Questions about Looking for Alaska (SPOILERS!)
NOTE: This page is for people who have read Looking for Alaska. As such, it contains numerous huge spoilers. If you have not read Looking for Alaska, kindly avert your eyes. Questions about the book can be asked here.
This page is organized into categories:
Writing the Book/Inspiration
Why Did I…
Pudge and Alaska’s Relationship
Questions about Writing and Inspiration
Q. Do you really know all those people’s last words?
A. Yeah. I’m sort of obsessed with last words. (Many of my favorites did not make it into the book, actually.) You can watch me reciting favorite last words here and then listing the last words of every American President here.
Q. How long did it take to write Alaska?
A. I began the book in earnest just after 9/11, and it was published in March of 2005. But for one of those years, I was in the process of breaking up with a girl (well, technically, she was in the process of breaking up with me), which is not a situation conducive to writing well. Also, I rewrite a lot.
Q. How did you come up with the countdown chapter titles?
A. Well, right after 9/11, everyone on TV was talking about how this was a defining moment in American history, and how we would all view the world through the lens of 9/11. (Indeed, for years afterward, one could not turn on the TV without hearing someone say that we live in a “post-9/11 world,” which is the stupidest observation in human history. I mean, we also live in a post-World War II world and a post-invention-of-fire world.) But I think what is meant by the phrase “post-9/11 world” is really interesting: Humans tend to measure time within the framework of important events. In the Christian world, we date from the birth of Christ. The Islamic calendar dates from the Muslim community’s move from Mecca to Medina. Alaska is a novel about the most important event in these people’s lives, so it made sense to me to structure the story in the same way. Also, I thought it would be neat.
Q. Did you know when you started writing that Alaska would die or did you decide that over time?
A. Initially the book was about the death of a boy as narrated by a girl, but that switched very early on. I would say that had switched as early as maybe March of 2001.
Much of what readers have responded to about Alaska—last words, the labyrinth of suffering, the great perhaps—came out in revision after I’d started working with Julie Strauss-Gabel at Penguin. And the most important development in the history of the book, the thing that made it all possible, was my mentor Ilene Cooper proposing a linear time frame of the school year with xx days before and xx days after instead of what I was trying to do, which involved jumping around in time for all kind of Important Literary Reasons that in retrospect I find tremendously embarrassing.
Ilene’s insight about the structure of the novel probably came in late 2002. The revision that changed so much of the rest of the book happened in 2003 and 2004. (Alaska was published in March of 2005.)
Q. Is Alaska based off of someone you knew?
A. I dislike answering this question honestly, because the dead cannot speak for themselves and because the novel is really and truly fictional. Also, some of my classmates were understandably upset about the ways in which the novel reimagined and reinvented certain events that actually happened to us, and I want insofar as possible not to further that hurt.
That noted: When I was a student at Indian Springs, a classmate of mine died, and her death was devastating to the entire community. My relationship with her was nothing like Pudge’s relationship with Alaska (I was much more like the fake mourners that Pudge rails against), but she was someone I liked and admired a lot, and even now that it has been almost 20 years, I still don’t feel reconciled to what happened.
That’s all I’ll say about this, I think. I understand the urge to find the historical facts that may be hidden inside of novels, and I’m not going to deny that Alaska is in many ways an autobiographical novel, but I ignored the facts whenever it suited me, and the story that resulted is truly imagined and I hope that it will be read that way.
Q. Did you actually perform the prank with the stripper while at Indian Springs?
This video has gotten a lot of attention on that front, but I just want to clear some things up for the record:
1. I am not a particular honest storyteller, and this problem was much worse when this video was recorded. (2000, maybe?)
2. In the background, you can occasionally hear a girl laugh. I was in love with that girl, and I was trying to tell the story in such a way as to impress her.
3. The true story features me in a far less central role: The prank was organized primarily by some of my close friends. I was punished for my role, but…yeah. I was not really a very important cog in the machine. It remains, however, the greatest prank in the history of Indian Springs School.
Q. Did your background in religious studies influence Looking for Alaska?
A. Definitely. I could never have written this book without the religion classes I took in college, and the theology/philosophy/worldview/whatever at the core of the book comes directly from conversations I had with Don Rogan, my mentor and professor at Kenyon.
Even in private conversations, I was never quite sure what Rogan believed, but he was very interested in formulations of what is called radical hope—the belief that hope is available to all people at all times—possibly even including the dead.
And the argument that Pudge makes at the very end of the book, that he believes Alaska forgives him is a pretty aggressively theistic thing for Pudge to say. (Of course, this isn’t the only viewpoint presented in the novel. There is also the Colonel’s, “The labyrinth sucks but I choose it.,” which is not necessarily a theistic point of view, although I’d argue it’s still a very hopeful thing to say.)
Basically, I wanted to think about all kinds of different ways that young people respond thoughtfully to loss and grief, and show a bunch of different ways that people can prove so astonishingly resilient.
Q. How did you come up with writing the book with the Before/After format?
A. I came up with that structure right after 9/11, when I started working in earnest on the first big draft of the story. I was thinking a lot about how we construct time, because back then everyone was saying that “we will now remember American history as before and after 9/11,” and that “we now live in a post-9/11 world.” (You still hear that one a lot.)
This got me to thinking about how time is almost always measured in relationship to important historical events. Christians date things in relationship to the birth of Jesus. The Muslim calendar calculates time in relation to the hijrah, the Islamic community’s journey from Mecca to Medina. I wanted to reflect this in the structure of the novel: The event that we’re counting down to and away from is the defining moment of these people’s lives (at least so far) and it reshapes their relationship to the world so completely that it also reshapes their understanding of time.
As with many things in the book, Ilene Cooper was instrumental in all of this: I had a draft in which I moved back and forth in time with chapters titled how many days before or after, and Ilene told me to put it in chronological order for the sake of the reader’s sanity, and then I started thinking about structure differently. Julie Strauss-Gabel further refined the structure so that it would be mirrored (chronologically, Alaska’s death occurs at the exact midpoint of the novel) and still accurately reflect the calendar year of 2005, when the book is set.
