Questions about The Fault in Our Stars (SPOILERS!)
NOTE: This page is for people who have read The Fault in Our Stars. As such, it contains numerous huge spoilers. If you have not read The Fault in Our Stars, 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…
After the Ending
An Imperial Affliction
Questions about Writing and Inspiration
Q. Did the themes and ideas from stories you had abandoned in the past help shape TFIOS?
A. Yes, in a lot of ways. There are so many lines from the sequel and the desert island book that ended up in TFiOS in different ways. (“It was kind of a beautiful day,” which occurs at the end of TFiOS, was the first line of one of the drafts of the desert island book.)
The desert island book was primarily about how we behave around each other when we are scared, how fear makes us both more and less human. I don’t know what the sequel was about aside from trying to prove that I, too, could write fancy metafiction, but then I ended up including a lot of metafiction in TFiOS, so it found its way in as well.
I was thinking a lot about the relationship between books and their readers, and how the author of the book can get in the way of that relationship just as much as s/he can facilitate it, so I think that had a lot to do with shaping my thoughts on TFiOS.
Also, all three projects are about deprivation and how people respond to it. So basically I took so many spare parts from those other stories that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to finish them.
Q. Did you consider ending TFIOS midsentence?
A. I agree with Augustus that there is a contract between reader and writer and that not ending a book violates that contract. Also, I try really hard in my work generally not to do ostentatious things like ending books midsentence.
Q. Can you elaborate on this idea of a contract between author and reader?
A. I think the writer’s responsibility is to tell an honest story (which is also, I would argue, definitionally a hopeful story) and to make it as a gift to the reader.
The reader violates the contract when s/he reads poorly or distractedly or ungenerously. (It seems to me that mutual generosity is kind of the key to the reader-writer relationship. We are basically trying to give each other a gift, but it doesn’t work unless both of us are really trying.)
Q. How do you put so much meaning into a book meant for young adults?
A. Teenagers are plenty smart. I don’t sit around and worry whether teenagers are smart. I mean, most of the people currently reading The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby…are teenagers.
Q. Are TFIOS references in early Vlogbrothers videos (such as talking about hurdles and the title “An Imperial Affliction”) intentional?
A. Those aren’t intentional easter eggs. If anything, I find them unfortunate, because any moment when you’re reading The Fault in Our Stars and get drawn out of the narrative and become conscious of the fact that it’s a story constructed by an author. But inevitably there’s a lot of overlap between my thoughts when I’m writing and my thoughts when I’m making videos, and sometimes the one shapes the other.
Q. Did any philosophers inspire your writing about the universe and oblivion?
A. Well, sure, definitely. Kierkegaard, etc. But the thinker who most deeply influenced my thoughts on the topic, and who gave me a vocabulary for talking about it, is Vi Hart.
Q. Did you intentionally draw a connection between Augustus and Hazel watching kids play on the bones and the reader getting enjoyment from a book about kids who will inevitably die young?
A. hahahaha no there’s nothing wrong at all with playing on bones. We’re all doing it all the time. I was struck by this in Vienna when I saw those kids breakdancing on top of the catacombs. To dance on the dead is not to dishonor them.
Q. Stephanie Meyer has said that her characters were real and that they decided where the plot would go. Is it like that for you?
A. So far as I can tell, if you say that, you’re saying one of two things:
1. I have this unconscious mind to which I have no access that can write books, and I just have to shut off my conscious mind and let my unconscious mind work.
2. A supernatural force came to me and whispered the words into my ear and I wrote them down.
Saying the second thing seems really presumptuous to me (like, saying that God wrote your book is a very, very bold thing to say). The first seems more plausible to me—I know that for many people the writing experience does not feel like it involves effort or consciousness—but for me that is not the case. I wrote the book. I was conscious of the fact that I was writing a book while I was writing it. I was conscious of the fact that I was using words to try to tell a story that would find life in your mind.
Q. By answering so many questions about your book, aren’t you kind of teaching it in a way? Or creating sparknotes of reflections?
A. Legit question. My only defense is that this is for people who’ve already read the book, which is rather different from sparknotes. :)
Q. Due to the success of TFIOS, will your books now be marketed to all age groups?
A. I am not interested in publishing books for adults. I like my job. I like my editor. I like my publisher. I am very grateful that so many adults are reading The Fault in Our Stars, but I really like writing and publishing books for teenagers, and it’s difficult for me to imagine wanting to do anything else as a writer.
Q. Did you ever consider having another character tell the story?
A. Yes, Isaac, because it would have fit in nicely with how epics usually work, complete with being told by a blind guy. But in the end I wanted to give Hazel the voice of her own story, particularly since that is so often denied the dying. (We read about them a lot more than we read them.)
Q. In TFIOS, you say that there are fourteen dead people for every living person. However, in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it is stated that there are more people alive than have ever died. Who is right, Augustus or Oskar?
A. Oh, Oskar is overwhelmingly wrong. (In his defense, I think he is like nine years old.) It’s a nice moment in that book, when he imagines that there aren’t enough skulls for everyone alive to play Hamlet, but yeah, that’s just total horseshit. There are plenty of skulls. We could all have freaking juggling acts with all the skulls.
Q. Does answering all of these questions annoy or offend you? Do you ever want your readers to take the book as it is without asking a bunch of questions about metaphors and deeper meanings?
A. I feel bad that I can’t answer more of them, but I never feel anything except lucky to have readers who read my books with such care and thoughtfulness.
That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what Salinger called reading and running—like, I don’t think that critical analysis or whatever is the only reason we read fiction or the only enjoyable thing about reading (or writing) fiction.
There are plenty of ways to read a book, and I’m grateful to anyone who finds my work encouraging or useful.
Q. What did you do with previous drafts of the novel?
A. I save every draft of the novel as a different file name (there are several hundred file names related to TFiOS). So it’s possible to chart the edits and rewrites of the novel over time, but the book I published is the only one I want to publish and I’m not inclined to show off all the terrible sentences I wrote before writing the (hopefully not terrible) sentences that ended up in the book.
However, all this stuff will go to a university library when I die, so if you are really inclined, and you outlive me, you can view it eventually.
Q. When writing TFIOS, were you more focused on telling the story at first or the metaphorical meaning and the symbols in the book?
A. I don’t think of story and symbols as separate, really. They emerge from the same place, a desire to go on a journey with the reader that will be interesting (and hopefully helpful) to both of us. So I don’t sit down and say, like, “Green will be the color of all the dreams we were foolish to dream,” or anything like that, because then I think it usually ends up seeming clunky and obvious and inauthentic.
The truth is that metaphor and symbol are all around us, and that we are constantly reading our lives and the world symbolically. I want figurative language and symbols to be as deeply integrated into the story as they are into our lives.
Q. Peter says that the Dutch Tulip Man represents God. Have you ever put in a character that represents an idea like this or something similar?
The Dutch Tulip Man. :)
Q. TFIOS seems to connect intelligence with atheism as opposed to a willingness and openness to ideas. Why is this?
Well, I think Augustus is pretty smart, and he does not present an atheistic worldview (or at least an inherently atheistic worldview), nor does Hazel’s pretty smart dad, whose argument about the universe wanting to be noticed perpetually is a very theistic/faith-based/spiritual kind of thing to say. (Like, embracing even the possibility of concepts like forever or consciousness that survives death is impossible in a rigidly atheistic worldview.)
Augustus’s parents, who I think are also pretty smart but perhaps not in the ostentatious way that Hazel and Augustus are, are clearly religious people.
And the last words of the book represent a moment where the author himself perhaps interjects his own let-us-not-deem-consciousness-temporary-just-quite-yet with the present tense marriage vows that could be read as a statement about celestial marriage or a marriage that survives death or etc. if you wanted to read it that way.
Q. When you were writing TFIOS, did you also switch from calling him Augustus to calling him Gus? Do you see him now as the boy he was at the end rather than the manic pixie dream boy he was at the beginning?
A. Well, you have to remember that I am 34, so the bravura performances of teenagers do not impress me in quite the same way that they did when I was 16.
(Also, I was writing a novel, and I was very conscious that I was writing a novel. I am not one of those writers who believes that, like, the book is writing itself or that God is telling me which words to write down or whatever.)
So I always saw Gus as fragile and frail, even at the beginning of the book, when he (for example) misuses big words and is clearly not quite the guy he’s trying to play. And obviously I like that boy more.
Q. Have you ever had a similar experience to Van Houten’s in terms of meeting a fan, like Hazel, who was frustrated that you couldn’t give her the answers she was looking for?
A. Yes, this happens all the time. It happens a lot with Looking for Alaska, and now it is happening even more with TFiOS, which surprises me, because I did not think the ending of TFiOS was particularly ambiguous. (To be fair, I have a pretty high tolerance for ambiguity, I guess.)
I understand the impulse, I guess, particularly since many contemporary readers have read a lot of book series, which leave cliffhanger after cliffhanger before wrapping things up with some marriages and crazily named children.
But I genuinely feel unqualified to tell you what happens after the end of the book, and to make something up—as Van Houten briefly attempts to—feels really disingenuous.
In general, I personally agree with a lot of what Van Houten says in the novel. He’s like a drunk, dickish version of myself, basically.
Q. Who is Esther?
A. Esther was a nerdfighter who died of cancer in August of 2010. She and I were friends for a couple years before that, and I am friends with her friends and with her family.
You can watch her YouTube videos here and learn about the organization her family set up in her memory here.
Q. How much of Esther went into the novel? What parts were specifically inspired by her? Did she ever get to see parts of it before she died?
A. Esther did not see any of the book before she died. (It did not feature a character named Hazel with thyroid cancer when she died, either. It was a vastly different story.)
So much of the story was inspired by her and my friendship with her and my affection for her family and friends, but I didn’t take very many specific things (except for superficial stuff like the oxygen and whatnot).
What inspired me most was Esther’s unusual mix of teenagerness and empathy: She was a very outwardly focused person, very conscious of and attentive to her friends and family. But she was also silly and funny and totally normal. And in our conversations about heroism and strength or whatever, she was very conscious of cliches (many of which I threw at her) but mostly unconvinced by them.
I just really liked Esther. That was maybe the biggest thing. I really liked her, and I was really pissed off after she died, and I had to write my way through it, because I was desperately looking for some hope in it. (I am still pretty pissed off about it, for the record.)
All that said, I really don’t want to seem to be appropriating Esther’s story, which belongs to her and to her family and not to me. Hazel is a fictional character, and she is in many important ways very different from the person Esther was.
Q. In Augutus’s first heroic death in pixel form, he covers the grenade to prevent the blast from harming the school children. Later, Hazel refers to herself as a grenade. Was this a coincidence?
A. I was conscious of that connection when writing, yes. I wrote the video game scene in a very early draft of the novel, years and years ago, and then the first time Hazel imagines herself as a grenade appeared in revisions (probably in early 2011? I think before we went to Amsterdam), and I got the idea from the earlier scene.
Whether it’s a coincidence in the story is up to the reader to decide, I guess?
Q. What portion of the novel did you enjoy writing the most?
A. The beginning was really fun to write—Hazel making fun of Patrick and all that. I’m kind of a Patrick in real life, and I’m very conscious of it: Like, it’s super easy to make fun of me for being this hugely earnest Internet persona, and I guess I am really narcissistic because I really enjoy making fun of myself in fiction. (See also, Peter Van Houten.)
Q. You said in a Tumblr post that some of your favorite parts of your desert island story ended up in TFIOS. What are these parts?
A. I wrote like 40,000 words of the desert island story and the only things I really liked were:
1. The sentence, “It was kind of a beautiful day.”
2. This rant about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its weird, paternalistic, imperialist insistence that humans cannot be fully human when they are sick or deprived of necessities, when in fact the truth is that humanness is always transformed by whatever we are in want of, and we are always in want of something.
3. A shoe-shopping flashback.
All three of these things ended up in TFiOS in one form or another.
Q. You said that TFIOS was once a very different book. What was it like? Was it always about two kids with cancer?
A. It was about like a dozen kids with cancer who created a club called the Dead Person’s Society in a cave (ridiculous) near the children’s hospital (doubly ridiculous) and they’d sneak out of the hospital together and visit the cave and convene the DPS (triply ridiculous).
It was basically a very flimsy, high-concept way of allowing me to think through my own thoughts and angers about death and suffering and so on. It was not good.
Q. How much of TFIOS came from Sarah? Did she help you a lot in writing?
A. Sarah, did you submit a question anon?
Sarah helped in every possible way; it is impossible to list or even verbalize all the ways she shaped the book through her readings of it, our conversations, our life together, etc.
Q. Does Sarah like the book?
A. She does like it, yeah. It’s her favorite of my books, I think.
Q. What did Hank say when he first read TFIOS?
A. Honestly, I think he said that he thought it was going to change my life a lot and that I didn’t really know what I was getting into. (That proved prophetic, as Hank usually does.)
And then he told me that I had to keep making vlogbrothers videos no matter what.
Q. Why do you refer to TFIOS as a “problem” that you’re glad to be done with? Why were you so ready to be done with it?
A. I mean, for ten years of my life, I tried to write this book and it taunted me and it sucked and it kept sucking and nothing I could do for years and years made it suck less, and then finally I was given a way into it and I worked very hard to make it the best book that I could possibly make it, but books will always be a collaboration between reader and writer, and at some point I have to stop doing my job so I can start letting you do your job.
I mean that a book is a problem in that it is composed out of meaningless scratches on a page that must be translated into ideas that live inside your head, and you use a set of skills (literacy, critical thinking, etc.) to make that happen. I don’t mean that it is an UNFORTUNATE problem; I just mean that it is a thing that has to be created by both of us, like a crossword puzzle or something.
Q. Is it hard for you to kill a character? How do you go about doing that and how do you know it’s the right thing to do as opposed to gratuitous hurt for the characters?
A. 1. I don’t feel like I’m killing anyone. The person is dying, and that sucks, but I don’t feel responsible for it any more than I feel responsible when a friend in real life dies.
2. With TFiOS, for me, there is no book without death. You cannot meaningfully confront the universe’s indifference to us without seeing the horrific suffering and injustice and awfulness of what really happens to real people who do not deserve to suffer and die. When writing the novel (and really throughout my writing career), I was very angry about this, very angry that people die for no good reason, and very dissatisfied with all the flimsy, Encouragement-y things that people say in the wake of such tragedies. So honestly, I wasn’t trying to make you feel anything gratuitous; I just could think of no other way to lay bare the absolute hideousness of living in a world where parents have to bury their children. And we live in that world, Humans have always lived in that world, and always will.
