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May 15, 2013 BOOKLIST
Find more A Conversation with John Green and Ilene Cooper
When Booklist Editor Bill Ott told me to write an introduction to this interview with John Green, he said he wanted it to be personal. Well, that made me a little squirmy. Many people know that John worked at Booklist for a few years about a decade ago, and because he has talked about it in various places (including on one of his phenomenally popular Vlog Brothers videos), people may also know that I was his first reader and amateur editor on Looking for Alaska and that I helped him find his way in the wonderful world of publishing. But in the years John and I worked together at Booklist, we also became fast friends, which was a little odd considering I was one of his bosses and old enough to be his . . . well, let’s just say aunt. But age doesn’t matter much when you find the same things fascinating (Padre Pio and his stigmata, for example); the same things sad (being dumped); and, most importantly, the same things funny (each other). It’s been a pleasure to watch John evolve as a writer over the years, but I’m even prouder of the work he’s done with his brother, Hank, in organizing his online community of “Nerdfighters,” who are remarkably supportive of each other and involved in raising money for good and important causes. Pop stars on YouTube, John and Hank are now going into the teaching business with “Crash Course,” a series of instructional videos in which Hank is the science guy and John takes on world history. The videos—40 of them, each 9 minutes long—are designed to supplement AP or early-college studies. So, to find out what John will do next, stay tuned.
Clearly, John is a busy guy these days, but I ran him to ground at the NCTE conference in Chicago in November. After we found a couple of chairs in a spare corner, and Dan Kraus turned on his video camera, John and I talked.
Ilene: We’re here at the NCTE conference in an anteroom of the Hilton Grand Ballroom to talk about John’s new book, The Fault in Our Stars. So, John, give us a brief synopsis.
John: Uh, ok. The Fault in Our Stars is about two kids, Hazel and Augustus, who meet in a support group for kids with cancer and come to share a love for this book called An Imperial Affliction, written by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten.
Ilene: The real quote about faults and stars is from Julius Caesar, and it goes: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies in ourselves, not in our stars.”
Ilene: So, where were you going with that?
John: Well, I mean, you never want to say you’re arguing against Shakespeare.
Ilene: (laughing) And yet . . .
John: But I was arguing against Shakespeare. I mean, I think it’s easy for Cassius and Shakespeare to say that the fault is not in our stars, but the truth is that we live in a world where there is fault in our stars, always and everywhere, and I find that very difficult to reconcile myself to. And I think I’ve been writing this book for so long as a way to try and find value and meaning and hope in the most, like, difficult and painful parts of life.
Ilene: You say in your author’s note, “Do not read anything into this book. I’m writing fiction.”
Ilene: But you did become friends with a girl in “Nerdfighteria” who was very ill and who did die of cancer, so that influenced you. It must have.
John: Yeah, Esther was a huge influence on the book for sure. I’ve been trying to write this children’s-hospital story since I first met you, when I started working at Booklist 11 years ago. And Esther gave me a way into the story that I hadn’t found before. Because I think it was impossible for me to write characters that weren’t either sad creatures for us to mourn and sympathize with or, that, alternately, they were like fountains of wisdom, which you see so often in books about young cancer survivors. Esther was such a normal kid and so charismatic that she drew me out of myself and my expectations for what illness was and helped me see things in a broader way. Also, the way she lived with her illness was a huge influence on the novel, but the reason I wrote that author’s note is that I don’t want people to think that Hazel is Esther because Esther’s not here to defend herself against such charges as liking America’s Next Top Model, which she hated, or any number of other things. So it’s important to me that the book be read as a novel, but, certainly, I could never have written it without Esther.
Ilene: There’s also an author in this book, whom I presume is not you.
John: I hope not.
Ilene: He is a bit cranky.
John: In some ways, Peter Van Houten is my darkest secret self, you know, the person I fear becoming. The person whom I most don’t want to be, I guess. I mean, he is a horrible, horrible person, but I have an affection for him that I think comes from being a writer and having interactions with readers that are difficult and complicated, and it’s hard to know how to work that relationship in this weird new contemporary world, where it’s very easy to interact with everyone.
Ilene: And speaking of it being easy to interact with your fans, you had the idea that it might be fun to autograph all the preordered copies of The Fault in Our Stars. So what was your expectation when you had that idea?
John: Well, there had been about 1,200 preorders of Paper Towns, so I figured in that realm, about 1,200, but then Penguin said the only way to sign all the preorders, because of warehousing or something boring that I didn’t understand, was to sign the entire first printing. My first printings had been around 20,000, so I figured, that’s doable. Take a few days, but it’s doable. But then the first printing got much larger, so I ended up having to sign a lot more books.