Q. How did you come up with the pranks?
A. Mostly from my high school classmates, to be totally honest with you.
Q. You named a character Hank. Are any of your characters influenced by your brother?
A. My brother is neither a stoner nor a basketball player, if that’s what you’re asking. :)
Influences are too broad and numerous for me to pin down like that. I’m sure Hank has influenced my work; certainly, the way he looks at the world has shaped the way I look at the world. But I’ve never consciously modeled a character after Hank.
Q. Then why did you name the character Hank?
A. At the time, I could never have imagined that anyone would ever know that I had a brother named Hank. (I was just a writer then, not…like….a professional Person Of The Internet or whatever.) I was thinking about Hank Williams when I named that character, not my brother.
Q. Looking for Alaska is pretty “dirty,” but you aren’t someone I relate sexuality to. When you were a teenager, were you similar to Pudge or the huge nerd that I imagine you being?
A. 1. I’m trying not to take it personally that you don’t relate sexuality to me.
2. Lots and lots and lots of nerds have sex. That’s one of the main ways we create new nerds, actually.
2a. There’s nothing un-nerdy about having sex or thinking about the role sexuality plays in your life.
2b. But let me just underscore the oft-forgotten fact that no one in this novel actually has sex with anyone else, at least on the page.
3. Pudge is extremely sexually awkward and inexperienced (he doesn’t even know what oral sex is supposed to look like, for God’s sakes).
4. I still don’t think it’s a dirty book. There are a few explicit scenes, but all of them are pretty nakedly arguments against vapid, emotionless sexual encounters, which does not strike me as a particularly dirty argument.
4a. I mean, just as another aside, we are discussing perhaps 800 words in a 70,000 word novel. More words are devoted to thinking about Buddhist conceptions of the desire-suffering cycle than are devoted to thinking about blow jobs.
Q. What do you mean by, “No one in this novel actually has sex with anyone else”? Doesn’t that depend on your definition of a sexual encounter?
A. Yes, I was using the Bill Clinton definition of sex. I should probably have been more specific. Sorry!
Q. Was there any section in particular that you had to rewrite way more than other sections? And if so, what was it that you weren’t happy with?
A. The funeral.
I wrote the funeral probably 15 or 20 times, and I would send it to Julie, and she’d be like, “Yeah, you have to write the funeral again.”
It was infuriating.
Then one day my roommates and I had a huge fight—I don’t even remember what it was about but I think it involved a vacuum—and I really love my friend Shannon and I hate fighting with her and we almost never really fought, and it made me really sad.
So I went downstairs and I was crying and angry and I just wrote the funeral scene in about ten minutes.
Q. When you wrote the first draft, which scenes were you most excited about writing? Which did you write first?
A. I wrote this book over so many years, and there were so many dozens of drafts between when it was a single-spaced 40-paged blob to when it was a novel, and so it’s hard to remember the process.
I wrote the scene in the gym where they find out very early on, probably in 2001. I wrote a couple of the later scenes where the Colonel and Pudge are playing video games early on, and the scene where the Colonel and Pudge meet survived in more or less its original form.
Also Barn Night. And Lara/Pudge’s watching of the Brady Bunch. I think those were the first scenes.
It was a lot of fun to write Barn Night. That was probably the most fun—Best Day/Worst Day, the rapping, the Strawberry Hill, all that stuff.
Q. Did you ever consider ending the book with a certain reason for Alaska’s death, like suicide?
A. No, from the moment of its inception in my mind, the story was about whether (and how) one can live a thoughtful, hopeful life in the face of unresolvable ambiguity.
Q. Did you intend parallels between Looking for Alaska and The Virgin Suicides? Both books contain a boy attempting to solve the mystery of a girl, who they can never properly understand, and her death. Was this intentional?
A. I wasn’t conscious of that, but The Virgin Suicides was a huge influence on me when I was a teenager, so it’s not terribly surprising.
Q. When did you write the scene with Alaska and Pudge making out in her bedroom?
A. Early. The first draft of that was I think in the 40 single-spaced pages I sent to Ilene way back in 2002. I don’t even think it changed that much over time. That’s one of the very few passages that survived from 2002. (It might’ve even been written in late 2001.)
Why Did I…
Q. Why did you have Alaska choose the name “Alaska” for herself?
A. The idea initially came to me while watching the movie The Royal Tennenbaums, which features a cover of the Velvet Underground song, “Stephanie Says,” part of which goes, “She’s not afraid to die / The people all call her Alaska.”
I liked the name Alaska because it’s grand and mysterious and far away, part of our country but a mythologized part, in much the same way that Alaska herself is (disastrously) mythologized by her classmates.
I also liked it because of what it actually means. It is often translated “that which the sea breaks against,” and I think that is Alaska’s experience of herself: She feels that the sea is breaking against her, again and again, with all the incumbent turmoil, excitement, and pain.
Q. Why is it called “Looking for Alaska”? Is it because Pudge, the Colonel, and Takumi are looking for her in the metaphorical sense?
It is my experience that you don’t stop looking for your lost friends simply because they are dead. In some ways, you search even harder for every scrap of information you can find that will help you to understand the people they were and also help you to understand what led to their deaths.
But as Pudge and the Colonel find out, while the search can be informative, it can also be destructive. The core question—why did this person I love die—cannot be answered by reading their diaries or retracing their journeys.
It is a question that must be asked of the universe. And this is why philosophy and the study of religious traditions and history etc. is not some abstract boring intellectual enterprise: It is the very stuff that makes it possible to go on and live an engaged, attentive, productive life even though the world contains so much suffering and injustice.
Q. Why do none your characters have pets?
A. What about Myrna Mountweazel!?
(Pets bore me. They’re so loving and generous and good.)
Q. Why did you make the Colonel and Pudge bad at ironing? It’s like the simplest household task a person could hope to accomplish.
A. Because it’s like the simplest household task a person could hope to accomplish.
I wanted that moment to show them as kids, albeit very different ones: Pudge doesn’t know how to use an iron because someone has always done his ironing for him, and the Colonel doesn’t know how to use an iron because he’s never worn anything that needed to be ironed.
But neither of them knows the first thing about how to be an adult in the world.
