When John Green (author of the much lauded, New York Times bestselling YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars) took the stage at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the auditorium erupted with cheers – clearly no introduction was necessary (one fan even had a tattoo of a line from one of John’s books). Lev Grossman, who was moderating, dryly remarked: “I was told to introduce John…so this is John.”
John then shared how his latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars, came about. It all began back in 2000, when John was working as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. Just like a regular chaplain, his job was to be with the kids when they were dying, or when someone came in from a car accident or trauma. John freely admitted: “I was a really bad chaplain, but one of the things that I did well was play video games. And when my beepers weren’t going off, and I didn’t have to be anywhere in particular, I would go to the floors and I would find the kids who had Playstations and were awake and playing, and then I’d be like: Hey. I’m the Chaplain. I think you’ve got a second controller.”
After the six months, John decided not to become a Minister, and dropped out of Divinity school, but that was when he started trying to write about those kids. “The kids that I met were so different than the people I’d read about in novels, the people in cancer novels…I wanted to try and write about them as I knew them, as funny, vibrant people who even amid illness and their lives having been circumscribed by their disease, were still very much alive during the time they were alive.”
John literally spent years trying to write the book and failing – he kept ending up writing other books instead. Then in 2008, at Leaky-Con (a Harry Potter conference) John became friends with a young woman named Esther Earl, who was very sick with cancer. “Through knowing her, I was finally able to write the book, because I was finally able to be hopeful about it, and be funny about it, and not be so maudlin about it, because Esther was never maudlin. And never, ever gave in to a sense of pity, always resisted it, and whenever it was introduced into a conversation she would strike it down with great force and fury, and I think that was the insight that I needed to be able to finally do it.”
When it came to the title, John at first wanted to call the book “The Hectic Glow”, because John was in love with a line Thoreau once said about TB: “Decay and disease are often beautiful, like the pearly tear of the shellfish and the hectic glow of consumption.” But John’s editor convinced him The Fault in Our Stars was the better choice.
When asked about the many fictional books that exist within his novel – the two that figure prominently are ”Imperial Affliction,” Hazel’s all-consuming literary love, and “The Price of Dawn,” Augustus’ beloved video-game tie-in novel – John said he was alluding to the tradition of books-within-books in epic, star-crossed love stories, but he also loved the idea of that imaginary perfect book: “There’s something magical about a book that’s so good that it can’t ever be written. It reminded me of the way books are in my head when I come up with them, before I write them down and they start to suck.”
John based “Imperial Affliction” on his love for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but “The Price of Dawn” was essentially a play on a tie-in novel for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. John actually didn’t come up with the title himself – he asked Twitter for suggestions of what Call of Duty would be called if you couldn’t call it Call of Duty, and “The Price of Dawn” won the day – though John sheepishly admits he forgot to save that persons’ user name (and he’s very sorry about that).
As to whether or not any of those imaginary books could ever become real, John said: ”Someone asked me if I will ever write “Imperial Affliction.” And I said, no, but I might write “The Price of Dawn”…”
When asked how he chose the names for his characters, Hazel and Augustus, John said that for Augustus, John wanted a name that could be both big and small. And so Augustus is the name of Emperors, and yet Gus is the name of a little boy. As for Hazel, he chose hazel because it was a good color for people who are in-between – in between drowning and not, in between youth and adulthood, in between illness and loss.
As for the first draft of his book, John freely admits it was terrible: “You should have read all the stuff about tuberculosis in the first draft. Hundreds of pages of clearly ‘John Green telling you how much he knows about tuberculosis’ through the mouth of a 16 year old girl. You know, I have such precious little time left, so I will devote myself to a study of TB… It’s crap. Not just the ideas are crap, but also the writing is crap. Yeah, it was terrible.”
But from such humble beginnings, his book now may be headed for the big screen - The Fault in Our Stars has been optioned by Fox 2000, and it’s in the process of being adapted by the screenwriters who were behind 500 Days of Summer and Spectacular Now.
When asked if he was ever tempted to go easier on Gus and Hazel in his story, John said: “No.” He wanted to create a hopeful novel, but: “I wanted to create both for the characters and the reader the reality that hope is not easily or cheaply won.”
When asked why we need sad books, such as The Fault in our Stars, John replied: ”There’s a great solace for me in looking at the truth of the world, and learning that even when you look closely at the horrors of our species, there’s hope to be found, and there’s solace to be found, and that’s all with each other. And I hope that’s what Hazel finds at the end of The Fault in Our Stars, and what the reader finds with her. Certainly that’s what I was looking for, what I was writing for – that sense of solace through empathy and connection to others.”
Lev then told John that Time Magazine (who Lev writes book reviews for) only allows him to use “damn” once a year, and even though The Fault in Our Stars came along in January, Lev said fuck it, he just had to use “damn” in his review. To which John deadpanned: “I also noticed you used the word near. Near. Near… ‘Damn near genius.’
“I was told that my people were putting that quote on the back of the book, true story, and I was like, just write ‘…genius’.”