Questions about Paper Towns (SPOILERS!)
NOTE: This page is for people who have read Paper Towns. As such, it contains numerous huge spoilers. If you have not read Paper Towns, 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…
The Ending/After the Ending
Questions about Writing the Book and My Inspiration
Q. What was your inspiration? What compelled you to tell the story?
A. Well, 1. I wanted to write a mystery. I really like mystery novels, and I wanted to try to write one. Also 2. I was really bothered by the way that I was seeing people idealize (and thereby dehumanize) the people they were romantically interested in. Whether it’s Edward Cullen or the beautiful girl in biology class, I feel like we consistently treat the people we’re infatuated with as if they aren’t regular people but instead something more and better. So I wanted to write a mystery in which the obstacle was ultimately that one character (Quentin) has so profoundly and consistently misimagined another character (Margo) that he can’t find her–not because she’s hard to find but because in a sense he’s looking for the wrong person. And then also 3. I wanted to write a story about Orlando, because I grew up there, and 4. I wanted to write about the weird cartographic phenomenon of Paper Towns, because they’ve interested me ever since I found out about them in college.
Q. Where’d you get the idea for Black Santas?
A. Well, I will repeat again that books belong to their readers, so you take away from it whatever you want to take away from it, but: When I was growing up I had a girlfriend whose parents had a huge Santa collection, so the possibility was lodged in my brain. I wanted the black Santas because the novel is about how we imagine people (how Q imagines Margo, for instance), places (how Agloe was imagined into existence), and our stories (like Santa). It says a lot about us that we imagine Santa as white (particularly given that St. Nick, on whom Santa is based, looks like this). So Radar’s parents are trying to get us to imagine Santa differently, which is actually (I would argue) pretty important.
Q. Why did you sometimes switch from writing in past tense to writing in present tense?
A. So when people tell stories, they often switch from past to present tense—sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. Often, they do this because whatever they’re describing in the present tense feels so immediate and unresolved to them that it seems as if it is still happening, even though the events of the story occurred in the past.
So you might tell a story of the time your car hit a deer by saying, “So I was driving down the highway listening to Aerosmith’s new album and then BAM out of nowhere This deer jumps out and destroys my windshield.”
Putting aside the question of why you were listening to the new Aerosmith album, there’s the question of why you changed tenses when telling that story. I think it’s because driving down the highway is something you’re accustomed to and reconciled to and can definitely see as being an event in the past.
But the deer hitting your windshield was so shocking and scary that it feels as if you are still experiencing it, so you tell this part of the story in the present tense.
This happens all the time in regular human conversation, and I wanted to use this to give the reader a sense of immediacy and disquiet when Q switches to the present tense. When he narrates in the present, he’s talking about things that shake him so deeply that he doesn’t feel like they happened; he feels like they are still happening.
Q. Did you write Paper Towns at a time in your life when “imagining people complexly” became an important idea to you? The characters in Looking for Alaska don’t seem to have to address this issue as much as the characters in Paper Towns.
A. Well, it was important to me when writing Alaska, too, but in the respond to that novel it became obvious to me that I hadn’t made my point about imagining people complexly as clearly or forthrightly as I’d wanted to.
(The nature of the story arc in Alaska makes it difficult to give Alaska, as a character, the agency she deserves.)
I also think I was inundated with examples of people imagining their romantic others as more than human. There was at the time the literal example of this in Twilight, but I was also become aware of the way that this romanticization had harmed people in my own life, and all the ways that I’d failed to unmoor myself from my particular point of view.
All writing and reading is really deep down about empathy, so hopefully this has been a consistent theme in my books, but with Paper Towns I really wanted to put it front and center.
Q. Where did you come up with “honeybunnies”?
A. I don’t know, but I remember where I was when I wrote that: I was in the basement of the Yeti’s parents’ house. I was just imagining Ben’s voice and how overbearing he would be and the word honeybunnies popped into my head.
Q. How did you come up with the opening scene?
A. Initially, it was a guy falling out of the sky from an airplane, which happens sometimes (usually it’s people stowing away in airplane wheel wells). They were out there playing in Baldwin Park and then a guy fell out of the sky, and the whole novel was about Margo’s search for this guy’s story and his family, etc.
This was the same first draft that involved like tens of thousands of words devoted to the glorious history of the post office box in America. It had a lot of problems.
But then when discussing it with Julie, I came around to the idea that for the event to be really creepy and disturbing in a way that would tie Margo and Q together for the rest of their childhoods, it should be as realistic as possible.
