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

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.

That really resonates with my own memories of being an adolescent, or even younger -- the feeling that adults around you underestimate you.

Yeah! Well, and, you are. Part of the reason it's a problem [is], like, you are underestimated by the adults around you, but also, you don't give them any reason not to underestimate you. Because you don't have the same framework for talking about the day's interesting questions. So, you know, maybe you've read Prufrock and Gatsby, but you haven't read as broadly or thoughtfully or as long as the adults in your life have.

Like, I remember when I was in college, 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."

And as I get older, that line only gets more and more brilliant.

This is another question from the Twitter conversation: Some of the readers were picking up on that there are a lot of interesting allusions and other references throughout the book, including hamartia, a tragic flaw, and Zeno's paradox, for examples. And they were wondering whether you had in mind readers who were armed with Google.

[Laughs] Well, I mean, I'm aware of the fact that I live in 2013 and that the book is set in 2012, you know. But, you know, to be honest with you, I don't know if this is going to sound unreasonably pretentious, but I expect readers to know what a hamartia is, and I expect them to know what Zeno's paradox is.

And if they don't, they'll learn.

Yeah. I mean, that's the great thing about, whether they're using print encyclopedias or Google, that's the great thing about it these days. I've always felt that way in my books, actually. Part of the thrill of celebrating that teen intellectualism, where you're reaching keeps exceeding your grasp just a little bit, is in learning, is in getting excited about learning. So there's a lot of examples of that in The Fault in Our Stars: Hazel is wrong about infinite cardinality when she talks about infinite cardinality, when she talks about there being infinite numbers between 0 and 1, and 0 and 2, and Gus frequently misuses big words and stuff. But their intellectual enthusiasm is really appealing to me.

I saw that there is a movie version in the works. I'd like to know your thoughts on it, whether you've been involved in any of the early stages ...

Yeah, I'm involved. They've shared every draft of the script with me -- the script is amazing, so I don't have a ton to say about it. I mean, I have a ton to say about it, but ... They've certainly listened to everything that I've said really closely. I feel like I've gotten to know the screenwriters quite well. And I'm really, really, really a huge fan of the director ... I think he's brilliant. I think he understands the book in a really profound way. I think he's really committed to the stories, and that's a special and rare thing out there in Hollywood.

We're getting to the end of my questions here. I see that you and your wife are expecting, so congratulations.

Thank you.

And I was wondering, beyond family expansion, whether you have any up-and-coming projects you're working on right now that you think Fault in Our Stars fans would like to hear about.

I'm sure you'd like to hear about me writing another book, but I'm not writing one. I'm working a lot on YouTube stuff. We have an educational program called Crash Course that my brother and I have both really thrown ourselves into in the last year, and that we're really passionate about. That's taking up a lot of my time. I'm just starting to write -- I've been saying that for six months but it's true now -- so hopefully I'll finish something in the next few years.

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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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