Thursday, November 20, 2008

John Green - the WBBT Interview

Today, I am nearly giddy with excitement. I've long been a fan of John Green's writing. For those who might not know, John won the Printz Award for his debut novel, Looking for Alaska, and followed it up with a Printz honor for An Abundance of Katherines. Based on reading his books, reading (and watching) his blog, and meeting him in LA where I heard him speak at the 2007 SCBWI Conference, I developed an author crush on John, who writes witty, well-crafted, downright smart stories about witty, flawed, downright smart protagonists, and who approaches his craft in a serious, thoughtful way. The kids he writes about are, in many respects, the kind of kid I was in high school: not completely unpopular, not part of the "in" crowd, smart, slightly nerdy. Kids who have a decent family, but who have issues with their peers. Kids with a few close friends; who do okay – even well – in school; kids who like to read, and who aren't afraid to discuss real issues. Back then there wasn't a word for that, but today, thanks to John and his brother Hank, there is: Nerdfighter. (A wee bit down on the left is a photo that M took of John reading from Paper Towns during the Tour de Nerdfighting.)

The term "nerdfighter" came up early in 2007 as part of Brotherhood2.0, a joint project of John's and Hank's based on their agreement to live an entire year without textual communication. And on February 15th of 2007, John posted a hilarious video in which he came up with the Nerdfighters' theme song, which (in the words of the helpful Colleen Cook) "frakkin' rocks!" In July of 2007, B2.0 went viral with Hank's vlog post containing his original song, "Accio Deathly Hallows." The rest, as they say, is history, and a community of Nerdfighters more than 15,000 strong is now in existence. With a committed fan base that size, it's no wonder that John's most recent novel, Paper Towns opened on the New York Times Bestseller List. You can watch a short video of John explaining what his newest book is about at the Penguin website.

In addition to his novels, John has published a number of short stories, and he continues to write book reviews, including his recent joint review of the novels The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins in The New York Times. Without further ado, the interview:

1. Reading through some of your very own blog posts, including “Nine Girls I’ve Kissed and What I Learned About Them from Google”, which was your first piece featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” would you say that those early writings (blog posts, NPR and book reviews for Booklist) helped you develop your writing voice? Did reviewing books help you develop your writing?

I don’t know if they helped develop my voice, but all that writing certainly helped me tremendously, because it was being edited by exceptionally good editors. At Booklist I was working with Stephanie Zvirin and Ilene Cooper (who guided me through many rewrites of Alaska), and at WBEZ I was working with Cate Cahan. All three are brilliant editors who helped me to better understand how to write for an audience. It was also hugely helpful to read, as I did, hundreds of books as a reviewer—reading is the only apprenticeship that writers have, after all.

That said, I’m hesitant to look back upon that writing and see it as, like, practice for writing a novel. I worry that to imagine it in that way implies that writing reviews or radio pieces is practice for something else. Both formats are plenty interesting and fulfilling on their own, and I didn’t really think of them as a dry run for writing book-length prose.

2. Rather than talk about Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines, both of which won impressive awards, I thought we’d talk a bit about your short stories and then your most recent novel, Paper Towns.

Last year, you had a story in 21 Proms, a collection of short stories about prom (duh) edited by David Levithan and Daniel Ehrenhaft. I can’t decide whether “Every prom date has a story” is a subtitle or a tag line, but in either event, your story, “Queen of the Morp”, doesn’t quite fit that phrase, as the main character is a girl who not only refuses to attend the prom, but throws what proves to be an incredibly successful anti-prom party on the same night as the school event. A two-part question about “Queen of the Morp.” First, what’s your position on prom: are you pro- or anti-? Second, did you consider it an extra challenge to write the story from a female point of view, or was that fairly simple for you? Oh, and third (yeah, good counting, Kelly) – the phrase “jill off” cracked me the hell up, but it was one I haven’t heard before or since. Where did you come up with it?

When David and Dan asked me to participate in that anthology, I was really excited because I admire them both a great deal, and also because the proceeds from the anthology all benefit Advocates for Youth, a charity my mom has worked closely with for years. Also, it did seem like a good opportunity to write from a girl’s point of view, which I had been wanting to try. Honestly, the voice came as easily as any of the others (which is not to say that I pulled it off; that’s more for the reader to decide), and I had a lot of fun working on that story.

I am personally anti-Prom, but that’s a distinctly adult stance. As a teenager, I’m sure I would have wanted to go (my school did not have a Prom, but we did have an analogous banquet, which I attended). I definitely was not the first person to use the phrase “jill off,” but I might have thought it up independently. I really can’t remember whether it came from inside or outside (the membrane between the two is pretty porous).

3. In the collection Twice Told: Original Stories Inspired by Original Art (drawings by Scott Hunt), you have a story entitled “The Approximate Cost of Loving Caroline”, narrated in first person by a guy who is multi-racial: his mother is black and his father is Indian: "Convenience-store Indian, not Geronimo Indian." His girlfriend, Caroline, is Asian, and a jazz fan who loves John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. Writing characters of other ethnic backgrounds seems to come naturally to you (I’m thinking of Hassan from Katherines and J.P. from Let it Snow, but there are others), and must be something you view as important, based on the percentage of significant characters in your work who are not white. Why is that?