Q. When you write, do you ever find yourself laughing at your own jokes?
A. Not usually, but I laughed at all of Ben’s jokes about his balls. And I laughed about the beer sword.
I laughed at and with Ben a lot when writing Paper Towns, actually, because (for better or worse) Ben is a lot like my high school self.
Q. Where did you get your ideas for Margo?
A. If I was going to identify one person in my life who influenced the character of Margo, it would be my friend Jon. There were a lot of things that went into thinking about Margo—considerations of how we romanticize the people we love, the ceaseless urge that some people feel to get the hell out of their hometowns, how weird it can feel to be popular but not have anyone actually know very much about you, etc.
But I was also thinking a lot about my friend Jon, who just seemed much larger to life than me in high school. Like, he flew to Havana to sell Levi’s blue jeans on the black market when he was sixteen. He hopped on freight trains and rode them out of state to win $10 bets. And then later in life he was arrested in Central Asia on false charged after 9/11, traveled much of the world, started companies in Turkey and China, and so on.
He’s a really fascinating guy, and I think he is just governed by different rules than most people. Things that make most people uncomfortable or scared make Jon excited. And I got to thinking, What if Jon had been a girl, complete with all the weird expectations we place on young women in our society?
And that’s where the character of Margo started, I guess.
Q. Where did you get the ideas for Margo’s pranks?
A. Sarah came up with most of them. Sarah helps a lot with all the intricate plotty stuff that I suck at.
Q. Did the ending to Paper Towns change over the course of revisions?
A. Everything in my books is constantly shifting in the first few drafts. So initially the book ended in Kashmir, with an earthquake, in this crazy miniaturized city of sculptures. Then it ended in an amusement park in Iowa.
It took me a while to get to Agloe, and then longer still to realize that Ben and Radar and Lacey needed to go with Q. This inevitably sounds like a quick process when you’re writing a couple paragraphs about it, but this evolution occurred over a few years. I ended up writing the entire road trip over the course of two very long days writing with Maureen Johnson, still the most productive two days of my life. (I wrote 7,000 words, most of which ended up in the book.)
I often think, man if I could just have days like those two back in New York, I could write a book in a month. But…yeah. That’s not how it works for me, sadly.
Q. How did you come up with Q and Margo breaking into Sea World?
A. I knew a lot of people who broke into Sea World when I was growing up in Orlando.
Q. While reading, I noticed a lot of links to Looking for Alaska. Mostly small things like the fact that both Alaska and Margo use the color blue to seek revenge on their enemies (hair dye/spray paint), pink wine shows up in both books, the phrase “irreparably broken” is written in both, and then the similarities between Margo and Alaska in that they are both unhappy, intellectual girls who are seen as something greater than they are by Pudge and Q. Was this purposefully done?
A. It was purposeful in the sense that I felt that in many ways I’d failed in Alaska to adequately address the danger of imagining our romantic interests as something more or greater than human.
That said, Alaska isn’t the only story in our culture that struggles to portray women as more than mysterious nymphs who float into the lives of men, change those men for the better, and then float away. This is a widespread trope in contemporary storytelling, and it’s also not specific to women: There is also the more-than-human (usually older, usually physically strong, frequently wealthy) man who swoops in and cares for the awkward, clumsy, just-a-regular-person woman.
Paper Towns was partly by inspired by my desire to respond to those gender constructions, and more generally to the difficulty of imagining others complexly. It seems to me that the central problem of being a person is that it is extremely hard to empathize with other people, and Paper Towns is an exploration of how we learn to empathize, even with people who may be super annoying or make terrible choices.
Q. Was Margo Roth Spiegelman in any way a reflection of how you felt when you were her age?
A. Well, sure, yes.
Like, there is a lot of talk among people about not participating in evil systems and not wanting to be fully integrated into a social order that has a deformed conscience. (We all do this: Almost all of our lives require an underclass. Like, if you drive a car or are often driven around in one, it’s worth remembering that if even half of the world’s population treated cars as Europeans and Americans do, gas prices would be >$10 a gallon and carbon emissions would be insanely high.)
But almost every human being ends up integrating into the social order anyway. A famous example of this is Mark Twain, who wrote about roustabouts and troublemakers and created, in the form of Huck Finn, the greatest rebel in American fiction, a boy who heroically refused the so-called “civilizing” forces of class consciousness and institutionalized racism.
But Mark Twain himself was fully integrated into his social order. He sought wealth and powerful friends and lived in a fancy house, etc.
