Interview with John Green

December, 2012

John Green A tour bus. Screaming fans. One hundred fifty thousand presale autographs. It might sound like a pop album release, but this was the frenzy that accompanied the publication of young adult author John Green's latest book, The Fault in Our Stars. Some of the early excitement came from Green's loyal online followers, dubbed Nerdfighters (though they're more nerd lovers), who tune in weekly to the author and his brother's funny, frenetic vlog. These are also the readers who propelled his earlier books to success, including Looking for Alaska (2005), An Abundance of Katherines (2006), and Paper Towns (2008) as well as the collaborative effort Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) with David Levithan.

The Fault in Our Stars, which spent 44 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, is both tougher and more romantic than anything Green has written. This love story about two teenagers with cancer does not shy away from talk of death—a former divinity student, Green conceived the idea more than a decade ago while serving as a chaplain at a children's hospital. He talks to Jade Chang about hero complexes, reading Infinite Jest as scripture, and manic pixie dream girls.

Goodreads: Did people usually want to be visited by a chaplain?

John Green: It varied a lot. I think people who are religious are more likely to want one around, but it's a very secular position. You're ministering to a lot of nonreligious people. I don't think ministering requires a religious context. The number one thing is that every parent is extremely worried about their kid. Of course, when a chaplain shows up, that can exacerbate this worry rather than calm it.

GR: What first interested you in religious studies?

JG: I was—and in some ways remain—religious, but my inherent academic interest was Islamic studies. It was 1999, and I was interested in interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims. There are lots of scholars who do this stuff, who talk to people within the Islamic community and publish papers. It's like any other academic gig. But I was also 21 years old, and I had a deep lack of understanding of what I wanted in life.

GR: Almost a decade later you met Esther Earl, a teen whose YouTube videos and blogs inspired many before her death at age 16 of thyroid cancer. How did you meet?

JG: We met at a Harry Potter conference in 2009. My brother sings songs about Harry Potter, and they're very popular—he attends a lot of these conferences, and I went to one in Boston. So I went to this concert at the conference; there's a lot of dancing going on. I don't dance, and neither did she, so we ended up talking in the back of the room and became friends.

GR: You've talked about her being an inspiration for The Fault in Our Stars?

JG: I could never have written this if I hadn't known Esther. She introduced me to a lot of the ideas in the book, especially hope in a world that is indifferent to individuals, and empathy. She redefined the process of dying young for me.

Walking out of the hospital in 2000, I knew I wanted to write a story about sick kids, but I was so angry, so furious with the world that these terrible things could happen, and they weren't even rare or uncommon, and I think in the end for the first ten years or so I never could write it because I was just too angry, and I wasn't able to capture the complexity of the world. I wanted the book to be funny. I wanted the book to be unsentimental. After meeting Esther, I felt very differently about whether a short life could be a rich life.

GR: Did you think that it couldn't?

JG: I guess I'd never quite imagined it in that way before I met Esther. She lived a very full and rich and good life despite dying at 16. Not to acknowledge the goodness and richness of that life would be a disservice to her.

GR: Part of the challenge of writing about a kid with cancer, especially when the book is inspired by an actual kid with actual cancer, is not making that kid into a hero just for being sick. That's clearly something you struggle with and your characters struggle with, but in the end Hazel and Augustus are special, Esther Earl seems special—what makes them that?

JG: Well, all good American literature is always interested in people who are ambiguously heroic, like Gatsby. There's always a measure of uncertainty in the heroic journey. Even in Huckleberry Finn there was an ambiguity to the heroism of the protagonist's journey, and I certainly didn't want to argue that Hazel and Gus aren't heroic, because I wanted them to be heroes. I wanted them to be heroes not because they were sick but because they made difficult choices. Gus especially is so obsessed with what the hero's journey is, but I didn't want him to get the kind of hero's journey that he wanted, because the vast majority of us don't.

GR: Is that something you were obsessed with?

JG: I've never been. I probably did think about it a lot when I was younger, and then I lost interest because I had to pay the mortgage and take care of my kid, but it interests me as a writer—how we imagine our heroes affects our social structure.