3. The challenge—and this is not just a challenge when writing a novel but also when, like, trying to get out of bed every day—is to acknowledge these truth and still live a hopeful, productive life. Are the only options 1. lying to yourself or 2. nihilism? I believe not. I believe there is great beauty and meaning to be found and constructed in this life, but we must find and construct that meaning in this world, and to do that, we must be honest about this world.
Q. Did you have any second thoughts about the way in which you described the degeneration of Augustus’s health in his final days?
A. Well, I didn’t want to bullshit the reader, but I also didn’t want to be gratuitous about it. I left the worst of it off the page, I guess, but I don’t really regret that. You might be asking whether I regret being so explicit, in which case the answer is definitely not. Our literature has enough novels that glorify suffering as transcendently beautiful.
Q. Was TFIOS edited from the content you created from NaNoWriMo a few years back?
A. No. Everything I wrote for NaNoWriMo was about a zombie apocalypse caused by corn monoculture.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the story? Do you see youself as Patrick?
A. I do see myself as Patrick-like in a lot of ways, yes. Also PVH. Also Hazel’s dad, I guess. I identify personally closer with the (male) adults in the novel than the teenagers, I guess.
Q. Did your time as a chaplain and your interactions with Esther contribute to your honest portrayal of the mindset associated with illness? What were the other sources? What about the medical details?
A. The time I spent as a chaplain was very helpful, because I got to know a lot of different people with many different kinds of cancer. But for the first several years after my months as a chaplain, all the writing I tried to do about illness was terrible.
So I do think knowing and caring about Esther was probably the most important thing in terms of thinking about the mindsets and emotional realities of chronic illness. I also talked a lot to families of people with cancer and I read a lot of books about cancer, which were extremely helpful. But if I hadn’t known Esther, I never would have written The Fault in Our Stars. I might’ve eventually finished a book about adolescent illness of some kind, but it wouldn’t have been this one.
Q. How did the birth of Henry during the writing process affect TFiOS regarding your worldview of parents/children/humanity?
A. I couldn’t write the book until I understood that the love between a parent and child (like many other kinds of love) is literally stronger than death: As long as either person survives, the relationship survives.
So my grandmother may be dead, but she is still my grandmother. Augustus may be dead, but he is still the great star-crossed love of Hazel’s life.
I didn’t really understand that until I got to know Henry.
Q. It seems like there’s a symbolic reason behind most things in this book. Is that just the way you write or did you specifically choose to write TFiOS in this way? Why?
A. Well, I always want to write books that stand up to re-reading, but to be clear, there’s more than one good way to read a book. The great thing about figurative language and symbols and the like in novels is that you don’t have to be conscious of them for them to work.
Like, let’s say you read The Catcher in the Rye and somehow your English teacher doesn’t tell you about the red hunting cap, and so you read the whole damn novel without ever thinking much one way or the other about this hat Holden keeps putting on and taking off.
Even if you haven’t thought about any of this consciously at all, there’s still a pretty good chance that something inside you will break open when Phoebe puts the hat on Holden at the end of the book, because it’s such a small and kind and humane gesture. And maybe if you’re heavily invested in the red hunting cap, that moment will hit you harder, but it will hit you regardless.
But the red hunting cap isn’t what makes Catcher good, and if TFiOS is good, it isn’t because of any symbols or metaphors in isolation. Catcher is a great book because it lets you see the world out of someone else’s eyes; it gives you the rare opportunity to escape the prison of your consciousness and imagine in a big and complex and generous way what it would be like to be Holden Caulfield. All the language in the novel exists to make your experience of Holden’s life richer and more compelling and more real.
Questions about Why I Wrote What I Wrote
Q. Why America’s Next Top Model?
A. It just seemed to me—and I say this respectfully—like both the most reprehensible and the both formatted (i.e., functionally scripted) of the competitive reality shows I’d seen.
Q. What made you decide to make Hazel’s father the weaker one?
A. Well, I wanted to ignore traditional gender roles whenever possible in the novel, because I was kind of working in the Romantic Epic genre, which tends to have very narrowly defined gender roles (the man is the protector; the woman suffers beautifully; etc) and I wanted to write a different kind of Romantic Epic. (A much smaller one, for starters, about disease instead of war/politics/royal families/etc.)
Q. Why did you give the characters the cancers you gave them in the book?
A. 1. I did quite a lot of research on cancer, probably more than a hypochondriac should. I am particularly indebted to the books I cite in the acknowledgements, both of which I read more than once. (Also, my father-in-law is a cancer surgeon.)
2. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I think cancer is to the contemporary world what tuberculosis was to the 19th century: It’s this seemingly random, capricious disease that strikes old and young alike, that sometimes kills you and other times doesn’t, and that we don’t understand very well. And this randomness/indifference was really important to me, because I wanted to think about how/whether we can be hopeful in a universe that is (apparently) entirely indifferent toward its inhabitants.
3. I gave Gus osteosarcoma because it’s a common adolescent cancer and can go quiet for a long while before roaring back, and I gave Hazel thyroid cancer with mets in her lungs because A. i was fairly familiar with it (it’s similar to what Esther had), and B. I wanted her to have some kind of tumors in her lungs because it allowed me to have the water metaphor.
It sounds so weird and cold and calculating to talk about it that way, but…yeah. Hopefully that answers your questions, and good luck on your path to oncology, a great and noble profession.
Q. In TFIOS there’s minimal jargon-y terms (such as the specific subdivisions and motorways referenced in Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns), did you do this consciously with your international readers in mind?
A. That’s a really interesting question, because it makes me wonder to what extent I’m writing with an eye toward the international readers of my novels. (Some relatively high percentage of my readers are not American.) Certainly, I was not aware of doing that: I didn’t think, and never think, “Oh, I need to write it this way so that it will play in Austria” or whatever. When I’m writing, consciously at least, I only think about what will in my opinion best serve the story.
But it’s impossible to say for sure if/whether/how commercial concerns factor into creative decisions, because you can say all day that you turn that stuff off when you’re writing, and I hope that I do, but I have no actual way of proving whether I do.
Anyway, in general I did want TFiOS to feel more, like, out of time and place than any of my previous novels, because that’s how romantic epics tend to feel, and I was very much trying to write a little epic.
Q. Why did you have Hazel and Augustus do “adult” activities (i.e. traveling the world, getting drunk, having sex, etc.) while they were still young? I thought that one of the small blessings of dying young would be never losing innocence. What was your thinking behind this?
A. Let me assure you that it is no blessing to die without having had sex.
Hazel and Augustus, like all very sick teenagers, are caught in an in-between space: They are similar to other teenagers, but they’re also similar to old people in an important way (i.e., they are not allowed the luxury of feeling that life is a thing that will just go on forever). I wanted to try to capture that in the plot of the story (and I also wanted to acknowledge that sick and disabled people are still sexual people, and that there’s nothing wrong with their sexuality, which I guess was a little preachy of me, but so it goes.)
Also, they don’t get drunk. They have two glasses of champagne!
Q. Why did you put Kaitlyn in the book? Why would Hazel be friends with someone like her?
A. Oh I quite like Kaitlyn. I mean, one of the things you can’t see very well because the novel is written from Hazel’s perspective is that Hazel is 1. very beautiful, and 2. was pretty popular when she attended school. She just hasn’t attended school for a long time.
We have this idea that the opposite of “popular” is “smart.” (We nerds are particularly found of this idea.) But in fact there are many popular people who are also brilliant and deeply intellectually engaged. (Kaitlyn is maybe not such a person, but Hazel certainly is.)
As for why I put Kaitlyn in the book: I wanted the reader to be able to have a few moments of glimpsing Hazel’s life before illness, which was so radically different from the live she lives in the book, and I wanted the reader to feel the distance between A Regular Life in High School and The Life That Hazel Has Now.
Q. Why did you decide to name the hamster Sisyphus?
A. Well, Sisyphus is always pushing a rock up a hill without ever getting anywhere, and hamsters are always running around on a wheel without ever getting anywhere. That’s all I was thinking about, although again, books belong to their readers, and if there’s a better/more evocative/more useful metaphor to be drawn from it, then yay!
Q. Is there a reason you chose to not write Gus’s death in a more dramatic way?
A. Well, the actual moment of people’s deaths tend 1. not to be peaceful, and 2. not to be romantic or poignant or anything other than violent and horrible. Plus 3. Hazel and Gus are in love, but they’ve only known each other for a few months, and it seemed most likely to me that his immediate family would be alone with him at the end of his life.
I also felt like I’d put the reader (and the characters) through enough.
Q. Where did you get the name “The Price of Dawn”?
A. Honestly someone suggested it on twitter and I loved it, but it became in the midst of so many @replies that I could never find the person who suggested it so as to properly thank/acknowledge them. If anyone can find The Price of Dawn person, let me know!
Q. Did you say “Genies” instead of “Make-a-Wish” because of legal reasons?
A. I said Genies instead of Make-a-Wish because there are important differences between the way the Genies work in the book and the way the Make-a-Wish Foundation works in real life. (Also, there are many organizations similar to Make-a-Wish in their mission, although M-a-W is by far the most famous.)
It was important to me that the readers feel like the Genies have basically endless resources so you wouldn’t think about whether H & A could do this or that, when the truth of such organizations—like all nonprofits—is that there’s a lot they can’t do.
Q. Why did you choose “okay” and “always”?
A. Well, always is just an inherently ridiculous concept, but of course you want to say it to people you love, right? You want to promise them that you will always love them, that you will always take care of them, that they needn’t worry because you’re always going to be there. You won’t always be there, because at some point you’ll be dead or stuck in traffic or in love with someone else or whatever.
Most of us (me included) don’t think about the ridiculousness of what we’re actually saying when we say, “I’ll love you forever*,” or “”I will always remember this day,” or, “I’ll never forget** you” or whatever. Like, I say those things all the time, like most people do. But Hazel and Augustus are both a lot more measured in the way they imagine themselves and their love for/responsibilities to other people, hence them adopting “okay” as the word that serves as an expression of their love for each other.
* It’s important to note that forever is not a long time just as infinity is not a large number. Forever is infinite, and it’s a very bold to make declarative sentences about infinities.
** This seems to me a very fate-tempting thing to say. Like, what if you develop dementia?
Q. Why did you pick the title and how does it relate to the novel?
A. First off, thanks to nerdfighter Rosi for contextualizing the quote for me in a way that made me want to use it as a title in the first place.
So there’s this moment in the play Julius Caesar where one Roman nobelman says to another, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” And in the context of the play, that quotation makes perfect sense—these two guys did not suffer some unjust destiny; they made decisions that led them to their fates.
However, that quote has since been decontextualized over and over and used universally as a way of saying that the fault is not in the stars (i.e., fate/luck/whatever) but in individual people.
Well, that’s of course ridiculous. There is plenty of fault in our stars. The world is a profoundly unjust place in which suffering is unfairly distributed, and in all of my novels but especially this one, I am trying to find ways to live honestly and hopefully in the worldwithout ignoring/denying the universe’s cold and painful indifference to us.*
The whole problem of reconciling ourselves to the fault in our stars seems like a really big problem to me—and not just an abstract, philosophical problem but a problem that has to be solved in order for us to get up every day and get dressed and brush our teeth and try to live full, productive lives.
* Well, I can’t say categorically that the universe is indifferent to us. But I think the way the universe looks and the way it would look if it were totally indifferent to us are disconcertingly similar, if that makes any sense.
Q. Why do you use past tense?
A. Well, the last sentence is not in the past tense, just to be clear.
I wrote the book in the past tense so the reader would know that Hazel is telling the story of something that happened to her in the past—at least until the last sentence.
Q. Why didn’t anyone see Monica after she broke up with Isaac?
A. Well, she is a voiceless character. (You never directly hear her speak, except for the word “always.”) I wanted Hazel to be aware of this voicelessness in a way that Gus and Isaac weren’t, and to stand up for her even when it was very difficult to do so. (Throughout the novel, she repeatedly defends Monica and seeks to understand her, while the boys just want to put her into the easy category of Enemy.)
Hazel does this quite a bit—she’s a very empathetic person and repeatedly defends and seeks to understand people and be generous to them. (See also when she doesn’t get mad at Augustus for hiding his diagnosis from her, or when she delivers the eulogy full of Encouragements).
This compassion breaks down only once, I think—when she sees all the posts on Gus’s wall about how he’ll live forever in the memory of his acquaintances.
I wanted her to break there so the reader really felt Hazel falling apart—even the core ideas of humility and compassion that make her up abandon her in the crush of loss and grief.
Q. Why do you make your characters physically beautiful?
A. The characters in the novel who are romantically interested in each other often describe each other as beautiful not because the’re objectively beautiful but because they find each other attractive. (I do think Hazel is really objectively good-looking, probably, but didn’t I give her enough problems?!) But in books like LfA and Paper Towns, part of what I was trying to do was explore the weird and worship-ey relationship contemporary American boys in high school often have with the girls they admire from afar, an attraction that is usually seen pretty positively even though I think it is kind of sick and crazy to treat a person like a precious object.
Q. Why did you make Augustus and Hazel perfect? They seem too flawless.
A. I don’t know how you can say that Hazel does not have one huge terrible flaw when it is repeatedly stated throughout the novel that she regularly watches America’s Next Top Model.
Q. Why was Caroline Mathers included? Why was she portrayed the way she was?
A. I didn’t want to sentimentalize or romanticize anything in the book. And one of the most common ways that we sentimentalize death and dying is by talking about the dead or dying person’s “beautiful soul,” or just generally by talking about the soul and its imperishability and resilience and so on.
But when I worked at the hospital, I saw several young men and women with brain tumors whose personalities and spirits were utterly transformed by their disease, which calls into question the whole idea of a soul.
I was so tired of the idea that suffering is transcendent, and that cancer suffering in particular strengthens you and makes you better. That can be true for many people, but it’s an oversimplification, because there are cancers that attack parts of the brain and turn kind, generous people into selfish, impulsive, cruel people.
I wanted to make that clear, to make it clear that when we talk about the human soul we had better do so carefully and thoughtfully, because otherwise we dehumanize people like Caroline Mathers whose diseases attack and transform their personalities.
Also, I didn’t want Gus and Hazel to be this Pure As The Driven Snow, Never Loved Before couple, because I also dislike the convention of the epic romance genre wherein the doomed lovers are somehow more innocent and golden than the rest of us. I wanted Gus and Hazel to be people, just regular nice smart people, who also happen to have a chronic illness.
