Editor's note, May 2014: Hi there, people of the future. Care to revisit this 9,000-word, extensively footnoted interview with John Green? It's endorsed by Green himself, we swear. Look for a fresh Q&A with Green in next week's (June 4) NUVO, not to mention Ed Johnson-Ott's review of The Fault in Our Stars. And Green will appear in our June 11 issue, as well, as one of our 2014 Cultural Vision Award winners.John Green's Broad Ripple office has something of a rec room feel. Its central axis has at one end, a flat screen TV equipped with an Xbox 360 and at the other, a recliner. On the periphery are a standard-issue office desk (off to the corner, looking largely unused), a treadmill overlooking the Broad Ripple Canal where it meets the White River (equipped with a desk where he says he writes just about every morning), bookshelves filled with hardcovers of his five novels and plenty of artwork on the walls, much of it inspired by Green's fiction.
On the coffee table in front of Green - who's seated comfortably in his leather recliner this morning, sipping on his drink of choice, Diet Dr. Pepper - are three stacks of posters, each bearing a quote from one of Green's books rendered in water colors by a Malaysian fan. Green signed all 150,000 copies, or the entire first print run, of his latest book, The Fault in Our Stars. Apparently addicted to the activity, he's going to sign the hundreds of posters sitting in front of him, employing his professional athlete-style signature, a single swipe with a Sharpie that leaves behind something resembling "JG."
Green, 35, has called himself a "professional Person of the Internet," and, to be sure, he's amassed quite the following, with 1,315,820 Twitter followers as of Dec. 30, 2012. Many of those followers would consider themselves Nerdfighters, or super-fans of the work of John and his brother and fellow video blogger, Hank Green, who have taken the brothers' lead in raising money for charity (including over $400,000 in December 2012 during an annual YouTube-based fundraiser, Project for Awesome), or, say, reading good books other than those written by John. The term describes, to be sure, nerds fighting against global injustice (or "worldsuck," as it is called within the Nerdfighter community), and not those who fight nerds. The slogan of the community is "Don't forget to be awesome," an effective summing up of the Green brothers' unashamedly optimistic approach to life and learning.
Green has found readers from the beginning - his first novel, 2005's Looking for Alaska, won the young adult fiction world's top award, the Printz - but 2012's The Fault in Our Stars could be described as his breakout hit, riding atop The New York Times bestseller list for weeks. NUVO spoke to Green in September 2012; since then, plans have come together for John and Hank Green's Carnegie Hall debut in January. Called An Evening of Awesome, it will celebrate the one-year anniversary of the release of The Fault in Our Stars, and is currently sold out.
NUVO: A representative quote about your work: "Adult readers need to look in the teen section if they're tired of what passes for literary fiction."
John Green: I like adult literary fiction a lot, and I feel bad when people say to adult readers, "You should also consider this novel, this novel and this novel" which are published for teenagers because adult literary fiction is bad. Much of it is - there's no question that a lot of it has become very disconnected from emotional reality, but also very disconnected from this kind of pleasures and consolations of storytelling and story reading. But not all of it; I mean there's tons of it. There's no shortage of good, living, American novelists who write great fiction for adults.
That said, I like being published for teenagers. I don't want to be published for anyone other than teenagers; I don't want to write any other kind of books. But most of my readers, of this book at least, are adults. And I like them, and I'm grateful for them, and I'm glad that the book is finding so many adult readers. In the end, a really good book, if it's a good book, it doesn't matter. My friend said something that at the time I thought was a little bit pretentious, but now I find myself agreeing with it. He said, "When someone reads my book, and then puts it on their bookshelf in their home library, I don't want it to go into the young adult fiction section or the adult fiction section. I want it to go into the 'my favorite book section,'" and that is true. That is what you want.
NUVO: Why do you think that this has come to find more adult readers than not?
Green: For me, traditionally, it's been half high-school, half college. Which is great; I love that because they're reading critically in school. They're reading Gatsby, and they're reading Catcher in the Rye, and they're reading all the books that I want the characters in my novels to be conscious of.4 But I don't know why it's reaching a much larger adult audience. Some days I think it's because my other books aren't as good, some days I think it's marketing. And then also I think, in the new publishing world, some of the genre distinctions are breaking down a lot, particularly if you read on devices.
Green's first book set in Indianapolis opens as Hazel Lancaster, who has lived several years with a terminal cancer diagnosis, is nudged by her mom to attend a cancer support group. She meets there another reluctant attendee, Augustus Water; equipped with a prosthetic leg, he's a bit more outgoing than Hazel, and the two soon fall for each other. They eventually make a trip to Amsterdam to meet Hazel's favorite author, a passage which gives Green the opportunity to spoof himself and the kind of fans who ask him about what really happened in one of his books. Green signed the first 150,000 copies of Stars; more than 270,000 copies had been sold by the beginning of December 2012, according to Neilsen BookScan.