So of course sitting in my suburban home with my very socially integrated life I am going to fantasize about making the radical choices. But I wanted to make it clear in the novel that the radical choices are not easy and also not easily justified: It’s not at all clear to me that Margo’s choices are more heroic than Quentin’s. I am personally very old-fashioned and pragmatic in my values, and I think very highly of political, economic, and social stability. I think there is a quiet heroism to such stability. But I also think it can be bold and brave to decide to lead a very different life and to pursue goals that the social order doesn’t value.
Q. So Bluefin doesn’t actually exist?
A. That really depends on how you define “actually” and “exist.”
Q. Did any of your experiences and memories of Orlando inspire parts of the book?
A. Dr. Jefferson is based on Dr. Philip Philips, for whom half of Orlando is named. (Dr. Philips had a legit medical degree from Columbia University, though.) I grew up in Audubon Park (on Leu Road) but based Margo and Q’s neighborhood on the Baldwin Park neighborhood, which was built on the site of the old Orlando naval training center.
The naval training center loomed large in my childhood: Many of my friends’ parents worked on the base, and there was this huge fake ship I could see on my drive to middle school that the sailors-to-be used for practice. Of course, it’s completely insane to build a naval training center in Orlando, which is sixty miles from the coast, but something about these real sailors practicing war on this fake ship really appealed to my feeling that everything was phony and inauthentic and ridiculous.
More than Disney World or Universal Studios, that fake ship anchored in the thick grass of central Florida seemed magical, and I am very grateful to have lived near such beautiful folly.
Why Did I…
Q. Why was Lacey’s screen name “sackclothandashes”?
A. It’s a Biblical reference intended to subtly indicate Lacey’s religiosity.
Q. Why did you use the names Q, Ben, Radar, and Lacey?
A. Q: I liked the idea that Margo Roth Spiegelman had this massively polysyllabic name that most people use in its entirety, and that Q’s name was a single letter (and an interrogative one).
Radar: Among all the characters in the book, he is the one with the best sense of where people actually are.
Lacey Pemberton: Just liked the sound of it.
Ben Starling: Just liked the sound of it.
(Of course there may be useful/interesting resonances to these names or any others outside of what I intended, and if so, yay!)
Q. Why is there so much emphasis on Margo’s nail polish?
A. Well, there are a couple ways you could read it, I guess:
1. Nail polish is this traditionally feminine object, and Q is in many ways seeing this female person primarily as an object throughout must of the novel.
Also, 2. You could think about color and the way colors like black, red, and white are used in the novel, and what then a redblack nail polish color might mean.
Also, 3. You could just choose not to find that stuff very interesting/important, or 4. find some interesting connection to stuff that I can’t find. This is the pleasure of reading: It’s up to you!
Q. Why did you have Radar’s parents collect Black Santas?
A. When I was growing up I had a girlfriend whose parents had a huge Santa collection, so the possibility of such a thing was already lodged in my brain.
I wanted the black Santas because the novel is about how we imagine people (how Q imagines Margo, for instance), places (how Agloe was imagined into existence), and our stories (like Santa). It says a lot about us that we imagine Santa as a heterosexual white male (particularly given that St. Nick, on whom Santa is based, looks like this).
So Radar’s parents are trying to get us to imagine Santa differently and more complexly.
Q. Why are all of the streets in Q’s neighborhood named after the same person (Jefferson Road, Jefferson Way, Jefferson Court, etc.)?
A. It was just meant to indicate the lack of creativity and sameness in the design of Q and Margo’s neighborhood, which is part of what Margo finds so completely unbearable.
Q. Why the name “Myrna Mountweazel”?
A. Myrna because it sounded good with Mountweazel. Mountweazel because of reasons.
Q. Does Dr. Jefferson Jefferson change his name to “Dr.” despite not actually being a doctor because of the whole theme of the novel about people not actually being who they pretend to be, like Margo not actually being the crazy, adventurous, fun-loving girl she says she is?
A. Well, I wanted to write—as I often do—about the relationship between given identities and chosen identities.
When you’re a teenager, you have to make a lot of decisions about which of your given identities you’re going to hold onto, and which you’re going to abandon. Like, say you were raised going to church every Sunday. Well, to be honest, you probably didn’t have much say in whether you went to church. But at some point, that WILL be your decision, and that identity will shift from given to chosen.
But there are a billion examples of this in adolescence. And I think that’s why we talk so much about being phony or fake and so on: Teenagers are beginning to realize that these identities are very complicated and fluid, and that can make them feel inauthentic.