Q. In Alaska and Paper Towns you use a lot of nicknames. What’s the reasoning behind that?
A. It’s a way of writing about the relationship between the identities we’re given (our names) and the ones we choose or adopt as we come of age (nicknames). Most of the nicknames in my books are nicknames that are given to, and accepted by, a character in his or her adolescence. Taking a nickname is a way of establishing identity and claiming some sovereignty over one’s self. So Miles will not only be Miles, the person named by his parents. He will also be Pudge, the person named by his peers.
The relationship between these identities—and the shifting between them—is really interesting to me, because it’s a way of thinking about how in adolescence you go back and forth between identifying as part of your biological family and identifying as part of the social network you’re building separate from that family.
Questions about My Beliefs and Opinions
Q. What’s your favorite part of LFA?
A. I’m not sure I have a favorite part. (For one thing, I wrote it a long time ago, and I haven’t read it since it came out, so to be totally honest there’s a lot of it I don’t remember.) I guess I am still pretty proud of that line at the end about never needing to be hopeless because we can never be irreparably broken; that line seems to have meant something to a lot of people. (For instance, I recently saw it tattooed around a person’s neck.)
Oh, and I still like the fox hat.
Q. When and how did you find your Great Perhaps?
A. Oh, I think the pleasure is in the seeking. That’s what I eventually realized.
Q. I know you say that books belong to their readers. But do you ever share your take on ambiguous parts with Sarah, Hank, or anyone else?
A. I love you guys.
I’m just going to shorten Books Belong To Their Readers to BBTTR from here on out.
Q. Have you ever heard a reading of Looking for Alaska that you disagree with?
A. Oh, sure, of course. If people say that Looking for Alaska is a defense of Marxism, or an attack upon elm trees, or a book about caramelized onions, then I absolutely disagree with them.
I also disagree absolutely with people who claim that Alaska is pornographic or that it encourages promiscuity or alcohol use or cigarette smoking or mixing vodka with milk. (…which is a terrible idea.)
A book is a conversation between a reader and a writer, but we both have to hold up our end of the bargain there. It’s possible to write a book terribly; it’s also possible to read a book terribly. (Witness, for instance, those who read Huck Finn as a defense of slavery.)
Q. Do you wish that people would take the story as it is without endlessly searching for metaphors and deeper meaning?
A. The story as it is includes metaphor and meaning and symbolism and all the rest.
But there are lots of different ways to read a book well, and one of them is to be—as J. D. Salinger put it—the reader who reads and runs. I don’t want to tell people how to read my books, or anyone’s books. I do think there’s a lot to be gained from reading critically—I think it can help us feel less alone and more engaged and also help us better formulate ideas about our responsibilities to ourselves and to others.
But I also think reading should be enjoyable. It should be fun. And if all the symbolism is working right, readers don’t have to be conscious of it for those elements to add power and emotional heft to the story.
Q. Alaska is named after a place, and Miles, a unit of distance. Because of the book’s title, it made me think of all the miles to get to Alaska, to reach that girl who was, in many ways, unreachable. Is that the way you thought of it?
A. I don’t remember if that was intentional (I wrote Alaska a long time ago!), but this is an excellent example of a reader embracing her ownership of a novel to bring something interesting and meaningful to it.
Q. Does it annoy you if people picture your characters as having a different race or appearance than you describe?
A. If I recall correctly, I was conscious about not identifying either the Colonel or Alaska by race, so I’ll continue not doing that. But yeah, I think those are certainly valid imaginings.
Q. You have previously described Looking for Alaska as “Christian Fiction,” but more recently you seem to describe it as exploring multiple theistic and non-theistic responses to grief. Can you elaborate?
A. Well, good Christian fiction can explore (and celebrate) multitheistic and non-theistic responses to grief, I would argue. I have a belief system and a religious tradition, but that does not necessarily invalidate other belief systems. (Many Christians will disagree with me on this front, but many other Christians will agree, including the Roman Catholic Church and my own Episcopalian Church.)
Alaska certainly explores and arguably even extolls multi-theistic and non-theistic responses to the problem of suffering (from those put forth by the Buddha to the one put forth by the Colonel—“the labyrinth sucks but I choose it”).
But Pudge’s personal response is quite a Christian one, insofar as the theological idea of radical hope (that hope and forgiveness are available to all, maybe even including the dead) is central to Pudge’s final conclusions about how to live in a world where suffering is distributed so unjustly. The idea he expresses at the very end of the novel—that he believes it is possible for he and Alaska both to attain mutual forgiveness—is a really super Christian idea.
This is why it has always seemed odd to me that all the people who want to ban Looking for Alaska from schools claim it is offensive to their Christian values, when the core Christian values—radical hope, universal forgiveness—are the core values of the book’s final chapter.
(For the record, I think the people who argue the opposite—that the end of the book is a bit didactic and heavy-handed—are not wrong. I just don’t really care that it’s a bit heavy-handed. I wanted Pudge to be able to write that essay. I wanted him to be able to give and receive the forgiveness he so desperately needs, and I wanted him to be able to imagine a beautiful somewhere for Alaska.)
Q. If you could go back, would you take out the blowjob scene in order to have the book reach a larger audience?
I guess the book might have a broader audience without that scene, but if I wanted the broadest possible audience, I wouldn’t write books at all. I’d write screenplays.
I wrote that book almost ten years ago, and while I certainly don’t think it’s perfect, I’m still proud of it. That means a lot to me. I’d be much less proud of it if I’d taken out a scene that’s central to the emotional arc of the book just so that it would be more acceptable to censors. And if people are reading the scene out of context, they aren’t reading. There is no text without context.
If a terrible blow job keeps Alaska from being taught in schools, that’s unfortunate. But what matters to me is that so many people have found the book and shared it with their friends and family. I could never have imagined that little book would be published in dozens of languages and read by so many hundreds of thousands of people.
I’m very happy, and very grateful, and I stand by the massively unerotic blow job.
Q. How do you properly pronounce “bufriedos”?
Q. I don’t focus on the metaphors, symbols, and foreshadowing in your books. Does this bother you?
A. No, it does not bother me. There is no one right way to read a book.
(There are wrong ways, certainly: If you read Huck Finn and think it is a great defense of slavery, you are doing it wrong. But there are many right ways.)