The Project for Awesome, an annual YouTube based fundraiser created by the Green brothers, raised $483,446 in 2012, for various charities, according to the project's website. The Uncultured Project (see note 18) was, in part, behind the installation of pond sand filters in Bangladesh villages, working in concert with Save the Children and with support from Project for Awesome participants. Subsequent work in Haiti - done in collaboration with Water.org, a massive developmental aid organization co-founded by actor Matt Damon - was a core part of the 2011 Project for Awesome.
Green's first novel follows Miles Halter, aka Pudge, a skinny non-entity obsessed with the last words of famous people, as he escapes from his boring, safe home life to a boarding school. There he befriends his roommate, the fearless Colonel, and falls for the free-spirited, troubled Alaska. Hijinks ensue, but a pall is cast over the entirety of Alaska; the book's countdown structure - leading day by day to an unspecified event that demarcates before and after for Pudge - was inspired by the events of 9/11, according to Green. Winner of the 2006 Michael L. Printz award, the top prize in the young adult fiction world, Alaska has been published in more than 15 languages.
High schoolers Margo and Quentin, aka, Q, ransack their town during a night of score-settling mischief. And then she disappears. Puzzled, Q looks for clues as to her whereabouts, happening upon a poster of Woody Guthrie that leads him to Guthrie's song "Walt Whitman's Niece" (first recorded by Wilco and Billy Bragg), which in turn leads him to a copy of Leaves of Grass suggestively highlighted by Margo. Q follows Margo's leads down several forking paths, some of which end up in dead ends (including a fruitless trip to an abandoned subdivision in Florida). A 2009 Edgar Award winner for Best Young Adult Mystery.
NUVO: Was The Fault in Our Stars more taxing to write than your other books?
Green: Yeah, definitely. It was more emotionally taxing; it was more personal to me in a lot of ways. I tried to write the book for 10 years, so in that sense it was my first book. It's just that I could never make it work. I'd given up on it entirely by about 2008, but then suddenly it became possible. But it wasn't easy, I guess. Although I should hasten to add that as my dad always tells me when I complain about writing, that it ain't coal mining.
This book in particular was much more physically taxing because I was constantly thinking about illness, which I think about too much anyway, and it was emotionally taxing because I think I was maybe processing. Some of it, at least, was a response to my own anger and grief, so it was harder. It's not a book I'd want to write again. But it was also complicated by the fact that I sat there day after day thinking no one will ever want to read this book and that proved incorrect. That tempers a lot of the complicated feelings I had towards the book when I was writing it because now obviously it's found such a great audience and such a generous one.
NUVO: Given your success that was almost an irrational thought, right?
Green: No! My books never sold that well before. They sold OK. They would have big first weeks because I have kind of a built-in audience, but then the hockey stick would go in the wrong direction. I've been very lucky and really, since the beginning of my career, my books have had a pretty consistent audience, but I think The Fault in Our Stars sold more in the first month than any of my previous novels. There was a good buzz behind the book and the early reviews were very positive and all that stuff helped. And then I think, although I genuinely did not understand the power that at the time it had, I think signing all the books helped, too. Hence, the signing of all these posters that you see.
NUVO: The disclaimer that starts this book - and, in general, the way you handle authorial intent - is interesting.
Green: I stand by the author's note.5 I think authorial intent is pretty irrelevant, and I tend to agree with the school of literary criticism that proclaims the death of the author. There's no question that authors are a character in their books, that authors exist inside their books, but I believe that authors are generally the least interesting characters in their books.
When I wrote this book, I thought every single person who read it was going to be someone that I knew on the Internet. Most of them also knew Esther in some way, and I knew that people would make a connection between Esther and Hazel, for obvious reasons.6 Then the book is dedicated to Esther, this young woman who I cared about very much, and she died when she was 16 and Hazel was 16. And I don't deny all these connecting points. Esther was a huge inspiration for the book, but I did not want people to think that I was appropriating Esther's story or that Hazel was Esther. I don't buy into this whole argument that books or art can revive the dead or help the dead to survive or anything like that, so I wanted to state that at the outset.
One of the challenges of writing novels these days is that, because we live in such a personality-driven culture, and because authors are known as people, it's very hard to lose the awareness that the book was written by a person who you sort of know. I've had that experience reading books written by my friends, where I'll be reading a book and everything will be going fine and then I'll be like, "Oh, that happened in Detroit. I remember that. I was there," and then it's distracting. But you want to live inside the story, or I want the reader to live inside the story, and that's a big challenge in this author-driven world.
NUVO: Trust the tale, not the teller.
Green: Exactly, and also give yourself some power as a reader. I think we're so used to narratives being something that we lean back and watch, whether it's NCIS or Modern Warfare 3 or whatever, that we are just sort of led through a story.7 People always say Grand Theft Auto is a world you make, but in fact if you play it, you are led in a very specific way through a very specific story. At best it's like a "choose your own adventure" book. Most of the narrative, first-person shooter games are very "lean back, we will do the narrative work for you." And one of the things that I still really love about books is that they do empower readers and they ask a lot of readers and I wanted to do that in my books.
