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Author Interview: October 2006

October 2006

In this interview conducted by's contributing writers Brian Farrey and Jonathan Stephens, author John Green muses on some of the recurring themes in his work, and discusses the similarities and differences between himself and the protagonist of his second novel, AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES.

He also describes the great storytellers in his family, shares his thoughts on book censorship and reveals the single most important quality all writers must possess. In AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES, Colin finds himself with some seemingly unfillable voids in his life --- the lack of a girl named Katherine, the esteem that goes with the soon-to-be defunct "child prodigy" label. How have your own experiences with filling voids informed your approach to portraying Colin's attempts?

John Green: Well, I guess that Colin and I have both often tried to fill the voids in our lives with girls. That tends to be ineffective, in our experience. Other than that, my strategies aren't very similar to Colin's: When I was younger, I just wanted everyone to like me; Colin, meanwhile, doesn't care if people like him as long as they think he's remarkable.

TRC: Writing is often a process of metamorphosis in that what you set out to write and what you end up with don't always match. Characters change, plots go in new directions. Tell us something that would surprise us to learn about an earlier draft of KATHERINES, something that didn't make the final cut.

JG: Well, I revise a lot. I spent more than a year revising KATHERINES, so there is a LOT that never made it into the book. Here's an example: In an earlier draft of the book, there was a dead raccoon named Lucky who eventually became part of a banjo, and there was a lot of information in the book about how to cure a raccoon hide.

TRC: Which of your characters could you see yourself taking a road trip with?

JG: Oh, I think it would be really fun to take a road trip with Hassan from AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES, or with Alaska from LOOKING FOR ALASKA. I wouldn't mind hanging out with any of my characters, although it might be taxing to spend 12 hours in a car with Colin.

TRC: Are there any particular themes you've noticed that keep popping up in your writing?

JG: Sure, absolutely. On the character level, I tend to write about smart, thoughtful kids who find life as it is sort of unacceptable and paralyzing (because as a teenager, I found life as it is sort of unacceptable and paralyzing).

On a more strictly thematic level, I write a lot about religion, and a lot about memory, and about disconnection and loss.

Also, all of my books are set in the South but none of them is what we generally think of as "Southern," and also all of my books feature people being chased through the woods by feral animals.

TRC: What in your education and life experience prepared you for a life as a writer? What aspects of being a writer do you feel there's NOTHING that can prepare you for?

JG: Well, the main thing you need to be able to do to live the "life" of a writer is sit a lot. There will be a strong temptation to stand, or to walk, or even to lie down. But you will have to persevere and stay seated for 10 to 12 hours at a time. It also helps to be disciplined, and while I'm still not as disciplined as I'd like to be, I do think I inherited a reasonably strong work ethic from my parents. Writers also have to read a lot, and my high school and college teachers taught me to love reading, which has been vitally important to me. Also, my education gave me some foundation for knowing how to write --- both in the "how to tell a story" sense and in the "how to use a semicolon" sense.

I don't think anything can prepare you for the weird and fascinating and terrifying experience that is being read (and criticized or praised) by total strangers.

TRC: What about writing (if anything) gets you charged and what about writing (if anything) drains you?

JG: That's an excellent question. I think what gets me charged is when I'm fully inside of a scene and I feel like I know what I'm trying to do and I'm utterly undistracted. After writing like that, I always find it hard to go to bed. The thing I find the most draining is when it's slow and painful and frustrating, when I feel like I have no business trying to write stories. I've always bounced back and forth between those poles, I guess.

TRC: Who's the best storyteller you've ever known? What was it about their storytelling that you enjoyed?

JG: A lot of people in my family are excellent storytellers. My cousin Braxton has this great way of drawing out a funny story and building it up just the perfect amount. And my brother can keep your attention with one story for an hour. I've always been intimidated by the funniness of my family.

As for what I enjoy about their storytelling: It's hard to say precisely, but I think that most of the great storytellers in my family are also great liars (although my brother is pretty honest). A story, after all, need not be true to be good.

TRC: What's one of the most outlandish things you did as a teen?

JG: You're trying to get me into trouble. Rather than answering that question directly and potentially incriminating myself, I'll just say that some of the pranks that happen in LOOKING FOR ALASKA also happened at my actual high school.

TRC: With all the discussion surrounding Banned Books Week, describe any thoughts or feelings you have toward attempts to ban certain books.

JG: I think it's just plain dumb, and I'm glad that places like the American Library Association work so hard to ensure that the dumbness does not prevail. So far, LOOKING FOR ALASKA has only been challenged in a very few places, but I think that authors have a responsibility to stand up for their books and for intellectual freedom generally.

TRC: Can you say anything about what you're working on now?

JG: Well, I am working on another book. But whenever authors talk about books that they haven't finished, they always end up sounding vague and shifty. Like, the other day I was trying to describe the novel I'm working on now to a friend, and I said, "It's about a girl. And a boy. And America. And religion." Doesn't that just sound like the worst book ever? So I think it's best just not to talk about it until I'm finished.

FP: Honestly, I'm not sure. As with KING DORK, I'll have to find out when I write it, if I get that far.

TRC: Every writer gets asked to give advice to other aspiring writers. Since you fell into writing accidentally, can you offer advice to aspiring rock and rollers?

FP: Write good songs.

TRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

FP: I am working on a second novel now, called ANDROMEDA KLEIN after the main character's name. It takes place in the same town as KING DORK, but is a very different kind of story. I'm not sure when it'll be out, but I'm hoping some time in 2008.