So if your name is Jefferson Jefferson and then you go to court and have your name changed to Dr. Jefferson Jefferson, with Dr. as your first name, are you a doctor? Of course you’re not. But then you also are a doctor, because everyone calls you doctor and everyone assumes you’re a doctor. You are something to others but not to yourself, which is an experience a lot of us have as teenagers (and afterward, for that matter).
Margo especially goes through this, because the way people think of her is not at all the way she thinks of herself, and the interior life people imagine her having is wildly different from her actual interior life. So I wanted to use Dr. Jefferson Jefferson as a way of beginning that book-long conversation about whether your you-ness is imposed from within or from without.
Q. In many of your books, the main character has a very extroverted best friend. Why do you do this?
A. Well, I think people who narrate stories tend to be naturally a bit introspective, because the rest of people are busy out, like, living their lives, rather than obsessively trying to chronicle life. This is a very old convention in storytelling, and I certainly didn’t invent it, but it’s always struck me as both enjoyable and authentic.
I did try to play with it a bit more sophisticatedly in TFiOS, where Hazel is making a journey toward that extroverted kind of life and Augustus is making a journey away from it.
Questions about My Beliefs and Opinions
Q. You seem particularly interested in road trips. Why?
A. Well, road trips are a good example of a thing we all do in our real lives that is a metaphorical action.
When you go on a road trip, you are not only hoping that your geography will change: You’re hoping that the literal journey will be accompanied by an emotional or spiritual journey, and that you will come home different. So I think I keep returning to them because as a teenager, road trips were one of the places where metaphor was real and alive and relevant to me. And I like metaphors that are born of life instead of imposed upon a narrative.
Also, from Huck Finn to A Confederacy of Dunces to On the Road, road trips have become one of the most distinctively American symbols. And while I certainly don’t fancy myself an important American writer or anything, I am conscious of being an American writing about the United States, and the idea of lighting out for the territories is a very important one to our national imagination.
Q. Isn’t answering all of these questions contradictory to your stance that books belong to their readers?
A. It’s all a fine line, because like
1. Authorial intent matters at least SOME, right? If reading a novel is going to be a conversation between the author and the reader, the author’s voice does matter.
But on the other hand, 1a. the author’s only real job is to write the story and leave the rest to readers.
However, 2. It seems to be useful to some readers to be able to ask me questions about intent or inspiration or process, and I’m happy to answer those questions, because it’s also helpful for me to think about intent and inspiration and process.
3. You’re definitely right that all these questions are sort of tangential to the actual business of reading books, because most of reading is about story and emotional involvement and being transported into the lives of others so that you can experience radical empathy and feel more unalone in the world, and while metaphor and symbolism and language choices are all part of that experience, they aren’t the core of it.
Q. Radar points out that Q keeps “expecting people not to be themselves.” How do you think this pertains to real friendships and relationships? At what point do differences make a relationship not worth continuing?
A. It’s also very difficult to maintain a friendship with someone who is very similar to you, because the overarching problem is that no one knows what it is like to be you.
When you break your arm, for instance, other people may feel very sorry for you, and they may be very nice and understanding about it, but the only person who experiences the pain and inconvenience of your broken arm is you.
This is a real problem among humans, because we are always trying to get people to listen to us, and we are always failing, because no one can understand my broken arm like I can. I think this is part of what Radar is saying in that conversation, that Q needs to reconcile himself to the fact that when it comes to knowing and loving each other, empathy is an imperfect tool but the only one we have.
Q. The novel says that it’s a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person and more than words like “nice,” “smart, etc.” How do you think of someone as a human being?
A. Right, so when you imagine yourself, you think of yourself as a massively complex individual. You may hate yourself or like yourself or whatever, but you certainly think of yourself as fully human. As Whitman puts it, “I contain multitudes.”
The problem is that your brain is the only brain you’ll ever have; your eyes are the only eyes you’ll ever see out of; your experiences are the only experiences you’ll ever know as your own. This is what makes it so easy to dehumanize people—to say, for instance, as Aristotle famously did, that some people are just naturally born to be slaves. But it also makes it easy to dehumanize people in subtler ways. (I’d argue, for instance, that I am able to spend $90 a month on cable television while 2 billion people live on less than $60 a month only because I do not feel those people’s joy and pain and desire as acutely as I feel my own. If I did feel every individual’s need as acutely as I feel my own, I would almost certainly forego cable TV and send that money to those who need it for food and shelter.) But in addition to dehumanizing people, we can also imagine them as more than human: When we think of celebrities, or those we love romantically, we may see this as superhumanly free from the fear and pain and despair that plague the rest of us.