NUVO: And Augustus ends up being able to speak for himself; he doesn't need to rely on the author to be his mouthpiece.8
Green: Thanks for noticing that! I wanted to disempower the author a little bit. You know, the last thing Van Houten says in the book is "I have nothing to add." And then Augustus gets his voice, which he never trusts, even in his last moments. I think that the most courageous and heroic thing that the author does in the whole book, although he sets a very low bar for heroism, is to not take this good piece of writing and try to make it better, but accept that Hazel should see what he wrote about her.
5. The author's note to The Fault in Our Stars reads in its entirety: "This is not so much an author's note as an author's reminder of what was printed in small type a few pages ago: This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species. I appreciate your cooperation in this matter."
6. Esther Earl, a Quincy, Mass., member of the Nerdfighter community and a prolific video blogger, died in August 2010 at age 16, four years after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In July 2010, Green encouraged Nerdfighters to vote on behalf of Esther for the Harry Potter Alliance, a charitable organization formed by Harry Potter fans, in an online contest for a grant from the Chase Community Giving Foundation. Earl, also a member of online communities for Harry Potter fans, was a supporter of the organization; the campaign, dubbed "Vote Esther" by Green, helped the alliance to win a $250,000 grant. From Green's video eulogy for Earl, posted to YouTube in August 2010: "Esther was a great friend to many people in Nerdfighteria and a great friend to me, personally. ... Esther was an amazing kid. She was astonishingly empathetic, she was very thoughtful, she was very funny. But she wasn't an angel or a model of perfection or anything. She was a person, she was a teenager. She answered Formspring questions like, 'Do you have names for your butt cheeks,' with, 'Not as of yet, but that is a good idea?' ... Even though Esther has died, we will continue to do projects with her, for it will be when we work to decrease Worldsuck [a synonym for injustice popular in the Nerdfighter community] and when we show our love for others that Esther will be with us most." Hazel Lancaster, the narrator of the Indianapolis-based The Fault in Our Stars, has lived for several years with a terminal cancer diagnosis when the novel opens with her reluctant trip to a support group.
7. The YouTube video channel Hankgames, launched in November 2010 by Hank Green, chronicles the video gaming exploits of the Green brothers, showing unexpurgated on-screen action accompanied by wide-ranging, digressive commentary by the brothers. [Correction, Jan. 4: A previous version of this story stated that the Green brothers' FIFA 11 team, the Swindon Town Swoodilypoopers, was "rarely victorious." We should have substituted "often" for "rarely"; as a reader noted in the comments section, the team is presently near the top of the Premier League.]
8. Hazel's favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, is the sole published work by Peter van Houten, a reclusive Amsterdam-based author. She says of the book: "Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put together unless and until all living humans read the book." She travels to Amsterdam with her mother and boyfriend, Augustus Waters, who is likewise living with cancer, in order to meet van Houten, who proves a disappointing souse and refuses to answer her questions about what happens to the characters following the end of the novel. Augustus, who refers to himself a "shitty writer," sends van Houten a letter asking him to write a eulogy for Hazel in advance of her death. Van Houten declines his request and sends Augustus's letter, unedited, to Hazel. From the letter: "Here's the thing about Hazel: Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered. I do, too. That's what bothers me most, is being another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease. I want to leave a mark."
NUVO: Has Looking for Alaska ever been banned?
Green: Oh, yes. Repeatedly.9
NUVO: And you've made the point that is wasn't intended for children, but for a teenage audience.
Green: This is an American problem. We lead the industrialized world in censorship of novels, and we also lead the world in production of pornography. To me, it says a lot about our very strange relationship with sex. In the end, what concerns parents about my books is not the values of the books or the language in the books, even when I use curse words. That sex scene in Alaska, such as it is, is 700 words long in a 70,000 word novel, so I think that reflects the fact that I think sexuality is an important life of human life, but maybe about one percent?10
My readers will all act directly to make sure that my books hang around, but what worries me is the chilling effect that it has on discourse. It says to publishers, "Don't publish these books"; it says to writers, "Don't write these books"; and it says to schools and libraries, "Don't even try to put these books in your school, because it's just gonna be trouble." And it is trouble. The people behind these challenges and the banning of these books tend to be very well-organized and extremely passionate. I'm busy, you know. And most people are really busy.
NUVO: On that note of chilling of discourse, do you think you helped open up discourse with Will Grayson, Will Grayson, showing that it can be commercially viable to publish a young adult book with a gay character in it?
Green: We didn't think about it that way because for us, living inside the world of literary fiction, there are tons and tons of novels about gay kids. But it was very satisfying to prove that a novel about gay kids could not only be published, but could be successful. Even though we didn't imagine it as a "coming-out" story, I think it has been a great comfort to a lot of people. In my mind, that whole conversation is so over and I wanted to write it as a novel about what comes after the acceptance of gay high school students. But what's interesting is that for a lot of kids, that isn't their experience yet. And I think those kids find a lot of hope in that story, which is great.