Q. Why did Gus die?
A. Every single human being alive on the entire planet is going to die, including you. The question for me is not why we die; the question is what constitutes a full and well-lived life.
I wanted to argue that a good life need not be a long one.
Q. Why did you choose to have Van Houten be a Swedish rap fan? Was it simply a way to make Van Houten quirkier than he already was or do you listen to Swedish rap yourself?
A. Well, for starters I really like Swedish hip hop, and especially Afasi och Filthy. But yeah, I wanted Van Houten to be the kind of guy who cultivates his own eccentricity, which is basically the most narcissistic and self-indulgent variety of human being I’ve ever come across.
Q. Why did you choose not to address hell in TFIOS?
A. I really haven’t known any terminally ill people who lived in fear of hell. Maybe that’s just my personal biased experience, but yeah.
(Also this is definitely a personal bias: I just don’t find hell very interesting theologically.)
Questions about My Beliefs
Q. Do you really believe that it’s possible for two teenagers to be in love as truly as adults are?
Q. I know what Hazel says in your book, but is there anything in you and Hazel that wants to live this big, grand adventure of a life? Or do you think that’s completely overrated?
A. Oh, there is a lot inside of me that wants a big, grand adventure of a life—I just think most of that urge is bullshit and not very deeply thought out.
But Hazel is far more thoughtful about her actions and their implications than I am.
Q. Do you believe in actions done for the sake of metaphorical resonance as Augustus does with his cigarettes?
A. I don’t think there are many human beings who do not act for the sake of metaphorical resonance. (Like, I think at its core this is what fashion is about, and sports, etc.) Quite a lot of life is about constructing meaning, which often (usually?) involves metaphor.
Q. Can you respond to the claims that you view smart/intelligent people to be better than others?
A. I don’t think smart people are better than other people. More importantly, I view intelligence (at least the kind of intelligence that most of the characters in my novel display) as something learned not inborn. I don’t think Hazel or Gus necessarily have particularly high IQs (Gus in particular is constantly misusing words). I just think they’re intellectually curious.
That said, books belong to their readers, and I don’t have a problem with people disliking or criticizing books that I have written, because I don’t really see those books as mine. I did my best. The reader does her/his best. If we can make something worthwhile together, I’m grateful. If we can’t, that’s too bad, but fortunately there are lots of other authors out there.
Q. What is your opinion on others who do comment on what happens after their books have ended, such as J.K. Rowling?
A. So, like, to me the entire experience of human beings on this planet is all these people having a conversation about what we should and shouldn’t do, and then playing out the consequences of our actions and continuing the conversation across generations etc.
And this goes for big things, like slavery and unsustainable agriculture, and it also goes for little things, like whether authors have a right to speak about their stories outside the text of those stories and whether Justin Bieber is or is not a good musician.
It is important to remember which are the small conversations and which are the big conversations, and I definitely think, “Does JK Rowling saying that Dumbledore is gay make Dumbledore gay*?” is a pretty small question in the scheme of things, but it does have some limited application outside the specific world of Harry Potter.
This is something that JK Rowling and I disagree about, but she and I can still be friends. (Seriously, Jo. I AM READY TO BE YOUR FRIEND.) It’s important to have these productive disagreements, because that’s how we push literature forward. I believe that my opinion on extra-textual questions should not be privileged. I might be wrong. As that conversation with readers and other authors continues, I might one day realize that I am wrong, and then I will flood you with ‘the truth’ about the characters and what happened after the end of the book and Isaac’s secret gayness and whatever else. But for right now, I don’t think that I’m wrong.
*This is not a perfect example, because it’s repeatedly hinted at in the books that Dumbledore is gay and in some ways Rowling was just clarifying her reading of the text rather than introducing a new extra-textual element, and obviously I don’t mind answering questions about intent etc., or this blog wouldn’t exist.
Q. Do you believe, as Hazel does, that we are as likely to harm the universe as help it?
A. I think we are as likely to harm the universe as we are to help it, yes. (Actually, I think nothing any human being ever does will have any overall effect on the universe. I mean, you’re talking about a single organism among trillions living on a single sphere among trillions in a single galaxy among 100-500 billion galaxies in a universe without an edge. It’s very difficult to get your head around just how small a part of the universe we are, and on some level, claiming that we can shape the universe is a little bit like the grain of sand on the beach that believes it can control the tides.)
Also, trying to do good is not the same thing as doing good. Many, many people have tried to do good and in the process done harm.
Of course, and this is the miracle to me, none of this exempts us from trying to do good. We must still serve our fellow humans, and the idea of life itself, as best we can—we must still strive to create a world in which people can lead healthy and productive lives without destroying biodiversity on our little sphere.
I don’t find our relative insignificance disheartening at all: The main thing it tells me is that in a culture that worships celebrity and the purportedly extraordinary, ALL people are ordinary people. ALL people have the same responsibilities to themselves and to each other. Maybe the universe cares nothing for us, but WE care about each other. And most encouragingly, we care not just for our friends or family but for the whole enterprise of life—we care about strangers and about humpback whales and, most beautifully of all, we care about the dead. We try with our lives to honor theirs. That’s how we make our lives meaningful, and how we make their lives meaningful, too.
Q. Did you used to smoke? The attitude to smoking in TFIOS is very different from the one in Looking for Alaska.
A. I probably smoked more while working on the book that became The Fault in Our Stars than I did while working on the book that became Looking for Alaska. (I quit smoking in like 2003, by which time I’d worked some on both books, although obviously neither was anywhere close to finished.)
I think Alaska is more of an anti-smoking novel than TFiOS is (Hazel has that one little rant about cigarettes, whereas huge chunks of Alaska are devoted to exploring all the sad ways that smoking is a way of us expressing our desire to self-immolate).
Anyway, I hope that neither of the books celebrates smoking, as smoking is a stupid and also fatal way to spend money. But smoking is a pretty fascinating (to me, anyway) example of how all of use signaling and other symbolic forms of communication to construct our ideas of ourselves.
Q. Can you explain the Author’s Note? Does it mean that you can’t take a work of fiction and say that it matters in the “real world”?
A. 1. All meaning is constructed meaning, so if we construct an association between blue and sadness, and then between the curtains and sadness, and that reading of the text allows us an interesting insight into the characters or the human condition or whatever, then we have done ourselves some good. It does not matter whether the author intended this connection between blue curtains and sadness (although the author may well have: Remember, I spent a decade writing TFiOS; you spend a few hours reading it. I had to find some way to keep myself interested during those thousands of days I was working on it).
2. In the author’s note, I was trying to say several things. Most importantly, I was asking my readers—many of whom know me and know my past—not to read the novel as autobiography, or to try to find facts in it. Secondly, I was arguing that made-up stories can matter, that they matter to us in the real everyday world just as much (and in many cases more than) the real people we know and the real things we do. Made-up stories matter for precisely the same reason that anything matters: because we decide they matter, because we imbue them with meaning.
Chimpanzees, while they are very smart and interesting creatures, cannot tell each other stories about war heroes fighting sirens and a cyclops to get home. They cannot use such stories to shape their values and their relationships and their worldviews. We can, and do, and this engagement with constructed narrative is (imho) a big part of what makes us human.
Q. Does it anger you when someone interprets a book in a unique way only to have a teacher tell them that they are wrong?
A. Well, you might have been wrong. I don’t agree with the notion that there “are no wrong answers” when it comes to reading and thinking about literature.
If, for instance, you read Gatsby and said, “This is a stupid novel about stupid rich people doing things that don’t matter,” you would be wrong. You’d also be wrong if you said the green light across the harbor was a metaphor for Gatsby’s joy and contentment.
But just as many interesting mathematical questions have more than one interesting/correct answer, and historical phenomena can be thought of in more than one way interesting/correct way, so too with literature. So if your reading of the text in question was a good reading, that opened up something in the story and offered a new way in to interesting questions, then that’s great. Like, if your teacher told you that your feminist reading of Jane Eyre was wrong, or that your Marxist reading of Jane Eyre was wrong, then I think your teacher was being unfair, because both Marxist and feminist readings of that novel can be interesting and useful.
But that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to any opinion you happen to have just because you happen to have it. It seems to me that the great pleasure of human life is not in having an opinion, but rather in learning all the ways you are wrong, and all the nuances you failed to account for, and all the truths that turned out to be not as simple as you once believed. And it seems to me that one of the central pleasures of attending school is that you get to read with really well-informed people (teachers) who can help welcome you into a complex world stuffed with rich and maddening ambiguity.
Q. Do you truly believe that fictional characters cease to exist when their story is over? I like to imagine endings for characters I love; is that foolish?
A. I don’t think that’s foolish or childish at all. (I also disagree with Peter Van Houten about a number of other things, like whether it is appropriate to drink scotch in the morning.)
But it’s worth noting that your Trueblood or Hazel is not my Trueblood or Hazel, and that my characters can cease to exist in the universe of their creation while still surviving in the universe or your creation.
Q. In your opinion, is the Dutch Tulip Man a fake?
A. I mean, I sometimes go to church, if that’s what you’re asking.
Q. Are Hazel and Augustus in love like adults can be? How do you view their relationship?
A. I find it really offensive when people say that the emotional experiences of teenagers are less real or less important than those of adults.
I am an adult, and I used to be a teenager, and so I can tell you with some authority that my feelings then were as real as my feelings are now.
Q. You always say that books belong to the reader. How much credit do you give to the author’s intent?
A. I think trying to divine an author’s intent is generally pretty wrong-headed, although I guess it shouldn’t be dismissed entirely (and obviously I’m willing to answer questions about intent).
That said, it can be a way into an interesting discussion: whether you suppose I wanted you to like Margo Roth Spiegelman, for instance, is not an interesting question to me. But if you go from there to discussing whether characters in novels need to be likable for a book to be good, and whether reading experiences need to be straightforwardly fulfilling in order to be positive, and what (if anything) the point of reading and telling stories is, and whether we can be empathetic toward people we dislike, and if shared values are at the core of human connection or if it’s something altogether less noble, and whether we can reconcile ourselves to the distance between who we want ourselves and one another to be and who we turn out to be…well, that’s pretty interesting to me.
Q. Isn’t authorial intent important in terms of communication between reader and writer?
A. But it ISN’T a conversation between you and me if all you’re doing is attempting to understand what I’m saying. That’s just you LISTENING to me, which is kind of boring.
Like, don’t get me wrong, that act of listening to art/media can be pleasantly distracting and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. That’s essentially what watching an episode of NCIS is, I’d argue: The show knows who killed the person and you don’t and then at the end they tell you.
But I think what happens when you read a book—ideally, anyway—is much more complicated and beautiful and collaborative. My intent as an author matters some, but you as the reader get some agency, too. You get to discover meaning within the story, and sometimes the meaning you discover will be meaning I hoped you would discover, and sometimes it will be meaning I could never have imagined you discovering. But together, we get to build something that matters to you (hopefully), and that brings you pleasure and consolation and a feeling of unaloneness that you can never get from merely listening.
Q. Do you believe that a book immortalizes the characters? Will Hazel and Augustus ever cease to exist as characters, or will they always exist?
A. Nothing (at least that can be done by humans) immortalizes anyone. The Fault in Our Stars will hopefully have a long and wonderful life, but it will eventually go out of print, and eventually the last person ever to read it will die, and then the characters will no longer live in any consciousness.
Also, that is okay. That is good, actually. That is how it should be. One of the things the characters in this novel have to grapple with is the reality of temporaryness. What Gus in particular must reconcile himself to is that being temporary does not mean being unimportant or meaningless.
Q. You never actually answer the reader’s question, you just tell them it’s up to them. Probably something about the book belonging to the reader or something, right?
A. I’m happy to answer questions about intent, or what I was thinking about when I did something, or why I made a certain choice. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like that stuff can be helpful both to readers and to aspiring writers, and I know it was (and remains) very helpful to me to read other writers discuss their processes.
That noted, I will continue to underscore that I don’t think authorial intent is all that important to a reading experience, and I certainly don’t think the job of reading is to divine authorial intent.
Obviously, though, I can’t speak to things I intentionally left unclear, because I wanted those things to be ambiguous—and I still do.
Q. If you’re a Christian, why did you write TFIOS with such a Naturalist, secular worldview?
A. 1. I don’t think TFiOS has a necessarily secular worldview. It really depends on your reading of the book. Hazel’s dad, for instances, makes the argument that the universe is invested in consciousness, which is not a strictly atheistic thing to say and is in fact periQlously close to claiming the existence of heaven.
1a. Of course Hazel dismisses her dad’s argument, so there’s that.
1b. Then again, many of the central events of the novel take place in the Literal Heart of Jesus. Setting a novel inside the heart of God’s son does not strike me as a particularly unChristian thing to do.
1c. Of course the kids are always making fun of the place and claiming that Patrick’s use of the phrase Literal Heart of Jesus is a misuse of literality.
1d. But then again, Hazel and Gus and Isaac themselves come to call the place the Literal Heart.
1e. It seems to me that different characters in the book find varying degrees of secular, religious, theistic, and atheistic ways to confront the reality and injustice of suffering, and that the book (at least if I did it right) is more an exploration of the variety of responses to suffering than an argument in favor of one over another.
2. I do not believe the job of a novelist is to thrust his or her belief system upon a reader.
Q. Why do you say that your opinions on your books have no more weight that anyone else’s? Don’t you know the text better than any of its readers?
A. I don’t know the text better than any of its readers. That’s just factually incorrect. I don’t have access to a secret story. I do not know what happens outside of the story any more than anyone else does.
Stop privileging the voice of the writer. Empower yourself. You are the reader. It is your story.
Q. As a Christian, sometimes it’s hard to believe in a God that will love me and protect me forever. As someone who has worked in a hospital as a children’s chaplain, how do you reconcile the two?
A. I think you have define your terms pretty carefully—terms like “God” and “love” and protect” and especially “forever” mean different things to different people. So you have to decide what those words mean to you, and it may be that these words are being defined for you in a way that you find to be theologically inconsistent or implausible way. (This is pretty common, I think.)
The actual seeing of horrible things shouldn’t affect your worldview that much, at least if you’re able to acknowledge and internalize the reality (and relative commonness) of horrible things. If you understand that half the planet lives on less than $2.50 a day, that for almost all of human history infant mortality was above 20%, that until very recently children dying of disease was astonishingly common, you do not need to see anything personally to have trouble reconciling some constructions of God with the reality of suffering in the world.
