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John Green: teenager, aged 36

Young-adult writer, YouTube star and world-champion worrier. The author of “The Fault in Our Stars” has become the voice of a generation

EMMA BROCKES | May/June 2014

You can tell if someone is a big fan of John Green’s fourth novel, “The Fault in Our Stars”, because they refer to it as TFIOS, making it sound less like a book and more like an international peacekeeping force. The day we meet, the novel is number one on Amazon in both America and Britain, even though it has been on sale for two years. The film version is coming in June. The author, sitting in an overstuffed armchair in his office in Indianapolis, picks anxiously at his left eyebrow and wonders where it will all end.

A million copies sold, I heard.

“Oh, more,” he says, apologetically. “Millions. Which is wonderful, but also a little bit terrifying.”

Not that Green is unused to being in seven figures. The YouTube channel where he and his brother, Hank, post their video blogs has nearly 2m subscribers. On Twitter, he is one of the most followed novelists in the English language with over 2m followers, just ahead of his friend Neil Gaiman.

To understand this phenomenon, you have to look at Green’s timing as well as his writing, and his success in appealing to a variety of audiences. TFIOS is ostensibly a young-adult (YA) novel, but with its snappy dialogue, tidy aphorisms, swooping love story and pulpy self-help vibe, it offers several genres for the price of one. The jacket blurb is not from another YA writer, but from Jodi Picoult, queen of the mass-market tearjerker, who calls the book “electric”.

The main audience is teenagers, and at 36 the author is himself studiously adolescent, punctuating his long, articulate sentences with bursts of enthusiasm that are laced with sarcasm, defensive wit and appealing self-deprecation, just like his 16-year-old protagonists’. On his wall, a framed poster in the “Keep Calm and Carry On” style says “Keep Calm and DFTBA”. “It stands for Don’t Forget To Be Awesome,” he says. The charity he runs is called the Foundation To Decrease World Suck, with an annual fundraising effort called the Project For Awesome. You get the idea.

As a register, it is instantly and joyfully recognisable to his teen readers, who don’t need to be sheltered or patronised. TFIOS is a stark novel about ugly truths. “I tried really, really hard to strip all the sentiment out of it, and all the nostalgia. To be as honest and unblinking as possible.” Like the children in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”, Green’s heroes are put through a series of unbearable ordeals. Unlike Pullman, whose heroine has to eliminate an evil God, Green has created a conventional moral landscape. If there’s a fault in “The Fault in Our Stars”, it’s that it errs on the side of cute. In the 1970s, love meant never having to say you’re sorry. In 2014, we learn, “some infinities are bigger than other infinities”, “forever is an incorrect concept” and “you don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world. But you do have a say in who hurts you.”

There is swearing, and a little sex, but the edge comes from the book’s smart banter, comic verbosity and one central fact: the protagonists, both in their mid-teens, are dying.

It is hard to think of another novelist whose writing is as wrapped up with life online as John Green’s. He lives, as he puts it on page one of TFIOS, in “the 137th nicest city in America”, but more accurately on the web pages where his work meets his fans. They call themselves Nerdfighters after the lettering on an old arcade game of Green’s, and when he refers to “the Nerdfighter community”, he is not being grandiose. The book is a social club for the kind of kids Green identifies with after his own difficult adolescence.

All his novels draw on these awkward beginnings, but the most autobiographical is the first, “Looking for Alaska”, in which the hero, Miles, asks his parents to move him from high school in Orlando, Florida to boarding school. Green made the same request at 14 and was dispatched from Florida to his father’s alma mater, Indian Springs School in Birmingham, Alabama. “I was a big nerd, so I was struggling socially at school. But I was also struggling academically, to a point where the course of my life was going to be set in a troubling direction.”

Boarding school is rarer in America than Britain and carries less of the class baggage. Both Green’s parents worked for non-profit organisations, his mother as a community organiser and his father for an environmental group, and they hoped boarding would offer him more security. “I don’t think they stopped worrying about me until I was married,” he says. “Seriously. In high school they were worried because I was petulant and smoked in the house, and was just awful.”