NUVO: And it's sort of a twist to your books, which are usually about "boy meets girl," "girl meets boy."
Green: I wanted my story to be about a best friendship between a straight guy and a gay guy because I hadn't seen that a lot and because we live in this world that is so hyper-focused on sexualizing and romanticizing love. The term bromance exists entirely because it's not OK for guys to like each other. Like friendship is becoming sexualized, and it has to be like a romance. Why can't we just be friends? So I wanted to write a book about a gay guy who is genuinely not attracted to his best friend, and a straight guy who is also genuinely not attracted to his best friend, just like every other platonic best friendship in the world. They have to navigate a world that doesn't expect or allow for that.
NUVO: I was watching the one-thousandth video on VlogBrothers, which notes that people have collectively spent 1,500 years of human life watching your videos.
Green: I think it's actually closer to, like, 750 years of human life. On average, people don't watch all the way through, and a bunch of our videos that are the most viewed are viewed for about six seconds because they're about giraffe sex, so... People realize that it's a video about the mechanics of giraffe sex instead of actual giraffe sex and then they stop watching.
NUVO: That kind of points up to the promises as well as the pitfalls of the Internet.
Green: Exactly! We love to disappoint our viewers!
NUVO: It started as a kind of fun experiment in staying in touch and using the Internet, and it's transformed into something else, into, "How can we harness this for good?"
Green: Even in the beginning, we wanted to do projects with the audience. We wanted to be interactive, not just have it be about the two of us. I was never that close to my brother because I left for boarding school when he was, I think, 11, but now we're just extremely close. We talk on the phone every day.
NUVO: Why do you think that is? How did that develop?
Green: I think we needed a shared endeavor. We needed a project, something that we did together, that we could talk about together. And for the first year we couldn't actually communicate, which meant that we talked about the project mostly in the videos. But then after that, when it started to grow so much and it became a business, it kind of forced us to talk all the time. Which is great, you know, my brother is one of the people I trust most in the world. I think he is extraordinarily talented and smart and savvy, so it's really fun. It started out as a project to mostly become closer and then when it became quite popular, we realized that we had this platform and we had to use it.
9. From School Library Journal, May 2012: "A Tennessee school district has banned John Green's award-winning novel Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005) from the school curriculum. 'Our director of schools reviewed it and decided it probably shouldn't be required reading' says Jeremy Johnson, spokesperson for Sumner County Schools, where the book was pulled. 'We're not using it in the curriculum, but it will still be used in the libraries.' ... The book was withdrawn from schools in Depew, N.Y., in 2008, and in March from classes in Knox County, Tenn., according to The Tennessean."
10. In part of the scene, the narrator, Pudge, and his girlfriend, Lara, find themselves puzzled by the mechanics of oral sex, and resolve to ask their ostensibly more experienced friend, Alaska, for guidance: "So we went to her room and asked Alaska. She laughed and laughed. Sitting on her bed, she laughed until she cried. She walked into the bathroom, returned with a tube of toothpaste, and showed us. In detail. Never have I so wanted to be Crest Complete."
Written in alternating chapters by Green and David Levithan, a YA writer known for including gay teens in his books, Will Grayson, Will Grayson features two teenagers who happen to share the same name: one a depressed gay teenager who falls hard for someone he meets online, and the other the straight best friend of a novel-stealing giant football player, Tiny Cooper, who has been openly gay since the fifth grade. Here's the straight Grayson on his best friend - described as a "flaming Falstaff" in a New York Times review - from a chapter written by Green: "Tiny Cooper is not the world's gayest person, and he is not the world's largest person, but I believe he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large."
The VlogBrothers YouTube channel was created to make possible Brotherhood 2.0, a project that saw the Green brothers resolving to cease all communication for a year, save for a series of video blogs posted publicly to YouTube each weekday. The project has since expanded to incorporate videos by other bloggers, and has been the launching point for projects undertaken by the Nerdfighter community.
NUVO: Professional video blogger. What does that title mean to you? I guess it's technically true.
Green: It is true. It's a weird job description. I used to think of myself mostly as a professional video blogger more than a writer. I'm always uncomfortable identifying as a writer because when you start to think of writing as your full-time job, it puts all kinds of pressure on book writing.
There are thousands of people that make a living on YouTube. Many of them are making a living making really, really interesting videos and really interesting community-oriented projects. It's something you participate in, it's something that you're part of, it's something that you comment upon and I read your comment and often reply to them. And on YouTube, the great thing is that all that happens in the same page.
NUVO: And you have a festival or conference for bloggers.13 What was the idea behind that?
Green: We felt that there needed to be a conference; there was a need both for a fan conference and a trade conference to talk about the business and where it is going. In many cases, to have those frank discussions that you can't have unless you bring together people from around the world because some of the people that do this for a living live in Germany, Brazil, Iceland.