GR: How would we ideally imagine our heroes?

JG: Let's imagine a world where we don't celebrate Snooki and the Kardashians. There are any number of nerdy cool people in the world. If we restructure things to see that the hero's journey is a degree in astrophysics rather than a journey to star in a reality show, that's a better world. One of the jobs of a writer is to add nuance and ambiguity to that straight line that people often draw to very specific kinds of heroism. Most of us don't get to be Snooki. For most of us heroism has to be in our everyday lives.

GR: But don't you think that nerd heroes are very much celebrated today?

JG: Let's be honest about why that is: the rise of the Internet, the niche-ification of the Internet. We don't mock people celebrating those things, so it's possible to have nerd heroes. They existed in the past, like Mr. Wizard, but they tended to be dehumanized and emasculated, they tended to have their humanness removed.

If we're really restructuring our ideas of heroism, then we get a world where that knowledge is widely sought not to achieve as in a physics degree but just as part of being a well-rounded human.

GR: Did having a son change the way you were able to write this book? A really significant piece of it is about the parents and the ways that they relate to kid world, in a way that hasn't happened in your other books.

JG: Becoming a father made me much more interested in the parent character in my novels. I've never found parents that interesting. I think when you're 16, if you have good parents, they generally just fade in the background. I had great parents, and because they were great, I thought very little about them in high school.

The nature of the love between a parent and child really is literally stronger than death. As long as either person in that relationship is alive, that relationship is still alive.

GR: In a way it seems like one of the first problems a YA writer has to solve is how to find some freedom for the characters. Most of the time people do it by getting rid of the parents somehow, but in this one the parents are so present but also very permissive. Is this something you observed a lot in parents of sick children?

JG: I knew from the beginning that Hazel and Gus were in an unusual position, in that they would be more reliant on an adult. But they also make pretty mature decisions, and their parents empower them to because they're a little less concerned about the long-term. They want their kids to have the biggest life that they can have.

GR: Goodreads member Stephanie Stickley asks, "One thing that really struck me about The Fault in Our Stars was its compassionate portrayal of the parents. I wonder what feedback Green's gotten from people who have experienced the pain of the families in his book.

JG: I just went out to dinner with a group of women who have lost kids to cancer or have kids who are living with cancer. It was really interesting to talk with them. In many of their cases the kids were much younger. They were very generous and supportive readers and very, very kind to say I got some things right. It means a lot to me to read letters from kids who have cancer or other serious illnesses—that's been the biggest surprise.

GR: You didn't think they would like it?

JG: I thought a lot of sick kids would dislike it, maybe. It's a very bold and strange thing to do as a healthy 34-year-old man, to publish a book [written in the voice of] a 16-year-old girl. I knew the book would have a nice first week because of presales, but I never, never in my life imagined this. The subject matter itself is such a huge hurdle, I can never imagine a situation where someone would pitch this to me and I would want to read it. I thought its commercial potential was very limited.

GR: But don't teens love sad books?

JG: I read a lot of sad books when I was a kid, when I was between 12 and 14, but frankly the vast majority of the people are adults.

GR: Why do you think that is?

JG: Well, I'd like to think it's because it's good! My hope is that it's because the adult characters are well drawn and because with a good book, genre distinctions matter less. I think we crave unironized, unsentimental emotion because it's also very hard to come by. We have a lot of ironic stories, a lot of sentimental stories. I wanted to not use irony as a tool to create distance, but still to create something that stripped away all sentiment.

GR: When Hazel and her dad talk about the afterlife, he says, "I believe the universe wants to be noticed" and that the universe "enjoys its elegance being observed." Tell me about this idea. Did you actually have a professor say this? And do you think this is true, or do you think the universe could basically not care less?

JG: That idea comes from a YouTuber named Vi Hart—she's very successful and famous on YouTube. We were having a conversation, and she made the argument. Well, she would actually say she wasn't making it because she believes in a truly cold and indifferent universe, but that's how I interpret her argument: The universe is biased toward consciousness because the universe wants to be noticed. It's a way into existential hope that doesn't have too much cliché wrapped around it.

