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

The business of it, you mean?

The emphasis on blockbusters; the refusal to allow a writer's career to develop over many books. One of the reasons you don't see literary novelists have success (the kind of success that I've had with The Fault in Our Stars) you don't see that happening in the adult world ... this is totally unquotable. Let me try to think of way to say this sentence so that I don't sound like Sarah Palin.

The problem with actual human speech is that it does not take place in the form of sentences.

I am familiar.

[Laughs] Yes, as you well know.

I don't actually think objective reality is a thing -- certainly not a very interesting thing.

Right, so, this is my fifth novel and it's the first one to be very, very commercially successful. But my publisher has been extremely supportive of my work for a decade, and that is the reason why all of this has been possible. That would never happen in the world of adult literary fiction anymore. You never see a writer's fifth novel become the successful one, because you don't get five chances anymore.

So that's something I really value about YA, just in terms of the business side of it.

Do you have a theory as to why that is? I'm curious why it would be different, from the publisher's perspective.

Well the thing is the scale is so different, I mean, the advances are vastly different, the initial investments are vastly different, the price points are very different. That's some of it. I think that the biggest reason is that store shelves kind of cycle through adult literary fiction a lot faster than they cycle through YA. That's starting to change, but as recent as, you know, 2005 when my first book came out, you got to be in the store for a while, so you had a chance to get into the word of mouth. And these days, in adult fiction, it's very hard to do that. It's not impossible, but it's pretty hard.

To circle back to the book itself, and this is a question from the #1book140 reading group, someone noted that Gus is a character that seems to always say the right thing at the right time. He's very witty and never awkward in any way. How did you create a character so graceful with language? And, the group wondered, is that perhaps like you? Or something you aspire to be?

Well, I wanted Gus in the beginning of the novel to be a very performed sort of character, who is both confident and exactly aware of why he's so charming. Everybody has friends like that, who, when you first meet them, you're like, "This is the most charismatic person I've ever met." But then, after a while of knowing them you realize that they just have five really good stories, and then you're like, "Well, I've heard that one."

At one point in the novel he even goes so far as to cut Hazel when she's trying to say something because he has memorized a monologue -- he calls it a soliloquy but it's a monologue -- and he's memorized this monologue that he needs to deliver and he doesn't want, he really doesn't want, to forget his lines. Like, that's the extent to which he's a performed personality. And you know those sort of grandiose gestures, like the unlit cigarette, are very sort of performative. And you know that's the Augustus for whom Hazel initially falls, but, in the end, the relationship that she has with Gus -- with the vulnerable, fragile, human person -- is much more meaningful to her, and, I think, to him, even though, you know, he wishes that that weren't the real him, but of course it's, for all of us, the real us.

You have in both Gus and Hazel characters who come off as kind of "wise beyond their years," I guess would be the cliche. Do you think that is a response to the experiences that they've had, or do you think we just tend to underestimate young people in general?

I will say that the people who say that Gus and Hazel come off as wise beyond their years are invariably adults. I've literally never heard that from a teenager -- not just about these kids but about any kids in my books. Yeah, my interest as a writer is not in reflecting actual human speech, which, of course, does not occur in sentences and is totally undiagrammable. That's not my interest. My interest is in trying to reflect the reality of experience -- how we feel when we talk to each other, how we feel when we're engaging with questions that interest us.

I had this wonderful writing teacher named P.F. Kluge, and the first day of class, the very first thing he said to us was, "You may be smart, but I've been smart longer."

So, yeah, certainly, teenagers don't sound that way when they talk to us. Like, they don't sound that way *to us*. But they do sound that way to themselves. And that's what interests me. I'm trying to capture that, because I'm not really interested in capturing how they actually sound, because that's not their experience.

The reality of experience is ultimately a lot more interesting to me than what I think is sort of wrongly called "objective reality." Because I don't actually think objective reality is a thing -- certainly not a very interesting thing for fiction, I don't think.

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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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