So anyway the task of understanding the reality of other people’s experience is incredibly difficult, because you are stuck being you, and can never even for one second be them. But this is true not only for people who live very different lives from yours, but also for those closest to you. You see everybody in your life in the context of you: YOUR sister, YOUR best friend, YOUR mom, YOUR nemesis, whatever. But they do not see themselves that way. They see themselves as the center of history, just as you see yourself.
This turns out to be a really big problem that (at least in my experience) can only be solved by empathy, an imperfect and incomplete tool (see my $90 monthly cable bill) but the best one we have.
Q. Do you see your female characters as Manic Pixie Dream Girls?
A. No, but I’m not a 16-year-old boy.
I mean, I don’t think I romanticize the life of any human being, except maybe Steven Gerrard.
I look at Kristen Stewart or Britney Spears or One Direction or whomever, and mostly I only see the pure terror and misery of never getting to be away from being one’s performed self, which is the problem that Margo Roth Spiegelman has in this novel, although her performed self is played out on a tiny stage.
Paper Towns is a novel about the problem of imagining other people as manic pixie dream girls (or manic pixie dream boys, for that matter). No one IS a manic pixie dream girl; they’re just constructed that way by those observing them.
Q. One of your characters claims that Tomorrowland is the worst of the lands in Magic Kingdom. Do you stand by this belief?
A. I hate all of Disney World equally. I hate every square inch of it, except for
1. The Hall of Presidents, which I merely dislike.
2. The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, which I have mixed feelings about.
Other than that, I hate the whole thing with a fiery unrepentant passion. I grew up in Orlando, so it is my birthright to hate Disney World. The mere phrase “The Magic Kingdom” makes me throw up in my mouth a little.
I for one am glad to have thrown off the oppressive shackles of monarchies in favor of representative government, and I don’t like going back to Disney and having to imagine that I am the subject of a King, particularly when the king in question is a large talking mouse partly responsible for the destruction of reasonable copyright law in the United States.
Questions about the Ending and After
Q. Do you always like to leave a little bit of ambiguity at the end of your novels for the reader to decide?
A. Well, ambiguity is inherent to writing novels unless you take things to a serious extreme. Like—without spoiling it—you could argue that the very end of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle is unambiguous, but that’s the only novel I can remember reading that doesn’t end with some ambiguity.
Ron and Hermione are married? Okay, but when do they die? When do their children die? When does the world end? Does the world end for wizards and muggles alike or only for wizards? What happens to the house elves? Do they go to war for independence? There are always questions that a reader can ask about what happens after the end of a story; there is always more to tell. For me, that’s one of the pleasures of reading.
I try to leave my characters in a place that is fair to them and fair to the reader. I feel like that’s the best we can do in a world that’s so defined by its unknowns.
Q. What happened after the end of the book?
A. You guys.
Questions about Specific Quotations
Q. In the passage where Q says, “Margo’s beauty was a kind of sealed vessel or perfection – uncracked and uncrackable,” were you intentionally making a point about the way Q views Margo?
A. Yeah, that was purposeful, but this is a great example of books belonging to their readers and how it doesn’t really matter whether it was purposeful.
Let’s say that I included that by accident—like, in that moment of writing, I just thought of Q thinking of Margo as a sealed vessel.
And then much later in the novel, I happened to have Q and Margo to cracked vessels, and argue that the only way light can get in and out of those vessels is via the cracks.
Let’s just imagine that’s a total coincidence and meant nothing to the author.
It can still be useful and meaningful to us, because it can still be a way into thinking about how imagining people as human (rather than uncracked and uncrackable sealed perfection) proves not only to be more accurate but ultimately a lot more fulfilling.
So that journey—from imagining the other as a sealed vessel to imagining the other as a cracked one—is kind of the journey of adolescence, the journey toward empathy. Intent is irrelevant there. The thing stands on its own. (…if it’s any good, at least.)
Q. At the party when Q goes to talk with Lacey in the bathtub, you describe her as wearing a sleeveless t-shirt. What is a sleeveless t-shirt?
A. I imagined one of those scoop-necked cotton tops with relatively narrow straps, I think. The pleasure of writing from Q’s perspective is that you don’t need to use particularly precise language when it comes to girl clothes, because what the hell does he know about girl clothes?
Questions about Symbols and Metaphors
Q. Some of the metaphors you used (strings, grass, vessel) seem to be very straightforward, and explained by characters who were figuring them out for themselves. Was this because you were writing for young adults?