These Q&As exist to answer specific questions from people who are usually reading the book very closely and have intertextual questions about them. I answer those questions because A. it’s interesting and useful for me as a writer to think about this stuff, and B. I hope it might be interesting and useful to some minority of readers, and C. I like to get insight into other writers’ processes and so feel like mine should be fair game.
The truth is, if the foreshadowing and the metaphors and everything else work, you don’t need to be conscious of it—and you certainly don’t need to be hunting for it. The foreshadowing will unsettle you whether you’re aware of it or not, and when the twist comes, it won’t feel like as much of a twist as it otherwise would’ve.
And metaphor (which to me is not really distinct from “the beauty of the language” that you refer to above) is just another way to build the story and its inhabitants so that it will be real and alive to you as you read it.
You don’t need to think “smoking cigarettes is a symbol for adolescents’ self-destructive impulses” to know that smoking is bad for you, and these kids are aware that it’s bad for you.
Your job as a reader is to read the book you want to read. You shouldn’t worry too much about which book I want you to read, but rest assured: I am very, very happy when people like my books and find them helpful or interesting or fun or anything other than dreadfully boring.
Q. What would you say to a girl like Alaska?
A. You are helpful, and you are loved, and you are forgiven, and you are not alone.
Q. Do you like Alaska as a person?
A. I love her as a person.
As for liking her: I’ve always sort of preferred people who are not entirely likable.
Q. Why do authors use foreshadowing?
A. It makes you nervous; it keeps you reading; and ultimately, anticipation makes for more interesting and engaging reading than surprise.
Questions about Alaska’s Death
Q. What do you think happened to Alaska? I know you don’t say it in the book, but what’s YOUR opinion?
A. I knew when I started the book that we would never be inside Blue Citrus with her that night, and so I still don’t have any idea what happened to Alaska—which is to say that I genuinely don’t have an opinion. I really believe that your reading of a book I wrote is just as legitimate as my reading of a book I wrote. (It’s possible you can even read the book better than I can.) I know that’s not a terribly fulfilling answer, but it’s the only answer I have. Frankly, I kind of want you to be haunted by the unansweredness of the question, because I think being haunted by such things is a valuable part of being a person.
Q. What happened the night Alaska died? Did she kill herself or was it an accident?
A. This is going to be the answer to a lot of the questions y’all ask about Looking for Alaska: I don’t know.
The questions I didn’t answer in the book are questions I either didn’t want to answer or didn’t feel like I should answer.
I know I say this all the time, but I really believe it: Books belong to their readers. And if I were to speculate about something outside of the novel, my voice would inevitably be privileged over the voices of other readers, and I really don’t want that.
We have to live with ambiguity, and that’s a lot of what I was thinking about when I wrote the book. Sometimes, there are questions that NEED answering—did my friend kill herself or was it an accident, for instance—but that never get answered.
I wrote the book because I wanted to explore whether it is possible to reconcile yourself to that ambiguity, to live with it and not let your anger and sadness over the lack of resolution take over your life. Is it possible to live a hopeful life in a world riddled with ambiguity? How can we go on in a world where suffering is distributed so unequally and so capriciously?
So I knew from the moment I started the book that we would never be inside Blue Citrus with Alaska on that night. And I can’t know the answer to your question, because I can’t get inside that car with her, either.
Q. Do you have an idea of what Alaska’s last words were?
A. No, I don’t know her last words. From the moment I began to think about the story, I knew I’d never be inside the car with her that night, and that my readers wouldn’t be, either.
This is actually pretty much the whole reason I wanted Pudge to be obsessed with last words: I wanted him to believe in the value of dying declarations as a kind of closing of the book on a human life, but then to be denied that closure when it comes to the death of someone he loves. He is denied that closure in one way by not knowing whether she committed suicide, and he is denied that closure more abstractly by never knowing her last words.
Q. Surely you must have some theories on whether Alaska killed herself or not.
A. Surely I must.
But here’s the thing: I left it ambiguous on purpose, right? I made this conscious decision not to be in that car with her, and to force all of us—including me—to try to find a way to live hopefully even in the face of eternally unanswerable questions.
If I were now to speculate about that question, I would be giving you an out. I’d be letting you off the hook, and erasing the ambiguity. But that wouldn’t be fair to Alaska (the character or the book). We have to live with ambiguity. We have to give ourselves over to it. The question is: How? How are we going to live in a universe where important questions will always go unanswered?
Q. A friend of mine read Looking for Alaska and said Alaska should never have died and it was pointless. What would you say to her?
A. I agree with your friend that death is infuriatingly pointless. But it’s also, really, really common. (I am reminded of the Onion headline: Despite Efforts, World Death Rate Remains Steady at 100%.)
To me, Alaska is about loss and grief and struggling against the nihilism that many of us feel when confronted with death. So it could never have been about anything else, because I never had another story in mind. I wrote every word of the first half knowing the second half was coming, so I can’t imagine it any other way. If Pudge and the Colonel and Alaska had gone on having a rip-roaring time, then the book would’ve been about…what?
Usually when characters die in books, it happens at the very end or the very beginning. I wanted it to happen in the middle, because I wanted readers to meet and care about and empathize with Alaska, and then to lose her, and then to have to make the same journey that Pudge and the Colonel and the rest of them are making. I wanted the reader to have to battle against that feeling of pointlessness and to find some hope in a life that includes unresolved and unresolvable grief.
Q. Did Alaska commit suicide?
Questions about Symbols/Metaphors
Q. Did the volcano candle stand for something?
A. I guess one could read the obvious symbolism of Alaska’s volatility and unpredictability. But the candle is also a reminder that Alaska clearly spends a lot of time by herself, and it is an attempt to build a new thing from a bunch of burnt-up old things, which has some connections to Alaska as a character.
Q. Does the Old Man represent a deity?
A. Yes, he is often likened by various characters in various ways to a deity, albeit a frail one.
Q. There are many similarities between the swan and Alaska. The Eagle uses both the swan and Alaska to preserve the rules. There’s a link between the white of the swan and the white flowers. And, both the swan and Alaska are beautiful, have troubled pasts, and hurt Pudge. Were you aware of this connection?
A. That is really compelling. I don’t think I was conscious of it, but it holds together better than a lot of metaphors I did intend.