Well, the primary reason it’s important to me is that a large percentage of teenagers living in contemporary America are not white. I don’t think of it as any particular statement about diversity, except insofar as I want to reflect the world as it is.

Also, all of my books are in one way or another concerned with how we (mis)understand the people around us, and how we grapple with the problem of imagining the other more complexly even though we can never fully understand anyone else’s inner existence. I like to have the characters in my novels confront this problem in lots of different ways, and I guess one of them—and obviously one of the central ways we’ve dehumanized the other in world history—is ethnicity. This is why Radar’s parents [in Paper Towns] collect Black Santas, for instance. They are trying to get us to imagine Santa more complexly.

4. Your story, “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle”, in this fall’s release, Let it Snow: Three Holiday Romances, was written as part of what I might call an intertwined trilogy of stories. The book opens with “The Jubilee Express” by your secret sister, Maureen Johnson, and concludes with Lauren Myracle’s “The Patron Saint of Pigs.” While each of the stories can be read independently of the others, there is a decided time-arc to the book that makes the arrangement of the stories obvious, even though some of the characters appear in more than one story (and, in fact, nearly all of the characters we actually meet along the way end up “on-stage” at the end of Lauren’s story (and, therefore, at the end of the book)).

How much communal pre-planning went into the book? Or did Maureen kick things off with her story, and you simply grabbed the bits you wanted from her story to write yours? Were there particular challenges thrown down among the group, as, for example, the references to flying pigs that I found in both your and Lauren’s stories? (I’ll have to go back and re-read Maureen’s story, but I have a niggling hunch that there was a flying pig reference there as well.)


We had a few discussions before we started writing, but most of the intertwining was done when the three of us revised our stories together. That process lasted a couple months—going back and forth about ways to braid the stories together while still making them stand-alones. I really enjoyed writing with Lauren and Maureen; they are both so clever and so good at creating characters I care about that it was really a privilege to be able to include their characters in my story.

5. Did you read a lot of romances in order to get the requirements of the genre down? If so, care to share a few titles?

I’ve read a lot of romances over the years (I even reviewed a few historical romances when I worked at Booklist), but I didn’t read any while I was working on the story in Let It Snow. I’m not very good at writing plots (and on some level I’m probably not adequately interested in them, but I’m trying harder), so I’m not sure I really did get the conventions of the genre right. [KRF: Having read the book, I'd have to say that John nailed it, but in an odd way: he writes his story from the perspective of the male love interest, and it decidedly relates a typical romance from that somewhat altered p.o.v. Were it told from the Duke's perspective (who is a girl, trust me), it would be told slightly differently, of course, but it would totally fit the standard romance formula.]

6. In this story, as in all three of your novels and in the other short stories I’ve tracked down, all your characters come from two-parent, functional, caring (if sometimes misguided) families, although there appears to be a paucity of siblings when it comes to your main characters. Is that a conscious choice in order to avoid opening another relationship “front” in the story, or just the way it’s worked out so far? Not that any fictional sibling could possibly reach the level of awesome or nuttiness of your real-life sib, Hank Green, ecologist, musician, web designer, internet sensation and all-around Renaissance man, but will we be seeing any siblings in any in-the-works future projects?

I like writing about peer relationships. Obviously, there is great richness in stories about families for teenagers (both functional and dysfunctional), but so far at least, my interest has been primarily in peer relationships. I’m always a little dubious about connecting my real life to my books, but it is true that I had (and have!) a good, high-functioning, loving family. It’s like Tolstoy said, right? "All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." We were pretty happy, and maybe a good family is like a good font: It kind of disappears. So it’s possible that’s the reason, but it’s also possible that my books focus on peer relationships because the YA books I admire the most (from Catcher in the Rye to The Virgin Suicides to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks) also focus on peer relationships, and I’m just trying to rip them off.

7. I’d like to talk about poetry for a minute. As a poet, I first have to commend you for the generous use of poetry in your work. "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle" includes a wonderful homage to William Carlos Williams’s famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, in which the Duke rhapsodizes about hash browns: "So much depends upon the golden hash browns, glazed with oil, beside the scrambled eggs."

Throughout Paper Towns are references to Walt Whitman’s poem, "Song of Myself", which serve not only as literal clues for Quentin, but as subtext for Q’s experience as well. (Something I highlighted when blogged about this book over at Guys Lit Wire.) Based on some of last year’s vlogs for B2.0, I know Whitman’s one of your favorite poets. What others do you read on a return basis?


I love poetry, even though I have no talent whatsoever for writing it. (My musical tone deafness extends to meter, I think.) I like all the usual suspects: Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot and Yeats and Cummings and W. C. Williams and etc. I also read a lot of poetry from the Islamic world, and I read a lot of contemporary American poets. I am obsessed with a book by Katrina Vandenberg (who happens to be a nerdfighter) called Atlas, which I reread at least once a year.

