What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: There are many similarities between the swan and Alaska. Were you aware of this connection?

That is really compelling. I don’t think I was conscious of it, but it holds together better than a lot of metaphors I did intend.

The more I think about it, the more interesting it becomes. Swans are animals that we romanticize—endowing with nobility and beauty—but if you’ve ever actually encountered a swan, they’re a hell of a lot more complicated than that. The complex (and flawed) ideas associating whiteness and purity resonate for both swans and Alaska, too.

Most importantly, swans are traditionally associated with a passive beauty: They are things to be looked at. But in fact swans are capable of agency and power and biting people on the butt.

I like it!

Q: Why is “Looking for Alaska” not capitalized on the cover? What about the before and after divisions?

I didn’t make those capitalization decisions; they were made by the book’s designer, so you’d have to ask her.

Q: Did the candle wax volcano inspire the cover?

The cover had a candle on it because the original cover featured only the smoke, but then certain bookstore chains that are no longer in business said they wouldn’t carry the cover face-out unless a candle was added because the smoke “looked like cigarette smoke.” (Of course, it is cigarette smoke.) So the candle is unrelated to Alaska’s volcano.

Q: My friends and I went to America and bought Strawberry Hill wine. We also made up ambrosia. Both tasted piss.

Yes, well, welcome to America!

Q: What would you say to my friend who believes that it’s you perving on girls, not Pudge?

Look, both the reader and the writer have a job when it comes to books. The writer’s job is to give the reader some words to work with. The reader’s job is to make the best book they possibly can using those words. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: If your friend cannot separate fiction from its author, then they aren't doing her job as a reader. This whole idea that authors who write about teenagers have some kind of romantic fixation on teenagers is really weird to me. So, yeah, let me just say this: Nothing personal, but I find high school students—all of them—completely and overwhelmingly unhot.

 

Q: Why have your books gotten “cleaner” over time?

I think The Fault in Our Stars is (for lack of a better word) dirtier than Katherines or Paper Towns. It certainly contains more sex and f-bombs. But Alaska is my dirtiest book so far, I suppose, except maybe WGWG. Why? I wanted to write about sexuality and substance abuse because it felt true to the characters, who are in many ways more screwed up and self-destructive than the characters in my other books.

When you’re a teenager, you’re doing all kinds of important things for the first time, and in writing Alaska I wanted to deromanticize some of those firsts.

 

Q: Did you know an Alaska?

 That is the rare question that is too personal.

 

Q: Do you plan on writing a sequel to Looking for Alaska?

I don’t plan on writing a sequel to any of my books at the moment. I feel like I left Pudge and the Colonel and Lara and Takumi where I wanted them to be. My grandmother taught me to never say never, but certainly there will not be a sequel in the foreseeable future.

 

Q: Do you have any teaching suggestions for Looking for Alaska?

If I were to teach Alaska, I would ask: What is the point of death? and What is the point of literature? and In an essentially and irreperably broken world, is there cause for hope? That is not really much of a lesson plan, though.

 

Q: Why did you sell the movie rights to Paramount rather than a less commercial studio?

In 2005, when Looking for Alaska first came out, the book was selling a couple hundred copies a week. Traditionally, a book’s first few months are its best selling months. So in those days I was making about $350 a week in royalties. This is a nice amount of money, but it works out to $18,200 a year, and it is taxed as self-employment income, so it actually works out to quite a bit less than that. And every indication was that my income over time would go down, not up, as it does for almost all books. At the time, I was moving from Chicago to New York in order to follow my fiancee to graduate school, which meant I was about to be unemployed. Then a movie studio came along and offered me what was to me an ungodly, life-changing amount of money in exchange for the movie rights to my book. I did not care (and honestly do not care) if they ever made a movie. All I knew was that moving to New York with a fiancee in graduate school was suddenly possible, whereas before it had been impossible. I would’ve sold the movie rights to We Only Make Shitty Movies Incorporated if they’d made that move possible. But for the record, since then I’ve made very different decisions about my movie rights.

Q: What would you think if Looking for Alaska became a web series rather than a movie?

That would be cool, except I do not own the movie rights to Looking for Alaska. (Paramount owns them.)

 

Q: Why was the Looking for Alaska movie shelved?

Maybe they will make it someday, but I don’t mind if it never becomes a movie. There’s something wonderful and magical about that book belonging to US, you know? Alaska is still Alaska and Pudge is still Pudge. I’m so grateful that the book continues to find readers even without the big marketing push of a movie adaptation.

 

Q: Was your intention to make Alaska fall in love with Miles?