The more I think about it, the more interesting it becomes. Swans are animals that we romanticize—endowing with nobility and beauty—but if you’ve ever actually encountered a swan, they’re a hell of a lot more complicated than that. The complex (and flawed) ideas associating whiteness and purity resonate for both swans and Alaska, too.
Most importantly, swans are traditionally associated with a passive beauty: They are things to be looked at. But in fact swans are capable of agency and power and biting people on the butt.
I like it!
Questions about Specific Quotations
Q: Can you explain the ending of Looking for Alaska?
A. Well, when I was writing “Alaska,” I wanted the end NOT to give us what we want, which is of course to know whether Alaska’s death was a suicide or an accident. The truth is that in our lives we are all going to encounter questions that should be answered, that deserve to be answered, and yet prove unanswerable. Can we find meaning to life without those answers? Can we find a way to acknowledge the reality (and injustice) of suffering without giving in to hopelessness? Those are the questions I think Miles is confronting at the end, and I wanted to argue that through forgiveness, it is possible to live a full and hopeful life—even if our world is saturated with injustice and loss.
Q. Was the blow job scene based on something that actually happened?
A. Right, let’s talk about the blow job. (I am not going to comment on my private sexual life, because…ew. No one wants that.)
The oral sex scene in Looking for Alaska between Lara and Pudge takes place immediately before a far less sexually intimate but far more emotionally intimate encounter between Pudge and Alaska.
The language in the oral sex scene is extremely clinical and distant and unsensual. The word “penis” is used rather than member or hot rod or whatever else you’ll find inromance novels. The adverbs and adjectives that appear in that scene include weird, nervous, and quizzically.
This is in very stark contrast to the scene where Pudge and Alaska kiss a few pages later: “Our tongues dancing back and forth in each other’s mouth until there was no her mouth and my mouth but only our mouths intertwined. She tasted like cigarettes and Mountain Dew and wine and Chap Stick. Her hand came to my face and I felt her soft fingers tracing the line of my jaw.” There’s a lot of evoking of senses in that paragraph (some might argue too much), and it’s much sexier and more passionate than the language used to describe the blow job.
I wanted these two scenes to present a dramatic contrast because I wanted it to be clear 1. that Pudge and Lara were curious about each other, and interested in exploring, but not really that passionate about each other, whereas 2. Alaska and Pudge were clearly very passionate and caring and attentive in the way they kiss, and most importantly that 3. physical intimacy isn’t and can never be an effective substitute for emotional intimacy.
It seemed to me pretty obvious that I was arguing against vapid sexual encounters in which no one has any fun and celebrating the underappreciated virtues of super-hot kissing in which everyone keeps their clothes on. (Some censors, clearly, feel otherwise, although most of them never read the blow job scene in context.)
Also, while we’re on the topic, let me just say how tired I am of seeing gauze-filtered teen sex scenes with candles and beautiful bodies that know exactly what to do, because I just don’t think that reflects the truth, which is awkward and messy and human.
Q. Does it bother you that the drizzle/rain quote is used so often?
A. No, I am totally delighted that people/rain/drizzle/hurricane has become so widely quoted online that an extensive tumblr is devoted to it.
The original line was “If people were precipitation, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane,” but then the brilliant Julie Strauss-Gabel stepped in and improved it, thank God. And then in the last big round of edits, I wanted to cut the line, and Julie was like, “Eh, I think we should keep it in,” and BOY, WAS SHE RIGHT.*
Of course, I hope lots of people read (and buy!) Alaska, and that the p/r/d/q quote is not their only interaction with it, but that little quote has brought a lot of people to the book who otherwise might never have heard of it.
* Julie was also like, “You should really use the word deadpan a bit less often in this novel.” Sadly, I ignored that advice.
Q. Why did you decide to use the word disintegrating to describe the school after The Eagle told everyone of Alaska’s death, rather than say falling apart?
A. These little language choices are really interesting and important to me, and it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about, even though often especially in my early drafts the word choices often aren’t particularly good.
But because I have this uncommonly brilliant and thoughtful editor in Julie Strauss-Gabel, she is always calling word choice to my attention, and wondering whether there might be a more interesting way to say something, etc.
What I like about the word disintegration in that moment is that it implies there had been up until then an integration. Pudge had assimilated into the culture of Culver Creek, and although certainly not all the students like each other, there is a feeling of balance and unity and integration: Almost everything that has occurred so far in the story has been either about people living on that campus or visiting it.
There are no outside events at Culver Creek. You only see Jake when he visits. The kids on other basketball teams are only relevant when they come to campus. There are trips to McDonald’s and Coosa Liquors, but they’re all about Pudge and his fellow students. (In the case of the Coosa Liquors trip, Pudge never even gets out of the car.)
This integrated life is totally destroyed with Alaska’s death, though. She doesn’t even die among them: She dies off campus, away from this integrated world Pudge has created, and so what follows feels like a disintegration.
Pudge later uses the phrase “falling apart” to describe the general condition of things in the universe, but in that intensely personal moment, it doesn’t feel like a general falling apart. It feels like his specific, insulated world has disintegrated.
Q. Where did you come up with the idea for, “No one can catch the motherfucking fox”?
A. In high school, I had a friend who would wear a fox hat when breaking rules, and when asked why he was wearing a fox hat, he would always say, “Because no one can catch the motherfucking fox.”
That is the only true answer.
Q. Was “from a hundred miles an hour to asleep in a nanosecond” supposed to foreshadow the way Alaska dies?
A. Yup. I like foreshadowing, because as both a writer and a reader I value anticipation over surprise.
Q. Is there significance to the Colonel calling Miles “Miles To Go Halter”?
A. Halt Her.
Q. Can you explain Alaska’s knock-knock joke?
A. No one gets the knock-knock joke. It was a bad joke, and Julie told me to cut, and I should’ve listened. If they ever give me a chance to release like a “revised and updated” version of the novel, it will be the exact same book only without the goddamned knock-knock joke.
So the joke is: You say, “It’s a knock-knock joke. You start,” and then the person says “Knock Knock,” and then you say, “Who’s there?” and then the person realizes that they’ve been had, that one cannot start a knock-knock joke without knowing the end of the knock-knock joke. So when you say “Who’s there?” the other person has a slight little self-deprecating chuckle over not having realized from the beginning that s/he was going to end up in this pickle.