He was being bullied and the transfer request was an act of desperation, “a moment of self-awareness” that boiled down to “90% privilege, 10% good decision-making.” The elder of two boys, he was pegged as the clever one and became “exceptionally good at seeming smart without trying hard.” His brother, Hank, “went to public school, got a full scholarship to college and was working constantly. A hard-driving, intelligent person. He’d grown up with really bad learning disabilities and as often as I’d been told that I was smart, he’d been told that he was stupid. That shaped him in important ways.”

Indian Springs, Green says, “changed the course of my life”. For the first time, he was popular: “not basketball-player popular, but reasonably well liked”. He was funny, erudite, and hung out in a Dead Poets’ Society clique that read Nietzsche (“not well”) and would resurface in his fiction. In “An Abundance of Katherines”, the hero is a social misfit who eventually learns to integrate. In “Paper Towns”, two teenagers wreak small acts of revenge on those who have excluded them. In “The Fault in Our Stars”, the heroes, Hazel and Augustus, find themselves alienated from their peer group through illness—the condition of adolescence made noble through suffering. The point Green makes is that however cut off you feel, somewhere out there your community awaits.

Nowhere is this truer than online, and Green understood it intuitively when the internet was still young. Not for nothing has he become a rock-star nerd. In 2007, when he and Hank first started exchanging weekly, two-minute video blogs, YouTube was a small operation; 90 comments under a video would vault it into the site’s Top 10. “We started to have these instant-messenger conversations,” says Green, who at the time spoke to his brother around once a year. “They were never about each other or our lives or parents. They were always about big ideas, capitalism, Marxism, and they were fun to have. I saw this person who I remembered as a little kid, who was now just blisteringly smart. And then we had the idea to make a video blog.”

Green’s writing career was taking off. At university, he had flirted with the idea of getting ordained, studying religion at Kenyon College and at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Then he realised “I didn’t like going to church that much,” something of a drawback in that line of work. On graduating, he worked for a year as a chaplain at a children’s hospital in Chicago, which he would draw on for “The Fault in Our Stars”. He also suffered from acute mood disorders, “huge bouts of devastation” that had begun in adolescence. One summer at college, “everything fell apart and I couldn’t get out of bed”. As he grew older, things got worse: “periods of depression and paralysing anxiety when I couldn’t function, couldn’t take care of myself. When that happens in adulthood, it’s much more problematic.”

It didn’t stop him getting married, to Sarah, who had been a friend at college. Their story is like a scene from one of his novels. It was Hallowe’en, and the pair were handing out treats at Sarah’s boss’s house when a boy turned up dressed as Napoleon. “Reaching into the huge candy bowl,” Green recalled in a blog on their anniversary last year, “he looks at Sarah and says, ‘L’état, c’est moi.’ And Sarah says, ‘That’s Louis XIV, not Napoleon.’ And I was in love.”

They moved from Chicago to New York so she could finish grad school. (Sarah, who now works with Green as a video producer, is fondly known to his fans as The Yeti, often referred to but rarely captured on screen. In a life lived openly online, Green still has some boundaries.) He began to write for the New York Times Book Review and to work on a novel. But the cost of living in New York triggered his anxiety, and he worried that the city’s insularity was bad for his sanity and his writing. “I was right in the middle of my little pond. It’s good for some writers to be able to have constant conversations with peers about publishing, but I got this outsize sense of how important my pond was.”

It was a recipe for neurosis, and when Sarah was offered a job as assistant curator at a museum in Indianapolis, they decided to go. The move suited Green. “A lot of the stuff that I really hate about being alive is, like, standing in line to get my driver’s licence, or being in traffic,” he says. “I have this one brief shot at consciousness and I’m devoting it to standing in line?” Not in the Midwest. When he went to get his licence, the woman behind the counter let him take his photo six times. “If you tried that in New York, there would be murder.”

In Indianapolis, Green didn’t have to hang out with other writers. For the first time since college, he says, “I have a best friend. He owns a really cool, interesting, successful interpreting company, that does medical and legal interpreting.”

It was partly the desire to seek out esoteric communities that drove him online. “The thing about the YouTube channel is that it’s all the pleasure of being able to write pithy, useful stuff with none of the misery of having to talk to actual humans.” After six months of exchanging weekly video blogs, he and Hank had attracted 202 followers. They classified them as “internet people—the kind who utilise social-media platforms to form communities that are really important to them and friendships that in many cases are the central friendships in their lives. And we considered ourselves internet people. Lots of people used e-mail, but very few people were internet people. And now everyone is an internet person. So we got lucky to be at the beginning of that.”

