Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . John Green
by Stacey Hayman
Multiple award winning and New York Times Bestselling author, and the 2012 spokesperson for Teen Read Week, John Green has long been legendary in the world of teen literature. But until the age of ten, John was convinced he was the only human on planet of alien beings. Aliens who masqueraded as people until he left the room and kept a constant watch on his activities. Then John discovered books, and began to read the stories of other humans who were living lives very much like his own. Reading books changed John’s entire outlook on the world, and now he’s writing books that change the outlook of his readers’ lives as well. Growing up in a sunshiny suburb of Orlando, Florida, being the wise older brother to Hank, and enjoying the comforts of a traditionally happy family might be partially responsible for giving John the confidence to boldly explore the darker side of life in his stories. Now married and living in the Midwest, with a young son and small Westie as well, John continues to blog, vlog, text, and tweet as a way to connect with his legion of fans. Join John, Hank, and their international crew of Nerdfighters in the battle against the “suck,” just check out the Vlogbrothers on YouTube or Internet community of nerdfighters on Ning (http://nerdfighters.ning.com/).
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
JG: Probably somewhat nerdy class clown, but at my high school, a degree of nerdiness was celebrated, thank God.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school was?
JG: I attended a boarding school in Alabama, and the best thing that happened to me was finding friends who cared for me and also valued intellectual engagement. The worst thing that happened was the death of a classmate.
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?
JG: All of the stories from my childhood are lies that I remember as true. This is the nature of memory, I guess; we’re always filling in narrative holes with incorrect details so that the memories will make sense to us. So for many years, here’s the story I told most often about my childhood: When I was six, I had to get an IQ test as part of the application for the gifted program at my elementary school. I took the test with a lady with curly brown hair. Afterwards, my parents were brought in to discuss something with the lady, and while they chatted, I played in the corner with what turned out to be rat poison.
Everything about this memory–which I still experience as I do any other memory–is apparently false, except for the test itself and the lady with curly brown hair. My parents were never invited into the room. There was no rat poison. But it’s a nice metaphor, anyway.
SH: Who was the first person to encourage you to write for a living? How did they encourage you?
JG: I wasn’t a very good student, but I was blessed to have teachers who refused to give up on me, especially English teachers. Two of my English teachers, Diane Martin and Paul MacAdam, told me that I could be a good writer if I worked at it, and their interest in my writing meant a lot to me. Then in college I was taught by the author P. F. Kluge, who once told me that while I wasn’t a very good writer, I was a pretty good storyteller, and if I could ever figure out how to write like I told stories, I could do okay for myself.
SH: Are you as fascinated by odd facts as the characters you’ve created? Do you have a favorite kind, or category, of odd fact?
JG: I’m interested in interesting people, but I don’t think I’m a very interesting person myself. I like to be the tail to other people’s comets whenever possible, so I’ve been blessed to know over the years many fascinating and eccentric people, and I think they’re really fun to hang out with and also really fun to write about. The only quirk a character of mine had that I share is a fascination with the last words of famous people. I was obsessed with last words when I was in high school.
SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy a second time?
JG: I worked for six months as a chaplain at a children’s hospital when I was 22. I’d like to do that again, because I think I’d be better at it now.
SH: If you could handpick the ideal reader for your book, how would you describe that reader?
JG: Thoughtful, intellectually curious, self-conscious 17-year-old. (That is to say: all 17-year-olds.)
SH: Is there a book, besides your own of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
JG: I think all Americans should read Huck Finn, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Great Gatsby. If you read those three books, I think you have a little bit of an idea what “American” means.
SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
JG: My wife.
SH: You’ve been selected to be on the reality show of your choice! Which show do you wish would make that offer? (If it’s one of the competition shows, do you think you’d win?)
JG: The only reality TV show I’ve ever really watched is Deadliest Catch, which is about fishermen in Alaska. (I think I’m fascinated by the show because my dad worked for a couple years as a fisherman in Alaska.) There is literally not a reality TV show on air that I’d agree to be on, just because you have no control over the way they portray you and the structure of the narrative.
SH: If you could choose a superpower or a supernatural talent, what would you like it to be? How would you use it?
JG: I would like to be able to inhabit other people’s consciousnesses for a little while (sort of like the character A in David Levithan’s Every Day, but I’d like to be the people in a way that A isn’t) so that I could better understand what it’s like to be other people and the extent to which being stuck inside of myself is a barrier to empathy.