I had all kinds of super symbolic reasons for this knock-knock joke about Alaska asking Pudge, “who’s there?” and Pudge not being able to answer, about his failure to really know Alaska, about how her air of mystery was mostly about his just not being very perceptive, etc. etc., all of which was stupid and irrelevant because no one gets the joke.
Q. “Through a buggy twilight, I walked to the pay phone, which was drilled into the wall between Rooms 44 and 45. On both sides of the phone, dozens of phone numbers and esoteric notes were written in pen and marker (205.555.1584; Tommy to airport 4:20;773.573.6521; JG—Kuffs?).” Who’s number is that?
A. The 773 number was my cell phone number until 2007.
It is now someone else’s cell phone number in all likelihood, so please don’t call it.
(A handful of people called me over the years, and it was always okay, but it turns out that I am a much more introverted and anxious person that I understood myself to be at the time of writing the novel, when I was only imagining these interactions abstractly.)
Kuffs was my nickname in high school, because I once said that Christian Slater never made a bad movie.
Q. Can you explain the significance of the last few sentences?
A. It is an invocation of hope in the life of the world to come.
Questions about Culver Creek
Q. Is “bufriedo” pronounced bu-FRY-do or bu-FREE-do?
A. Well, first let me say that books do not belong to their authors. Books belong to the reader. So you can pronounce bufriedo however you’d like; my pronunciation of it is not inherently better than yours. But now that we’ve got the philosophical question out of the way, I say buh-FREE-doh.
Q. Are bufriedos real?
A. Sort of. There was a similar thing at the boarding school I attended called a crispito. A chimichanga is basically a deep-fried burrito. I imagine bufriedos tasting a bit fried-er than chimichangas, but again, the way I imagine things is totally irrelevant because books belong to their readers.
Q. What about Culver Creek is realistic, and what isn’t?
A. The physical setting of Culver Creek is very, very similar to the physical place where I went to boarding school, Indian Springs School. There’s a lake and an evil swan and a barn and there was an unairconditioned dorm circle when I was a student. (The dorms are now much nicer.) It’s an excellent school. Attending Indian Springs made my life possible, and I am very grateful to the school and its teachers.
Q. How much of the Culver Creek school was actually true about Indian Springs?
A. The dorms are vastly different, and the barn where Alaska and Pudge and Takumi and everyone spend the night is no longer there.
The physical campus of Indian Springs is very similar to the physical campus of Culver Creek, and I do think it’s a great place to seek your Great Perhaps. The novel is fictional—although it was inspired in uncountable ways by my high school experiences—but this isn’t: Indian Springs really is a magical place to go to high school. And I continue to be impressed and inspired by the student there.
Q. So why would there be a boarding school that does not provide at least a window unit to their boarding students in this day and age?
A. All the things in the book that seem really improbable are just things from my boarding school that I assumed would read as plausible because they had happened.
So, yeah, my boarding school did not (at the time) have AC. Window units were only available if you got a letter from a doctor saying you had asthma.
We were all obsessed with developing asthma, of course. Having asthma seemed like winning the lottery to me.
Questions about Pudge
Q. Do you think that Pudge chose to “seek a great perhaps” by going to Culver Creek or was he always going to be sent there because that’s where his dad went?
A. That’s an interesting question, and it gets into the subtle way that privilege functions throughout the entire novel.
If you’re like most American teenagers and you announce to your parents that you wish to attend boarding school so that you can seek your Great Perhaps, your parents will say, “Yeah, no.” This may be because they don’t want you to leave the house yet; more likely it is because they don’t have 30,000 spare dollars to pay for a year’s tuition and board.
Pudge is privileged in many ways, and what he sees as “seeking a Great Perhaps” other people might see as an expensive lark where he wastes his opportunities by drinking too much wine and not studying enough. And I think it’s fair to assume that if Pudge hadn’t come from this relatively privileged background, he wouldn’t’ve found himself at the Creek. He would’ve had to find a different way to seek his Great Perhaps.
But at its core, your question gets to free will, and to what extent we are governed by our backgrounds and experiences. I can’t answer that question here. I will keep trying to write stories that poke at that question from various angles, though, and hopefully together we’ll learn more about whether the fault is in our stars or in ourselves.
Q. Miles promises his dad that he won’t smoke/drink, but he starts doing so right when he gets to Culver Creek. Did you intentionally make him a weak-minded character?
A. Oh, I think Miles is probably just lying to his father. You know, as one does. I don’t think he has any intention of clean living at Culver Creek.
But yeah, Miles is weak-willed. He engages in self-destructive behavior and fails to recognize the seriousness of the self-destructive behavior around him. He doesn’t take full advantage of his extraordinarily privileged opportunities. He gives money to tobacco companies, which do not deserve his money.
And he drinks horrible wine when he could afford to drink better wine, which is one of the worst sins of all.
But let me submit to you that we are all weak-willed, that we all participate in destructive systems, that we all fail to use our opportunities as fully as we might, and that the whole business of being a reader (and also being a person) is empathizing with the flawed and uncertain people we meet in books and in life. Miles is not simply heroic, but neither is your friend. Neither is anyone.
And for the record, he does make some changes. (Most notably, you don’t see him drinking in the second half of the book.)
Q. Pudge seems to lack autonomy and only does what he’s told to do. Is this intentional?
A. Yeah, he starts to affect the action in the second half of the novel, but he is very conscious of this passivity. (He calls himself drizzle to Alaska’s hurricane, and the tail to his friends’ comet.) This inability to act is part of what keeps him from following Alaska out to the pay phone, a decision that he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life.
It was important to me when writing the story that Pudge not be blameless. It’s natural to feel guilty in the wake of a friend’s death, but usually, you can eventually say to yourself, “You know what? This wasn’t actually my fault. There was really nothing I could’ve done.” But in Pudge’s case (arguably like Alaska’s case with her own mother), there is something he should’ve done. He should’ve followed her to the pay phone. He should’ve stopped her from leaving. He should’ve acted.
