In an exclusive interview with TOI Books, John Green discusses his books, his writing tips for aspiring authors and his upcoming projects. Excerpts:
1. When you write, do you write with a purpose or do you just write a story that came to you and then edit it to have meaning?
When I’m writing I do try to start out with a question that I want to explore in my book. But then it takes a few years to write a book and in the course of those years I discover new questions or the original question gets answered more quickly than I thought it would. So I think it’s a little bit of both. I do try to have an idea in my mind when I begin of what I want the book to be, but I also know that over the course of many years a lot of those ideas are going to change.
2. You have been accused of GreenLit or a formula, but are the similarities intentional or just your way of viewing the world reflected in your writing?
Well, I think this book does not have that formula! It’s very different obviously. I think there are a few things here, one is that my most popular books are more similar to each other than my least popular books.
I think, especially when I was younger, I would get interested in the same questions then try approaching them from different perspectives. In my first three books I was really interested in the way that, in the culture I was observing– young men often put women on a pedestal, romanticised them, thought that was doing them a favour or that this was somehow a beautiful and wonderful thing to do. And I wanted to write about the ways that that troubles me. We have to see people as people even when they’re people we admire or care about. Infact if we really care about someone, romanticising them is the wrong response! The right response is to treat them like a person.
So I think I kept coming back to that theme in my first couple of books. Then in the books after them, I was interested in different themes but if people see things in my book that are similar. I understand why; I wrote all of them! I am limited by my own experience and by my own ways of looking at the world- that’s the reality of writing fiction for me.
3. Why does someone always have to die in your books?
That’s the other thing! Only twice has someone died but they’re just my most popular books.
4. No! Even in ‘Turtles All The Way Down’, the father died!
Yeah, there’s a death there but nobody important.
5. He was the father!
One of the interesting things about writing about teenagers for me is a lot of times they’re experiencing grief for the first time. Childhood grief, in my opinion, is very different from the way we grieve when we get older and teenagers are often experiencing that kind of grief for the first time- and it’s really difficult. Maybe it’s partly because I went through it when I was a teenager and it’s something I think a lot about. But it’s really hard to figure out how to find meaning in life when you find out how hard it is to lose someone you love. I think that’s one of the reasons I kept writing about that (death) because I think teenagers are often dealing with grief for the first time as kind of mature individuals and I’m writing about it because I see it a lot in my community.
6. Lighter question this time- what is your favourite meme of yourself?
Oh gosh! I don’t really like any of them; I find them all pretty embarrassing. I guess there’s this one where this magazine took a picture of me with my computer on my chest, typing, and a bunch of people created their own versions of that. It’s called Johnning.
And, there is a meme with my face with a moustache on it and it says pizza- it’s behind me and that’s quite funny.
7. What is your next project?
I want to keep working on making educational stuff that’s freely available for lots of students. I think that’s a really important part of our work and something I really value… I think the next thing for me is going to be going away for a while and writing and figuring out in that process what I want to write next.
8. Have you ever considered working or collaborating with your wife?
We like working together too! Sarah is the first person who reads anything I write and her contributions to ‘The Anthropocene Reviewed’ were huge and I read everything she writes. She published a book last year called, ‘You are an Artist’ that I loved and loved working on with her.
So even if we aren’t collaborating publicly, we are still work together on pretty much everything that the other person works on and we’ve done that since we were 23 or 24 years old. It’s a big part of our lives. I don’t know if we’ll ever do something formal together, just because it would be a little stressful to have both our names on it. I feel the great thing is that when Sarah is working on something which she has put her name on, I can help out with and try to offer advice; but ultimately it’s her and her decisions. With my work she very generously offers help and lots of responses to what I’m working on; but ultimately it’s my decision. If we both had to make the decision, I think that it might be tense.
9. Have you seen the Bollywood adaptation of ‘The Fault In Our Stars’?
I don’t know that much about Bollywood movies but I thought it was really fun and moving and the performances of all of the cast, especially the two lead actors were extraodarnily generous and just really lovely. I know that the actor who played Augustus (Sushant Singh Rajput) passed away before the movie came out and it was really gut-wrenching to see his performance. I thought it was really beautiful. I’m really grateful to everyone who participated in it and made it, definitely not something that I ever imagined would happen to my work. Every new light that that story takes on is wonderful to me and strange and lovely.
10. Also, why no cameo in the Bollywood adaptation of the movie?
I’m such a bad actor, I would have been terrible.I was in the Hollywood version and they cut me out of the theatrical release because my acting was so bad!
11. Please share your writing tips for aspiring writers.
For me, the most important thing is reading. Reading is how I understand the ways that other people have used scratches on a page to create ideas and feelings inside of my brain. For me, reading is an everlasting apprenticeship for writers.
I also think that when people are starting to try to write, sometimes they get really frustrated because they can’t finish things or because stories just kind of peter off, or their interest in the story does. Then they quit because they think that means they’re not very good but actually everybody starts out that way and everybody writes stories that seem very promising when they start and then they eventually get abandoned. I do that all the time. Understanding that it’s not a bad sign that the first time when you sit down and start writing and it doesn’t end in a finished work. I find that helpful to remember. Writing that doesn’t go anywhere is part of the process of writing that does go somewhere.
Keep doing it to keep pursuing it, but you have to be kind to yourself. Compassion is an important part of writing for me. Sometimes I’m not going to myself, sometimes I have to tell myself, “Sit down, get to work”, it’s a mix of being kind to myself and pushing myself to write every day.
12. You mentioned that you preferred typing to writing and how much you loved the notes app. Do you think technology has made writing more accessible?
Definitely! Because people who have certain ways of processing information may not lend themselves to writing by hand or typing, they can use speech to type technology. I think technology has made writing more accessible in the sense that I can type so much faster than I can write; I can type at the speed of my thoughts. I started to type when I was four. The other thing about typing is that nobody can tell anything about you, everyone’s keystrokes look the same and there’s something really lovely about that to me.