A Q&A with John Green
Back in July, Penguin/Plume essayist George Watsky interviewed fellow Penguin Teen author John Green about his work. This weekend John co-hosts Nerdcon: Nerdfighteria, a celebration of all things nerdy, creative, educational, fun, and weird in Boston, at which George will also be appearing. Click here for tickets and more!
George: So I’m just going to ask you some general questions, first about your career and then the writing process, mainly directed to those of you out there who might be writers and curious about how to get started. My first question is when did you start to write? When did you know that writing was something that you wanted to make into more than a hobby?
John: I always loved stories from the time I was really little. Even before I had access to words I loved my mother telling me stories. And I started writing my own little books when I was in third or fourth grade, and I always said when I grow up I want to be a writer and all that stuff. But then when I got to high school I started to realize I wasn’t the best writer in my high school. There were fifty-two kids in my class and I wasn’t even the best of those fifty-two and it started to seem like an unrealistic career ambition. As it happens, one of the reasons I wasn’t the best writer in my class is because one of the other guys in my class is Daniel Alarcón, this incredibly successful Peruvian novelist, so that was just bad luck, although he’s a great friend. And then in college I studied writing, and I wanted to have a creative writing concentration but I actually didn’t get into the advanced fiction writing class at my college. There were twelve slots and fifteen applicants and I was in that bottom three. And after that I was very discouraged for quite a while. But I kept getting called back to stories. I loved reading. I loved books. I loved being with books. I loved writing about books. And so eventually I started, after college, I started trying to write the story that became Looking For Alaska.
George: And did you have a vision early on of the kind of writing you wanted to do and the kind of themes that you wanted to tackle, or is that something that developed naturally as you started writing more books?
John: That’s an interesting question. I mean, I think because my own experience as a teenager was so driven by the books I read, in many ways the books I read were closer to me than any people were in those years. I think I probably was always attracted to that kind of fiction. I didn’t think about it as writing for teenagers or about teenagers at the time. I just thought, I want to write the kind of books that I loved when I was in high school. Which for me were like, The Virgin Suicides. Sula by Toni Morrison. I was a huge fan of Their Eyes Were Watching God. I loved Michael Chabon’s first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and so I wanted to try to write books like that, which eventually turned into me writing books about and for teenagers.
George: How much does autobiographical material play into your work? How much of your life is in there? Obviously it’s fiction, but are there elements of your life that are in your works, and if so, has that changed over the course of the novels that you’ve written?
John: It’s funny, when I was reading your book it made me think about like, when I was your age I had a bunch of stories– they’re not as good as your stories, but I had a bunch of stories that I loved to tell people. And in a way my first novel Looking for Alaska was that book for me. It was about a boarding school in Alabama. And I went to a boarding school in Alabama. And the physical geography of the place is identical and in many cases some of the characters. I didn’t really even go to particularly large lengths to try to conceal who they were based on. The character at the middle of the novel, Alaska, really is really a composite of a bunch of young people I knew. Some of them women, some of them men. But yeah, my books have become much less autobiographical over the years. I think some of that is an urge toward having a private life. Especially after we started making YouTube videos. I want to use the conventions of fiction to obscure my own experiences a little bit. So in The Fault In Our Stars for instance, there is a novelist who is constantly having to tell readers that books belong to their readers, and “I can’t tell you what happened after the ambiguous ending of my novel,” and I’m sort of in that same situation. But I also made that guy an alcoholic living in Amsterdam, divorced, so he has a very different life than I have.
George: Is that like the second life that you see you potentially could have gone down?
John: It is. There is a little bit of, like, he is my dark self. The worst it could have gone for me looks a lot like Van Houten.
George: Do you think that voice was sort of representative of the Greek chorus? Were you sharing your opinion with the audience from a third person perspective?
John: Yeah, but I wanted to disguise the chorus enough and make him so unlikable that he wouldn’t seem to be this straightforward Greek chorus type character. But yeah, definitely, I mean, when you’re writing about fiction inside of fiction I think you need a guide there to sort of separate the levels of story, and for me he was that guide. He was able to sort the fiction from the metafiction.