GR: That's true of people, too. People just want to be seen.

JG: Yeah, that was intentional.

GR: Is that what you want?

JG: No, I feel adequately observed. But I have felt that way, and I think that it's a universal urge to have our pain not be felt alone and to have our joys not be felt alone.

GR: So this book was inspired by a girl with cancer, and in the book a girl with cancer meets her favorite author and he's a huge disappointment, but in real life you and Esther Earl became friends—what kind of weird reverse, inverse, perverse psychology is that?

JG: Well, there's a couple things going on. I never expected this would be read by very many people who didn't know me through the Internet. I wanted to play with their expectations. Also, I wanted to think about the relationship between the people who create the things we love and the things themselves, and our instinct to conflate the two even though the people are often at least as flawed as we are.

GR: Do you feel like your readers have expectations of you that you haven't been able to fulfill?

JG: Oh, yes. I feel bad that I can't talk to all of them on the phone, I can't even properly e-mail all of them back. That it's not OK if they come to my house—you laugh, but they do—they don't know that I have very bad social anxiety, and that's kind of terrifying for me. You know, I was a fan of Kurt Vonnegut, and I knew he was not the best person, but I still thought he had it all figured out, I thought he had the best possible life.

GR: In some ways The Fault in Our Stars is a warning against meeting your heroes. Have you met any of yours in real life?

JG: I very briefly met Jeffrey Eugenides and Sherman Alexie. And I've become very good friends with M.T. Anderson (Feed, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing) and Markus Zusak, who wrote The Book Thief.

GR: And were any of them terrible disappointments?

JG: No, they were all very nice. Though I wouldn't tell you if they weren't.

GR: You've said that Hazel's relationship to the fictional author Peter Van Houten's An Imperial Affliction is similar to yours with Infinite Jest. Tell me about your experience with that book.

JG: I read it when I was a freshman in college. I read it twice that year.

GR: Twice? Most people are lying when they say they've read the whole thing even once!

JG: The language is so fresh and alive and vividly observed that I never found it a chore. As young readers we're much more comfortable with not knowing what the hell is going on. It was hugely important to me, and there were times when I felt like I was almost reading scripture, prophecy, not just great fiction but something tremendously relevant to my life on a minute-by-minute basis. It's still deeply relevant, not just to how I think about fiction but how I approach the world every morning.

His idea that the central obligation of the human being is to be observant, to respond to what to you see empathically and compassionately, which is at the center of all of his work really, that idea is a guiding principle in my life.

GR: The universe just wants to be observed.

JG: Right.

GR: In this story was retaining a sense of hope important to you?

JG: I think all true stories are hopeful stories. I don't think there's any room for narcissism among humans, I think it's wrong. Sorry, I meant nihilism. I think it's a mistake. I don't see any point in nihilism...just as I suppose the nihilist sees no point in everything else.

GR: Let's talk about your influences. To me, John Green World feels kind of like Holden Caulfield caught reading an issue of Sassy Magazine, but that's all from so long ago. How do you keep your characters feeling contemporary?

JG: I'm interested in Internet cultures. I'm interested in what the teenagers who drive the Internet culture are passionate about. I follow their lead—they go to tumblr, I go to tumblr. What really interests me is that they're passionate about utilizing the conventions and tools of the Internet that we adults associate with detachment and disengagement for intelligent ends. Like repurposing Honey Boo Boo animated GIFs and making her talk about macroecon and quoting John Maynard Keynes. Subtly repurposing things that we associate with distractions.

GR: Do you have any writing rituals? Anything you do to get yourself in the mood?

JG: The only thing I do is I change my keyboard between every book. I usually shop around. I'm very passionate about the physical feel of pressing the keys. It's got to have the right springiness. I tend to find the built-in keys very unsatisfying, the keys are low-profile and don't really do anything—I want it to feel like I'm typing.

GR: What are you reading right now?

JG: I'm really trying to finish Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I've been reading it for a couple of weeks already, it's really good but so long!

GR: And which vlogs are you watching?

JG: Well, I'm working on educational videos with YouTube right now, so a lot of them are educational. I watch Minute Physics, I like Vi Hart a lot. Also CGP Grey—he does these weird animations that explain the way things work.