A. I never think about the fact that I’m writing YA, or think of my audience as less intelligent than any other people. (I don’t really think adults are smarter than teens. In some ways, because teenagers are reading critically for classes on a daily basis, they have a leg up when it comes to certain kinds of reading.)
There are plenty of metaphors in Paper Towns that are less straightforward than the strings, the grass, and the vessel. But I wanted Q to be conscious of the way metaphor was interfering in his actual life—like, that metaphor and symbolism are not mere literary constructs. They’re human constructs, like most kinds of meaning. When you say, “If I hit this free throw, that girl I like will want to go out with me,” that’s a kind of symbolic thinking. When you look at a lone tree in a huge corn field and imagine it to be lonely, that’s metaphor working in your life.
The metaphors that you mention more from concrete to abstract, right? “The strings” is something Margo says, something that is placed verbally in front of him. “The grass” is slightly more abstract, because it’s something he reads. He has to translate the symbols on the page into ideas. “The vessel” is still more abstract, because Q and Margo themselves construct it together to help them understand their feelings and experiences.
This movement toward abstraction in symbolic thinking is (I think) a big part of adolescence, and I wanted to try to reflect that in the novel. That said, I didn’t want them to burden the novel. I wanted it to be fun to read, etc. I mean, we are talking about a book with a lot of “world’s largest balls” jokes, after all.
Q. What is the beer sword a metaphor for?
A. Well, it’s an extremely phallic object physically inseparable from a male adolescent, so it could probably be read as having some things to say about intertwining mythologizing of alcohol and masculinity.
Or it could just be a beer sword. Up to the reader, as usual.
Q. Where did the strings metaphor come from?
A. Someone said it to me once, after a friend had attempted suicide, that “maybe all the strings inside him broke,” and I liked that image a lot because 1. puppets, and 2. We are all aware that there is this emotional/psychological life inside of us, right? But it’s very difficult to talk about, because it doesn’t have a physical location.
When your back hurts, it’s relatively easy to address this problem using language: You say, “My back hurts,” and I can understand what you mean, because I also have a back, and it has hurt before, and I remember that pain, which makes it easier for me to empathize with you.
It is much harder for me to empathize with you if what hurts is abstract. When people are imagining sadness or despair, they often try to render it in terms we find familiar. You often hear, “My heart hurts,” for instance, or “My heart is broken.” This problem, of course, is not actually in the heart.
(I do think a lot of people feel emotional pain physically near the solar plexus, but it’s not the physical manifestation of emotional pain that makes it so difficult: It’s the emotional/psychological/spiritual/whatever pain itself, which you can’t describe easily in concrete terms.)
To talk about emotional pain (and lots of other emotional experiences), we are forced to use abstractions. (“My heart is broken,” is a symbolic statement.) And many people feel, in this world driven by data and statistics and concreteness, that abstractions are inherently kind of less valid than concrete observations. But emotional experience is as real and as valid as physical experience. And the fact that we have to use metaphor and symbolism to describe that pain effectively does not make it less real—just as abstract paintings are not inherently inferior to representational paintings.
You often hear in high school English classes, for instance, that thinking about symbols is dumb or useless or “ruining the book.” But underneath it all, this is why we have language in the first place. We don’t really need language to share the news of your back pain: You can point at your back and grimace to tell me that your back hurts, and I can nod sympathetically.
But to explain to you the nature and nuance of my grief or pain or joy, I need abstractions. I need symbols. And the better our symbols are, the more clearly we’ll be able to communicate with each other, and the more fully we’ll be able to imagine each other’s experience. Good symbolism makes empathy easier.
So why the strings? The strings inside a person breaking struck me as a better and more accurate abstract description of despair than anthropomorphized symbols (broken heart, etc.).
And this is very important to remember when reading or writing or painting or talking or whatever: You are never, ever choosing whether to use symbols. You are choosing which symbols to use.
Questions about Allusions and References
Q. Was the reference to Moby Dick related to Q? Can you answer the English teacher’s question of whether Ahab (or Q) was tragically heroic or just an obsessed madman?
A. Yeah, I wanted Ahab’s obsession with the whale to mirror Q’s obsession with Margo, but I wanted to make that connection in part so that it would be very clear that Q’s obsession with Margo is inherently objectifying. He’s not seeing her as a person. He’s seeing her as Ahab saw the whale.
As for the English teacher’s question, I think Q finds a hero’s journey, but I don’t think he starts off on one.