(It’s also very important to note—and remember that I am saying this from a faith-based perspective—that religion did absolutely nothing to change any of that. There’s no evidence that over the last 1,000 years, Christians have on average been less poor or sick than Muslims, for instance.)
That doesn’t negate theistic worldviews in any way. But theistic worldviews that fail to grapple meaningfully and thoughtfully with the world as it is are not very interesting to me.
Q. What are your opinions on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
A. I think people tend to spend a lot of their time thinking about food when they are hungry. But to classify this phenomenon into some rigid hierarchy is ridiculous and unfair to the hungry, because it says, “The highfalutin’ world of art and music and philosophy is not for you. It is only for we rich, well-fed people.” That bothers me.
In general, Maslow’s ideas about human motivation don’t hold up for me, and the whole affair smacks of the mid-20th century believe that psychology could describe and quantify human experience and behavior at least as precisely as physics can describe and quantify gravity.
Q. Do you think Gus is a heroic character? What about Hazel?
A. Yes, I think Gus is a hero.
For me, the hero’s journey is not the voyage from weakness to strength. The true hero’s journey is the voyage from strength to weakness.
And to my mind, that makes Gus very heroic, indeed.
Q. I’m trying to figure out a way to explain to people that certain mathematical facts are facts (i.e. infinities, .999..=1, etc.) when they refuse to understand or accept the mathematics behind it. How does one explain this without being rude and ejecting them from the conversation?
A. The general problem here is one of entitlement: People think it is okay to have an opinion about facts. This happens all the time and not only in mathematics (as, for instance, when people think it is legitimate to have the opinion that capitalism hasn’t resulted in GDP growth, or that humans aren’t contributing to climate change, or that Huck Finn is pro-slavery).
You are not entitled to have an opinion about a fact.
But anyway, for a good explanation of why .999… = 1, visit wikipedia.
Q. Do you think Phalanxifor is a drug that will ever really exist?
A. Drugs like phalanxifor will exist, although probably with less metaphorically resonant names.
Phalanxifor is based on the breast cancer drug herceptin, which is for certain patients very effective. Targeted therapies like herceptin are a very promising site of research in cancer treatment, though, and hopefully there will be hundreds of drugs like it within the next decade or two.
(That said, it is now clear that “curing cancer” will be extremely complex, because cancer is not just one disease. It is thousands—arguably millions—of diseases.)
Q. Is there a reason you choose to say “books belong to their readers,” rather than tie up loose ends outside of the book? J.K. Rowling recently came out with a statement about the futures of all of her characters; do you expand on your characters in that sense?
A. I don’t think it’s the author’s place to tell readers what happens to characters outside the text of a novel, because I don’t think the characters (in an extra-textual way, at least) belong to the writer. An author can talk about his/her own reading of the story, or her intentions, but his/her “opinion” on extra-textual matters is irrelevant.
(So I would argue that J. K. Rowling saying that Dumbledore was gay does not make Dumbledore any more or less gay than he already was. It’s easy to read the novels thinking Dumbledore is gay; I suppose it’s also possible to read the novels thinking he isn’t. But all that matters is the text. The only authoritative source for the Harry Potter novels is the text of the Harry Potter novels, and if J. K. Rowling announced tomorrow that Hermione was actually a Jedi Knight who time-traveled to Hogwarts from the Star Wars universe, it would not in any way change the novels or Hermione.)
I realize that many of you disagree with me about this, and that’s fine. Together, we decide what books are, how to read them, and whose voice counts. But I’ve thought pretty hard about this stuff for a fairly long time, and you’re very unlikely to convince me to “reveal” something, particularly something that I literally do not think can be revealed.
Q. What kind of relationship do you have with your characters?
A. I am conscious that they don’t exist, but I still feel bad for them.
This is the same way I feel about house elves, come to think of it.
Q. Do you think Gus’s decision not to tell Hazel about his relapse was a selfish or selfless act?
A. I think that’s more of a both/and proposition than an either/or one.
Q. What do you think of Laurence Perrine’s claim that the problem with symbols is we believe they can mean anything we want? He argues that symbols are confined to an area of meaning, defined by the author, in which the interpretations are infinite, but not unlimited.
A. I don’t think the area of meaning is defined by the author—at least not exclusively—but otherwise I agree.
When i say books belong to their readers, I do not mean, “If you think Huck Finn is a novel that defends slavery, you are entitled to your opinion.” That reading is wrong. It’s as wrong as thinking that 2 + 3 = 7.
I mean that readers should not define reading as the act of divining an author’s intents. Readers are co-creators of a fiction, and should be empowered.
As a thought experiment: Imagine that Huck Finn contained the exact same words that it currently contains, but that Mark Twain insisted it was a book about how slavery is a great idea. I would argue that Mark Twain would be every bit as wrong about the novel as anyone else who thinks that it is a pro-slavery novel.
The author defines the area of meaning through choosing the words in the novel. But beyond the words in the novel, the author is not in the defining-an-area-of-meaning game. Readers do that collectively.
(All of this stated with the caveat that I might be wrong and have been wrong before.)
Q. A lot of people identify with TFiOS as Hazel identified with An Imperial Affliction. How does it feel to be somebody’s Peter Van Houten?
Questions about the Ending
Q. You once mentioned that the last sentence in the book is the biggest spoiler. Why do you believe that to be true?
A. 1. It’s present tense.
2. What do you say at your wedding?
Q. What does the present tense of the last line signify?
A. It signifies something that is still happening, that is continuing, that is ongoing, that is not over.
(I’m pretty sure that is what the present tense always signifies?)
Q. So did Augustus’s death occur prior to what is happening at the end of the book (a wedding)?
A. The central thing that Hazel has to realize at the end of the book is that she has been wrong all along about how she imagines her relationships with people she loves. She wasn’t wrong about being a grenade (although we’re all grenades), but she was wrong about how that should shape her behavior.
More importantly but in the same vein, Hazel has to realize that her mom was wrong when she said, “I won’t be a mother anymore.” The truth is, after Hazel dies (assuming she dies), her mom will still be her mom, just as my grandmother is still my grandmother even though she has died. As long as either person is still alive, that relationship survives. (It changes, but it survives.)
So the dual significant to “I do,” to me is 1. she’s realizing that she can still love Augustus and that there is still value in that love, and 2. there is a permanence to the present tense. An infinity within the finite. The present tense is always present. It is always happening now.
(This can obviously be overread: They aren’t really married. You can’t—AND SHOULDN’T—marry a dead person. But I wanted to use the language of that ceremony to connect them to each other, to give her the chance to say the words she’ll probably never get to say in a church while wearing a dress, and to acknowledge that their love was real and important and, in its way, lasting.)
Q. Why did you end the book so abruptly like Peter Van Houten did with AIA?
A. I was not under the impression I ended it abruptly.
Q. Typically, comedies end in marriage and tragedies end in death. When Hazel says, “I do” at the end, should that be interpreted as a marriage, therefore hope?
A. Well, I was definitely aware that Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage and his tragedies end in death, and I was rather fond of the idea that my book could end (symbolically, at least) in both.
Q. The last line in TFiOS is important, but what if it does not translate properly into another language? Is that whole idea of marriage going to be lost?
A. Yes. This is inevitable in translation. (Many other lines that are a big deal in English may also get lost in translation.)
But here’s what is often overlooked: Just as there are inevitably losses in the translation process, there are also opportunities. There are ways in which a translation can become richer than the original text.
This is an extension of books belonging to their readers and novels being inherently collaborative. We think, “Well, the author’s original text is the ideal text,” but A. there is no actual “original text” because the entire process of creating the novel is collaborative, and B. it is perfectly possible for a translator to improve an author’s text—at least in places—by working thoughtfully with a different set of linguistic tools.
What Happens After the Ending?
Q. What happens to Hazel?
A. I have no idea. I’m different from Peter Van Houten in many important ways, but in this respect (and some others) we are the same: I have access to the exact same text that you do. My thoughts about the world outside of that text are not any more informed or authoritative than yours.
Textually, Hazel is clearly weaker at the end of the novel than she was in Amsterdam, but that’s all you know, and that’s all I know, too.
Q. What happens to Peter Van Houten?
A. I don’t know what happens to anyone outside the text of the novel. I have access to the exact same text that you do, and any speculation on my part about the characters or events outside the text of the novel would be no more informed or authoritative than your speculation.
Q. Who won America’s Next Top Model?
A. I love you guys so much for continuing to believe, despite my repeated protestations to the contrary, that I can tell you what happens outside the text of the book.
I can’t! I’m sorry! I’m Peter Van Houten! I can’t do it! I have no idea! I have no idea what happens to Isaac or Hazel or Gus’s parents or who wins America’s Next Top Model or whether the Dutch Tulip Man was God and if so whether He is benevolent. I promise you: I DON’T KNOW.
I have access to the exact same text that you do. I do not have access to any information outside of that text, because then it would just be me speculating about what might happen, and my speculations are no more valuable or authoritative than anyone else’s. Books belong to their readers! Own it! Make it yours!
Q. Do you think that imagining our own ending to your stories, through fanfiction, is bad?
A. No no no I love fanfiction and I love it when people imagine worlds outside of the text for the characters. I just think that if I do it, then my opinion will be privileged over other opinions, and people will be like, “Well but John Green said that Isaac miraculously recovered his sight and became a ballet dancer, so that is what happened.” I don’t want to close off the reading experience in that way.
Q. Any really good TFIOS fanfiction?
A. There’s some great fan fiction about Isaac meeting a girl at a movie theater, but I can’t find it at the moment? Maybe someone in comments will have the link?
Q. After you wrote the book, however much time has passed, do you think back and wish you could write more, or that you could somehow create more of their world?
A. I never wish I could go back and write more, no. I spent a long, long time trying to write the book that became The Fault in Our Stars and to be completely honest with you, I am entirely happy that the story is no longer my problem and is now your problem.
Q. Deep down, do you have a sense of when Hazel dies? Do you picture her inevitably dying young or living to be older?
It’s not my book. It’s your book. I don’t make decisions about things that happen outside the text of the book; I can’t read something that isn’t there any more than you can.
Anyway, there is no definitive way to end it or any other book. No story is ever over, because every human life ripples into every other one, and there is no way to end a story definitively and the search for a definitive end is (imho) the wrong search.
Q. Do you miss Hazel’s world? Do you never lie awake at night creating more situations?
A. Honestly, no. That book was my problem for many, many years. I am really, truly, entirely glad that it is your problem now.
Q. Hypothetically, if you didn’t write TFIOS, what would you think of Hazel? Does she live, and for how long?
A. Jesus Christ, guys. I DO NOT HAVE AN ANSWER TO THAT QUESTION.
But boy, you sure have found a lot of ways to ask it. ;)
Q. I don’t understand the purpose of actively avoiding the question about Hazel’s ending and whether she dies.
A. I just don’t have an answer. It’s like asking me to answer the question, “When is asehiuhqwebhjfgiuzdfbuasjdfnsdf?” The question does not make any sense to me. I do not have an answer for it.
I will never answer it, just like I don’t answer any other questions that ask questions pertaining to matters outside the text of any of my novels.
I admire the thousands of you who have asked these questions in thousands of different ways (currently 6754 unanswered messages in the inbox, of which more than half seem to be about this).
But I do not have an answer.
Q. Why won’t you answer questions about what happens after the book? You answer so many questions about why Gus and Hazel did specific things or how they felt. Isn’t this a double standard?
A. I answer textual questions and occasionally questions about intent. I cannot answer a question about something I intentionally left ambiguous, because I intentionally left it ambiguous, and to answer the question would be to undo the thing that I spent ten years trying to do, which I don’t want to do.
I adore you guys. I really do. And I admire your perseverance. But it will never happen. In fact, the more you ask, the less inclined I am to talk about it, because it only further confirms if I ever offered an answer to that question, my voice would be privileged over the voices of other readers, which I don’t want.
Questions about An Imperial Affliction
Q. Is AIA a real book? Can you make it one?
A. I get asked this question all the time, often by journalists. (I won’t name any names, but a pretty well-known journalist once asked me how Peter Van Houten felt about my depiction of him.)
An Imperial Affliction is not a real book, and Peter Van Houten is not a real person.
However, An Imperial Affliction is in some ways based on two books I love. The first is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most of the references Hazel and Augustus make to AIA are related in some way to something from Infinite Jest, and I wanted readers of IJ to be able to make those comparisons.
But Infinite Jest is not about cancer. Peter De Vries’ amazing and beautiful and hilarious novel The Blood of the Lamb IS about cancer, and most of the broad observations that Hazel makes about An Imperial Affliction—how it is a book about cancer without it being a cancer book, how is is funny and respectful and reflects the reality of experience in a way she has rarely encountered—come from my own experience reading The Blood of the Lamb.
I can’t make An Imperial Affliction real. It’s not the kind book I could write well, and on some level, the thing that we imagine will always be better than any real approximation of it that might come to exist.
But if you wish to read An Imperial Affliction, I’d encourage you to read Infinite Jest and The Blood of the Lamb and then try to blend the feeling of those two books.
Q. Aren’t you even a little tempted to write An Imperial Affliction?
A. No, I could never write a novel like An Imperial Affliction, and I don’t think I would enjoy writing it. There’s a variety of writing that David Foster Wallace once described as, “Look, mom! No hands!” AIA, as I imagine it, is very much that kind of novel: prodigious and ostentatious and full of that Pynchonian need to show every possible thing that words can do. I love reading those books, but I’m not interested in attempting to write one.
Also, one of the magical things about books (or bands) that don’t exist is that they can achieve a kind of greatness that isn’t available to real artworks. Writing An Imperial Affliction would only ruin it, sort of by definition.
Q. How much of An Imperial Affliction did you write?
A. Only what you read in The Fault in Our Stars. (There are a few AIA lines that I wrote into TFiOS and eventually cut, but they were pretty bad.)
Q. What is the opening line of An Imperial Affliction?
A. The first line is “My mother’s glass eye turned inwards,” at least according to Gus’s reading to Hazel.
Q. Was the Dutch Tulip man a con man?
A. I suppose that depends upon your perspective. Van Houten tells you that the Dutch Tulip Man is God.
Q. Is the Dutch Tulip Man God within TFIOS as well as An Imperial Affliction?
I mean, it’s no coincidence that throughout the novel, Hazel and Augustus keep talking about whether they think the Dutch Tulip Man is what he is claimed to be, and when they talk about this, you could very easily replace the words “Dutch Tulip Man” with the word “God.”