The first year was very small, the second year was bigger and then this year it was like going to a real conference. I kept thinking, as I was walking around, that this looks like every other conference that I go to. All of a sudden, it looks legit.
NUVO: Is there a concern about being co-opted with Disney14 and other corporate elements coming in? Is there a concern that it might compromise that authenticity and interaction?
Green: I don't think it's just a concern; I think it's a reality. It's already happening. We have fought very hard to stay independent but it is a losing battle. There are very few big channels left on YouTube that are independent; it might be single digits, actually.
NUVO: Are you independent?
Green: We are. We haven't signed with a network. But almost everyone has and we may. It's very hard. Look, I can't sell ads. I don't want to do that. Our biggest problem is that the real way to make a living on YouTube is to say something like, "Enjoy delicious Diet Dr. Pepper, I know I always do." Literally for everyone else, advertising is the biggest part of how they make a living, but for us is not.
I want to maintain independence. I want to continue to own the intellectual property for CrashCourse. We work with YouTube, but we own them, they're our show. But that model is going away. To me, it's very much like what Hollywood looked like in the '20s, where all of a sudden things started to consolidate very fast. I would love to see what happened in Hollywood, which is that United Artists emerged and people who were independent content creators were able to continue and function as a studio.15 But that's not something that I'm going to do; that seems like a lot of work. This always happens when there's a big boom of something like this.
NUVO: Your wife, Sarah, isn't often featured in your videos. Is this a conscious choice?
Green: Yes, it started out as a conscious choice. She is a private person and has her own career and is very successful, and her career is very far away from my job.16
NUVO: How intense are your fans? How many road trips do they make?
Green: A lot. I've seen on Tumblr people go around and find the places from The Fault in Our Stars and take pictures of the Speedway and North Central.17 The biggest concern for me is that we do get people coming to the house, and that's not OK, obviously. When I'm out, it's not a problem at all. I'm always very happy to talk to people. It's actually really nice to meet them and take a picture or whatever.
Founded by the brothers Green, VidCon, a conference or convention for online video - VidCon's FAQ page remains agnostic on what "Con" stands for - was cited by Rolling Stone as "one obvious indication that [YouTube[ has graduated from cultural phenomenon to monstrously influential media institution, like the old models it's crowding out." Approximately 8,000 people attended this year's VidCon, up from an estimated attendance of 1,400 at the first VidCon, held in 2010.
15. As an aside, I put it to Green that it's tricky to use United Artists as an example of a viable, artist-run business, given that one of its founders (pioneer filmmaker and inveterate racist D.W. Griffith) had dropped out within five years of its founding and that, even in the early years, its founders rarely delivered their agree-upon yearly quota of five films per filmmaker. Green, in reply: "Yeah, when you think of United Artists, you think of, like, four years of glory."
16. Sarah Urist Green, associate curator of Contemporary Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, most recently curated Graphite, an exhibition considering non-traditional uses of the titular material. She also curated the 2010 IMA exhibition Andy Warhol Enterprises, which cast Warhol as an entrepreneur who declined to distinguish between commercial and fine art.
17. Hazel's boyfriend, Augustus, is a sophomore at North Central High School when The Fault in Our Stars begins. He calls upon Hazel to rescue him at a Speedway gas station at 86th Street and Ditch Road when he finds himself dealing with a malfunctioning feeding tube. The couple also spends time at the IMA's 100 Acres, where they picnic near the sculpture "Funky Bones": "Two things I love about this sculpture," Augustus said. ... "First, the bones are just far enough apart that if you're a kid, you cannot resist the urge to jump between them. Like, you just have to jump from rib cage to skull. Which means that, second, the sculpture essentially forces children to play on bones. The symbolic resonances are endless, Hazel Grace."
NUVO: A lot of people are seeing CrashCourse in classes?
Green: There is a campaign going on at the moment. It's more a campaign to try to get YouTube into schools so that it's possible to use CrashCourse.
NUVO: There's a nice pace to those videos; they're fun. It accomplishes what maybe some other projects have failed to do, which is to achieve the right balance between intelligence and accessibility. How did that come about?
Green: I mean, we though a lot about it. We wanted it to be thoughtful and reasonably in-depth, given the length of the videos. But we also wanted it to be something that people who grew up on the Internet, watching Internet-based content could relate to, and wouldn't find visually disorienting, as I do when I watch educational content. There are so many poor knock-offs of the Ken Burns-style documentary. The stuff that actually gets licensed to schools and that schools pay lots and of money for is stuff that, in my opinion, most students cannot relate to, either because it's too dry or because it's, say, some old guy rapping the periodic table, which is just incredibly awkward. That's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to treat our viewers seriously, but we also wanted them to have fun, because I'm of the unpopular opinion that learning is actually fun.
NUVO: And you get to be the cool teacher?