I think Ahab is a tragic hero, but that’s easy for me to say, as I was not a sailor aboard the Pequod.
Q. Are the pins and q-tips Quentin finds in the desk at the abandoned mall a reference to “Cotton” by the Mountain Goats?
A. I was conscious of the reference, yes.
Questions about Margo
Q. Is the reader supposed to like Margo?
A. I don’t really think characters need to be likable for stories to be worth reading.
To quote myself: “I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books a supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of crating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.”
Did I intend Margo to be likable? I intended her to be complex. I wanted her to be someone the reader could learn to empathize with, someone who makes very different decisions from most of us but whose decisions have a kind of internal consistency and integrity that makes them morally defensible. (She can of course be very shallow and selfish, but I would argue that basically all of us are shallow and selfish.)
Mostly, I wanted the reader to be conscious that s/he is only seeing Margo through Q’s eyes, and that Q—at least for much of the novel—knows absolutely nothing about the girl he says he loves.
Q. Can you explain the significance of Margo’s name?
A. Margo’s name has go in it; I guess that’s probably the reason I chose it. Her last name, Spiegelman, means “mirror maker” in German—like, the guy in the German villages who made the mirrors was the spiegelman. And Margo functions as a mirror to the other characters in the novel: What they see when they look at Margo ends up saying a lot more about them than it says about Margo herself.
Roth once meant red in German, and I wanted to give Margo (in the subtlest way possible since I have a color name and I didn’t want people connecting her to me) a color name, because so much of the imagery in the novel is either black (black Santas) or white (the great white wall of cow).
The black things in the novel tend to be expressions of how human endow things with meaning, whether well or poorly; the white things tend to be things that are menacingly void of meaning and totally apathetic to us (the walls of the school, the cow).
Q. Is Margo supposed to be Jewish?
A. This is one of those, “God I wrote that book so long ago” questions. I assumed that Margo and Q were both Jewish, but if it is not explicitly stated as such in the text, then my assumptions should be irrelevant. (I thought it was in the text at one point? But maybe not? I don’t know. God I wrote that book so long ago.)
Q. She makes a comment about using her Bat Mitzvah money for her escapades.
A. Aha! So she IS Jewish!
Q. Why does Margo use weird capitalization?
A. Well, she says herself that she feels like traditional rules of capitalization are unfair to the words in the middle. Margo is super concerned with the way that people’s conformity and lack of intellectual curiosity makes life less interesting than it ought to be, and this seemed like a good (and very teenage) expression of her concern.
(That said, there are very good reasons why we do not capitalize random words in the middle of sentences.)
Q. If Margo is so concerned about fairly capitalizing all words, why doesn’t she capitalize letters in the middle of words?
A. I think she is concerned about the words, not the letters. Maybe I should’ve had her be concerned about the letters. That would’ve been a little more metaphorically resonant.
Questions about Q
Q. Isn’t it pretty selfish for Q to skip graduation for someone that only paid attention to him once?
A. I mean, bear in mind that he thinks this girl is going to die.
If I were like, “You can either go to your graduate or potentially keep someone from dying,” you would probably choose the latter, whether you knew the person or not.
Furthermore, it all feeds his (wrong-headed) notion of knight-in-shining-armor-saving-damsel-in-distress heroism, which in Q’s defense is so widely and deeply celebrated in our culture that it would take superhuman effort to escape it.
Q. Why wasn’t Q in band with Radar and Ben?
A. I liked the idea that he really had no built-in social network (in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase), that he was friends with Ben and Radar but separated from them for large swaths of time while they were doing band stuff. I needed Q to be isolated because I needed him to see himself in Margo when she talked about her own feelings of social isolation. Instead of actually hearing her when she’s talking, all he’s seeing is himself reflected back, which of course makes him think that he and Margo are perfect for each other.
Questions about Radar
Q. Why was Radar so obsessed with fixing Omnictionary?
A. Well, Radar really values knowledge and empathy and understanding. And the whole project of wikipedia (or omnictionary) is a battle between those who seek to inform the world and preserve knowledge, and those who seek to destroy knowledge and spread disinformation.
(This is why I oppose wikipedia vandalism—even very clever wikipedia vandalism like Margo’s.)
So I wanted him to be a committed omnictionary editor because I wanted him to be someone who stands for knowledge and understanding and balance and fairness and all the values that well-curated wikis celebrate.
Questions about the Film
Q. Is there going to be a movie?
A. Yes! The movie will be released on July 24, 2015. Paper Towns is directed by Jake Schreier and stars Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, and Jaz Sinclair. I’m so so excited for everyone to see it!