SH: What do you think would catch a person’s attention if they walked into your workspace, your kitchen, or your family room?
JG: When people walk into our house, they are struck by the number of books and also by the amount of art on the walls (my wife is a curator). When people walk into my workspace, they are mostly struck by the fact that I have a treadmill desk, so that I can walk while I write.
SH: When you’re done writing for the day, or taking a little “me” time, do you have a hobby or special treat you indulge in?
JG: Is tumblr a hobby? I guess I have tumblr. But mostly, I just like to hang out with my family.
SH: What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?
JG: I have no idea. You’ll have to ask them! I try really hard not to think too much about what other people think about me, because, for me at least, down that road lies madness.
SH: You get to take the most epic road trip of your life with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is in the car, what’s your starting point, what’s your destination, and do you make any stops along the way?
JG: Agloe, New York to the Grand Canyon. And even though I can pick famous people or historical figures or whatever, I’d mostly pick friends: my wife, my friend Ransom Riggs, my mentors Ilene Cooper and Bill Ott, and my friend Todd.
SH: What do you see as your biggest challenge in life?
JG: Balancing work obligations and family life. I want to make good videos and write good novels, and I know that I need to travel and stuff in order to support that work, but I am a pretty introverted person, and I’m happiest and sanest when spending time with my family.
SH: Surrounded by a crowd of Nerdfighters, what question would most want to ask them –as individuals or as a group?
JG: I would ask them whether they think online social engagement and online communities are genuinely helpful to them, and to what extent those communities feel similar to IRL communities.
SH: What one thing makes you feel happiest? What makes you sad? What scares you?
JG: What makes me happiest: Walking in the woods with my wife and son. What makes me sad: My own inability to crawl out of my skin enough to be empathetic and compassionate and attentive on a minute-by-minute basis. The cool thing about being a person is that you get this very improbable and wondrous opportunity to observe the universe, but I end up spending a lot of time worrying and focusing on boring self-involved problems. What scares me: Nearly everything.
SH: What is one (or more!) of your favorite features about yourself? It can be anything from an impeccable sense of style to your sense of humor to crazy long toes that can pick up a variety of objects.
JG: To quote Nick Carraway, “Everyone suspects himself of one of the cardinal virtues.” Mine is that I am really good at falling asleep.
SH: A series of choices: Rule Follower or Rule Breaker? Elevator or Stairs? Telephone or Email? Coffee, Tea, or Soda? MP3 Player or Vinyl? Summer, Spring, Fall, or Winter? Salty or Sweet? Cats or Dogs? Pencils or Pens?
JG: Rule follower, elevator, telephone, soda, mp3 player, fall, salty, dogs, pens.
SH: Any advice for teens, something you wish you had known? Or wish you had done? Or wish you had not done? And why. (Or maybe: Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten, at any age?
JG: When my wife was in high school, she had this blinding light revelation that everyone was too concerned with themselves to be worrying about the many insecurities that preoccupied her thoughts. This awareness dramatically improved her quality of life. I learned the same thing, and found it equally useful, but I was 30.
Looking for Alaska
SH: As your first published book -and an award winner to boot!- was all the feedback encouraging or did it feel overwhelming? Did the success make it harder or easier to write your next book?
JG: The feedback was definitely encouraging. I never imagined that Alaska would have such a wonderful life; I’d seen so many great books come and go, and all I hoped is that it would sell well enough to get to paperback. By the time Alaska was published, I’d written a lot of An Abundance of Katherines, so that helped alleviate whatever pressure I might’ve felt.
SH: How did you decide on Alaska for a name? Have you ever met an Alaska -before or after you wrote this book?
JG: Initially I liked it because of the Velvet Underground song “Stephanie Says,” which features a character called Alaska who is “between worlds.” But then I looked up what the word actually means, “that which the sea breaks against,” which struck me as very beautiful and relevant to Alaska’s experience.
SH: Sharing Pudge’s fascination with last words, by now you must have considered what you might want as your officially quoted last words. What would they be? Are there last words quotes you wish you could could have said first, or that you’d like to borrow?
JG: I’m quite fond of Emily Dickinson’s last words, “I must go in. The fog is rising.”
I don’t have the ambition to say anything particularly meaningful. I guess in a perfect world I’d say, “This has been a lovely 174th birthday party.”