GR: Besides Infinite Jest, is there a book that really influenced you?

JG: Growing up in Orlando, I had a very close relationship with Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God. I think we had to read her for school in fifth grade, and I really liked it and sought out more.

GR: A question along those lines from Goodreads member Maddison: "What is the book you can read again and again and never get tired of?"

JG: Gatsby. I don't get tired of it, ever.

GR: Final question: What will you do when your son grows up and falls in love with a manic pixie dream girl?

JG: Ha! I will get him Looking for Alaska and tell him this idea that a human being is more than a human being is a mistaken idea and in the end does no service either to him or the person he's imagining. That trope has become so deeply embedded in American culture, and as someone who writes about young people falling in love, I feel like I can't ignore it, but I try to make it clear that life works best when we think of people as people.


Interview by Jade Chang for Goodreads. Jade is a journalist and writer living in Los Angeles.

Learn more about Jade and follow what she's reading.

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Comments (showing 1-33 of 33) (33 new)

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message 1: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Wonderful interview from both sides of the microphone. Thanks for posting this.


message 2: by Toni (new)

Toni I enjoyed this interview a lot! I love getting book recommendations from authors I love. Very cool.


message 3: by Nicole (new)

Nicole Great interview, and amazing book!


message 4: by Debra (new)

Debra Great interview. Fault in Our Stars was the best book that I read in 2012. Period.


message 5: by Ali (new)

Ali Bottorff Yay Nerdfighters... and Yay John Green for his book TFIOS being named #1 of 2012 by Time Magazine!!!


message 6: by KathyS (new)

KathyS Really enjoyed reading this interview , loved the book!


message 7: by Madeleine (new)

Madeleine Nerdfighters ftw! ...and of course congrats to John Green, too. :)


message 8: by Cathy (new)

Cathy Freeman Dear John, I was interested to learn a book about children with cancer could be a successful book monetarily. I have a cancer that is usually a children's cancer. There is a support website I post and respond to everyday. Usually it is the parents posting about their helplessness over their children's health. I watched my father die of the cancer I have when I was 11 years old - 16 years old. I inherited it a few years ago and know I've only a short time on this planet. Yet I feel blessed. I use my time to mentor others. I think these are attributes I see in most the kids and parents with my very rare cancer (Wildtype GIST/Paraganglioma). I wrote a book about my childhood and my father's fight about this cancer and then the knowing I might inherit his DNA and the rare tumors that straight randomly. I give my book to patients with cancer although most of the book is about the positive. The fact my dad was Head of Comic Books at Walt Disney Productions in the 1950s-1960s ("A Disney Childhood") . . . the book is non-fiction and my own voice at sixteen watching my father die and then my getting the doctor's diagnosis that I have tumors too. I'll need to read this book. It sounds like it gets to the inner heart of what those of us with cancer go through and how it effects not just the patient but the whole family . . . Your comment about "As long as either person in that relationship is alive, that relationship is still alive." . . . it made me cry.


message 9: by Amy (new)

Amy Thanks for your voice out here in the world. Love the idea of revisioning/ restructuring what's capturing our attention. I am hopeful with stories like yours and the works of Markus Zusak and Sherman Alexie and others,that our outlook does shift. Simply loved the authenticity and raw feeling of this book!!! Thanks to interviewer and you for taking the time to share more.


message 10: by Sasha (new)

Sasha Biletsky Wonderful interview and most inspiring book! Thank you John Green for your voice in this world.


message 11: by Claire (new)

Claire Ryan A fantastic interview on both parts.Thanks you.


message 12: by Kenna (new)

Kenna This is a great interview! John is amazing, and it's good to see (read?) an interview where the questions are in-depth like these.


message 13: by Becca (new)

Becca Always great to hear from my favorite author! Great interview! Good questions and new insight!


message 14: by Dawn (new)

Dawn Elliott Sounds like a must for book club - cant wait


message 15: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Thanks for your interesting insights, John. (:


message 16: by JB (new)