Ilene: And that would have been?
Ilene: And there were actually physical problems.
Ilene: A bad paw.
John: Yeah, I mean my arm, well, it’s a repetitive stress injury. A nerve problem, but my doctor said that once I finished, it would go away.
Ilene: And you didn’t cheat.
John: I didn’t cheat. I mean, yeah, I signed every single one of those books. I did not cheat ever.
John: I didn’t always sign them well. In fact, when I messed up a signature, there’s a secret URL that I would write at the bottom that takes you to a video of me apologizing for your terrible signature. But I did sign them all. I was never tempted to cheat. I always felt, um, I don’t know, I’d made this promise to them, and it seemed like a pretty high-class problem. You know? I mean, it’s not something that I felt like I should be complaining about. It was just sort of something that I had to do for a few months.
Ilene: And what did you do while you were signing? I mean, you must have been watching TV or . . .
John: I watched a lot of TV. You could say I have an Ilene Cooper–level relationship with television.
Ilene: (laughing) That means everything but PBS.
John: Well, I did watch PBS. I watched all of Ken Burns’ documentaries, all of them. I watched all of The Civil War, all of Baseball, Mark Twain, Jack Johnson, Prohibition. I saw everything. I saw, um, the entire oeuvre of Mythbusters. Uh, I’ve seen every episode of Mythbusters. I watched the entire five seasons of this show called Pawn Stars that I didn’t even like.
Ilene: Were there any points where you were writing The Fault in Our Stars when you thought, “This is really too painful to write?”
John: Yeah, there were a couple times when it was hard for me just to write it. But I felt like it was really important for me to be honest. Particularly to try to be honest about what it’s like when you’re seriously ill. To try to be honest about how you lose that feeling of bodily sovereignty that all of us take for granted. And that, you know, this sort of separation between mind and body we all just assume exists is ripped away from you when you realize that you have no mind without your body, and you’re drawn into just being ill as a career, essentially. And how frustrating that is, and how difficult it is, and the kind of heroism that goes along with reaching out of that in order to continue being alive and being an engaged human. Like that stuff was really hard to write about because it’s something that we all face but all try to look away from. But I wanted to write about it hopefully and in a way that embraced the belief that that while it is difficult, there is this hero’s journey within illness that doesn’t get talked about very often, where, in spite of it, you pull yourself up and you continue to be alive, while you’re alive.
Ilene: And there’s a lot of humor in the book. Was that hard to balance out? Did you ever feel like, “OK, they’re having too much fun.”
John: (laughing) Like, I should probably take out some jokes here.
Ilene: (laughing) Yeah.
John: I mean, uh, no, I don’t know how to write without humor. I really like writing funny scenes. And I really like writing about clever kids, and clever kids tend to be funny even when things are rough. I never wanted to use humor to lighten the mood. I’ve always thought that’s a really lame use of humor, so I never wanted to be, like, du du dum [imitates rim shot]. You know? So I did work to try to avoid that. When you are in that hard stuff, sometimes you want to just pull out with an easy joke, and I did have to resist that a few times, or Julie, my editor, told me to delete it.
Ilene: And what was your takeaway from the book? When you were done, how were you different than when you started?
John: Well, I worked as a chaplain in a children’s hospital more than a decade ago, and ever since then, I have struggled with—against—just complete nihilism: a feeling that everything in human life is utterly random and capricious and arbitrary. Because of that, all meaning of consciousness is robbed from us. And I think walking away from the book, I still feel like it’s extremely capricious and random and unfair and arbitrary. But I no longer feel like that robs human life of its meaning or that robs even the lives of people who don’t get to have full lives of the meaning in their lives. That was a long time coming for me—and not just as a writer but as a person. That’s an extremely helpful thing to be able to carry with you, because it was very difficult for me on a day-to-day basis to remember the kids that I’d known at the hospital and not despair.
Ilene: So now it’s done, and how are you going to lighten the mood with your next book?
John: I don’t know. I mean, this has never happened to me before, but finishing this book, I don’t have any . . . well, that’s not right. I do have other ideas; there other things that I’m excited to write that are lighter, not just lighter in terms of theme because I hope The Fault in Our Stars is funny. I just mean lighter in the sense that this was an extremely difficult writing process, and I’d like to write something that’s not so difficult next time. But I don’t know. I want to take a little time off and catch my breath, figure out what I want to do next, and then do it.
Ilene: Thanks, John!
John: Now we’re done?
Ilene: We’re done!
John: Thanks, Ilene.