News Column

Midwest City professor Tim Tharp sees book turn into acclaimed film, 'Spectacular Now'

August 29, 2013


Aug. 29--Tim Tharp is a professor in the humanities department at Rose State College in Midwest City, instructing students in composition and speech. A key to being a good teacher, he has found, is being a good listener.

Tharp is also a writer, perhaps best known as the author of the young-adult book "The Spectacular Now," a 2008 National Book Award finalist. He's becoming even more well-known now that his teen coming-of-age tale has been made into one of this year's most-acclaimed movies.

One of the secrets to being a good writer, he has found, is being a good listener.

"It is not in a conscious way, but as a writer, everything goes into the hopper," Tharp said during a recent interview, "and I was having a conversation a few years ago in which a person was telling me about a teen who would come home from school and mix up a pitcher of martinis.

"My first thought was, 'Why did this guy need to make this at 2 p.m. in the afternoon?' My second thought was, 'How would he even know how?' and then I thought: 'He must be an experienced drinker.' Then the voice of that character just came to me."

That voice formed the character of Sutter Keely, a popular, hard-partying high school senior in Oklahoma City who lives "in the now," and for him that is a spectacular place as long as he has an alcohol-sparked buzz going -- whether that be on the weekend, the weeknight, at school or at work.

On-the-rise young actor Miles Teller ("21 & Over," "Project X") plays Sutter in the film, while Oscar-nominee Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants") portrays Aimee, the "good girl" who Sutter takes on as something of a personal project, in a film that some are comparing to revered teen-based films like "Say Anthing" and John Hughes' pictures.


Tharp remains humble about any amount of success ("I don't know that (my) students pay much attention to that kind of thing"), and he makes one point clear: "I was not Sutter from the movie. I never would have thought of drinking that much. I guess I was known at best to have a beer or two. My coming-of-age movie would have been after high school."

Tharp, 56, was born in Henryetta. He moved at age 7 to Midwest City, where by fifth grade he had decided to be an NFL star and a great writer. The writing plan was more likely, as his dad, Bill Tharp, served as assistant editor and columnist at the Oklahoma Journal. After studying literature at the University of Oklahoma and then Brown University, Tharp was given the opportunity to instruct in a class at Brown "and I fell in love with teaching."

Tharp has developed a writing routine: A day of teaching, home for dinner, and afterward "I give myself 30 minutes for something to click, and if it doesn't, I don't continue, but I usually keep going," he said. "I write until I realize that I'm wearing out, and for 20 years that's been my process.

"I don't like getting up early in the morning (to write), and I don't write on weekends. I give myself weekends off, and I give myself time off between books."

Despite the fact that "The Spectacular Now" is a low-budget film starring multiple name-actors, there were enough fits and starts since the book's release five years ago that Tharp wondered whether a film would be made, as did the screenwriters (responsible for the acclaimed romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer") who adapted Tharp's novel, which was ultimately set in Athens, Ga.

But Woodley (who will star in the highly anticipated "Divergent" next March with Teller) being cast gave the production some momentum, and when filming began, Tharp was invited to the set.

He took a healthy opinion with him when he visited the production and watched multiple scenes from his book come to life.

"I just thought, these writers are artists in their own right, and it would be awfully boring if they don't get to express themselves in it and the same for the actors being given room to improvise," Tharp said, before adding with a chuckle: "I knew they weren't going to turn Sutter into a vampire."

What he often saw was a faithful rendition that touched him.

"There was this great moment in the filming of it, between Shailene and Brie (Larson, who plays Sutter's ex-girlfriend in the film), and they just seemed like they were those girls I'd written on the page during that moment, during this 'argument moment,' and I just wanted to walk over and pat them on the head and tell them that it would be OK," he said with a laugh.

"Shailene really makes Aimee a character that you hope nothing goes wrong for her. You want things to work out for her," he recalled of seeing the film for the first time at January's Sundance Film Festival, where Woodley and Teller shared a special jury prize for acting in the picture.

"The first time I saw it at Sundance, I thought it was really good, but I didn't quite become immersed in it because I was thinking of scenes I saw shot but that weren't in the movie. The second time I saw it there, about midway through, it really got to me emotionally. The movie took me back to when I first worked on it, and I wondered whether I'd be able to do the Q&A afterward because my emotions were a bit overwhelmed."

This many months later, that shouldn't be an issue when Tharp answers questions from the Circle Cinema audience on Friday night.

The Tim Tharp file

Age: 56, born in Henryetta.

Teaching career: Instructor at OSU-Okmulgee before becoming a teacher of English, speech and humanities at Rose State College in Midwest City for the last decade.

Writing career: wrote a couple of novels (including 2001's "Falling Dark," which won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize) before writing young-adult novels, beginning with "Knights of the Hill Country" in 2007, which won the Oklahoma Book Award, followed by "The Spectacular Now," a 2008 National Book Award finalist; his most recent books are "Badd" in 2012 and "Mojo" in 2013.

Tulsa appearance: Tharp will speak about his book and the film "The Spectacular Now" and answer audience questions following a 7:30 p.m. Friday screening at Circle Cinema, 10 S. Lewis Ave. Tickets are on sale at the box office and online at

Michael Smith 918-581-8479


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