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.

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The Fault in Our Stars’ 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.

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 edited 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?


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.

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 cliché. 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.

Well, thank you so much, and don’t forget to be awesome!

Yeah you too! DFTBA!

*Correction: This piece originally stated that the Twitter Q&A was on Monday, not Wednesday, night.