George: About Looking for Alaska— for those of you who haven’t read the book, there’s an event that happens in the middle of it that’s very crucial to the structure, and the way the book is formatted, and the way a reader experiences the book emotionally– was that a structure that you went in knowing that you were going to write, or was that something that you discovered in the writing process?
John: I discovered it in the writing process. I started writing that book very un-chronologically, skipping back and forth in time, before and after, and so all the chapter titles would be like “83 days before,” “26 days after,” but it was all non-chronological. And then two things happened– 9/11 was the first one. Right after 9/11, people talked a lot about how you would see life in a “pre 9/11” world and a “post 9/11” world, and that’s true to an extent. There are all these historical events, [where] you can think about your life, and think “that happened before the Challenger explosion”–in my childhood–or after the Challenger explosion, and that’s really the way that we make time in general. When we construct time we always do this. We date in the Christian calendar from the birth of Jesus and the Muslim calendar from the Muslim community’s journey from Mecca to Medina, the Hijrah, so we always do this, we never pretend to know the beginning of time. We always construct time around the most important things. And so when my editor, Ilene Cooper was like, “this is a total mess, and I do not understand what is happening chronologically,” [that] coincided with me thinking that how for these kids, this would be the kind of event that they would see their lives in the context of– that they would see time in the context of. Those two things combined to give me the structure, so when I started writing the second draft, I started writing it chronologically knowing it was going to be the exact midpoint of the novel, narratively, and that became really helpful.
George: And when you stumbled across that as a device, did you have an “a-ha” moment where you felt like you’d unlocked a puzzle?
John: Yeah, it does. For me it feels like things clicking in together. Like I can almost hear the click click click click, and then there’s the “why didn’t I think of this during the last ten months of working on this every day? Why now? Why did I lose those ten months?” They aren’t lost really. They feel lost.
George: You can’t get there without having done that work beforehand.
John: Right. Right.
George: Have you ever had that moment after you finished a project? Something you wished that you had done?
John: I think especially after my books come out they become settled. I don’t want to change them. I don’t think it’s my right really to change them once they’re in the hands of readers. Their weaknesses are their weaknesses and their strengths are their strengths, but there are a few things… In The Fault in Our Stars the guys who wrote the movie had this really good, easy, simple, straightforward solution to a problem at the end of the book that I made very complex for no reason. And it gave the book no new life or any kind of thickness. It was just complex because I couldn’t think of a simple solution, and when I read their screenplay I was just like [anguished moan].
George: That’s a really rare scenario where a screenwriter solves a problem for a writer instead of doing something that mangles their work.
John: [laughs] Yeah, I got very lucky in that respect.
George: Did you have moments where you were doing any of your adaptations where screenwriters made choices that you felt like didn’t honor the spirit of the book or what you were trying to accomplish?
John: In the first drafts, yes. I mean, not where I felt betrayed or anything. I should say this is true for The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns. Looking For Alaska has been in development for eleven years. There have been dozens of scripts that have been varying levels of profoundly offensive to me. But with Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars, the books that actually were adapted, I never felt like the vision of the books were being betrayed. I sometimes felt like compromises or sacrifices were being made to movie narrative that weren’t necessary, and so that’s was the type of stuff I would push back against. But I got really lucky on both those movies. And I know that it’s not always that easy, and I know a lot of authors with horror stories, but I was treated with total respect by everybody on the team, and I was always included in those conversations.
George: Well that’s awesome. One question I think people might be curious about as they’re starting their work as a writer and feeling very daunted by the fact that you have this work, but how do you get it out to people? It’s so competitive these days. What was your process of finding your first publisher? How did your work get discovered? Was there one moment where your draft came off the slush pile?
John: I mean, the first thing I say, is I worked at the time at a magazine at the time called Booklist. Has Booklist reviewed How to Ruin Everything yet?
George: No. What’s up with that?