8. Paper Towns. In some ways, this might be the alt-reality story of Looking for Alaska. Although it diverges from Alaska in many significant ways, both feature a male protagonist with a crush on a girl who is trying to find out what’s become of that girl (talk about your oversimplifications), and at least one theme is the same: people aren’t always who we think they are or, maybe, our conceptions of other people are projections, not really that other person at all. Gosh, I suck at stating themes. But I think I might be close, at least. Is that sort of question (i.e., about the nature of "the other") something that exists as a macro question for you at the start of the book, or something that shows itself during the writing?

The questions definitely exist in a macro way when I begin the book, yeah. But hopefully while writing (and most importantly, while revising), I’ll find enough focus and clarity to explore the questions with the nuance they deserve. So when I started writing Paper Towns, I thought it would only be about the treacherous lie of the manic pixie dream girl.* It is about that (at least I hope it is), but it is more broadly about the relationship between the world we draw and the world that is—when it comes to manic pixie dream girls and also when it comes to Santa and cartography and nerds and user-created encyclopedias and the dead and many other things. So hopefully the story becomes more interesting (and more true) in the writing.

* [KRF: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term coined by Nathan Rabin at The Onion in a review of the movie Elizabethtown, and he initially defined it as follows: "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition." You can read John's blog post "On the Destruction of Manic Pixie Dream Girls for a more in-depth analysis of this point.]

9. As a result of watching B2.0 from its inception (and having been a Nerdfighter long before there was a label for it), I know you did a lot of research for this book, including urban exploring (with M.T. Anderson, who is probably the inspiration for at least the name of your main character in "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle") and visiting Florida subdivisions. Did you actually a) break into Sea World at night or b) wreck a minivan to be sure a hole could be gashed into the side in order to achieve verisimilitas?

I didn’t wreck a minivan, and I did not break into Sea World. I don’t think I’ll say anything more about the research I did do until the statute of limitations is up.

10. The initial hardcover release of Paper Towns came out with two different covers. Do you have a favorite cover of the two? Did you have a say in the cover?

I don’t have a favorite. I think they’re both misrepresentations of Margo. They’re both ways that she is wrongly or at least incompletely imagined by the characters in the book. (The cover could have just as easily been two photographs of Q, but of course then it wouldn’t have been as commercial.) I do have a seat at the table when it comes to cover design, and I’m very fortunate to be able to work closely with Christian Fuenfhausen, a designer I respect tremendously.

11. Nerdfighters the world over worked hard to buy copies of Paper Towns when (hell, before) it was released, and they’ve been flocking to see you (and Hank, when available) at your in-person appearances for the book tour supporting the title. What’s it feel like to be a New York Times best-selling author on a multi-state book tour who has, um, extraordinarily enthusiastic fans?

It has been wonderful to meet so many young people who are so smart and so engaged. And it has been so rewarding to talk about my books with teenagers who read with such thoughtfulness and depth. (Sample question from a nerdfighter gathering, asked by a sixteen-year-old: “Can you talk about why Quentin’s vessel survives the land whale when Ahab’s vessel doesn’t survive the sea whale?”) Plus, it has been great to spend so much time with Hank and his wife Katherine, both of whom I adore.

12. What’s next?

More books! I just want to keep doing this as long as they’ll let me.

Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate?
Chocolate.

Coffee or tea? Coffee, although I’m not much on hot drinks.

Cats or dogs? Dogs! (I have a puppy named Willy.) [KRF: For whom Hank wrote "Willy's Song", with the help of a number of nerdfighters.]

Favorite color? Green, natch.

Favorite snack food? Reduced Fat Cheez Its. (Their Motto: “Still Pretty High in Fat, Actually.”)

Favorite ice cream? Something peanutbutterchoclatey

Water or soda? I prefer diet soda, but probably drink more water..

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? The Mountain Goats’ new album.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Probably Juno. (And no, I’m not just saying that because the producers of that movie have optioned Paper Towns.)

The remainder of today's tour stops are:
Martin Millar at Chasing Ray
Beth Kephart at Hip Writer Mama
Emily Ecton with Little Willow at Bildungsroman
John David Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Brandon Mull talks Fablehaven at The YA YA YAs
Lisa Papademetriou at Mother Reader

4 comments:

Libby said...

what a fabulous interview! You asked great questions, and Green is one of the most articulate and thoughtful-about-his-own work writers I've come across lately. What a complete and utter pleasure to read this.

Kelly Fineman said...

John Green is all you say (and possibly more). Thank you for your kind words.

Beth Kephart said...

I thought I'd left a comment here (I was just re-reading the great interview). But maybe I just dreamed I did. A little late, yes. But: I loved this interview, and shared it with friends.

Kelly Fineman said...

Beth - I think you commented at my LiveJournal blog, which is my primary blog, although I do post here as well on occasion.