Vlogbrothers, it is safe to say, would not have nearly 2m subscribers if the Greens hadn’t cottoned on so early. Their aim was to keep up the experiment for a year and to break 300 followers. That summer, 2007, the final book in the Harry Potter series came out and Hank, a huge Potter fan, wrote a catchy number called “Accio Deathly Hallows” about the agony of waiting for it. “It was featured in all these Harry Potter fan communities—the hardcore Harry Potter kids were also very active online, very early. And it was on the front page of YouTube, and pretty much overnight we went to 7,000 subscribers. And it kept growing from there.” Six months later, YouTube called and asked if the Green brothers would like to run ads next to the video, for a portion of the overall revenue.

Green had been working on a novel about a chaplain in a children’s hospital“like me but better-looking”. He had been writing for years and couldn’t make it work, mainly because of the guilt; what right had he, a healthy man in his prime, to write about dying teenagers?

And then he met someone who would change his life: Esther Grace Earl, the model for Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager suffering from thyroid cancer who came up to him at LeakyCon, a Harry Potter convention in Boston, and told him she liked his books. “I started talking to her mostly so I didn’t have to dance. It turned out she was not just a Nerdfighter but was involved in some of the core projects of the community. I stayed in touch with her.”

Esther had all the traits Green would give his heroes; she was sarcastic, funny, furious and brave. Hazel and Augustus poke fun at everything from their own illness to the dorky cancer-support group leader (based on Green himself) to the venue where they meet, a church called the Literal Heart of Jesus. “We are literally in the heart of Jesus,” Augustus says.

“Someone should tell Jesus,” Hazel parries. “I mean, it’s gotta be dangerous, storing children with cancer in your heart.”

After meeting Esther, Green saw that the only way to write the book was as a tragic romance with a strong female lead. “‘The Odyssey’ was the first great epic romance and it’s so driven by the male experience and voice,” he says. “Romantic love stories in American literature, what few there are about illness, are about healthy men who learn important lessons by loving sick women who then die.”

Like “Love Story”?

“Yeah, that’s the best example. And that troubles me on a bunch of levels. I wanted to put a young woman at the centre.”

At times his tale gets mawkish, and part of its attraction to teens may well be its enactment of the classic retort: “I’ll die and then you’ll be sorry.” What adolescent hasn’t, after an argument, histrionically envisaged their own funeral? The title inverts Cassius’s line from “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves.” In this case, the fault is with neither teenager, but with cruel fate, which brings them together only to rip them asunder.

When the book came out in 2012 it was largely well reviewed, although Britain’s Daily Mail lumped it in with some other YA books and labelled it Sick Lit, “distasteful” fiction that exploits teenage suffering. It’s a charge Green takes in good spirit, along with most other critiques. “You read Hemingway’s letters to Faulkner, you read Franzen’s letters to David Foster Wallace. Those guys are relentless with each other. And I’m not afraid of that. I think we need good strong hard critical discourse in contemporary literature.”

Not that he takes the Mail’s point. “I don’t agree with the idea that sick teenagers are less concerned with the big questions of the human head and the human heart than other teenagers. I don’t think hungry people stop caring about love. I don’t think the big questions of self-actualisation are only available to those who are well.”

Other writers weighed in with comments, including Meg Rosoff, another YA favourite, who, although sceptical of the Sick Lit approach, turns out to be a Green fan. His genius, she says in an e-mail, is to appeal to his readers at ground level. “That’s why his fans connect with him so perfectly and why he makes many adults uncomfortable. He bubbles with fantastic ideas and his speciality is longing rather than fulfilment.” Neither “Alaska” nor TFIOS has a happy ending, which, Rosoff adds, is “not what his readers are interested in. They want tragedy, tears, the slightly misfit boy who the girl loves anyway, all the fantasy of the first true love without any of the messy ‘what happened after’.”

Green has firm moral views about the influence of teen fiction and the responsibilities that rest on its authors, particularly around the subject of sexual politics. “Twilight” bothers him a lot. Although impressed by the “world-building” in the story, he is “troubled by some of the relationships, and certainly troubled by the gender politics of that novel.”