Q. Is Agloe pronounced like Aglow or like AGG-low?
A. I suspect if I say one more time that books belong to their readers you will potentially punch me in the face, but books belong to their readers. Never has this been more true than in the example of Agloe, which I didn’t even invent. (I’ve never heard any cartographer familiar with the story say Agloe out loud, so I don’t know how they say it, either.) I happen to say it AGG-low; my lovely editor Julie Strauss-Gabel happens to say it Aglow. It’s up to you!
Q. Can you explain the title?
A. Sure. The phrase “Paper Towns” is used in three different ways in the three different parts of the novel.
In the first part, “The Strings,” Margo and Q use the phrase “paper town” to refer to Orlando, and Margo calls it a “paper town” because it’s flimsy and planned—from above, Orlando looks very much like a city that someone built out of origami or something. But of course what Margo’s REALLY doing by using this phrase is giving Q a clue. She’s doing a lot of things that night that he misreads, and this is one of them.
In the second part, “The Grass,” Q discovers a new meaning for “paper towns.” He learns that they can refer to subdivisions that were started and then abandoned—subdivisions that exist on paper but not (entirely) in real life. These abandoned subdivisions are pretty common in Florida.
In the final part, “The Vessel,” Q learns a third meaning of “paper towns,” this weird cartographic phenomena wherein mapmakers will insert fake places (called copyright traps or paper towns) onto their maps to make sure no one is copying their maps. It is through this that he eventually finds Agloe, a town that was fake but then made real by virtue of having been put on a map, and in doing so finds Margo.
Basically, I wanted a different definition of “paper towns” for each section of the book, each representing a different way of his imagining Margo. In the first part, he’s viewing Margo very one-dimensionally. She’s paper-thin to him; she is nothing but the object of his affection. In the second part, he’s seeing a girl who’s half there and half not—so he’s thinking about her with more complexity but still not really thinking of her as a human being. In the final part of the novel, his complex imagining reconnects him to her, albeit not in the way he might’ve hoped.
Q. Which cover of Paper Towns do you prefer?
A. The one with the map on it. I don’t like covers with human faces on them, as a rule.
Q. Fear seems to be a concept that comes up often in Paper Towns, right down to the “fear that makes us bury our dead” excerpt. Do you think of this more as a characterization emphasizing Q’s anxiety or a recurring theme in the story throughout?
A. Well, Q is a very anxious person, and his life is circumscribed by that anxiety, but not always in unhealthy ways. (The quote above is a good thing, right? It’s good to bury our dead. It decreases disease transmittal.)
More generally, I was really interested in thinking about the ways that fear works—all the ways in which it can be helpful, and also all the ways in which it can be destructive. And I also wanted to think similarly about fearlessness.
When I was writing the book, I kept thinking of a conversation I had with my high school best friend, who was extremely ambitious and bright and also somewhat poor. We were at McDonald’s, and I was talking about going out that night and trying to meet up with this girl I liked, and Todd was like, “I’m gonna stay home and do some work.”
And I told him, “Carpe diem,” and he said, “If I only think about maximizing the pleasure of today, how am I ever going to get into med school?”
So you could argue that I was being bold and fearless* and that Todd was being ruled by his fear of poverty or failure or whatever. But the truth is a lot more complicated than that, and I wanted to explore that stuff.
* You could also argue that I was being fearful by not applying myself as completely as I could to my studies, for fear that my best still wouldn’t be very good.
Q. Have you ever thought about turning one of your novels into sequels?
A. I certainly don’t have any plans to write sequels. It would be hard to take up any of the characters from any of my books again (except maybe Hassan from Katherines) just because I don’t know that I could ever get their voices back into my head to my satisfaction.
I’m not going to say a flat no to this question, because some day I might have an idea I like or I’ll need money or something, but one of the big pleasures of writing for me is being done.
Q. What titles did you consider before coming up with “Paper Towns”?
A. More Light Than Heat. I was really in love with that one for a long time. (Shakespeare)
Love Loves to Love Love. I thought that one was a hot slice of clever. (Joyce)
The Life and Hard Times of Margo Roth Spiegelman.
Chasing Margo. This ended up being the German title.
Margo Roth Spiegelman: An Incomplete Life
They were all more pretentious than Paper Towns. I come up with like 1,000 titles, and then Sarah and Julie laugh at me for my pretentiousness and we try to settle on the least pretentious title. I don’t know how I ever got The Fault in Our Stars past their pretention detectors.