How John Green Wrote a Cancer Book but Not a 'Bullshit Cancer Book'

A conversation with the author of 'The Fault in Our Stars,' this month's 1book140 selection.

The Fault in Our Stars's author talks about how grown-ups underestimate kids, why he never wants to pen adult fiction, and what's next for the film adaptation of his award-winning novel.

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I don't know how I first came across The Fault in Our Stars, but sometime last winter I picked it up, and before I knew it, I was sitting on a DC Metro bus, tears streaming down my face, surrounded by people genuinely worried about my well-being. This is a book that breaks your heart -- not by wearing it down, but by making it bigger and bigger until it bursts.

With The Atlantic's 1book140 book club reading the novel this month, I jumped at the chance to interview the author, John Green. Below is a lightly editing transcription of our conversation, during which we discussed what he worried about in writing a book about kids with terminal illnesses (not the easiest of topics, in the scheme of things), why adults underestimate teens, and some beloved wisdom he learned from a college professor. For those interested in talking to John Green themselves, 1book140 will be hosting a Twitter Q&A Wednesday* at 7 p.m Eastern time. More information can be found here.


I read The Fault in Our Stars right when it came out and it has really stuck with me. It's just an incredibly challenging topic to write about, and I thought it was done very intelligently and empathetically. But I'm curious why you wanted to even try to write a book about young people who have cancer, and how that idea got lodged in your head.

Well many years ago I worked as a student chaplain at a children's hospital, and I think it got lodged in my head then. The kids I met were funny and bright and angry and dark and just as human as anybody else. And I really wanted to try to capture that, I guess, and I felt that the stories that I was reading sort of oversimplified and sometimes even dehumanized them. And I think generally we have a habit of imagining the very sick or the dying as being kind of fundamentally other. I guess I wanted to argue for their humanity, their complete humanity.

So that was the initial inspiration.

That took 12 years. I was very intimidated by it.

What were the things you were worried you would get wrong? Or what were the things you struggled with as you wrote the book?

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I was very conscious of the fact that it wasn't my story. And I really didn't want to appropriate someone else's story, particularly because people who live with terminal illness so often get their stories taken from them. And I really didn't want to do that and I tried to be really conscious of that.

I am wondering whether, since the book came out, you've gotten any reactions from young people who are sick with a terminal illness. Have they read the book? What have you heard from them?

Yeah. They've been very generous. That was something that really scared me -- was thinking about what sick kids in particular would think about the book, and whether they would feel like it was just another, for lack of a better term, bullshit cancer book. And they've been really generous. You know, I tried really hard to listen to as many voices as I could as closely as possible during the many years that I was working on this book, and to pay attention and not to bring my own expectations too much into the story.

A lot of them have felt like there were things that I got right that were important to them, and that means a lot to me. That's in some ways the most rewarding part of having written the book is being able to meet a lot of young people who are struggling with this and knowing that their life expectancy is different from what we in our contemporary culture associate a rich or full or good life.

The truth is, or at least the argument of the book is, I think, that a short life can also be a good life.

Yes, that really came through for me in Hazel's eulogy for Gus at the end. I was crying a lot when I read that.

I was crying when I wrote it too.

Are there any particular reactions, not just from kids, but from adults too, that have really stuck with you as more and more people have read the book?

I've always thought of myself as a young-adult writer, and always thought that my audience was going to be teenagers, and I was quite happy with that. It's very weird to get all these emails from, you know, 85-year-old grandmothers writing in all capital letters about how much they liked the book. It's just something I never anticipated.

I mean, now, these days, most of the readers of The Fault in Our Stars are adults, and that's great; it's really exciting.

Have you ever thought about writing fiction for adults?

No, I have no interest in it at all. I seem to have done it by accident with this book. I mean, obviously, I read primarily fiction for adults -- because I am an adult (and there's a lot of good YA stuff for adult readers) -- but, no, I don't really want to write [adult fiction]. That whole world strikes me as very unappealing, not in terms of the writing of books, but in terms of the way that publishing happens in the adult world; it is very unappealing to me.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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