In what way?

“I wanted a stronger, more defined Bella and I wanted an Edward who hadn’t been around for a century. I find it very problematic that you have a century to accrue experience of life and then you seduce a teenager.”

Mind you, he says, with sudden demureness, he is also troubled by gender politics in “Looking for Alaska”, which enraged some readers with its ending. “People did not like that. Was her death suicide or an accident? I meant to leave it ambiguous.” He laughs. “All the time in life you are going to have questions that deserve to be answered, that you can’t find answers to. Can you go on meaningfully in a world where that ambiguity is inherent to being a person?”

Green is talking obliquely about faith, something that continues to interest him. The teenagers in TFIOS reserve their most vicious mockery for the things they really care about, and Green, while sending up his own youthful piety, is serious about belief. The only time during the interview he shows a flicker of annoyance is when I suggest that “Looking for Alaska” treats faith as a useful fiction, a narrative that consoles whether or not it is real. That’s not what he meant at all.

“I had a professor at college who said something to me that was extremely important. Which is: just because something is constructed, doesn’t mean it’s not real. This table was constructed, but if you hit it, it will hurt. And if meaning is constructed, well, it’s still meaning; it still works, so that it can hold up a light into the way-down-deep darkness of yourself. And so ultimately it doesn’t matter to me if meaning is constructed or if it’s derived.” For 24 hours, this strikes me as profound, but then I wonder if it means anything at all. Isn’t everything, to a greater or lesser degree, constructed? Anyway, for Green, the main thing about religion is “whether it’s going to hold up in the times when you most need it.”

When she was 16, Esther Earl died. “I was really angry, and I missed her, and I wasn’t thinking about much else. And I wrote the first chapter I think within days of her death.”

Did it feel different from the other drafts?

“Yes, it was the best feeling I’d ever had. It was great. It was also sad. But I remember I wrote the first four or five pages very similar to how they are in the final book. Usually with my writing, 95% of the draft gets deleted. So to have four pages that ended up in the final book is miraculous. I remember going home to Sarah and saying ‘I think I might have it, finally’.”

His greatest fear was that he would upset the very people he was writing about, sick teens, who would see the novel as a monstrous presumption. By and large, Green says, that hasn’t been the case. “One of the unexpected blessings of this book is that sick kids have responded terrifically generously. They read it looking for emotional truths.” If Esther taught him anything, it is that “one of the most psychically damaging things about chronic illness is that it can be a separation between you and the rest of the world. Because the way the world looks at you is often as if you are semi-human; as if you’re partly dead.”

They also read it looking for solace and if Green’s responsibilities at the writing stage were onerous, they are weightier now. There is a quest in the book, wherein Hazel and Augustus track down the author of a novel they love to find out what happens to the characters after the book ends. In the same vein, readers contact Green wondering about Hazel.

“Even really sick kids,” he says. What do they ask? “How long she lived for.”

For a long time, the YouTube channel was Green’s main source of income, making $20,000 a year. Building on its success, Green made an online TV show about art, a series explaining the world to children, and fan videos about one of his passions, English football. “I tried to be a full-time novelist a couple of times, and I can’t do it. I wanted a day job. I admire people who can identify as full-time writers and not have that fear, but it scares me to death.”

His office, which he only recently moved into, is still bare but for the horrible armchair which he writes in and that his wife made him remove from the house, and a running machine with a desk rigged over it, so he can exercise and work simultaneously. On the walls, as well as the Don’t Forget To Be Awesome poster, there is a framed, signed Pelé shirt, one of his most treasured possessions.

Of all his online activities, the football fan videos in particular meet Green’s criteria for his “favourite art”—sharing the thing you love with others, no matter how silly it may seem. As he knows better than most, anything that allows people to connect is a tangential route into intimacy. “Ultimately what I love about sport is that it’s given me a way to have these intensely meaningful relationships in which I don’t have to talk about anything other than [Luis] Suárez. The most important two hours of my week that aren’t about my family are when Liverpool plays.” He points to an old copy of the Liverpool Echo, lying on his windowsill. “That’s the day we came back from 3-0 to win the Champions League.”

When not watching football, Green mobilises his following for good. At his instigation, the “Nerdfighter community” holds annual fundraising drives that raise six-figure sums for the Foundation To Reduce World Suck, which Green distributes to charities as disparate as Save the Children, Liberty in North Korea, and Doctors Without Borders.

