Author Interview: John Green
John Green is the Michael L. Printz Award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. His new novel, Paper Towns, will be released in September, 2008.
John lived for several years in Chicago, where he worked for Booklist Magazine, a fantastic book review journal. While there, he reviewed hundreds of books of all varieties—from picture books about Confucius to romance novels about Confucius (really!). His reviewing specialties included the literary fiction, books about Islam, and books about conjoined twins. John has read 11 books about conjoined twins (there are, it is worth pointing out, more books about conjoined twins currently in print than there are actual conjoined twins currently alive. In this sense, conjoined twins are like serial killers). John's book criticism has also appeared in The New York Times Books Review.
John has also written for National Public Radio's “All Things Considered,” and for Chicago's public radio station, WBEZ. If you want to be inundated with jokes about John's ex-girlfriends, peruse the "On the Radio" archives. Katherines readers will be unsurprised to learn that John often writes about trivial intellectual pursuits for mental floss magazine.
BWI: Your current credits include three novels and works included in larger collections. Was it difficult to write a second book after your first was so successful? Does writing seem to provide the same challenges or thrills as you continue?
JG: Writing An Abundance of Katherines after the success of Looking for Alaska was a little bit hard—and writing Paper Towns after the nice reception of Katherines was a little hard, too (although, I mean, it ain't coal mining). I don't think it's getting any harder—or easier.
This is a flawed analogy, but it's a little like being in love. When one falls in love, one does not think of all the previous times it has happened. Falling in love is always happening for the first time—the terror and excitement and the wonder feel entirely new. So, too, with books—reading them and writing them. (God, that sounds pretentious. Maybe it's more like watching, or scoring, a goal in a soccer game. Goals are perpetually new in soccer. They are just uncommon enough to always feel like a miracle.)
BWI: Other interviews and blog comments lead readers to believe that you have folded some of your youthful experiences into your writing. Do you think that as you get further from your own school years you will find you need other ways to keep your finger on the pulse of what it means to be a teenage boy or girl today? How do you stay current with the rapidly changing world of teen pop culture?
JG: Well, if I live long enough, I will surely be rendered irrelevant. But that is true of any job, you know?
My books have certainly been informed by personal experiences, but they have never been about them. My life as it has actually occurred isn't very interesting. And for better or worse, I've never known anything about teen pop culture—not even when I was a teen. (I also don't think this is particularly helpful; like, no one knows more about contemporary teenagers than contemporary teenagers, and yet teens almost never write good novels.)
I think the challenge is not to namedrop the right bands; the challenge is, as Emily Dickinson put it, to “tell all the truth / but tell it slant.” There's a reason teenagers still like Catcher in the Rye half a century after its publication (and still like Dickinson, too): What it means to be a human may change, but not very quickly.
BWI: Do you have any interest in writing for other age groups, or in other formats, such as graphic novels? Have you considered writing a book series?
JG: I really like my audience—both the teenagers in it and the adults in it. I find it very gratifying to work with teenagers, and to work with teen librarians. So I think I'll keep at it. Graphic novels and other formats do interest me, but it remains to be seen whether I'd be good at them.
BWI: You mention in your blog that you expect people will comment on Paper Towns' similarity to Looking for Alaska, but that it is instead “…a kind of response to what I see as the insufficiencies inherent to telling that story.' Could you go into more detail about Paper Towns as a response to Looking for Alaska?
JG: It's hard to get into it deeply without hurling spoilers everywhere. But in order for Alaska to have the kind of arc it did, the spell of the mysterious—beloved had to remain a bit unbroken. (We all know this spell—the way Bella imagines Edward or Harry imagines Ginny or Gatsby imagines Daisy. The way we see the people we love as inherently More than other people.) In Paper Towns, I wanted—among other things—to write an honest and engaging and hopeful story in which that spell is well and truly broken.
BWI: Both Quentin and Ben discover that the girls they adore, Margo and Lacey, respectively, aren't nearly as perfect as they seemed from afar. However, both Margo and Lacy realize Quentin and Ben come closer to perfection than they ever realized. What does Paper Towns say about the way our opinions change after we get to know people?