And that’s a much more complicated kind of guilt to live with. Alaska’s death still isn’t his fault, of course. But he will always know he could’ve—and should’ve—stopped her.
The question for me becomes whether you can find a way to live with yourself, whether forgiveness is still available to you even though the person you need to forgive you is gone. Alaska can never reconcile that question for herself with regards to her own mother. Pudge does eventually find an answer that brings him comfort, but along the way he has to become much more proactive about his life and his choices.
Questions about Alaska
Q. Did you intentionally focus less on descriptions of Alaska as opposed to the effect that she had on people?
A. Yeah, that was very intentional.
Like, the first time Pudge and Alaska have a real conversation, she’s sitting next to him in the dark and he can’t really see her. And throughout the story, there are times when he’s looking at her without seeing her, or there’s something between them that prevents him from seeing her whole face, or he only sees the back of her head, etc. etc. etc.
That was all meant to indicated how incompletely he sees Alaska, something she mentions to him again and again. But in all his fascination with her, he can’t help but romanticize her, which makes it difficult for him to understand the reality and seriousness of her pain.
Q. Alaska’s belief that she indirectly killed her mother seems gimmicky. How would Alaska be different if both her parents had still been alive?
A. Fair enough; it is a little gimmicky. (Such things happen, though.) Bear in mind that Alaska didn’t kill her mother. Guilt is a very common response to the loss of a parent or loved one. One always feels that something should’ve been done, and the worst of it is when something actually should’ve been done, but didn’t get done because you are just a regular human being and screw up a million times a day in a million little ways.
That’s really what I was trying to get at: The universe is very capricious in the way that it punishes negligence. Usually, you don’t die if texting while driving. Occasionally, you do.
As to your question, it’s so hard to speculate, even with fictional characters, about how their lives would be different if you removed central experiences. From my perspective, Alaska had some pretty serious emotional problems that weren’t about her mother but instead were probably about the way her brain was wired.
But all that stuff is so interdependent. One of the reasons I find therapy so useful and interesting is that you can’t really separate nature from nurture.
Q. Can you relate to the character of Alaska?
A. Sure. I was pretty reckless when I was in high school, and I have periodically lived with depression, and I really struggled against self-destructive impulses.
But there are also of course a lot of ways in which I wasn’t like Alaska. I wasn’t living with grief the way she was, and I also had a better support network. (Also, I wasn’t a girl.)
I also never drove drunk. Driving drunk always seemed really crazy to me because you could hurt someone else. Of course, what I never thought through in high school was that when I hurt myself, I was also hurting other people, especially the people (like my parents) who loved me the most.
Q. What color was Alaska’s hair?
A. The same dark mahogany color of her coffin, according to Pudge.
Q. Does Alaska have a mood disorder?
A. I’m not a psychiatrist, so I’m not going to take a guess at that.
I think Alaska is clearly struggling and in a lot of pain, though. And I think it’s particularly difficult for her because she feels alone in that pain, which is what really (in my experience, anyway) makes suffering unbearable and makes one experience real despair.
But the weird thing about depression is that it tends to further isolate you from people, thereby making it ever-harder for anyone to bridge the gap and really hear you in the way you need to be heard. So it becomes progressively more difficult to feel that you aren’t alone with your pain, which can make the despair feel permanent and unsolvable.
This is the most insidious thing about depression, I think: It makes itself more powerful by dragging you away from the world outside of yourself.
So I don’t want to diagnose Alaska, but certainly she lives with terrible pain, and I think she clearly feels isolated by it, and I wanted to try to reflect that in the phenomenon in the story.
Questions about Takumi
Q. Did Takumi have a crush on Lara?
A. I am going to be totally honest with you:
You have to remember I wrote this book a long time ago. I remember there being a moment near the end of the story when Takumi and Lara are holding hands, but it’s possible that 1. I wrote it and then later cut it, or that 2. I never wrote it but imagined it or that 3. I neither wrote nor imagined it but saw it in the movie script and liked it, or 4. that I read it in some fan fiction.
Anyway, I can’t even tell you guys if it’s canon because I don’t remember. But it’s not canon just because I mentioned it in this answer. The text of the novel is the only source material for the novel! BBTTR! etc.
Questions about Pudge and Alaska’s Relationship
Q. Since Pudge misimagined Alaska, do you believe that people who ship them are misimagining her as well?
A. Not necessarily. Stories belong to their readers, and if I did my job, there are a bunch of different good readings of the book.
But I think there’s a strong case to be made from the story that Pudge and Alaska really loved each other and were in many says suited to each other.
Obviously, one wishes that Pudge could’ve understood the seriousness of Alaska’s pain earlier, and that Alaska could’ve done a better job of reaching out to him. But when I think about those two characters, I never think of them as merely manipulative or merely misimagining. To me, they’re people. Young people, no less.
It’s very hard to love someone well, especially when you are doing it for the first time.
Q. Alaska is described as beautiful, but is this only because Pudge was the one describing her and he was in love with her?
A. That’s a really important question.
One of the challenges of reading a novel that’s written in the first person is that you have to decide how much to trust the narrator. In Catcher in the Rye, for instance, Holden Caulfield shows you over and over again that he is an inveterate liar, but for some reason you still kind of suspect that he is telling you the truth. In other novels (American Psycho comes to mind), the narrator is clearly unreliable.
In Alaska, I think Pudge is trying his best to be accurate to his experience and memory, but it’s also clear he is writing all this down at some point in the future. From the structure of the novel and from a few moments of foreshadowing, I think it’s pretty clear by the end of the book that he knew about Alaska’s death before he started telling the story.
And when you look back at the dead, I think they are inevitably more beautiful. Plus, you’re absolutely right that when you’re romantically enthralled with someone, you see that person as more beautiful than other people might. So I think Pudge’s descriptions of her beauty are probably shaped by his memory and his experience. (And while some other people—Takumi and Jake for instance—also find her physically attractive, the Weekday Warriors never express much physical attraction to her.)
Q. Was your intention to make Alaska fall in love with Miles?
A. My intention was for it to be a complicated mess that was totally impossible to parse, just like real romantic interactions between teenagers in high school. (And also adults after high school.)