Green: Yeah, I get to do the things that teachers can't do because I get to eviscerate students, whereas teachers, because they are real people interacting with other real people, have to be generous and kind and patient and loving and caring, and when kids are unbearable and annoying, they have to not give up on them. And I don't have to do any of that, which is really nice. One of the many characters in the show is me from the past, like my high school self, and all of that stuff is true. I was so horrible to my teachers and I hope that CrashCourse can pay back so that I can maybe make amends to what I did for my teachers.19
NUVO: Have you become more interested in learning as an adult?
Green: I don't even know if I was interested in learning back then because I was just so angry and depressed. I was just out of control with my emotions and had no idea what was going on inside of myself.
NUVO: Your books often start with characters being thrust into a new situation. They're receptive and adjusting to their circumstances.
Green: The story begins today. Yeah, I like writing those stories. One of the pleasures of the story is that it allows you to live all the way inside of it. You don't want to feel that you need anything more at the beginning. You want to feel like you're taken right to the place where it starts.
NUVO: Without haunted characters and flashbacks.
Green: I don't like flashbacks and I don't really like dreams. I wrote one dream in Alaska.20 I still kind of regret it.
NUVO: I guess that all contributes to readability.
Green: I want to write books that stand up to critical reading and that can be read over and over again. And I also want them to be fun to read and to have good pace. I know that I don't write great plots - I'm never going to be Stephen King - but you don't actually need that much plot to get pace. I think that'll keep me from ever being a good screenwriter, but hopefully I can hang around as a novelist.
NUVO: Your assistant says your favorite movie is Die Hard 4?
Green: (Laughs as his assistant comes in to confirm that he did actually make such a statement in public, at VidCon 2012.) Well, for the record, my favorite movie is not Die Hard 4. I say that because...they expect me....
NUVO: Like David Foster Wallace picking Tom Clancy as one of his favorite novelists?21
Green: Exactly! When Hollywood people ask you who's your dream director and then they mention this very mediocre independent film that came out five years ago. But what would be really great is if Bruce Willis was in [that dream movie]. I say that mostly because I want to make the point that I want my books to be fun to read, and I don't buy this whole high culture-low culture distinction. I'm grateful my books are taken seriously but I really don't like it, particularly in Hollywood, when they're like, "This is a high culture book so it has to be a certain kind of movie." I did like Die Hard 4 very much; I like The Expendables too. I like pop art, and I don't think it's bad just because it's populist. I always say that. My actual favorite movies are Rushmore and Harvey, but I can't say that because they'll think...well, of course, Wes Anderson...
CrashCourse is an educational YouTube channel featuring video series that offer fast-paced, "crash courses" on subjects in the sciences and humanities. Hank Green handles the science topics; his first course, now completed, was biology, and he is currently teaching ecology. John Green's first course was world history, and he is now teaching English literature.
20. Following Alaska's death, a shell-shocked Pudge: "I am sleeping, and Alaska flies into the room. She is naked, and intact. Her breasts, which I felt only very briefly and in the dark, are luminously full as they hang down from her body. She hovers above me, her breath warm and sweet against my face like a breeze passing through tall grass."
21. Though Wallace said in a 1996 Salon interview that he was fond of everyone from Socrates to Schopenhauer to Don DeLillo, he took a different tack for a 2007 "10 favorite books" list solicited by the Christian Science Monitor, picking mainstream favorites by Stephen King, Robert A. Heinlein and Clancy.
NUVO: I like how, in The Fault in Our Stars, you approach how certain slogans or approaches may work for certain people, but they can be really inadequate for others. You talk about how this whole notion of "you need to be happy" can work out to blaming the victim. You weren't happy, so you died.
Green: Right, particularly, "You're dying, that must be because you weren't happy six months ago, when you 'had a chance'," which totally fails to understand the actual mechanics of disease in our bodies, and also it gives this "other-worldly" power to our brains which I have not seen an evidence of. Some studies show some slight benefit in positivity, but we're talking about such tiny margins.
What was important to me was to present a variety of responses, both secular and theological, to illness and to the particularly complicated problem of illness in children because it is, on some level, unnatural. Parents should never bury their kids, but childhood cancer has been with us as long as we have been a species. So how are we going to make sense of that? To some people, like you say, that battle metaphor is very useful. To some people, it isn't useful. To some people those AA phrases are.
I wanted Hazel and Augustus to be very different in the way that their belief system surrounding illness and its meaning.22 And also whether meaning in human life is constructed or intrinsic. Not so much to make judgments about "which of this is best" or "which of this is helpful," but just to say, "This is all part of the landscape of how we think about this stuff," and what holds up to scrutiny and what doesn't and what provides us with real comfort, because a lot of these things sound comforting but they actually don't provide much internal peace.
I worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital in 2000, and that somehow started the book for me. I'd read plenty of theology about the problem of evil. I had a pretty water-tight theology that allowed for all of the things that I saw in the hospital. I didn't see anything that intellectually contradicted the theology that had been built for me by these philosophers. It just didn't matter; it just wasn't comforting. It didn't help. It didn't make it OK; it didn't make it survivable for me. And the people who I admire the most, who work in children's hospitals for 20 or 30 years as social workers or chaplains or nurses or physicians or whatever, those people all have some kind of secular or religious worldview that allows them to go there, do the work and be OK. I admire the hell out of that. I just could never find it.
NUVO: How did you find that people manage to compartmentalize?
Green: I was 22, it was literally my first job. I graduated from college two or three weeks before. I remember I worked these 24 hour shifts, and so I'd been awake for, like, 32 hours. And I'd never seen anyone die. Not even an old person, let alone children. I remember getting in the car and listening to the Barenaked Ladies as I drove, which was the most disorienting experience, like, "How on earth can the Barenaked Ladies sing a jovial song in the face of this reality?" And then I turned off the radio, and I drove for like 20 miles, and then I turned on the radio again because I was ready to listen to it again. All the many years I was working on this story that I was trying to write, it was always set in a children's hospital and always featured this chaplain. And then, finally, it was when I took the chaplain out and made the story about the kids that it started to work.
NUVO: I think your first book has that element of having an intellectual interest in death without genuine experience of it.
Green: Yeah, that first book was about trying to puzzle through my own lingering frustration or trauma, because it was very hard. There was this kid who was really badly burnt, and it was just the worst possible story. The father was burning trash and saw that the fire was out of control, and he said to the kid, "Stay right here," and then he ran inside and called 911. He ran back and the kid was standing there in the fire - but the kid did what the father told him to do. It is totally unbearable to think about, from a father's perspective. So he comes into the hospital, and the mother is just so angry with the father.
He feels responsible and in some ways he is. He should've done differently. But everybody does something equivalent to that everyday and it always works out fine, except when it doesn't. He was there for, like, a week and then he went to a burn center closer to where he was from, and that was it. I never saw them again, never heard from them again.
That, in a lot of ways, is what Looking for Alaska was about. What do you do if you do something negligent? Pudge should have said, "Don't go."23 He should've said, "Go in the morning. Whatever it is, go sober." And he failed to understand her pain, he wrongly thought that she could take care of herself. And that book is, in a lot of ways, a direct response to that experience, which was so unprocessed.
But anyway, the punchline of this story is that 11 years later I Googled this kid. And then every week for years. I wanted to know if he survived and everything that happened to him. He turns 14, he gets a fucking Facebook. I go on his Facebook: He's fine. His parents are married. I see a picture of his parents, who I remember, whose memories are seared into my brain.
NUVO: How did you end up becoming a chaplain?
Green: I'd studied religion in college. Mostly, I studied early Islamic history, but I was Episcopalian. I thought I would become an Episcopalian priest and maybe have some kind of work and inter-religious dialogue with Muslims. That was my plan. I enrolled to the University of Chicago Divinity School, and then I didn't go.
NUVO: Because of that experience? You were at the hospital the summer before you were supposed to go?
Green: Yeah, it was during the six months before Fall. Then I moved to Chicago, and I still thought I might go. And then I got a temp job with Booklist.24
NUVO: And that's when you got on the conjoined twin beat.
Green: You'd be amazed how many books there are; at least a couple a year still roll in.
NUVO: It's such a metaphorically charged subject.
Green: Exactly! That's exactly what it is! Where does one person end and the other begin? But when you've read 15 of these conjoined twin novels ...
NUVO: I'm sure a lot of the same points are made.
Green: Right, it does get a little bit repetitive, particularly when it's a first novel out of an MFA program. I'm like, I know this story backwards and forwards, and, yes, we are all inter-connected.
22. Hazel's criticism of how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs seems to inadequately address those who can't climb up his pyramid toward "self-actualization" because of chronic illness is particularly sharp: "According to Maslow, I was stuck on the second level of the pyramid, unable to feel secure in my health and therefore unable to reach for love and respect and art and whatever else, which is, of course, utter horseshit: The urge to make art or contemplate philosophy does not go away when you are sick. Those urges just become transfigured by illness."
23. In Looking for Alaska, Pudge and his friend, the Colonel, allow their friend, Alaska, to drive away, alone, from their boarding school in the middle of the night after a night of drinking, facilitating her escape by throwing firecrackers to distract the school's hyper-aware dean of students. She dies instantly in a car crash shortly after leaving the campus.
24. Green first became interested in YA literature during his time at Booklist, according to a 2011 talk at Butler University. He took over a deceased reviewer's carnival book beat, writing reviews of books about conjoined twins and little people.
NUVO: Let's talk about your charity work. There's a school named after you in Bangladesh?25
Green: It's being built, we'll see. Our community has built a couple of pond sand filters in Bangladesh, which are these water filters that last hopefully a very long time and provide clean water to villages that are often pretty far from the nearest clean water source. One of the big issues in development in that part of the world is that a huge amount of the labor, particularly of women, is spent in the two hours walking to the water and the two hours walking back from the water every single day. If you can turn those four hours into something that can be more directly economically productive, it could have a huge impact on these communities. We've done that, we've done some similar work in Haiti with water.org, and every year on YouTube we do this thing called the Project for Awesome, which is both a fundraiser and an event where thousands of YouTube creators make videos about charities instead of videos about cats or whatever.
