John Green and the Paper Towns of the Imagination: Nerds Unite!

Best-selling author John Green was greeted with cheers and screams and a standing ovation at his event in the RDS earlier this spring. The mostly teenage audience was on its feet, waving banners and shouting declarations of love. Bemused parents would have been forgiven for thinking they were at a rock concert such was the noise level at the literary event that attracted a thousand book lovers. The American author was in Dublin to talk about his latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars. It debuted at number one on the New York Times bestsellers’ list and was named Best Fiction Book of 2012 by Time magazine, ahead of Zadie Smith’s NW and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The Fault in Our Stars, his fourth novel, has captured the hearts of teenagers and adults worldwide, confirming what we loyal Green fans already knew: that he is one of the most talented writers on the planet.

The Fault in Our Stars is about two teenagers who fall in love, and who also happen to have cancer. Strikingly realistic and beautiful without being sentimental, it is as close to perfection as fiction gets. The novel is narrated by Hazel, a witty 16-year-old who is forced to attend a cringeworthy support group for teens with cancer. It’s there that she meets 17-year-old Gus, a handsome former basketball star with a love for video games and their trashy novelizations. Green’s debut novel, Looking for Alaska which won the Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature, and his subsequent novel, Paper Towns, focused on mysterious girls and the male protagonists’ perception of them; The Fault in Our Stars is his first attempt at writing from the female perspective.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask John some questions after his Dublin event. Impressed by the authenticity of Hazel’s voice, the first thing I wanted to know was if he found it difficult to write from her point of view. ‘I found it very intimidating to think about writing from the perspective of a young woman who is terminally ill,’ he said. ‘On many levels, that isn’t my story, and I didn’t want to appropriate anyone else’s story. And when I thought about it in the abstract, I was very scared indeed. But when I finally started writing, I didn’t feel like I was writing from a teen girl’s perspective; I felt like I was writing from Hazel’s perspective specifically.’ When I asked if he’d thought about writing the novel from the perspective of Gus, Green admitted to considering it: ‘I did think of writing The Fault in Our Stars from the perspective of the male character, but in the end, Hazel felt to me like the character I empathised with the most.’

At the event, John was joined by his brother, Hank, who provided musical interludes throughout the evening. The teens I sat beside knew all the words to his song ‘Accio Deathly Hallows’ – a tune detailing Hank’s agonizing wait for the seventh Harry Potter book. In addition to their day jobs, the brothers have a popular YouTube channel called VlogBrothers, a project they started as a means of keeping in touch with each other through the medium of video. Their online army of fans are known as Nerdfighters, who bond over their enthusiasm for all things intellectual. The brothers have a very public relationship, and yet I noticed that the protagonists in John’s novels are all only children. ‘I just don’t find sibling relationships that interesting. I like to write about people in new relationships, I think, because the most interesting thing to me about teenagers is that they’re doing so much for the first time. They’re falling in love and experiencing grief and asking the big questions of our species, and they often ask these questions of new friends. Also it’s a way of annoying my brother.’

As well as talking about his novels on the VlogBrothers channel, John has also answered many readers’ questions on his website and via his Twitter account where he has over a million followers. I had previously heard him describe Paper Towns as ‘a novel about imagining other people complexly’, and so I was interested to know if he was able to similarly condense his latest book. ‘The Fault in Our Stars is about a lot of things, but I guess most of all it’s about 1) the power of made-up stories to transform our lives, and 2) the richness and goodness and wonder that can be found even in short lives.’

The impact of a made-up story on Hazel’s life is explored through her obsession with the fictitious novel, An Imperial Affliction. She is determined to track down its reclusive author, Peter Van Houten, in order to find out what happened to the book’s characters after the final page. Hazel’s perception of the author and the reality of his situation differ. Although the author is clearly in contrast to John, I wondered if he feared that Nerdfighters might expect too much of him as a person, and if that fear led to him portraying Peter Van Houten the way he did. ‘I suppose the character of Peter Van Houten is in some ways things I fear becoming. I fear disappointing my readers; I fear losing touch with the extraordinary gift that readers give me when they read something I’ve written with thoughtfulness and generosity; I fear that I can never be the person they expect me to be. I do worry that fans will inevitably think of me as being better or more interesting or wiser than I actually am. But we always struggle to imagine other people. It’s one of the great challenges of being a person.’

Indeed, imagining other people complexly seems to be a recurring theme throughout his work. John’s novels ask philosophical questions, but can also be appreciated solely for their beautiful use of language. They’re full of quotable lines, some of which are becoming particularly popular with his readers either printing them on posters or even tattooing them on their skin. When I gushed about my adoration for the line: ‘I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once,’ John explained its origins: ‘It’s inspired by something Hemingway said about bankruptcy, that you go broke in two ways¬¬- slowly, then suddenly. That line always stuck with me because for me it’s also how I experience emotional processes like falling in love.’ I asked if he’s ever surprised by the sentences that people identify most with. ‘I am often surprised by the lines that people identify with or quote, but I was happy with that particular line and remember writing it.’

I noticed echoes of J.D. Salinger, David Foster Wallace and F.Scott Fitzgerald in his work – the epigraph of The Fault in Our Stars immediately reminded me of the tone and ending of The Great Gatsby. I wondered if it was John’s intention to inspire his teenage audience to read these authors, if they had not already done so. ‘I hope it’s not necessary to have read Salinger or Dickinson or Fitzgerald or whomever to enjoy my books, but one of the things I love about reading is that the experience becomes richer as you do more of it. As your frame of reference changes, your reading of a story changes, and that’s a great encouragement to keep reading. If I can inspire teens to read great books, then I’m very grateful.’ Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is also mentioned in The Fault in Our Stars, and John regularly speaks about his admiration for Joyce. I enquired whether there were any contemporary Irish writers who had influenced his writing or whom he particularly admired. ‘I love Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney and Flann O’Brien. I also love Yeats of course, and Synge and Elizabeth Bowen. I’m a huge fan of Irish literature.’

One of the great things about John’s books is that on repeated rereadings, you notice references that you missed before. I first came across Looking for Alaska years ago, when my editor told me that if I was writing teenage fiction, I simply had to read it.  Every time I revisit his first novel, I appreciate it even more. With The Fault in Our Stars film adaptation due to go into production soon, John’s own star is set to rise even further. When I discovered his work, he was a talented author with a cult following. Now he is arguably the king of Young Adult literature. I joined the signing queue after the event, where some teens were close to tears at the prospect of getting to talk to John. I could see why that level of hysteria might have prompted him to worry about fans’ perceptions of him and potential fascination with him, but with John the adoration is deserved. Taking the time to thank everyone, he seemed genuinely delighted to be there. It was heart-warming to see so many teenagers excited to meet an author.

As a writer, the final question I wanted to ask was if John’s work required much rewriting. His prose is so polished, I was curious about the details of his writing process. ‘Most of my work is rewriting. After I finish each first draft, I delete the vast majority of it, because for me first drafts are mostly a way of outlining and attempting to understand the story. So I write many drafts and devote most of my writing time to some kind of rewriting. But in a way, all writing is rewriting, because you are always trying to take ideas inside your head and give them form using text.’