An Abundance of Katherines
SH: Wordplay might be Colin’s first, and until recently, his most satisfying, true love. How did creating a math theorem turn into his eureka moment?
JG: Well, language and math are pretty similar, especially when it comes to the kind of abstract language games that Colin plays. (Like, Scrabble is not really about words; it’s really about math.) But in general, I think math is basically just a kind of language used to describe certain relationships.
As for why I chose a relationship theorem, 1. I’d been dumped a lot, and 2. I always felt like relationships followed a pattern, and 3. some psychologists had used algebra (somewhat more complex than in the novel) to predict which marriages would end in divorce, and were able to do so with astonishing accuracy. So I thought it would be an interesting fixation for Colin.
I also wanted to humanize mathematics a little, to argue that ultimately, mathematics is an attempt to fathom the universe, which is exactly what we are also trying to do with novels and poetry and biology and everything else.
SH: Colin is exposed to quite a few examples of child prodigies not going on to genius status. How hard was it to keep him from seeing the truth of his life sooner?
JG: Well, I can say to you over and over that most child prodigies never become geniuses, but all we remember in our collective imagination is Mozart composing when he was a preteen and Carl Friedrich Gauss finishing Disquisitiones Arithmeticae when he was 21. The capital R Romantic imagination can’t help but think of the extraordinary things that might be, particularly when you’re a teenager and all things are still possible. So I never worried of him getting to “the truth of his life” too soon; the challenge in my mind was finding a way to tear down these ideas of precocity and uniqueness, while still being hopeful and celebrating the extraordinary capacity of human brains.
SH: What do you think Lindsey/Hassan/Colin would answer to the first and last of the four questions: “Where would you live if you could live anywhere? … What do you think makes Gutshot special?’
JG: I think what makes Gutshot special for them is that it feels authentic and de-ironized in a way that most places don’t.
SH: Margo is frustrated when her clues aren’t used to follow her to Mississippi, but she doesn’t seem any happier when Quentin finds unintended clues left behind this time. Does she want someone to find her or just play the game?
JG: I think Margo has very different intentions when she leaves for Mississippi than when she disappears once and for all. Her visit to Mississippi is a game, and one of many that she has played. Her disappearance is, to her, at least, about leaving.
But she’s also a deeply conflicted person, and one who wishes to be liked almost exactly as much as she wishes not to care whether she is liked. I think a lot of us feel pulled between those poles, and we often behave inconsistently in response to those competing desires.
And in her ambivalence, both about how she leaves and how she is found, I wanted to reflect those internal conflicts.
SH: Ruthie may only be a guest star in this show, but who wouldn’t love the chance to see how Margo’s choices affect Ruthie as a teen? Is there any chance fans will reading about Ruthie and Myra Mountweazel some time in the near future? Please?
JG: Well, I’ll never rule out writing a sequel, because the future is unpredictable. But while I liked writing about Ruthie a lot, one of my favorite things about writing is FINISHING.
SH: Margo has friends (Becca, Chuck, Jase) who enjoy tormenting other teens, but she doesn’t seem to care as much for these friends as the kids they torment. Why do you think she keeps hanging out with them and not Q?
JG: There’s this tension we all feel between wanting to fulfill the social order’s expectations of us and wanting to live in a way that feels authentic to our feelings and experiences. Margo CAN be popular, and she lives in a culture that celebrates (even reveres) popularity. And so for her the default choice is to be popular.
Almost all of us almost always make default choices. (As an example, my house has this front lawn, which I have to mow every week for the entire summer, and which I almost never walk on except when I am mowing it. This lawn is made of non-native grasses that must be fertilized with nitrogen-rich chemicals that hurt the quality of the water in my city, and these grasses do not contribute to the food supply in any way. Having a front lawn is an absolute act of insanity, and yet almost everyone has one.)
So making the default choice to be popular when the opportunity presents itself seems pretty universal to me. What makes Margo interesting to me (and also makes her somewhat difficult to like) is that she feels that all these default choices–be popular, graduate from high school, go to college–don’t feel right to her. Her life–and the future she imagines she’ll have if she continues to make the default choices–seems very phony and flimsy and unfulfilling to her.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson
SH: What inspired you to co-write a book? How did you work out the mechanics of the alternating chapters/voices?
JG: David approached me with the idea, and I admired his writing a lot and thought it sounded like a really fun project. We wrote our first chapters separately knowing nothing except the names of the characters and the location of their eventual meeting. After reading the chapters out loud to each other, we agreed that I’d have the first chapter and he’d have the last one. I loved David’s chapters, and I mostly kept writing my side of the story so that he’d give me more of his.
