What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: Why do you think so many adults recommend Katherines more so than your other books?

To be frank with you, I think it appeals to teachers and librarians because it is the way to teach and share my work that involves the least sex.


Q: You often say you can’t remember certain things in the novel. Does this mean you rarely reread your books?

I never re-read my books. (I re-read both Katherines and Paper Towns years ago for movie things, but I would never re-read them for fun.) There are several reasons for this:

1. The world contains a lot of books—far more than I can ever read—and to read my own books seems weird and narcissistic.

2. It’s not a pleasant experience for me, because I’m always thinking of all the things I could’ve done differently and better, and wanting to go back and change things.

3. When a book comes out, I really truly feel done with it. Like, I’m very happy to talk about it with people, and I’m definitely interested in people’s reactions to it, and I want to do everything I can to help the book find its widest possible audience. But by that point, I’ve read the thing hundreds of times. That’s enough. :)

Q: Why do you seem to have less affection for Katherines than for your other books?

I like Katherines! I do! I do not think of it as less good than my other books; I just think it’s very different. It’s a comic novel, and a zany one, but I’m just as proud of it as I am of my other books. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of any of my books. I always feel very conscious of the times I ran up against the limit of my talent, or failed to make something clear, or might’ve made a better joke, or could’ve been more emotionally honest, or whatever. That’s just the nature of the enterprise, I think.


Q: Have you ever tried anagramming the title: “An Abundance of Katherines”?

I never tried to anagram the title. There are a lot of little anagram easter eggs in the book, but I never thought of doing that with the title, because this book—unlike all my others—had a title from the moment I began writing it.

Q: Do you ever wonder why Katherines gets the least attention of all your books?

It is the worst-selling of my books (by a fair bit), but the people who like it seem to REALLY like it, which is cool. Also, the current cover (designed by nerdfighter Sarah Turbin) seems to have given the book fresh life, so it may be too soon to judge.

There’s a lot at play here. I do think the fact that the book involves a lot of abstract mathematics (even though you don’t have to know anything about math to read the story) is intimidating to some people. Also, Colin isn’t a very easy person to like, especially at first. And I think for some readers the book feels more like an exercise in cleverness or somehow less emotionally grounded than my other books. (My favorite professor from college, who God bless him cannot tell a lie, said, “I liked your first book. Your second one, schticky.”)

All that noted, Katherines has still had a great life, and I’m really pleased that so many people have responded to it so generously over the years.

Q: Are you good at anagramming?

No, I’m not very good at anagramming at all. Nor was I in any way a child prodigy. (I was not a good student in high school.) I do, however, enjoy anagramming, which made the countless hours I spent on anagram web sites entertaining. The best anagram site by far is I, Rearrangement Servant (that is, Internet Anagram Server), which you can find here.

Q: You’ve said before that you think Hassan is the only one of your characters whose voice you could re-imagine. Why?

Well, I’m just very fond of Hassan. I don’t even really understand why. But I still think about him a lot and imagine him making jokes. So if someone put a gun to my head or something and told me to write a sequel to one of my books, it would probably involve Hassan in some way, because he’s the only character I still think about a lot.

Q: Why did you have Hassan drink and kiss a girl? Was it a point about restriction?

Well, if Islam forbids premarital kissing, I am unaware of it.

That said, drinking alcohol is unambiguously haram, and by having him drink, I wanted to point out that religious faith and practice exists on a continuum: Many Muslims don’t pray five times a day. Many Muslims drink alcohol. Many Jews don’t keep kosher.

These narrow definitions of religiosity don’t hold up, at least not to Hassan.

Q: Lindsey feels like she’s constantly chameleoning and never really acting like herself in front of other people. Do you have advice for people dealing with this problem in real life?

Lindsey’s life feels very performed and she feels this distance between how she thinks of herself and how she acts.

I can’t speak for everyone, but at least among people I’ve talked to, this feeling is damn near universal. I still feel it, actually: I feel like a total imposter as a writer and as a person, and I often feel like any minute someone will notice that I am a total phony and everyone will stop reading my books, etc.

But the process of trying to live an authentic life is complicated, as Lindsey discovers. I think you hit at something important in your question, though, by linking worry and authenticity. Colin is super-annoying in a lot of ways, but one thing he can’t help but be is himself, and that is really attractive to Lindsey.

And when you acknowledge that there is nothing repulsive or unforgivable or shameful about yourself, it becomes easier to be that authentic person and feel like you’re living a less performed life.

Q: Do you think that Colin stayed a genius when he was older?

I can’t imagine the story outside the text of the story. Like, I can’t see further into the future and know if he and Lindsey get married, or if Hassan graduates from college, or if Colin ever becomes a genius.

All that stuff is for you to imagine, if you wish to.

There are many child prodigies who grow up to lead very ordinary lives; there are others who are paralyzed by their prodigious childhoods and never find their way in adulthood. And then there are prodigies like Norbert Weiner, who enjoy exceptionally productive adulthoods and get rooms at MIT named after them.