Q. Can you explain the Dutch Tulip Man / God thing?
A. All we ever know about the Dutch Tulip Man is:
1. He claims to be very rich (which in our world is equivalent to powerful), but he might be a fraud.
2. He may or may not really love Anna’s mother.
3. Peter Van Houten, who created the Dutch Tulip Man, claims he not but an unambiguous and obvious metaphor for God.
4. The way that Hazel and Augustus talk about the Dutch Tulip Man is very similar to the way that Hazel and Augustus might talk about God. Like, when Augustus says the Dutch Tulip Man is “not a con man, but not as rich as he’s letting on,” if you were reading the DTM as a metaphor for God, you could conclude that Augustus was saying something about his beliefs re. God and the limits of God’s power.
5. So my joke about going to church was based on that reading of the novel. Like, if you take Peter Van Houten’s word that the Dutch Tulip Man is a metaphor for God, and you see everything Hazel and Gus say about him through that lens, then asking me what I think about the Dutch Tulip Man is just asking me whether I believe in God.
Q. Did you put the fact that Anna died mid-sentence in the book just to rule out the theory that Hazel would die (because she was the narrator)?
A. Well, that was certainly on my mind. There’s an argument to be made that first-person narration takes the teeth from the monster in any story, right? The I survives: You know, because the I is telling the story in the past tense, as something that happened to that I, and here the I is, still writing.
I guess it’s true I didn’t want to offer readers that luxury in this story, because it seems like a cheap kind of hope, you know? (I really tried to make TFiOS a hopeful novel, but I did not want it to be the kind of easily won or ill-considered hope that both Hazel and Augustus find so little consolation in.)
Q. An Imperial Affliction is supposed to be written in Ana’s point of view. Why, when you use an extract of AIA as the epigraph, it is written in a third person point of view?
A. This has been fixed. But yes, YOU ARE A VERY CLOSE READER. I was pretty mad about this when I first discovered it; it should only be a problem in the first two printings of the book.
Questions about Allusions/References
Q. What inspired you to include a reference to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five?
I didn’t really think of it as a reference to Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut didn’t invent the sentence “so it goes,” although he did invent pairing it with death. I didn’t do the Vonnegutian thing of announcing a character’s death and then following it up immediately with “So it goes,” so I didn’t think of it in that directly referential way.
Vonnegut was playing with something that predated his book: our ability to express in a very short sentence the universe’s disinterest in us. I was trying to get at something similar, I guess.
Q. Why did you mention the Red Wheelbarrow?
A. Just a really good poem about the pleasure and importance of observing the universe.
Q. Were the references to The Great Gatsby in this novel intentional? Like, Isaac’s “disembodied eyes,” the green light in Amsterdam, etc.?
A. Yeah. Also the green car that looks like all the hopes that we were foolish to hope, etc. (But again, just because I intended it doesn’t make it more or less useful/real/whatever.)
Q. Is there a meaning behind “The Hectic Glow”?
A. In a journal entry, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Decay and disease are often beautiful, like the pearly tear of the shellfish or the hectic glow of consumption.” (People with tuberculosis get reddened cheeks—a hectic glow.)
There were two things I really liked about this: first, the problematic (but not totally untrue) statement that disease is beautiful/attractive, and second, that Thoreau would write this about consumption, a disease that was famously capricious and mysterious: It attacked the young and the old. Sometimes it killed you and sometimes it didn’t. Treatment was brutal and ghastly and socially isolating. In short, the way people in the 19th century experienced and thought about consumption was similar in a lot of ways to the way we think about cancer today.
In earlier drafts of the book, there was a lot more stuff about lung functioning and tuberculosis and blah blah blah it was really boring, and back then I wanted to call the book itself The Hectic Glow, but in the end we decided A. it wasn’t the right title for the book, and B. it’s pretty hard to say out loud if you’re trying to recommend it to a friend, so we went in a different direction.
But I liked it too much to let it go all the way. Hence the band name.
Q. What made you choose “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for Hazel to recite?
A. I picked “Prufrock” because A. a lot of teenagers have memorized it, and B. it has drowning in it, and C. it is concerned with what Eliot famously called “an overwhelming question.”
Q. Do you think that Prufrock’s hesitance to disturb the universe is similar to Hazel’s walking lightly? Were you trying to show the heroic side of this as opposed to the feeling of cowardice portrayed by Eliot?
A. Yes and yes.
Q. Have you read David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More? Because it verbatim says that it’s possible for some infinities to be larger than other infinities.
A. Yeah, I reviewed Everything and More in Booklist Magazine when it was first published, and I was really fascinated by the book—although the math confused me, partly because some of it turns out to be wrong/oversimplified.
I wanted An Imperial Affliction and generally some of PVH’s thinking to resemble some of DFW’s thinking, although obviously DFW was not an alcoholic and not (at least so far as I know) cruel to his teenage readers. But the relationship that Hazel has to AIA is similar in a lot of ways to the relationship I had with Infinite Jest (which in college I basically believed to be, like, scripture) and certainly DFW’s arguments re. attentiveness and focus and the pleasure/significance/responsibility of observation were very important to me and to this book.
So, yes, I borrowed a lot from his work, definitely.
Q. Can you elaborate on which of David Foster Wallace’s ideas you used in TFIOS?
A. Well, to the extent that An Imperial Affliction exists, it is similar in some ways to Infinite Jest. (The first line of AIA, for instance, which is something like “My mother’s glass eye turned inwards,” can be read as a quiet reference to the IJ character Nell Gunther, whose glass eye often faces inward. This idea—of the unseeing eye turned not out toward the world but into the self—is a really beautiful symbol, and always struck with me.) Previous drafts of TFiOS made the connection between AIA and IJ must more explicit (for instance, they had the same last sentence), but that stuff got stripped away as the role AIA played in the novel changed.
Mostly, though, I was influenced by Wallace’s famous commencement address at Kenyon College and to a lesser extent by some of the passages in The Pale King, where Wallace extolls the many virtues of noticing and the daily business of paying attention, which Hazel comes to believe is the core responsibility and privilege of being a person.
Q. There are references to the poem “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” on pages 18 and 274, as well as the title of An Imperial Affliction. How did you decide to use this poem?
A. I read Emily Dickinson’s collected poems when I was in college, and of course that is one of her most beloved poems. (That said, like a lot of her poetry, it suffers from this kind of failure to make up its mind in re. faith and fate and so on, which I generally see as kind of a weakness in her work, but in that particular poem it really works for me.)
Q. How did you come up with the idea that Hazel and Gus were in a shared third space while they were talking on the phone?
A. The idea of the third space was stolen from the brilliant artist Joshua Mosley. He mentioned it in a talk he gave while introducing a new artwork.
Q. Were you aware of the last phrase of Ulysses while writing the last line of TFiOS?
Q. “If I should die[...]I have left no immortal work behind me-nothing to make my friends proud of my memory-but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.” Did you ever think about John Keats when you were writing Gus? Each worries over whether or not he will be remembered, and has to confront his own impending mortality. Did you ever think about Keats’ epitaph? Is Augustus’s name writ in water?
A. Well, in a lot of ways, Keats was still a kid when he died. To me, he is the romantic poet of innocence (which I mean as a compliment), but the whole idea of “immortal work” is a faulty one. Keats never really recognized this; he genuinely believed that you could write something that could last “forever” and never seemed to consider the nonexistence of forever or the implications of its nonexistence.
But in the end, his loyalty to beauty, his worship of it, his seemingly sincere belief that beauty and truth were the same thing, is what makes his work so powerful to us today.
And it’s true that he would’ve been a better poet if he’d lived, but his name still would have been written in water. All names are written in water, which is what Keats never had to reconcile himself to.
Anyway, that Romantic urge to be remembered and to create immortal work certainly isn’t unique to Keats but that sort of thinking was very much on my mind when I was writing about Gus.
Q. Did you think about Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Illness as Metphor” while writing TFiOS? Sontag talks a lot about the seductive danger of wrapping our experiences with illness in mythos and symbolism, which seems pretty relevant to the novel.
A. Yeah, I reread “Illness as Metaphor” and also her brilliant Regarding the Suffering of Others while writing The Fault in Our Stars. In fact, there were a couple Sontag quotes as epigraphs in earlier drafts.
Sontag was a brilliant public intellectual, and I don’t know of anyone who wrote about suffering with as much thoughtfulness. So, yes, her work definitely shapes the way I think about illness (and metaphor).
Questions about Symbols/Metaphors
Q. Was everything in the novel a symbol that the reader should have picked up on or were there some things that were just what they were? Was the swing set actually a swing set? Was Augustus’s prosthetic leg just a prosthetic leg? Were the people actually people or were they symbols like in Lord of the Flies?
A. The people in the Lord of the Flies are people; just because it’s possible to read them symbolically doesn’t mean they stop being people. (For example, it is possible—and in fact all of us to do this—to read the real people in our actual lives symbolically, to see so-and-so as A Cautionary Tale and what’s-her-name as the Definition of Cool, etc.)
You shouldn’t feel like an idiot. There are more than one ways to read a good story, and my first job as a writer is to write something you’ll enjoy reading. I hope that I also write something that holds up to critical reading; i.e., the deeper you look, the more you will be rewarded for looking, and the more you will be able to see into questions that are hopefully interesting and important.
To repeat something I’ve said again and again, the writer’s intention is irrelevant. So you decide whether the swing set is just a swing set; you decide whether Augustus’s prosthetic leg is just a prosthetic leg. Whether the author intended a symbol or a theme or whatever is irrelevant; if you find that it aids you in your observation and interrogation of the universe, then it succeeds regardless of authorial intent.
I’d argue this is the case with Lord of the Flies, too: It’s a fun adventure story, and also a very sad one, but the more you think about it, the richer and more interesting it becomes.
Q. Did you mean to add every metaphor and connection in the book or were some just beautiful accidents?
A. Well, I’m sure some are just beautiful (or not so beautiful) accidents, but I did try pretty hard to make sure the book is fun and interesting to read and offers some rewards to those who choose to read closely. But again, not to beat a dead horse, I don’t think authorial intent is all that important. Like, even if I didn’t think of the Dutch Tulip Man as a metaphor for God, he still could be read that way, you know? And it would (if the metaphor works, anyway) still be an interesting way into thinking about what role God(s) play(s) in the contemporary, hyper-secularized world.
Q. What’s the significance of the swing set?
A. I guess I intended the swing set as a metaphor for childhood. Several times Hazel tries to go back to it but for various reasons can’t. Then finally Gus helps her realize that she needs to get it out of her backyard.
Q. What is the significance of Hazel’s Magritte shirt?
A. Magritte was exploring the relationship between a thing and a representation of a thing. I wanted it to be clear that Hazel is aware of this distance. She’s not, like, mentally ill. I hoped that would make it all the more powerful that she still wants to know what happens after the end of the book, especially what happens to Anna’s mother. (This is of course because she wants to know what will happen to her own mother.)
Q. Is there a link between Augustus Waters’ smoking and Holden Caufield’s red hat?
Q. Was there any symbolism to Isaac?
A. (First off, I did not call Isaac Isaac because his eyes are sick. I’m not punny enough to make that connection! I called him Isaac because of Isaac, who went blind.)
There’s a strong tradition of epics being told by blind people: In 300, for instance, only the blind guy is left to tell the tale. Homer was said to be blind; Milton went blind; etc. I was trying to write a little epic of star-crossed lovers—one that would be painted on a small canvas and that wouldn’t be about politics or war or family strife or whatever but about disease.
Assuming that Hazel’s lifespan is shorter than average, Isaac would be the only one left to tell the story. (So, like, if you imagine a world outside of the book, one of the things you can imagine is this future in which the only peer who can tell the story of Hazel and Gus’s love is Isaac, which gives you the typical romantic epic bard, but doesn’t adhere to the convention because for once the girl gets to tell her own story.)
That’s what I was thinking, anyway. (But like all that stuff aside, the most important thing is that I liked Isaac and wanted Hazel and Gus to have someone who could provide a different worldview to both of them—one where true love is real and triumphs everything.)
Q. What’s with all the water references?
A. Well, for Hazel and for a lot of people (and also a lot of places), water is both a creator and destroyer of life.
So let’s look at this from the perspective of a person, Hazel, and a place, Amsterdam.
Water makes life possible for Hazel, but the fluid in her lungs (which she refers to as water) is killing her.
Amsterdam would never have become a great city if it weren’t surrounded by water, but the city—which has benefited so much from its geography—is also drowning, and at constant risk of disaster from flooding.
I am of course not the first person to make this observation; the Latin phrase quod me nutrit, me destruit (that which nourishes me destroys me) goes way back. But I wanted to write a novel about the things that make life possible (and valuable) and how many of those things are also what makes life painful and temporary.
Water seemed like a good metaphor for getting into some of that stuff. (Plus water does all kinds of other convenient things, like follow the path of least resistance.) But you shouldn’t feel like you’re not doing a good job of reading the novel if you’re not conscious of that kind of stuff when you’re reading. There are many good ways to read a book, and if the metaphors work, you don’t need to be overly aware of them for them to move you and make you think.
Q. Why is there so many mentions of the color blue? Was it a symbol for sadness or water?
A. WATER. I AM A LITTLE OBSESSED WITH WATER.
Q. Is Hazel’s obsession with the ghettoization of scrambled eggs as breakfast really about the ghettoization of sick people as enlightened? And, following that, is Augustus’s choosing a hamburger for breakfast really him choosing to see sick people as just people?
A. That reading certainly makes a lot of sense to me.
Q. The scrambled eggs are supposed to be a metaphor? I thought it was reasonable that someone would agree that food are discriminated against by the time of day in which they are eaten. I have been trying to tell my parents that forever!
A. Right, but I would submit that you have been telling your parents that as a metaphor. (That something can be read metaphorically does not make it untrue or less valid.)
The reason that you and I both find it unfortunate that some foods are discriminated against by time of day is not just about food; it’s also about our values we’ve inherited regarding equality and fairness and this particular view of justice that we share with other people who do not ghettoize scrambled eggs.
You cannot separate metaphor from reality. Metaphor is part of reality. Metaphor is an exploration of the nature of reality.
Q. Can you explain what the elevator and stairs signified?
A. The stairs were for healthier people; the elevator was for sicker people.
(This is also true outside of novels.)