SH: Tiny Cooper and his boisterous musical are unforgettable! Have you considered asking Neutral Milk Hotel, Tiny’s favorite band, to bring songs from his musical to life on an album?
JG: If I ever meet their singer-songwriter, I will certainly give him the book!
SH: The “Ten Minutes of Honesty” game sounds both genius and potentially deep trouble! Have you, or will you, play this game? Have you heard any stories of others who’ve tried?
JG: I played that game repeatedly with my college girlfriend. It was a really interesting exercise in how dishonest people usually are with each other (even with those we love), but I don’t know if it was ultimately very healthy. I mean, we did eventually break up.
The Fault in Our Stars
SH: There isn’t one character in this story who has reason to feel carefree about life, but you were able to create a sense of hope for everyone. How did you manage to make that happen?
JG: I believe that all true stories are hopeful stories. But hope that can’t stand up to pain and trauma isn’t very useful. The young people I’ve known who were seriously ill were very funny and vibrant and hopeful people, but they were also honest and often very angry. I wanted to try to capture that as well as I could.
SH: Peter Van Houten’s reply to Augustus Water should lead to plenty of speculation about your own opinions on the importance of writers to their audience. How much of Van Houten’s opinions on the meaning of art in our lives would you claim as your own? (Page 68)
JG: In that passage, Van Houten says, “What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip?” I think he’s making false distinctions there: A novel can be both very entertaining and very alarming (think of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace or Feed by M. T. Anderson). I don’t think art exists for only one reason, or that a work of art should seek to serve only one master.
SH: What’s up with the all the mini-vans in your stories?
JG: They’re practical!
SH: You blog, you video blog (vlog), you use Twitter, and you’re on Facebook. How do you make time for it all–and still write? Do you prefer one–or any– of these tools to connect with your readers?
JG: Making videos with my brother is at the center of all the stuff I do online; Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook are really just extensions of that work. I love reading and writing books, but it’s difficult to use books to build communities that can tackle projects, which is something I really enjoy. (For instance, our community of video viewers has loaned more than $1,400,000 to entrepreneurs in the developing world through kiva.org; that’s just not something you can do with books.)
I also believe in going where teenagers are and trying to create within those spaces opportunities for intellectual engagement.
As for how I make time, it can be difficult to balance multiple projects sometimes, but that’s the case for most people. I’ve always had a day job, but since 2007, that day job has been making YouTube videos.
SH: You seem to have a great sense of humor but your stories aren’t comedies as much as dramatic stories with comedic moments. Have you considered a straight-on comedy? (Would it be about two brothers maybe?)
JG: I tried to write a straight comic novel with Katherines, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get any closer than that. I don’t really like humor that’s kidding; to me, the funniest books (Huck Finn, say, or Peter de Vries’s The Blood of the Lamb) are also the most serious.
SH: Has anyone ever mentioned that Judd Winick looks like he could be a lost Green brother? Have you considered writing a graphic novel? And you could ask Judd to do the artwork!
JG: He is a handsome lad. I love reading graphic novels (including Winick’s work), but I don’t think I have the talent to write one.
SH: What’s the best, or most surprising, question you’ve ever been asked?
JG: Last night, in front of 1,200 people, a 16-year-old girl raised her hand and asked me, “Why do we suffer?” That’s a damn good question.
Books by John Green
The Fault in Our Stars. Penguin, 2012. 336p. $17.99. 978-0-5254-7881-2. VOYA April 2012. 5Q 5P S
Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Levithan). Penguin, 2010. 304p. $17.99. 978-0-5254-2158-0. VOYA February 2010. 4Q 4P J S
Paper Towns. Penguin, 2008. 320p. $17.99. 978-0-5254-7818-8. VOYA August 2008. 4Q 4P S
An Abundance of Katherines. Penguin, 2006. 256p. $16.99. 978-0-5254-7688-7. VOYA October 2006. 4Q 4P S
Looking for Alaska. Penguin, 2005. 160p. $16.99. 978-0-5254-7506-4. VOYA April 2005. 5Q 4P S
John Green Online
John Green’s website: http://johngreenbooks.com/
Tumblr site: http://fishingboatproceeds.tumblr.com/
YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/vlogbrothers