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…
My Beliefs/Opinions
The Ending/After the Ending
Specific Quotations
The Film

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!

Other Questions

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.

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allison May 15, 2015 at 12:03 am

Why don’t you make any more of your books into movies. Its very cool when I can picture your fantastic books in my mind, then compare them to the movie such as in “Fault In Our Stars. ” Have you ever talked to fans to pick up ideas? You should do some more books. I LOVE THEM. A great fan of your writings, and “youtubing” – Allison


Amelia May 17, 2015 at 5:26 pm

What does intrigue Margo to pick the pranks that she used against Jason? I understand why she did the pranks. But why salmon? Why the ridiculous photo?


Serenity May 19, 2015 at 7:03 pm

What happens after they part ways? Do they ever see each other again? What about Q and his friends? Does Margo enjoy her time traveling? Does she ever go back home to tell her parents about her plans?


mlezarbi June 16, 2015 at 11:21 am

“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.”
“It’s up to you!” quote end.

He used this statement a lot and I guess it’s a possible answer for your questions, too ;)
I’d say that at some point the characters have developed their personality and kind of lead their own life, even in the author’s imagination. It just comes along with their characteristics. And when you close the book, the story will continue in your head, they will continue living their lives and they do it differently in everyone’s imagination depending on how you saw them. So: It’s up to you!


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The first book by John Green that I read was tfios but surprisingly I didn’t like it as much as everyone else seemed to…
About two weeks ago I then got Paper Towns into my hands and oh. It. was. so. amazing. I always had to think about that there is a person behind these words, behind the minds of the characters and all of those thoughtful and inspiring metaphors and thoughts: John Green. And I definitely take my hat off to him for his talent to express feelings and come up with such perfect metaphors. Not only has he a very unique way to see his surroundings, but also is he so down-on-earth and living life to the fullest, having a YouTube channel besides his writing and a close and easy connection to his fans.
What he says about admiring and perfectionizing people is rather hard to do with him; he’s enjoying everything he does and is just so natural and open-minded and sometimes has some really weird ideas but I love that about him.
I really really liked reading about what he was thinking while writing Paper Towns and where his ideas came from.


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Shahroz June 24, 2015 at 6:43 am

this book is just like story of my whole life..!!!!
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but heres a thought , your books the fault in our stars,paper towns and looking for alaska they are all so alike that the reader can predict the ending either the boy dies or left or the girl dies or left.It shouldn’t be the that way it should be unexpected,unthinkable like The Alchemist . All in all it was worth a 4 star.


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Simran July 9, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Did Margo ever go back to Florida once Q talked to her?


Morgan July 20, 2015 at 7:09 pm

Had you not already written and published Looking for Alaska, would you have considered Looking for Margo as an alternative title to Paper Towns?


undecisive July 26, 2015 at 10:30 pm

after watching the film adaptation of Paper Towns today, i’m left feeling pretty conflicted.
(i have not read the book, but after seeing the movie, i don’t really want to)

i was really enjoying the movie, up until the ending… why would you make it so in the end, Q and Margo never get together??
the whole movie that’s seemingly what the ending will inevitably be (that they end up together), and then it’s just not…

it left me feeling really disappointed. like, if i was Q, i’d be feeling so darn depressed and disappointed. he traveled all that way, just to get rejected basically and leave an hour after he finally finds her, after just spending at least a week trying to track her down.

i mean, i get that they have different lives, different personalities, different ideas of the future, but still… i definitely could have seen them working out. and they definitely should have.

but i know nothing can change about it now. i was maybe hoping for a sequel, but then i read that you aren’t planning to write one, which is only adding to my despair…

maybe i’m being a bit overdramatic with all this, but i take movies seriously and the endings literally make or break a movie for me. so in the end, i’m not even sure what my opinion on this book/movie is.


undecisive July 26, 2015 at 10:32 pm

although, i forgot to add, “Fourth of July” by Fall Out Boy was in the movie, so that adds a few brownie points onto my opinion of the movie


Alex August 5, 2015 at 11:07 pm

I see where you are coming from with this, and I’m sure this was not intended for me to answer. However I am going to share my opinion and if you would like to read it that would be really cool. First off, the book is really great and personally my favourite John Green novel so I would highly recommend reading it if you enjoyed the movie at all. About the ending, I’m not going to lie I am slightly disappointed you let the ending tarnish your whole opinion of the movie. Saying that however I understand why you would be disappointed that Q and Margo didn’t get together in the end. When reading the story I was rooting for it, but quite frankly I’m happy they didn’t end up together. I really liked when Margo told him he couldn’t love her he didn’t even know her. It just made me realize how truly stupid some movie and book endings are. You can’t love someone after only talking to them one night. Q never really loved Margo, he loved the idea of Margo. I honestly think he could have loved her, he just never gave himself the chance. You said the whole movie was leading up to them getting together in the end, but that’s what makes the end so amazing. It’s not what you would expect. If you are on the fence about reading the book, or even within a five block radius of the fence, I would say do it. If you do I would really like to hear what you have to say about it.