It’s one of the few places in the novel that you can clearly see from an objective perspective Hazel’s condition deteriorating: She chooses the stairs at the beginning of the novel even though it’s a struggle; by the end, she’s choosing the elevator.
Q. Can you explain the cigarette metaphor? And the implications of having a character so concerned with metaphor and grand romantic images over the reality of their lives?
A. Right, so there are a lot of ways to answer this question, I think.
The very straightforward way: If you think of symbols as “enchanted objects,” Augustus associates the unlit cigarette with taking control over his health, which often feels (and is!) out of his control. So he puts the killing thing in his mouth but denies it the power to kill him.
The less straightforward way: Augustus is a very performed character, right? He delivers monologues, for God’s sake. He’s one of those kids who is super self-conscious and always assumes that people are watching him and/or listening very closely to him. So this is one of the ways that we see him performing the role of Augustus Waters instead of just being authentically himself. (This changes over the course of the novel; even though he clings to the IDEA of the cigarettes to the very end, it’s worth remembering that he never actually GETS them in that scene at the Speedway.)
3. There are even less straightforward, metafictional ways to read Gus’s obsession with symbol and metaphor (like, he’s a character in a novel that’s about how fiction is important and ‘real’ even though it is made up and not real, etc.), but I find that stuff a bit much, personally.
Q. If the cigarette metaphor means that Augustus controls his own life, does the scene where he buys cigarettes (because his old one was taken away from him) foreshadow his death? Because he no longer has control over his health?
A. Well, the feeling of control is always an illusion, but it’s a pretty easy illusion to cling to while you are well, right? That’s why people say things like, “I am going to the mall tomorrow,” when what they actually mean is, “I hope to go to the mall tomorrow, but I might die before then or experience a Major Life Event that prevents me from going to the mall.”
Gus very much wants to cling to this feeling of power over his illness, but he can’t. The circle of what you can do with your life inevitably begins to close, whether at 16 or 116.
That’s why to me the hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness. Gus must reconcile himself to the world as it is, and still find meaning and hope in that life, instead of being able to hold onto (as we almost all do almost all the time) a false sense of power and autonomy.
Q. It seemed to me that Van Houten was a metaphor for God. Why is the Dutch Tulip Man a metaphor for God, rather than Van Houten?
A. Well, I don’t think these ideas are mutually exclusive. Van Houten imagines the Dutch Tulip Man as a metaphor for God, and the way Hazel and Gus talk about the Dutch Tulip Man reflects something about how the characters think about/imagine God: Is God (or the Dutch Tulip Man) a con man, a kind but powerless benevolence, a savior, a mirage, or what?
But that noted, Van Houten is definitely a metaphor (or at least a stand-in) for God (or at least some kind of prophet) to Hazel. Hazel actually makes this explicit a couple times, saying for instance that An Imperial Affliction is as close a thing as she has to a Bible.
Questions about Settings
Q. Why Amsterdam?
A. 1. drowning city; drowning girl. (Hazel makes this explicit at one point, saying that she feels like Dr. Maria’s Amsterdam.)
2. Indianapolis and Amsterdam are both canal cities, but in our imagination, they’re total opposites: Amsterdam is a city of romance and freedom and debauchery; Indianapolis is a midwestern city of straight-laced worker bees living in suburbs. Hazel romanticizes Amsterdam as much as she romanticizes Van Houten, and I needed her to want to be in some place radically different from Indianapolis.
3. Anne Frank.
Q. You used Amsterdam as a setting because of the water metaphor. Is there a reason you chose it rather than another water-dependent city, such as Venice?
A. Well, Venice is not really a city anymore, to be honest with you. Fewer than 60,000 people live there, and while it still hosts important events like the Venice Bienale, it is primarily a tourist destination. It’s very different from a city like Amsterdam, which has a million people, a very good soccer team, and a present-tense vitality that Venice just lacks.
Q. Why Anne Frank’s house?
A. It just seemed like the obvious place for a hot hot sex scene
Q. No, seriously, why Anne Frank’s house?
A. It’s a sacred space, but it’s important to remember that real people lived there. Our usual way of honoring the dead–by freezing them in time and mythologizing them, by building the marble statues Shakespeare rails against in that sonnet–that’s not Hazel and Augustus’s way of honoring the dead. As Hazel notes, Anne Frank made out with a boy in the Anne Frank house. I think Hazel wants (and I wanted) to reclaim that sacred space for doomed people who are nonetheless still alive, and still full of desire.
Q. Why did you choose an Episcopal church?
A. Well, 1. I am Episcopalian, so I could picture the church, because I’ve been in churches like that a lot (and in fact the church at my college looks very much like the church in the book), and 2. there aren’t that many cruciform churches in the United States, and they tend to be either Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, or Episcopalian, and I suppose I’m just biased.
Q. Was there a reason that you chose your hometown as the setting for TFIOS?
A. My best friend Chris just read The Hunger Games, and he was like, “I really loved the world-building in that book. Panem just felt so real, you know?”
And I was like, “Yeah, I totally agree.”
And then he said, “I mean, the worldbuilding in your books feels real, too, but you just have stuff happen at, like, the Speedway at 86th and Ditch.”
I wrote about Indianapolis partly because I know Indianapolis, and I wanted to ground the story in a place I know and love. But there were other reasons, including:
1. Indianapolis is a very typical, very American city. This is a stark contrast to Amsterdam, a city that lights up the romantic imagination with images of canal boats and the red light district.
2. Indianapolis, like Amsterdam, is a canal city. They are both places that live amid water, just like Hazel does.
Questions about Specific Quotations
Q. Do you believe, as Mr. Lancaster does, that our universe “is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed”?
A. I’m not going down on record personally as saying the universe is biased toward consciousness, but it does seem to Mr. Lancaster at least a reasonable thing to hope. (For the record, I tried very hard to keep my own worldview on these topics out of the text of the novel, because none of the characters are very much like me, and also they’ve all had to live with things very different from the things I’ve lived with.)
Q. The phrase “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year…” makes it sound as though Hazel is reflecting on something that occurred a few years ago. Does that mean she lives on for a while longer?
A. It is certainly meant to give the reader enough freedom from fear that s/he doesn’t spend every page worrying that Hazel might die at any moment (ditto the first person narration).
Q. The story begins, “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year…” But, it later says that Hazel is 16. Am I missing something?
A. One is sixteen in their seventeenth year. (You are still 0 in your first year; you are one in your second year; etc.)
This is one of those annoying grammatical things where being right means being confusing.
Q. Was there a deeper meaning to the passage on the plane where Hazel and Augustus both pressed play at the same time, but Augustus’s movie started first?
A. I believe that is known as foreshadowing. :)
Q. I interpreted Augustus’s movie starting first as echoing the fact that he knew more than Hazel about the future. He already knew he was sick, so he knew what was coming next in both life and the movie whereas she didn’t. Can it be both?
A. Yes, that too! BBTTR! That is a great reading!
Q. You use the phrase “irreparably broken” in both Looking for Alaska and TFIOS, but with two different viewpoints. Had you changed your stance on the phrase between writing the two novels?
A. Interesting question. (I reused that phrase by accident, for the record.) It certainly doesn’t reflect a change or evolution in my thinking. But I’ve had a very different life from Hazel, and also a somewhat different life from Miles, and if I’m doing my job as a writer, they’re coming to the question of irreperability from their own perspectives, not from mine.
Q. In regards to the quote that talks about how one feels after reading a great book – how does it feel to know people feel that about your books?
A. It’s wonderful if people feel the connection to one of my books that Hazel feels to AIA. I didn’t write that bit thinking about my books, though; I was thinking about my own reading experiences as a teenager.
Q. In the chapter where Augustus and Hazel first use “okay” as their “always,” it ends with “it was Augustus who finally hung up.” Is that foreshadowing his death?
A. Well, as always: Books belong to their readers. I didn’t have to intend foreshadowing for it to BE foreshadowing. I was conscious of doing that, I guess, but it seems to me that foreshadowing doesn’t really have a point except to instill a sense of unease in the reader that can only be resolved by continuing to read—like, I think foreshadowing is just a subtle way to ratchet up the pace. I don’t see much, like, real philosophical or thematic guts to it. (I might be wrong, of course. I don’t really know how much about how/whether writing works.)
Q. What do you mean by “depression is a side effect of dying”?
A. Depression is (literally) a side effect of all processes of dying.
Hazel’s broader feeling is that dying—its permanence, its ubiquity—is kind of the defining characteristic of human consciousness, and that all feeling proceeds from it.
Or at least that is her contention at the beginning of the boom. It’s worth noting that characters often (always?) say things at the beginnings of novels that they would not say by the end of those novels.
Q. When you write an eloquent sentence (such as “I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that is rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed”), do you realize that you’re being profound? Do you get a thrill from forming a sentence like that?
A. I stole that sentiment from a friend who I’m inclined not to identify, because I think she probably does not actually believe that the universe is biased toward consciousness and would be embarrassed to be associated with such an aggressively theological statement.
Anyway, the friend in question never actually said the quote from the book, but she got me close enough to it that it was easy for me to do the rest, so when I was writing that, I mostly just felt like a thief.
But yeah, I am aware that I am fairly good at turning phrases, and I do get a rush out of it. That said, I delete most of them, because they’re usually pretty Encouragement-ey.
Q. I really love the line, “Pain demands to be felt.”
A. Thanks, but I did not write that line. Peter Van Houten wrote it.
Q. In Chapter 11, when Hazel wakes up to the excruciating pain in her head and tries to unmake the world, what do you mean when you say “when there was the Word”?
A. Hazel is referencing the Gospel according to John, which begins, “In the beginning was the Word.”
In the Greek, the word used there is logos, which is a really fascinating work in both secular and religious contexts, and a word she might’ve learned about—or so I imagined, anyway—in college literature classes.
Q. I think Hazel and Van Houten are both wrong that “some infinities are bigger than other infinities.” How could that be possible?
A. This is one of those places (there are many) where you are not entitled to an opinion.
It is a demonstrable and inarguable fact that some infinities are larger than other infinities. (That said, Hazel is wrong about the sets between 0 and 1 and 0 and 2.)
Q. In the epigraph, you quote An Imperial Affliction, which isn’t a real book, just like F. Scott Fitzgerald quoted a made up poem in the epigraph of The Great Gatsby. Was this on purpose? Why?
A. Yes, it was on purpose.
1. I thought it would be funny.
2. I wanted to create in the reader that uncomfortable, excited feeling that she is on somewhat unstable ground, entering a story that seems to believe in the existence and importance of fictional stories.
3. I wanted to make a nod to my old, dear friend Gatsby.
Questions about Hazel
Q. Why does Hazel get annoyed when her dad cries around her?
A. I think she just hates hurting him. She worries a lot that she will become a mere sadness in her parents’ lives, and at one point explicitly says that she feels like she is the alpha and the omega of her parents’ suffering. And it becomes impossible to forget that when she sees her dad crying.
Q. What is the significance of Hazel calling Augustus “Gus” towards the end of his life? It was pretty unnoticeable until August mentioned it.
A. Yes, well, I had to have Gus point it out just in case you weren’t noticing it. :)
Augustus is a big name. It’s the name of the first emperor of the Roman Empire, a name one associates with confidence and bravado and marble statues and stuff. Gus is a much shorter, smaller name—the kind of name that appears in children’s picture books, for instance. In some ways, they’re opposites: the one a big, strong man; the other, a fragile and endangered little boy.
Hazel calls him Gus more as she knows him better, as the manic pixie dream boy falls away and she comes to know and grapple with and love this fragile, desperate, beautiful boy.
When they’re on the plane together and his facade breaks down and he gets nervous and excited about flying for the first time and she can’t help but like him, that’s Gus. When he’s using big words slightly incorrectly, that’s Augustus. :)
Q. Was it purposeful to make Hazel an only child?
A. It was purposeful. I needed Hazel to believe (at least at the beginning of the book) that upon her death, her mom would no longer be a mom. That was really important to me.
Q. Why was Hazel so hung up on what happened to Anna’s mother and the other characters in AIA?
A. Well, I guess Hazel wants to know what will happen to her own mother after she dies, right? Hazel is very concerned about the way that her illness hurts her parents, and she is very concerned that her death will devastate or incapacitate them, which is why it means so much to Hazel when she finds out that her mom is planning to have a life even when she is gone.
But to think about those things directly is so terrifying and so awful and so upsetting that she thinks about them through the lens of AIA instead. (We all do this a million times a day in one form or another.) So she is focused on whether Anna’s mother ends up okay for the same reason Holden Caulfield wants to know if the ducks in the pond end up okay: She wants to know that she’ll be okay, and that her family will be okay.
Q. When Hazel is demanding to know what happened to Anna’s mother, she’s asking what happens to her own mother. That even more than her own death, she has to live with and understand what happens to everyone she loves. Was this intended to address the idea of a sequel? Implying that sequels don’t exist for a reason?
A. Right. It’s okay to live with finality. (And also, within these finite spaces/lives, there are infinite sets to be found.)
But this is dangerous thematic ground to tread, because saying that sequels don’t exist for a reason (i.e., that a book ends when it ends for a reason) and then linking finite fictions to finite human lives is dangerously close to saying that lives end for a reason, which (I hope) the book does not argue.
It seems to me that one of the pleasures and consolations of fiction is the ways in which it is not like life.
Q. Why does Hazel sign her note to Augustus “yrs”?
A. Yrs is a common, old-fashioned sign-off in correspondence. (It’s short for yours.)
Q. Why did you have Hazel use “text language” when she abbreviates “Yours” to “Yrs”? As a teenager who hates “text language,” I find this very offensive.
A. I didn’t see it as txt language; I saw it as a callback to 19th century (and earlier) written correspondence, when yrs was a popular salutation.
This obviously dates me and is a weakness in the book, and I’m sorry.
I never think about txt language. I had no idea that people on sms contracted yours into yrs.
Q. You once mentioned that Hazel’s views on infinity was incorrect. Can you elaborate?
A. Well, Hazel is just flat wrong about infinity.
The infinite set between 0 and 1 is actually the same size as the infinite set between 0 and 2, so Hazel is technically incorrect.
(It is not easy to succinctly explain why this is, although this site does a reasonably good job—there, the example used is the set of positive integers being the same size as the set of all integers, but it’s the same principle.)
However, Van Houten is right* when he says that some infinities are bigger than other infinities. For instance, as proven by Cantor’s diagonal argument, the infinite set of real numbers is bigger than the infinite set of natural numbers.