JB Yay John Green!!!!!!!! I'm Kate Jenna's daughter I've read every John Green book except "Paper Towns"!!!!! I can't find it anywhere!! John Green is one of my all time favorite authors, I'll reread any of his books!!!! KEEP WRITING JOHN GREEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


message 17: by Indira (new)

Indira thank for posting this one.keep writing


message 18: by Vicky (new)

Vicky This is my daughter's favorite author. Have not read him yet but after this interview, I think I will


message 19: by Annette (new)

Annette I am so sick of this book and its self-promoting author. The book was good but not great. I thought it was predictable and manipulative.


message 20: by Tofe (new)

Tofe wow so cool


message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

Sigh! Every time I read an interview with John Green I become even more intrigued by him and I love that he enjoys Gatsby! I just wrote a paper on that topic and so resonate with the feelings of never getting enough of it. Well done to the people who put this interview together, I now have even more improved knowledge of one of my favourite authors.


message 22: by Annette (new)

Annette Sorry Shaney that's my opinion. I thought the writing was very manipulative. All of the characters living happily ever after would have been unbelievable in a book about cancer. Characters dying is predictable.


message 23: by sondheim (new)

sondheim I don't know if you've noticed, Annette, but people dying of cancer is also what happens in life.


message 24: by Annette (new)

Annette Yes it is. I know this from personal experience.

So I'm not allowed to have an opinion about this book or author because it doesn't agree with yours? I didn't hate the book I just didn't think it was as great as everyone makes it out to be.


message 25: by sondheim (new)

sondheim You can have an opinion just the same as I can, but when you post your opinion in a public forum where fans of John and his books are congregating and then say that you are "so sick of this book and its self-promoting author" and call his book predictable, you need to be prepared for the inevitability that your opinion will be opposed. Because duh.


message 26: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Aubrey uhmm...sooo...well...

Dear Mr. John Greene,

I cried cats and dogs when I read this book. It's really inspiring and it's just awesome.

I've never known someone with cancer. But every time I see a story about cancer patients and survivors on t.v., I just cry. And to tell you the truth, it's the first time I read a book about cancer patients and I just want to read another one. And you know what...I want to be a doctor one day, so that I could try to find one way to keep them from living :)


message 27: by Maryam (new)

Maryam Madeleine wrote: "Nerdfighters ftw! ...and of course congrats to John Green, too. :)"

lol couldn't have said it better myself :P.
DFTBA


message 28: by Kate (new)

Kate "Also, I wanted to think about the relationship between the people who create the things we love and the things themselves, and our instinct to conflate the two even though the people are often at least as flawed as we are."

This reminds me of a reflection by Emily Haines of the band Metric. The lyric is "we should never meet our heros" (and several other similar ones) and her meaning was that the art becomes so perfect for us that we cannot separate it from the artist. When we meet said artists, those unrealistic expectations free fall from their pedestal.

I will admit to being an enthusiastic John Green fan (in the sense that I will read anything he writes and love his vlog), and that I struggle with this idea. It is hard for me to reconcile the brilliance of a mind, one which resonates so strongly with me, with he flawed character of any human. I expect my favorite artists to possess some elevated insight, when mostly they are just great at what they do — making me relate to their ideas. It would likely be a pleasure to sit down with Greene as Chang did, but in the end I wonder if it's better to never meet our heroes.

A great interview that keeps the illusion alive, I'm afraid. Cheers Ms. Chang.


message 29: by Lilian (new)

Lilian woah! good interview! :)


message 30: by Marble (new)

Marble smelly I don't know if you've noticed, Annette, but people dying of cancer is also what happens in life.


message 31: by Jackton (new)

Jackton  Jackton what a great interview, that was cool


message 32: by Grace (new)

Grace Big thank you to everyone who put this interview together!! Every time I hear John talk I feel a deeper connection with his books and its really cool to see why he made the books the way he did. Every time he talks I get some kind of new perspective on my life so keep writing and doing these interviews because I LOVE THEM!!!!:)


Japanese Girl ^.^ I love this book i read for school and again. I have my aunt who had breast cancer. My dad just find out he might have cancer. I cried when Gus died. I love this book and your other book two.


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