JG: I'm very interested in the power of the imagination, and also in the limits of that power. When I first started thinking about the character of Margo and the ways she would be misimagined by those around her, I reread Walt Whitman's poem “Song of Myself.” That poem sunk its way deep into the eventual book, because I think it grapples brilliantly with the question of what imagination can accomplish. It is such an American question: Can we make ourselves up? To what extent are we defined by the way others make us up, and to what extent do we each have some essential self that cannot be shed? All of the characters in Paper Towns are struggling with those questions, and I wanted all of them to be both perpetrators and victims in the process of misimagining. And I think as they begin to empathize more deeply with one another, they all must reimagine themselves and the others.
BWI: There are some interesting parallels between Margo Roth Speigelman and Alaska Young—both are beautiful, larger-than-life enigmas, beloved by normal boys who sought to truly find them after they disappeared. What is different about Margo and Alaska?
JG: I think most of their similarities are pretty superficial&mdashthey;'re both idolized by the people who love them. This is a pretty universal phenomenon in high school—whomever you love, boy or girl, you inevitably render larger-than-life. As people, though, they are nearly opposites: Alaska desperately needs to be admired; Margo is almost completely disinterested in that. Margo is in with the cool kids; Alaska isn't. Alaska is consumed by her self-loathing; Margo's loathing is mostly directed outward. Alaska is clearly bent on destroying herself. Margo isn't, which is part of what I hope will be most interesting about her.
BWI: Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns have featured male protagonists who aren't exactly known for their good looks and popularity. While this is probably true for most males, they don't often vie—or end up with—the prettiest and most popular girls in school. Why do you think teens relate to their experiences so well?
JG: Well, there's no question that social castes in American high schools are both rigid and oppressive—but even so, teenagers understand that physical attractiveness and likeability are not immutable concepts. Unlike the speed of light, hotness is variant. (Lindsey Lee Wells in Katherines, for instance, is well-liked but everyone acknowledges that she is not traditionally pretty. Her suitor Colin, on the other hand, is good looking, but often very annoying.) So I think that's why teens can relate to it—they see these weird (and somewhat arbitrary) power dynamics happen in peer relationships—romantic and otherwise—every day.
BWI: In Let It Snow, the three stories and characters intertwine to both stand alone and to make a whole. How were you able to link your story with those of Lauren Myracle and Maureen Johnson?
JG: Well, we talked about them quite a lot before we wrote them, and then revised extensively so that they would intertwine. Lauren and Maureen and I were friends before we started Let It Snow; that made the collaborative aspects of the work very fun and rewarding.
BWI: Which of your writing has produced a favorite character? Why is this character the favorite?
JG: One should never trust a writer's judgment about his work (Mark Twain, after all, ranked Joan of Arc over Huck Finn). But for what little it's worth, I suppose my favorite character is Radar from Paper Towns.
BWI: In An Abundance of Katherines your use of anagrams is prominent; in Paper Towns the little-known definition of a paper town snags the reader. Are there other devices like these that you have considered using to build a story? Are you writing another story now?
JG: Oh, there are hundreds of things, sure. But it is hard to find things that fit well with the plot and have a symbolic resonance. It's not like I was sitting around with knowledge about arcane cartographic phenomena and waiting for an opportunity to use it. It's more like I realized that arcane cartographic phenomena might be able to say what I wanted to say better than anything else I could find.
As for my current work: right now I'm working a lot on the screenplay for Paper Towns, which I just got hired to write. But I'm also writing a new story. It's always hard to talk about just-started projects, but the new story is, like, a sequel to a nonexistent novel.
BWI: As we become a more digitized society as demonstrated not only by your blogs but also by Radar's Omnictionary addiction, how do you feel about copyright laws and their impact on intellectual freedom?
JG: Great question. I think copyright laws in the United States are profoundly stupid. Things need to revert to the public domain much sooner than they currently do (the laws have only changed to protect the copyrighted characters of huge corporations, but it has had a chilling effect on discourse in the printed world as well). Also, the definition of fair use needs to be dramatically expanded. To be honest, I think copyright is already dead. The generation coming-of-age now understands what the Disney corporation never will: What belongs to me becomes more interesting, and more awesome, once it also belongs to you.
BWI: Are there any other aspects about your novels or writing that you'd like to share with our librarian readers?
JG: Just thanks. It is cold comfort to hear thank you when you labor in America's most underpaid profession, but still: On behalf of all those slouching and petulant teenagers who would never deign to tell you how profoundly you are changing their lives, thank you.
BWI: Thank you so much for talking to BWI about these great reads.
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