So Hazel takes Van Houten’s correct observation and makes an intuitive but incorrect conclusion from it, albeit one that provides her with real and lasting comfort.
The idea there was that I liked that 16-year-olds could make—as they do—incorrect abstract conclusions about complex mathematics. But even if these conclusions are incorrect, they can provide real and lasting consolation. I felt like it would be too neat/tidy to have everything be correct; I wanted her to make incorrect inferences from Van Houten’s monologue that still guide her thinking in a correct/helpful direction.
*I am not a mathematician, but I tried my best to get this stuff right. I don’t mean ‘think’ in the sense that this is the kind of thing you’re allowed to have opinions about. You don’t get to have an opinion on whether .999… is equal to 1, for instance. It is equal to 1. People smarter than us have worked hard to figure this stuff out, and we owe it to them and to the universe to respect what they’ve figured out.
Q. Was Hazel always a vegetarian or was this a way for her to minimize the “grenade effect” after her diagnosis?
A. Yeah, generally she is always trying to find ways to reduce her footprint, which is her ideal of a heroic life.
Q. If Hazel gets tired just from walking a bit, how could her lungs support her having sex with Gus?
A. A lot of people ask this question.
First, people with all kinds of disabilities can and do have sex.
Secondly, despite what I guess you are seeing in porn or in the movies, sexual intercourse does not have to be a particularly aerobic activity. I suppose it’s helpful if at least one partner can do some work, but you’ll recall that Gus ascended the stairs at the Anne Frank House with relative ease.
Thirdly, I don’t know how y’all are doing it, but it’s not that challenging.
Q. Is there a deeper meaning to the part where Hazel is talking about the times with her dad in the river at Holliday Park?
A. Well, the current of the river returns her to her father over and over again, so water is sort of this benevolent force in that scene. But water is not always a benevolent force in the book (for instance, it is filling her lungs and killing her). It was just a little example, one of many, of how water can function both as nourisher and destroyer.
Q. Who does Hazel marry at the end of the book?
(Just not in any literal, actual way. But then marriage itself is not really a literal or actual thing. It is a weird, nebulous, spiritual, constructed thing.)
Q. Why is Hazel so upset about the ghettoization of breakfast foods?
A. I don’t really know the answer. Lots of other readers, some of them angrily/critically, have insisted that it is a metaphor for Hazel’s feeling of otherness and her own sense of isolation/ghettoization. That seems like a legitimate reading to me, but personally I just liked the idea of Hazel’s excessive empathy extending even unto scrambled eggs.
Q. Why does Hazel shy away from physical contact with her mom?
A. Well, I think this is a pretty widespread teenager thing. Your parents still imagine you as a child, but you are this sentient sovereign creature, and there starts to be something almost CREEPY about cuddling with your parents for a lot of teens.
This was one of those places where I wanted to establish that just because Hazel is sick and dying or whatever, she is still a teenager, and more generally she is still human and developing emotionally at the standard human rate, and not at some wildly increased rate of development that’s only available to you if you have incurable cancer or whatever.
Q. How does an incredibly socially awkward girl act all cool and awesome around a super hot guy?
A. Hazel strikes me as very much a popular person who happened to get cancer, not as a socially awkward girl. (I mean, she’s very intentional about spending most of her time alone, but that’s not because she’s awkward in social situations or something.)
Q. Does it bother you at all when people refer to Hazel as Hazel Grace? It feels like only Augustus should be allowed to call her that.
A. The first time I read on tumblr someone say that only Gus should be allowed to call her Hazel Grace, I literally burst into tears*.
I still can’t believe how generously readers have responded to the novel and its characters, and how lovingly they’ve treated Hazel and Gus.
* Total misuse of literality, as nothing in or on me burst in any way. I just started crying.
Q. About the “without pain, how could we know joy?” encouragement – I’m struggling to understand Hazel’s opinion on this. She clearly thinks it’s stupid and unsophisticated, and I sort of agree with the broccoli and chocolate analogy, but aren’t these things relative? Would it be the same if it was “without bad, there would be no good”? I’m also curious to know why you give Hazel that opinion, and if you have an opinion of your own?
A. Well, okay, join me in the following thought experiment: Let us imagine a world without pain, in which everyone is overwhelmingly joyful each moment of their lives.
It is possible that these people wouldn’t call joy “joy,” because it would just be the omnipresent, unshakeable emotional reality. But it would still be joy, in the sense that it would be identical in feeling to our joy, only we have something to contrast joy with.
So pain helps us to define joy, but pain does not create the possibility for joy or allow joy to exist. Joy could exist without pain. We might not have precisely the same relationship with joy, but it would still be there. (Similarly, an awareness of broccoli might make one grateful for the existence of chocolate, but it doesn’t create the taste of chocolate.)
Q. Why is Hazel a vegetarian?
A. Well, as she says, she wants to minimize the number of deaths for which she is responsible. (And more generally, Hazel’s conception of a well-lived life is all about walking lightly upon the earth while she’s here.)
I should add that this idea came not from me but my friend Marina. I was telling her about Hazel’s character and she said, “So she’s a vegetarian right?” And I blinked ever so slightly and said, “Yes, of course,” as if I’d thought of it years before.
Questions about Gus
Q. Does Augustus’s name mean anything?
A. 1st emperor of Rome.
Q. Is Gus’s name related to Gus is a Bug?
A. Total coincidence, but good example of what I was talking about before—how Gus is a little kid’s name and Augustus is an emperor’s name.
Q. Why the name “Augustus Waters”?
A. Augustus: see above.
Waters: There’s a lot of water in the book. Key moments occur in a city famous for its canals, a city basically that engineers built by pulling away the water, and Hazel is herself a person surviving thanks to doctors pulling away the water in her lungs. (Hazel explicitly makes this connection at one point, calling herself Dr. Maria’s Amsterdam.) Also, water is both a source of nourishment and a potent force of destruction.
Q. Throughout the book, Augustus seems to always have a cigarette in his mouth. When he drives his car out to grab a packet of cigarettes, was he doing it to prove that he could or remind himself that, even though he’s dying, he once beat cancer?
A. I think he wanted that feeling back, that feeling he got when he put the cigarette in his mouth and didn’t light it. (He tends to do that when he’s looking for confidence—like when he’s trying to keep talking to Hazel that first night even after she has rejected him, or when they’ve boarded his plane and he’s about to fly for the first time, etc.)
And the frustration of not being able to feel that one more time is just infuriating and humiliating and completely defeating.
Q. Could you go into further detail about why Augustus chooses to have an unlit cigarette in his mouth? I assume that he likes having control of what happens to his body after feeling helpless from the cancer.
A. I think that is a good reading, about wanting control over a killing thing.
Q. Did you intentionally prolong Augustus’s suffering and deterioration at the end of the book?
A. If anything, I shortened the timeline because I didn’t want to be unnecessarily cruel either to Augustus or to the reader. I talked a lot with doctors and families of sick people about this, about the timeline and the pace of deterioration etc. to make sure I was reflecting it as accurately as possible. It is a very, very difficult thing to live through, because a lot of what you value about life, particularly as a teenager—autonomy, physical vibrancy, social connections, dignity—is stripped away from you, and you’re left being the thing that you never thought you’d have to be again: a child dependent upon your caregivers for every little thing.
I felt it was important to reflect that as accurately as possible, because I didn’t want to romanticize suffering, and I didn’t want to conflate it—as so many stories do—with beauty.
Q. The venn diagram confused me. Why is Gus still inside the virgin circle?
A. 17-year-olds with one leg are mostly in the circle, but there’s a little space outside of the circle. The space outside is Gus. The space inside is the rest of 17-year-olds with one leg. (This references an earlier joke in the novel.)
Basically, Gus is not the only 17-year-old with one leg.
Q. Did you know that Humphrey Bogart used to hang an unlit cigarette out of his mouth like Augustus?
A. I did not know that, but now I will pretend that I knew it the whole time.
Q. In your opinion, what is Augustus really doing when he goes to get a hamburger in the airport?
A. He could be doing a bunch of things, including disposing of some kind of liquid medicine that he realizes he can’t take on the plane when he gets in line, or throwing up, or freaking out, or he could be telling Hazel the truth. I wanted that moment to be ambiguous and out-of-character so the reader might start to feel just a smidge unsettled about Augustus and his well-being.
Q. Was Augustus partially inspired by Josh Sundquist, the famous one-legged vlogger? What were you trying to say about having this particular disability in the book?
A. Augustus was not inspired by Josh Sundquist, although Josh Sundquist is a wonderful guy and I am also pretty fond of Augustus.
Really, Augustus and Josh are complete opposites. Josh responded to his amputation by becoming an amazing athlete; Gus responds to it by abandoning all athletic endeavors. Josh is positive and project-focused; Gus is brooding and introspective and finds it difficult to finish anything even as he fetishizes his ideas about heroism and sacrifice.
I also started writing about the character who became Augustus many years (like, seven) before I knew Josh Sundquist. Josh helped me out by answering questions about disease progression and that kind of thing, but I want to be very clear that Josh responds to life and everything in life in a much better-adjusted way than Augustus ever could.
I gave him one leg because that’s the most common disability resulting from osteosarcoma. I gave him osteosarcoma because A. it’s one of the most common cancers among teens, and B. it has a pretty good survival rate, but not as good as the other cancers I considered.
Q. Is there any reason why Augustus always answers the phone by saying “Hazel Grace”?
A. Well, a couple things here, I guess:
1. One of the weird things about cell phones and the ubiquity of caller ID is that there is no longer a need for hello; there’s this instant familiarity so conversations start quicker than they used to, which I find fascinating.
2. Hazel makes a point early in the novel that she likes people (like Gus/Augustus) with two names, and that has always just been Hazel, a name that doesn’t lend itself to nicknames. But Gus finds a way to choose her name anyway by calling her Hazel Grace. I just liked that, I guess.
Q. Did you intend the metaphorical similarities between Gus and Ann Frank?
A. Well, Gus is definitely conscious of this. (Hazel doesn’t know he’s sick in the Anne Frank House, but Gus sure does.) And I think that’s a lot of the reason he feels so angry and defiant, and probably also some of the reason it does not feel inappropriate to him to make out in the Anne Frank House.
Generally, I wanted both of them to take back the weird, empty, quiet, sacred space that is the Anne Frank House (and more generally is the reverent but distant way we are always thinking of the dead) and find a different way to honor her life.
Also, again, just seemed like a hot place for a sex scene.
Q. How is it that Hazel and Augustus have known each other for a week, but he wants to give his wish to her?
A. At that point in the novel, they’ve known each other for quite a bit longer than a week, and he doesn’t give her anything; he shares it. But more generally this points to something very important about Augustus, which is that he is given over to grand, Romantic (in the larger sense of the word) gestures. (See also, smoking unlit cigarettes.) I think Hazel initially sees this as a very endearing quality, but it comes to be really frustrating for her—a frustration that reaches its sad pinnacle at the Speedway when he is trying to buy himself cigarettes. This is meant to be part of Gus’s attempt to embody traditional, sacrifice-based models of heroism.
Q. I am confused about the ethics of Hazel and Gus having sex before he tells Hazel about his cancer. It seems like Gus is clinging to his Grand Romance delusions, but he’s basically lying to Hazel. Is it supposed to be a romantic scene?
A. It was supposed to be complicated. Here’s this moment that should be this great moment of romance and emotional connection, but Gus isn’t being honest with Hazel, and besides that, the whole thing is awkward and nerdy and physically challenging, and Gus still wants to be someone he’s never going to be, and Hazel thinks she’s going to make Gus’s life worse in the long run, but they still love each other anyway.
Q. Did Augustus actually want to go see Van Houten to get answers? Did he care or did he do it exclusively for Hazel?
A. I don’t know; I wanted that to be ambiguous. (Like, in general I think people have very complicated reasons for wanting things, and we often have no idea whether we’re actually motivated by altruism or a desire to hook up or a search for answers or what.)
I always get annoyed when in books or movies characters want clear things for clear reasons, because my experience of humanness is that I always want messy things for messy reasons.
So I try as best I can to reflect that in fiction while still writing stories that you will hopefully like.
Q. Do you think that Augustus is the manic pixie dream character of the novel?
A. Not really. Augustus’s way of imagining a good and heroic life is really problematic for Hazel, and she thinks that he is completely wrong. That’s very different from the standard manic pixie dream interaction, in which a character appears whose worldview the protagonist finds wholly convincing and totally revelatory. It’s true that Gus helps bring Hazel out into the world, but she never really buys into his wanting to live a big life crap.
Also, Gus’s obsession with living a kind of performed life can be really off-putting (like when he makes everything just so at the funky bones with all the Dutch things, except the conversation is bad because he just wants to deliver his memorized lines and the food is also bad because food chosen for metaphorical resonance does not tend to taste good).
Hazel is conscious of these immaturities, but she has some immaturities of her own. Their great gift is that they’re able to put that stuff aside and care for each other while also not backing down from their convictions.
Q. Is there any reason for why Augustus always hung the phone up first?
A. Same reason his movie starts first on the plane. Foreshadowing.
Q. What did Augustus mean when he said, “I like my choices. I hope she likes hers”?
A. The line before that is, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who does the hurting.” What he’s saying is that the only choice you have is in who hurts you, not in whether you get hurt. Then he says that he likes his choices—i.e., that he does not regret loving and being loved by Hazel.
And then Hazel says, “I do,” which is her saying that she also likes her choices—and also simultaneously saying the words that one says when one gets married.
Q. What are some of the words Gus misuses?
A. He says soliloquy when he means monologue, for instance. There are a few other examples, but I can’t think of any at the moment. You’ll notice them as you read, though.
Q. When Gus is dying, he seems meaner, or at least less charismatic. Was this intentional?
A. I am really bothered by the idea that people in pain who are being wrenched from existence should be perpetually cheerful and compassionate about it.
More generally, I wrote this book partly because I was tired of reading stories in which dying or chronically sick people served no purpose in the world except to teach the rest of us to be Grateful For Every Moment or whatever. Making the lives of the dying about the betterment of the social order for the well really offends me, because it implies that the dying are already dead, and that their lives have less intrinsic meaning than other lives.
I wanted to try to reflect dying as honestly as I could, and part of that is frustration and anger and shortness and fear. Gus is supposed to seem less charismatic and less heroic (at least by standard definitions of heroism) as he gets weaker, but he is more human, and the love they share is more human and more sustainable than the performed, monologue-laden love they both initially think of as perfect.