But I think by the end of the novel, Colin is measuring success a little differently than just seeking genius.

Q: Was there any intention to make Colin autistic?

I’m a novelist, not a doctor, so I won’t attempt to diagnose any of my characters. But I was conscious of the way people on the autistic spectrum struggle to read certain social cues, and the way their brains process and store information.

Q: How would you sum up Colin’s definition of dating?

Well he counts people he only held hands with, which to many of us would not constitute a full-fledged boyfriend-girlfriend type romantic relationship.

Q: Was Gutshot named for how Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in the stomach, thereby referencing Colin’s feeling of a missing piece from his middle?

I was conscious of all the people who are or feel gutshot when writing Katherines, yes. (I think a lot of us, when we are heartbroken or stricken with grief feel pain in our guts. That pain is as real as any other pain, as the narrator takes pain to point out.)

Q: What inspired Gutshot? Is it a combination of places you know or is it totally fictional?

Gutshot is a mixture of places I visited growing up. Both my mother’s parents are from small towns in Tennessee, and so the architecture and industry of those towns was pretty familiar to me.

Gutshot is most directly inspired by my grandmother’s tiny hometown of Skullbone, Tennessee, which—aside from lacking a textile mill—is geographically very similar to Skullbone.

Quick Skullbone story: Once I visited Skullbone with a girl I was dating at the time, and we stopped at the bridge that leads into town and we were just looking at the river. Suddenly a minivan pulls up and a guy gets out of the car. He’s a big guy with a thick brown beard, and he’s wearing (apparently) nothing but very dirty overalls and brand new sneakers.

Of course, I feel nervous: I’m this scrawny college kid clearly Not From Around Here, and this man has pulled to the side of the road on a bridge, and I’m worried that I’m going to have to protect my girlfriend or something, which is not exactly my specialty.

But the guy doesn’t even seem to look at us. He just goes to the back of the minivan, opens it up, pulls out a very old pair of tennis shoes, walks to the edge of the bridge, stares into the water for a moment, and tosses the shoes into the river.

Only then does he look up at us, standing maybe ten feet away from him. “I moved to Nashville 20 years ago,” he says. “Every year I come back here and toss last year’s shoes into the river, so that they can walk the country even though I can’t anymore.”

Then he gets back in the minivan and drives away.

True story.

Q: My problem with the relationship formula is that I don’t think the variables can be decided by either member of the potential relationship.

Yeah, no, the formula is crazy. It’s the work of a deluded madman desperate to find some intellectual path out of a mostly non-intellectual problem.

Q: How did Daniel Biss’s mathematical help factor into the writing process? Did he write the formula before you began the novel or vice versa?

He wrote the formula after the first draft but before the huge revisions (more than 75% of the story was deleted) that accompanied the last year or so of the writing process.

Daniel’s math helped a lot with the writing. I needed Daniel to help me understand what variables Colin would care about most. Also, in the process of writing the formula, we came up with lots of jokes (some mathematical and some not) that ended up in the book.

It was really great fun. Mathematicians get a bad rap. All the ones I’ve met are brilliantly funny, Daniel included. (He is now, of course, not so much a mathematician as a politician.)

Q: If I try the formula and get a graph that doesn’t cross the x-axis, does that mean the relationship never would have happened?

No it means you calculated the dumpee/dumper differential as 0, which Colin believes is literally impossible.

Q: Did you ever use the formula to test your real life relationships?

Yeah, Daniel and I messed around with it a lot to make it as funny and accurate as possible. (My favorite joke is that the formula fails if the dumper/dumpee ratio is 0, as if it has never occurred to Colin that people could come into a relationship on equal dumper/dumpee footing.)

Q: Does the formula work?

No. For one thing, the formula is designed overwhelmingly to bias past relationship history as a determining factor in who ends a romantic relationship. I happen to think one’s history actually is a pretty good determining factor, but certainly Daniel and I overemphasized it as a little joke to all the hardcore math nerds reading the book. Furthermore, it’s totally impossible to write a mathematical formula that will reliably predict such a complicated equation as love–not because love is essentially nonmathematic or irrational (I think it is in many ways both rational and mathematic), but because the variables are too numerous. There has been some interesting research in the field, however.

Q: Many people read Lindsay’s cave as a metaphor for her vagina. What do you think of this reading?

That’s such a good observation.

Was I conscious of this? I don’t think so (although I might’ve been; it was written a long time ago).

But of course intent is mostly irrelevant. It’s a good metaphor, and a useful one: It helps us to understand the importance of the cave to Lindsay (and to Colin!) and it also works well with the (very phallic) obelisk monument of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

In a sense, their romantic journey is a journey away from the (phallic) obelisk and toward the (sapphic) cave, and in the end only in the place associated with femininity is Colin able to become authentically himself with someone else. (That’s who you really like: the people you can think out loud in front of, etc.)

I don’t think that was intentional (although again, it might’ve been), but it’s very interesting regardless. Does it reveal something about Colin, or about the author, and if so is that something misogynistic or feminist? I don’t know. I will have to think more about it. But it is really fugging interesting.