He is also committed to the idea of encouraging civility online. “The main thing we want to do in those videos is build public spaces where people can talk without yelling. Have a conversation that isn’t a fight and disagree without being jerks to each other. The Nerdfighter community has continued to be that for years, even though the overall quality of discourse in the United States has dropped dramatically.”

His reach is about to expand again. “The Fault in Our Stars” has been made into a film with a script by Scott Neustadter, who wrote “(500) Days of Summer”. Green is happy with the result, and the casting—Hazel is played by Shailene Woodley, George Clooney’s stroppy daughter in “The Descendants”, and Augustus by a relative unknown, Ansel Elgort.

“It’s a weird thing to see a book adapted into a movie. I think it can be painful for a lot of writers, but I didn’t feel a sense of ownership over the book.” Being on set, like being in Indianapolis, took him out of himself. “The coolest thing about the movie was talking to people who do sound professionally, or costume design. How you use a colour palette to chart a character’s narrative arc. It’s so interesting. It has enriched the way I now can watch movies.”

TFIOS has enriched Green in other ways, too, although he says his lifestyle hasn’t changed much. “We don’t have any particularly fancy desires. But going to Target and getting recognised is new.” The reach of the book can be baffling. “The title of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ in, I think, Norwegian is ‘Fuck Fate’. And it’s also what they’re going to call the movie. I’m like, how is that possible? It’s a children’s book!” His own children are much too young to read anything of his—Henry is four and Alice not yet one. When she was born, Green took six weeks’ paternity leave, although immediately afterwards “I was on a movie set for two months, as my wife will be happy to tell you.” Given his propensity for anxiety, having children worries him a great deal—“there’s that revelation of oh, this is for ever”—and he is constantly amazed by how wonderful and relentless it is. “It’s because the sacrifice is ordinary that it is looked past. It is far harder than many of the extraordinary sacrifices that are always being lauded. And it goes unnoted by the person for whom you are sacrificing. It wasn’t until I had a child that I called my parents and was like, ‘Oh! This was difficult. I’m sorry.’ I thought it was a pleasure to parent me the whole way through.”

His parents retired to North Carolina, where, as he puts it, they grow vegetables and make soap, literally: “my mum has a business making soap from goat’s milk. Farmer Jane Soaps.” This is a source of amusement and rage to her sons. “It’s infuriatingly inefficiently run. It could be a very successful business, but my mum defiantly makes it unprofitable. Like, if you push her about it—‘mom, you literally lose money on some of your soap sales’—she says ‘Oh, but I really like the people.’ I’m fairly business-minded but my brother is much more so, and he can’t listen to her talk about it.”

Their father helps with the business side of the Vlogbrothers, another roundabout route to intimacy. “My dad and I need to talk about something, and we talk about the business. The YouTube business, and the goat-soap business, and what should be growing. It’s all we ever talk about. But I love it.”

And what do Green and his own son talk about? He smiles. “Children call you to attentiveness, somehow. My son will look at a leaf for like 45 seconds.”

What worries him most, both personally and professionally, is what might happen if his depression recurs. “Mental-health problems don’t go away, unfortunately. I have better tools now than I did then. Then, the drugs sucked. As much as treatments for chronic anxiety disorders and depression are still ridiculously blunt instruments, they used to be much worse. I worry now about something happening, because it would be so bad for my relationship with my kids. I have to take care of them. It would suck and it would be difficult.”

Has he felt in danger of having another episode? He pulls at his left eyebrow. “You’re asking this at a particularly weird time because the last few months have been…when I say I find comfort in stability, and as things have gotten a little crazy here with ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, it does feel like change.” He laughs loudly. “Even good change is very bad.”

Suddenly, he appreciates what J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Stephanie Meyer went through when their books became blockbusters, a “good lesson in empathy”: he can’t imagine how they coped with the pressure of finishing their franchises. He himself has still to write a follow-up novel.

“Yes, but you reset the clock by writing a nice little comedy of manners or something.” He settles back into his armchair and smiles. It’s the Green mantra: with humour and modesty, you can withstand almost anything.

The Fault in Our Stars opens in America June 6th, Britain June 20th

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