We have this cultural idea—some of this is due to certain interpretations of Christianity that have held sway over our culture—that humans are made more heroic and more perfect through dying and death, that dying elevates us to perfection. Romantic epics tend to further that idea, but I didn’t want to: I wanted to show that people in dying often become weaker and more human, but that this humanness is what is actually heroic, not grand gestures of sacrificial suffering.
In my opinion, actual heroism, like actual love, is a messy, painful, vulnerable business—and I wanted to try to reflect that.
Q. In chapter two, when Augustus wants to take Hazel down to “show her the basement,” are his attentions honorable?
A. Oh I assume because he wants to make out with her. Is that strictly honorable? I think it is!
Questions about Isaac
Q. In the first chapter, what does Isaac say to Augustus after support group when Hazel can’t hear?
A. You have access to the same text I do (said the author for the millionth time) but I would guess he says something about Hazel’s resemblance to Caroline Mathers.
Q. Does the game Isaac play really exist?
A. There are video games for the blind, but from what I’ve gathered, they are not as awesome as the one Isaac plays.
Q. Was it just ironic that Isaac went blind? Or was it intentional that his name is EYE-saac and he went blind?
A. I’m not good at spotting puns or I might’ve named him something else just because I don’t want to distract readers. Anyway, he’s named after this Isaac, who also went blind, and who plays a pretty big role in Judeo-Christian-Islamic history.
Questions about Van Houten
Q. Could you give us some examples of hip hop that Peter Van Houten would listen to?
A. The Afasi och Filthy song mentioned in the book is real.
Q. What made you pick Swedish hip hop?
A. I like Swedish hip hop. I tried listening to Croatian and Hungarian and Dutch and French and German hip hop, and I just like Swedish hip hop much more.
Q. Is Van Houten based off you in any way other than he too is a writer?
A. Sure, yeah. I mean:
1. Happily, I am not an alcoholic.
2. Sadly, I do not have an assistant, let alone a beautiful Dutch assistant.
3. I am not particularly reclusive.
4. I hope that I do not use pomposity and pretension to shield myself from trauma.
5. Most of the bad things that have happened to Peter Van Houten have not happened to me.
6. I am somewhat younger than he is.
1. I also like Swedish hip hop.
2. I share PvH’s belief that books belong to their readers, and that authors are not qualified to comment on what happens after their books have ended. Like PvH, I am often asked about what happens in my books after they ended, and like him, I have no answer.
3. Like PvH, I am I guess somewhat depressive and very introverted and therefore can get overwhelmed by readers’ expectations of both me and my work.
4. I know what it’s like to feel that I’ll never be able to write anything worth publishing ever again.
5. I think sometimes I probably do intellectualize emotionally painful experiences so that I don’t have to confront/process them emotionally.
6. I also understand set theory better than Hazel Grace Lancaster does. :)
Q. What did you mean by having Peter Van Houten bring up the Phillipa Foot Trolley Problem in his last conversation with Hazel?
A. Well, Van Houten is always trying to dodge direct emotional engagement with the world by creating this intellectual distance, so I think he’s using the Trolley Problem as a way to deflect talk about the real, gut-wrenching, totally unintellectual pain that Hazel is trying to make him acknowledge.
But why the Trolley Problem in particular? It’s a good example of how inaction is a kind of action, something that is very much on Hazel’s mind as she thinks about what constitutes a heroic or well-lived life.
(For those who don’t know, the trolley problem can be expressed like this: A madman has tied five people to train tracks. If you flip a switch, you can send the train onto another path, where two people are tied to the tracks. Doing this will result in the death of three fewer people but make you an active participant in the process. What do you do?)
Q. Why does Peter Van Houten imagine a future for Sisyphus the Hamster and only then announce that he can’t imagine futures for his characters?
A. Well, mostly I just wanted him to give it a try and then give up because the whole affair seemed silly to him.
But there was also a little joke in it that I liked: Sisyphus has to roll a rock up a hill, watch it roll down, and then roll it up again for all of eternity, and when you give characters in a book a life outside of the book, you are kind of doing the same thing to them: You are forcing them to go on, even after they’ve done their jobs, and do them again.
Q. Should I be reading Peter Van Houten in an American or Dutch accent?
A. He is American, of Dutch descent, living in exile in the Netherlands, so I would assume that he has an American accent.
Questions about the Film
Q. I know you have said in the past that you won’t allow your books to be less than what you consider “quality film making.” With that said, are you going to be involved in TFIOS’s screenplay, casting, etc.?
A. 1. Just to be clear, one of my favorite movies is the fourth sequel to Die Hard, so I don’t have particularly fancy taste when it comes to what I think is quality film-making. What I do think is important is not capturing the story itself but capturing whatever is interesting/beautiful about a story, and I wouldn’t’ve sold the film rights if I didn’t think they could do that.
2. I won’t be involved, except insofar as I can be useful to them. I am not a movie person. I do not know how to make movies. I don’t think my involvement would necessarily improve the film. (Certainly, I learned from writing my own adaptation of Paper Towns that I am not particularly good at screenwriting.) The people they’ve hired to write the screenplay are among my favorite writers in Hollywood, though, and I am entirely confident that they will write a better script than I ever could.
Q. How is the audition process for the TFIOS movie going to work?
A. I have no idea. First, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. They may or may not ever make a movie. If they do make a movie, presumably the characters will be played by someone, and in a truly perfect world, they’ll have open casting calls, but who knows. I will certainly keep you inform, but please bear in mind that I have exactly as much say in casting as…like…you do.
Q. You’ve said in a past video that you wouldn’t be fit to suggest actors for TFIOS because in your mind, Hugh Grant is a “young, up and comer.” But, really, who would you see fit to be cast as Augustus?
A. Honestly Hugh Grant. He’s charming, funny, very intelligent, and handsome. That he is British does not strike me as too problematic. The guy who plays The Mentalist is Australian or something! House is British.
They’d both be pretty good Augustuses, too, actually.
Seriously guys I am not qualified to discuss this.
Q. What kind of soundtrack do you envision for the TFIOS movie?
A. Mountain Goats, Mountain Goats, Mountain Goats, Mountain Goats, Mountain Goats, Laurena Segura, Mountain Goats, Mountain Goats.
Q. How do I convince someone to read TFIOS of they are convinced that it will be too sad?
Yeah, this is going to be a big problem for the life of the book, particularly because what people say about the book is, “I cried so much.” Well, a lot of potential readers hear that and think, “Huh, well I don’t like crying, so I think I’ll pass on this one.” Of course, it’s all about the KIND of crying one is doing, and whether one is grateful to have had the experience of reading the book. (I mean, I guess TFiOS is sad, but I hope that it is also funny and joyful etc.)
I would tell them that if they don’t enjoy reading the book they can punch you hard once in the stomach.
Q. How do I explain to someone that this is more than just a book about cancer?
A. It seems like this will be the biggest obstacle the book faces in terms of reaching new readers. A lot of people (myself included) don’t like to read sad books that will make them cry. They figure, not wrongly, that there is plenty of sadness and crying in real life.
This is why I advocate the “If you don’t like this book, you can punch me in the stomach” tactic for sharing The Fault in Our Stars with your friends.
Q. Was it wrong for me not to cry?
A. No, not at all. There’s no right way to feel when reading a book. I wanted to muddle those emotions—the joking moment of the egging of Monica’s car followed by the line from Hazel about how she never took another pictures of him, for instance—because they’re all muddled together in life (or at least in my experience of life) and they don’t follow like a traditional emotional arc.
(This is a stupid example of what I mean, but I remember for instance the first time my college girlfriend and I exchanged I-love-yous, the same day my computer died with all these sorely needed files on it. And this magical day became the worst day ever, except that I was still really happy, except that I also really needed that paper about Toni Morrison, etc.)
Q. Do you really believe that V for Vendetta is a “boy movie”?
A. No. I had Hazel say that because I wanted to establish early in the book that Hazel does not buy into the notion that sacrifice and grand heroic gestures are the best model of a well-lived life. (Hazel and Augustus disagree about this throughout the book, even at the very end, although they eventually acknowledge in small ways the legitimacy of the other’s worldview.) Hazel’s initial idea that this notion of heroic sacrifice is a “boy” thing eventually goes away, but I figured that would be a nice way to introduce it, because there is something traditionally masculine about that idea of heroism, whether you’re talking about Odysseus or Romeo.
Q. How did you come up with the name “Phalanxifor”?
A. I was using phalanx in the bone sense; I imagined that the people marketing phalanxifor imagined it as having these little fingers that go in and unlock/kill cancer cells.
Also it just sounded like a drug to me. (Phalanxifor is fictional, but it’s kinda based on some ways on Herceptin.)
Q. How do you know what girls like in a guy (jawline, etc.)?
A. That was like the only complimentary thing that girls ever said about guys when I was growing up, and it always fascinated me that a defined jawline would be somehow associated with Appropriate Mating Material.
Q. What is the significance of the Encouragements?
A. I was just making fun of my parents and their house, mostly. (Almost all the Encouragements come word-for-word from my parents’ house.)
That said, I don’t think we should dismiss Encouragements, and I certainly wanted TFiOS to be, in its way, an Encouragement.
Q. What is the significance of Staff-Sergeant Max Mayhem surviving through all The Price of Dawn books while the rest of the TFiOS characters are constantly surrounded by death?
A. Yeah, The Price of Dawn series is interminable. I think this is one of the things we like about book series, and also about “tentpole franchises” like Spiderman and James Bond: The story is infinite, and survival guaranteed, in a way that is precisely the opposite of the actual world in which we find ourselves.
Hazel says at one point about The Price of Dawn, “It was exciting to live again in an infinite fiction.” Like, there was a lot that I liked about The Babysitters’ Club as a kid, but my favorite thing about it was that they never ended.
Q. What’s the meaning behind the cover?
A. I don’t think there’s any kind of literal connection. (I mean, it plays with the Venn diagram jokes.) But the black and the white clouds play on Gus’s fascination with the intertwining shadows of the branches in Amsterdam, and I think the metaphor there is big and important and nicely visually expressed without it seeming like a Metaphor.
Plus I find it really clean and minimalist and pretty.
Q. Did you have any say in what the cover ended up looking like?
A. Most authors don’t have a ton of say in their covers (and I certainly don’t internationally), but I did have a lot of say in this cover, and I was very happy with the cover that Rodrigo Corral designed. It’s abstract, visually striking, and not easily defined, which is what I wanted.
Q. Are some infinities really bigger than other infinities?
A. Yes. Peter Van Houten is right when he says that some infinities are bigger than other infinities, but Hazel is wrong when she concludes from this that the infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2 is larger than the infinite set between 0 and 1.
(The reasons for this are extremely complicated, but, for instance, the infinite set of real numbers is larger than the infinite set of natural numbers. Georg Cantor proved this in the 19th century with one of the most famously elegant proofs in mathematics. To give you a sense of how big a deal this was, the mathematician David Hilbert once remarked, “No one shall expel us from the Paradise that Cantor has created it.”)
Q. Did Hazel’s mother know that Hazel and Gus had slept together? Did you talk to any parents of teenagers for perspective?
A. I didn’t really talk to parents of teenagers except in the sense that I am always talking to people and trying to listen to them so that I can steal from them. But I was a teenager who had parents, so that’s something.
I wasn’t really conscious of what Hazel’s mom did and didn’t know about her relationship with Gus. When I was writing, I felt very narrowly inside of Hazel’s head, and in my mind at least, it would never occur to her that her mom would have that side of things figured out. (Of course, Hazel does frequently underestimate her mom.)
Q. Would you say that TFIOS is a realist novel?
I don’t find realism very interesting. Like, I am not convinced that there even is a reality totally independent of its observer.
I write fiction, and it’s not my ambition that a reader feel like my story is a work of journalism. My hope is that readers become so emotionally invested in the story that even though they know it’s made up, it is still powerful and alive and important to them. At times, this means using realistic elements; at other times, it involves fantastical or hyper-real elements (witness having been dumped by 19 girls named Katherine, for example).
Q. Do you think that the accidental release of TFIOS had any effect on the overall experience that the readers had?
A. I don’t think in the end it had any effect. (It’s effect there…I think.)
At the time, bn.com’s accidental early shipment of books was a really big deal to me. I was much angrier than I let on in public, and I spent a lot of time literally in tears about it. Now, of course, it is entirely forgotten, and I don’t think it affected readers’ relationship with the book at all.
Most of that is due to the fact that the people who received the book early—almost every single one of them—either chose not to read the book until the pub date or else read it but didn’t spoil it for other readers.
That shows to what an uncommonly thoughtful and empathetic community nerdfighteria really is. But looking back on the whole affair, I realize it wasn’t entirely about the leaking of the book. There were a lot of other things going on:
1. These days, most of the people reading TFiOS have no idea what a nerdfighter is. I’m very grateful to those readers, and I’m grateful that my book is reaching such a broad audience. But I feel the deepest responsibility to nerdfighteria. The people who preordered the book—who showed faith in it when there was no big marketing campaign or quotes from Time Magazine—deserved to read it without any spoilers. And when it leaked, I felt like I’d failed the readers who mattered the most to me.
2. At the time, I was letting go of this thing that had been mine alone for a long time. In retrospect, I was really freaked out about that.
3. There is also the not-insignificant matter of money. It had been three and a half years since I’d last published a novel by myself, and I knew it would probably be a few years before I published another one. A lot of people had worked very hard to make sure TFiOS had a big first week, and I worried that releasing it early would kill the buzz.
3a. I worried it would kill the buzz because I worried people wouldn’t like the book. It never crossed my mind that 26 weeks later, the book would still be on the New York Times’ bestseller list. I thought it was an aggressively uncommercial book.
4. Mostly, it was just a very stressful time. I’d finished this book that I was really proud of, but I knew it wasn’t a Fluffy Bunny Rainbow Time kind of book. I didn’t know how people would respond to it. I was having a lot of panic attack-type events and stuff. And so I think anything happening that deviated from the plan was going to cause me to completely freak out.
Anyway, in the end it became a story of how strong and good online communities really can be: Even though thousands of us had the ability to troll anonymously and garner attention by ruining the reading experiences of tens of thousands of others, almost no one did. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Q. How can I help my friends understand that reading TFIOS hasn’t made them know what it’s like to be in love with someone with late-stage cancer?
A. I would say, “I love you, and I am grateful to you for trying to empathize, but it’s important to understand that reading a story about coal mining does not turn you into a coal miner.”