I don’t think we feel only one thing in our lives. I don’t think it’s as simple as either A. being in love or B. not being in love. I think our feelings for each other are really complicated and motivated by an endless interconnected web of desires and fears.
I wanted to reflect that as best I could.
Questions about the Film
Q. Why was the Looking for Alaska movie shelved?
A. Looking for Alaska does not feature a comic book superhero or flying dragons or hypersexualized vampires.
Maybe they will make it someday (the script is beautiful), but I don’t mind if it never becomes a movie. There’s something wonderful and magical about that book belonging to US, you know? Daniel Radcliffe will forever be Harry Potter, but Alaska is still Alaska and Pudge is still Pudge. There’s something wonderful about that, and I’m so grateful that the book continues to find readers even without the big marketing push of a movie adaptation.
Q. What would you think if Looking for Alaska became a webseries rather than a movie?
A. That would be cool, except I do not own the movie rights to Looking for Alaska. (Paramount owns them.)
Q. Why did you sell the movie rights to Paramount rather than a less commercial studio?
A. In 2005, when Looking for Alaska first came out, the book was selling a couple hundred copies a week. Traditionally, a book’s first few months are its best selling months. So in those days I was making about $350 a week in royalties. This is a nice amount of money, but it works out to $18,200 a year, and it is taxed as self-employment income, so it actually works out to quite a bit less than that. And every indication was that my income over time would go down, not up, as it does for almost all books.
At the time, I was moving from Chicago to New York in order to follow my fiancee to graduate school, which meant I was about to be unemployed. Then a movie studio came along and offered me what was to me an ungodly, life-changing amount of money in exchange for the movie rights to my book.
I did not care (and honestly do not care) if they ever made a movie. All I knew was that moving to New York with a fiancee in graduate school was suddenly possible, whereas before it had been impossible. I would’ve sold the movie rights to We Only Make Shitty Movies Incorporated if they’d made that move possible.
But for the record, since then I’ve made very different decisions about my movie rights, even though the results have been basically the same.
I optioned Paper Towns to Mandate, a company that makes tons of indie features including many high school movies (like Juno).
And I optioned The Fault in Our Stars to Fox 2000, which traditionally does very well when adapting literary novels, from Water for Elephants to Why We Broke Up to The Book Thief.
Do I regret selling the Looking for Alaska rights to Paramount? As noted elsewhere, I will be delighted if a good film is ever made from the book, but it is a great blessing of a different kind to be able to have a book that manages somehow to find new readers every year without big Hollywood marketing, and that can still be read without expectation or preconceptions.
Q. Do you have any teaching suggestions for Looking for Alaska?
A. Yes. There are discussion guides available for both “Looking for Alaska” and “Paper Towns,” which can be downloaded here. They’re pretty good. A lot of schools teach “Looking for Alaska,” so there may also be teachers’ guides created by teachers you can find online. If I were to teach Alaska, I would ask: What is the point of death? and What is the point of literature? and In an essentially and irreperably broken world, is there cause for hope? That is not really much of a lesson plan, though.
Q. Do you plan on writing a sequel to Looking for Alaska?
A. I don’t plan on writing a sequel to any of my books at the moment. I feel like I left Pudge and the Colonel and Lara and Takumi where I wanted them to be. My grandmother taught me to never say never, but certainly there will not be a sequel in the foreseeable future.
Q. Did you know an Alaska?
A. That is the rare question that is too personal.
Q. Why have your books gotten “cleaner” over time?
A. I think The Fault in Our Stars is (for lack of a better word) dirtier than Katherines or Paper Towns. It certainly contains more sex and f-bombs.
But Alaska is my dirtiest book so far, I suppose, except maybe WGWG. Why? I wanted to write about sexuality and substance abuse because it felt true to the characters, who are in many ways more screwed up and self-destructive than the characters in my other books.
When you’re a teenager, you’re doing all kinds of important things for the first time, and in writing Alaska I wanted to deromanticize some of those firsts.
Q. What were some working titles for Looking for Alaska?
A. Misremembering Alaska
White Flowers and Warm Malt Liquor
The Great Perhaps
Searching for Alaska
Waiting for Alaska
Famous Last Words
There were many others. Looking for Alaska was suggested by my friend Keir Graff (who had not read the book at the time).
Q. What would you say to my friend who believes that it’s you perving on girls, not Pudge?
A. Look, both the reader and the writer have a job when it comes to books. The writer’s job is to give the reader some words to work with. The reader’s job is to make the best book s/he possibly can using those words.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but: If your friend cannot separate fiction from its author, then she’s not doing her job as a reader. This whole idea that authors who write about teenagers have some kind of romanticfixation on teenagers is really weird to me. No one ever accused Judy Blume of perving on teenagers, but it happens to male authors frequently.
So, yeah, let me just say this: Nothing personal, but I find high school students—all of them—completely and overwhelmingly unhot.
Q. My friends and I went to America and bought Strawberry Hill wine. We also made up ambrosia. Both tasted piss.
A. Yes, well, welcome to America!
Q. This is not so much a question as a thanks. When I was younger, I lost one of my closest friends, and we weren’t given the gift of ambiguity in his death, as we knew that he did indeed kill himself. It was very hard on our circle of friends, and this summer, LFA helped me get through it and finally put all that pain to rest, six years after the fact. I will be forever grateful for the solace this book gave me. Thank you.
A. I’m sorry about your friend.
I’m also really grateful that you felt like I captured something authentic about the experience of loss and grief, and that it resonated even years later.
You did the work, though: You found the solace. You lived with and in and through pain and kept going, so give yourself some credit, too. I’m very glad if my little book could be helpful, but it was your reading of it more than my writing of it that made the consolation possible.
So thank you.
Q. Did the candle wax volcano inspire the cover?
A. The cover had a candle on it because the original cover featured only the smoke, but then certain bookstore chains that are no longer in business said they wouldn’t carry the cover face-out unless a candle was added because the smoke “looked like cigarette smoke.” (Of course, it is cigarette smoke.)
So the candle is unrelated to Alaska’s volcano.
Q. Why is “Looking for Alaska” not capitalized on the cover? What about the before and after divisions?
A. I didn’t make those capitalization decisions; they were made by the book’s designer, so you’d have to ask her.