John: I’ll get on it. So I worked at this magazine Booklist, and every two weeks Booklist reviews four hundred books. And you work there for a while and you see these four hundred books come in every two weeks and go out every two weeks. And you start to think, “a lot of people are writing books.” I used to think that writing books was like being an astronaut, or being an NFL player. Like, it’s not job that you get, it’s a lottery that you win. But in fact there are lots and lots and lots of people who write books. And not everyone makes a living doing it, but there are all kinds of interesting ways to make a living too. So that was the first thing. Was just getting encouraged that it suddenly seemed possible. And then I spent a long time with my mentor and editor at Booklist, Ilene Cooper, writing and re-writing drafts of Looking for Alaska. It was three years of that. Just writing and re-writing and re-writing. And she did know someone at Dutton that she thought would be interested in the book. But she really wanted the manuscript to be something that she felt like she could say “I like this,” but also that she thought that the publisher would. Sent it to the publisher. It sat for a long time. It sat for six months. I guess there were a lot of conversations internally about the various strengths and weaknesses of it. And then one day I got a call, and yeah. I remember that night going out to a sushi dinner with my girlfriend at the time, and spending 3% of my book advance on that dinner. But it was a pretty magical night.
George: So I guess one of the pieces of advice out of that is if you put yourself in the book world, you start meeting people that might…
John: Yeah, I do think it helps. I’d love to live in a world where networking didn’t matter, but it does. And having relationships is definitely useful. And then I think it’s also really important to have a writing group or a mentor or someone who is willing to shepherd you through the process. Maybe it’s an agent–maybe you get an agent from writing a partial manuscript. But you need somebody who can help you. Because at least in my case, the version of Looking for Alaska that I finished, which I was very proud of, had moments of possibility. But it was not a publishable book. It was not a book that people were going to like. And I needed a lot of mentoring to get there.
George: Right on. Do you have a sense or a blueprint for what you want to do with the rest of your career?
John: I want to have a long career. The writers I look to have had long careers. I don’t want to be J.D. Salinger when I grow up.
George: I think you’re already a couple books past J.D. Salinger.
John: Yeah, I think I got him beat. But I want to keep going. I want to be one of those writers that writes dozens of books and people are like, half of them are bad. I like the idea of having a long career rather than, you know, a career with a big spiky trajectory. So that’s my hope. And then as far as what I’m going to write, it’s hard to know. It’s been a long and sometimes a very hard four and a half years trying to finish another story. And it may be that that that’s what it’s like from now on. That it takes five years a book. Or six years a book. However long it’s going to take. But I love writing. I love being inside a story. For me there’s nothing that feels better. So I hope to be able to keep at it for the rest of my life.
George: I think sometimes people look at towering literary figures and they assume that they just bounced from one success to the next, don’t realize that some of their books flopped or were poorly reviewed. And I was just thinking the other day about Kurt Vonnegut. He didn’t really get any success until Slaughterhouse Five. He was working at a car dealership and had a lot of books before and after that were panned by people but we remember the successes, and no writer just hits one homerun after another.
John: Yeah, and I actually kind of like some of Kurt Vonnegut’s less well-reviewed books. I mean I think they’re not masterpieces like Slaughterhouse Five, but they’re interesting reads, and you can see a writer at work trying to get there. And I think there’s some value in that too. I don’t want to just read masterpieces for the rest of my life. I like reading books that have big flaws because they’ve got big ambitions. Yeah, so I agree. I think there’s something beautiful about having a life in the arts. Having a life in letters. I think it’s a really fulfilling way to have a life, at least for me. So that’s my goal to be honest.
George: Last question. To anybody out there who is a writer or an aspiring writer is there one piece of advice that’s served you best that you would give to someone else?
John: I complained to my dad once that I had writer’s block and I didn’t feel like writing. And my dad said “coal miners don’t get to get coal miner’s block.” I still get writer’s block. I don’t know if that advice really helps, but I always think about it. You have to show up. You have to have discipline and you have to keep going. And the other thing I’d say is you have to read a lot. Reading is the only apprenticeship we have. We’ve got this incredible record of how people have used words on a page to create experiences and feelings inside of other people’s minds for centuries. We have this wonderful record of how it’s been done. And through reading we can steal– we can learn and we can find those tricks that allow us to escape the prison of our own consciousness and be able to really live inside of someone else’s mind. And that to me is what makes reading so cool.