Angie July 27, 2015 at 9:06 pm

What happens to Margo after Quentin leaves and the book ends?


Julian DeBrower August 8, 2015 at 3:24 am

I feel like John’s answer will be another “The book is meant for the reader” type thing. But if you were asking my opinion (I know you’re not) I’d say that Q gets his education and Margo floats around NYC for a few years although they stay in touch and meet up whenever and as often as they can both manage. After Q gets his degree they start into their life together, personally I feel as though they will spend most of their free time exploring new places together with longer vacations when both of their works will allow it and I can see Margo working in a tourism bureau making her wonderful plans as a job. But this is my future for them, it might not be the most glamorous situation but that’s life and I feel that sort of scenario would be in theme with the book.


Gillian July 29, 2015 at 6:28 pm

Will there be a second movie?


Monet July 30, 2015 at 9:39 pm

Based on the part where you say “everyone gets a miracle” and that Q’s miracle is Margo, I’m wondering if the novel Fifth Business (it’s Canadian), might have influenced Paper Towns at all because the ideas of people being miracles are similar between the two (though Fifth Business is more religious).


Antoine Aragon August 2, 2015 at 5:25 pm

I’m trying to get you to answer this question so i’m posting it everywhere I can. It would interest me to read what you think so I can compare it to my own conclusions. Okay here is the question: Did Margo find her way out of the labyrinth of suffering?


larissa zarazua August 2, 2015 at 6:26 pm

@ the end what did ever happen to margo ?
where those 2 kids on the bike at the end , like was Q thinking that would b margo and him older ?


Alex August 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm

I don’t know if you happened to read the book or not, if you had I don’t recall there being anything about the two kids on the bikes in the book. Wether you read the book or didn’t honestly doesn’t matter much to me. I’m sure there is a lot of people who would judge you for that but, I’m happy the movie brings attention to John and the books. Anyways I’m starting to get off track. I’m sure that question was intended for John to answer but incase you would like to hear my opinion, here it is. I think the two kids riding the bikes at the end symbolized not Q and Margo when they are older but instead made the point that, even though Quentin has now realized Margo wasn’t some goddess that was unapproachable and amazing, it doesn’t mean no one will ever again. I think the kids on the bike were supposed to represent two kids that were about to go through the same thing as Q and Margo (probably not as spectacular and adventurous) but everyone has to discover this for themself. I have no clue wether on not that made any sense but I hope it did.


Julian DeBrower August 8, 2015 at 3:16 am

Have not seen the movie yet but I feel as though your answer is valid.


Hannah August 3, 2015 at 4:59 pm

Something’s wrong there: the German title is “Margos Spuren” or in English “Margo’s tracks” :) but I think it’s somehow cool to finally find out that the name is really supposed to be kind of german :b and thanks to John Green for all the time you invest into answering our questions :))


Katie August 3, 2015 at 11:07 pm

I know that one of the main purposes of Margo was to get us to pay attention to the ways we dehumanize people and think of them as somehow greater than us, but in a way i feel like the manner in which we do so just shifted a little. I mean, i still think of Margo as an amazing, larger-than-life kind of person, just for different reasons than i originally did. Now, I think she’s amazing because of the way she sees the world differently than anyone else and because she has the courage to take crazy chances and because, no matter the reason, she won the affection of an incredible boy. So basically, you’ve drawn attention to the fact that we do dehumanize people, but also created a situation in which we still do dehumanize her. was this intentional?


Anna August 4, 2015 at 11:46 pm

All of these comments are awesome, but can I just say it would have made my life had Ansel Elgorts name tag said “Augustus” on it instead of “Mason”. That was a missed opportunity my friends.


Ammy August 5, 2015 at 11:14 am

Do you prefer the Paper Towns movie over the book? In general, do you prefer books over movies?


Julian DeBrower August 8, 2015 at 3:13 am

Although you said that you just liked the name Ben Starling, I found it interesting that his last name ties into the role he plays in the social network of the more, for the lack of a better word, “popular” kids. They never really payed him much mind before but on Prom night, because he was dating Lacey and she was popular they began to start being friendly to him and even rally around him. Albeit they were drunk beyond belief at this point but he does become a “Starling” among them. However I enjoy dissecting books for literary devices while I’m reading them so I probably just over extended my glance. (Also I originally thought that you named Lacey as you did because her personality was rather flimsy like the fabric but I thought that was almost too cliche so I abandoned that as a major though)


Julian DeBrower August 8, 2015 at 3:14 am

That last word is supposed to be “thought”.


YouCanCallMeQueenZ August 11, 2015 at 7:31 pm

Reading this interview, I was like, “What? That was supposed to mean something? Okay” and “I saw that differently, but okay”. I like the way John lets the reader choose what everything means to them based on their own experiences. We all see the world differently based on what we’ve gone through, and I think that’s really cool


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Taylor Flanagan August 18, 2015 at 11:48 pm

Do you ever plan on writing any other books. You are the reason I started reading in the first place and I would love to read more of your work.


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