NUVO: And aside from all that, there's the social benefit of nerds uniting.
Green: Yeah, I hope so. I hope there's some social benefit to them. We really want our community to be a space where people, instead of being made fun of for their excitement and their enthusiasm, are celebrated for it. Hopefully, it can be a place where not only is it cool to like stuff and cool to have intellectual engagement with the world, but where those passions and be furthered and deepened.
NUVO: I wonder how you fit in writing between all the other stuff you do.
Green: Traditionally, I write in the morning, and then I do other stuff in the afternoon.
NUVO: Do you write here?
Green: Yeah, I write on the desk [points to treadmill desk]. But I wrote most of The Fault in Our Stars at a Starbucks. And I spend a lot of time walking and trying to get the voice right or think of ideas or something.
NUVO: Unpack this quote for me? "As we say in my hometown, 'Don't forget to be awesome."26
Green: Yeah, I say that to imply that my hometown is the Internet. That phrase "Don't forget to be awesome" has been in our community since early 2008. It's kind of a motto, I guess. But no, my hometown is Indianapolis.
NUVO: How have you found it, compared to other cities where you've lived?
Green: I lived in New York and Chicago before that, but I grew up in a small suburban city, smaller than Indianapolis. But same type of life, a sprawling new American city. I love it here. I think the first couple of years I had a really hard time, but I don't know that had anything to do with Indianapolis, I think it had to do with a lot of other stuff. I think it's a very American city, which is a very good place to live if you're an American writer writing about America, as opposed to New York or Chicago, which are very different from where most Americans live and from where American life is really taking place, in my opinion anyway.
Indianapolis is a weird mix: It's an industrial town in a post-industrial America. But it's also a place that's experiencing a lot of growth in a lot of interesting ways. There's a great cultural and civic spirit here. All of our interests are a little bit odd, which I like. I like that we draw more people to our open wheel race than to our NASCAR race. I like our weird bookstores, our libraries. I think the museum is one of the best in the country. And I like that it's affordable, and it's a good place to raise my family, and the schools are good and the people are nice. I have no desire ever to live anywhere else.
NUVO: And now you're getting recognized by our home state.27
Green: Yeah, it's a big honor, and it's great to be recognized alongside writers I admire a lot. It's really cool; I'm very, very grateful.
NUVO: Awards and acclamation, do those matter to you?
Green: It matters a lot less to me than it used to, but that's easy to say. I remember I once said to my friend - the big award in our field is called the Printz Award - and I said the Printz Award is cool, but what really matters is the relationship with your readers. And she said, "That's easy to say for you because you've won the Printz Award twice."28
NUVO: Do you hate Harry Potter? I've talked to some store owners that lament his influence on the industry.
Green: Oh, they lament him and not Twilight? I think Harry Potter made my life possible and made my job possible. It became possible to publish the kind of books I publish for teenagers instead of doing it for adults because there's much more investment in young adult literature after Harry Potter.
25. Founded by Shawn Ahmed, a Canadian born to parents who emigrated to Canada from Bangladesh, The Uncultured Project seeks to harness the power of online communities to do good in the world, and, in particular, in Bangladesh. Ahmed, a prominent member of the Nerdfighter community, friend to the Green brothers and video blogger who attended this year's VidCon, has been coordinating the construction of a school in a Bangladesh village that, because it is being constructed using concrete, will also serve a tornado shelter for villagers. Ahmed noted in a recent post to his Tumblr page that his decision to name the school after Green was based, in part, on the support of the Green brothers (who helped him with the project's logistics), as well as a quote by John Green that he found inspirational: "There is no them, there are only facets of us."
26. The Green brothers typically sign off their blogs by saying "Don't forget to be awesome," often following the phrase with a gang sign modeled after the Vulcan salute. The phrase, initialized as DFTBA, is something of a shibboleth within the Nerdfighter community.
27. As the National Author Winner in the 2012 Indiana Author Awards, given in recognition of a "writer with Indiana ties, whose work is known and read throughout the country," Green was given a $10,000 cash prize and $2,500 was granted to the Indianapolis Public Library on his behalf.
Whereas Alaska's Miles Halter is endearingly unintellectual (missing references to great literature made by his more sophisticated friends), Colin Singleton, the narrator of An Abundance of Katherines, is altogether the child prodigy, inspired, according to Green, by Salinger's Glass family - and like the Glass kids, finding it more than a bit difficult to apply book learning to the real world. Singleton, who says he's dated 19 women named Katherine, sets out on a road trip with a buddy, with the goal of determining a theorem that will predict the success of any relationship. Katherines was shortlisted for the 2007 Michael L. Printz award.