a lot of fantasy elements to it, but she wanted to make it as realistic as possible, just as Lippincott wanted to make her novel as accurate to the CF experience as possible. Wineland went to the first script reading, helped actors Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson perfect their CF coughs, read through each iteration of the script and was involved up until production began.

“She was really excited at the idea of this story bringing awareness to CF and to Claire’s Place Foundation, which she started when she was 13. She was already planning ways to capture potential momentum the film might offer and had so many great ideas about how to make sure people that have a child with CF know that we exist,” Yeager said.

Yeager read Lippincott’s adaptation of the novel upon release and has communicated with her via social media.

This whirlwind of success has not distracted Lippincott from her goal of continuing her professional writing career, as she is currently working on a young-adult contemporary novel, using what she learned at Pitt as her guide.

“I don’t know if it’s because I went to a different school before I went to Pitt and I came to really appreciate how good Pitt was, but I had an amazing experience, made some lifelong friends and took a range of really great classes. I don’t think you can walk up Cardiac Hill without building character.”