My intention was for it to be a complicated mess that was totally impossible to parse, just like real romantic interactions between teenagers in high school. (And also adults after high school.)

I don’t think we feel only one thing in our lives. I don’t think it’s as simple as either A. being in love or B. not being in love. I think our feelings for each other are really complicated and motivated by an endless interconnected web of desires and fears. I wanted to reflect that as best I could.

 

Q: Alaska is described as beautiful, but is this only because Pudge was the one describing her and he was in love with her?

That’s a really important question. 

One of the challenges of reading a novel that’s written in the first person is that you have to decide how much to trust the narrator. In Catcher in the Rye, for instance, Holden Caulfield shows you over and over again that he is an inveterate liar, but for some reason you still kind of suspect that he is telling you the truth. In other novels (American Psycho comes to mind), the narrator is clearly unreliable.

In Alaska, I think Pudge is trying his best to be accurate to his experience and memory, but it’s also clear he is writing all this down at some point in the future. From the structure of the novel and from a few moments of foreshadowing, I think it’s pretty clear by the end of the book that he knew about Alaska’s death before he started telling the story. And when you look back at the dead, I think they are inevitably more beautiful. Plus, you’re absolutely right that when you’re romantically enthralled with someone, you see that person as more beautiful than other people might. So I think Pudge’s descriptions of her beauty are probably shaped by his memory and his experience. (And while some other people—Takumi and Jake for instance—also find her physically attractive, the Weekday Warriors never express much physical attraction to her.)

Q: Since Pudge misimagined Alaska, do you believe that people who ship them are misimagining her as well?

Not necessarily. Stories belong to their readers, and if I did my job, there are a bunch of different good readings of the book. But I think there’s a strong case to be made from the story that Pudge and Alaska really loved each other and were in many ways suited to each other. Obviously, one wishes that Pudge could’ve understood the seriousness of Alaska’s pain earlier, and that Alaska could’ve done a better job of reaching out to him. But when I think about those two characters, I never think of them as merely manipulative or merely misimagining. To me, they’re people. Young people, no less.
It’s very hard to love someone well, especially when you are doing it for the first time.

 

Q: Did Takumi have a crush on Lara?

I am going to be totally honest with you:

You have to remember I wrote this book a long time ago. I remember there being a moment near the end of the story when Takumi and Lara are holding hands, but it’s possible that 1. I wrote it and then later cut it, or that 2. I never wrote it but imagined it or that 3. I neither wrote nor imagined it but saw it in the movie script and liked it, or 4. that I read it in some fan fiction. Anyway, I can’t even tell you guys if it’s canon because I don’t remember. But it’s not canon just because I mentioned it in this answer. The text of the novel is the only source material for the novel! BBTTR! etc.

 

Q: Does Alaska have a mood disorder?

I’m not a psychiatrist, so I’m not going to take a guess at that. I think Alaska is clearly struggling and in a lot of pain, though. And I think it’s particularly difficult for her because she feels alone in that pain, which is what really (in my experience, anyway) makes suffering unbearable and makes one experience real despair.

But the weird thing about depression is that it tends to further isolate you from people, thereby making it ever-harder for anyone to bridge the gap and really hear you in the way you need to be heard. So it becomes progressively more difficult to feel that you aren’t alone with your pain, which can make the despair feel permanent and unsolvable.

This is the most insidious thing about depression, I think: It makes itself more powerful by dragging you away from the world outside of yourself. So I don’t want to diagnose Alaska, but certainly she lives with terrible pain, and I think she clearly feels isolated by it, and I wanted to try to reflect that in the phenomenon in the story.

 

Q: What color was Alaska’s hair?

The same dark mahogany color of her coffin, according to Pudge.

Q: Can you relate to the character of Alaska?

 Sure. I was pretty reckless when I was in high school, and I have periodically lived with depression, and I really struggled against self-destructive impulses. But there are also of course a lot of ways in which I wasn’t like Alaska. I wasn’t living with grief the way she was, and I also had a better support network. (Also, I wasn’t a girl.)
I also never drove drunk. Driving drunk always seemed really crazy to me because you could hurt someone else. Of course, what I never thought through in high school was that when I hurt myself, I was also hurting other people, especially the people (like my parents) who loved me the most.

 

Q: Alaska’s belief that she indirectly killed her mother seems gimmicky. How would Alaska be different if both her parents had still been alive?

Fair enough; it is a little gimmicky. (Such things happen, though.) Bear in mind that Alaska didn’t kill her mother. Guilt is a very common response to the loss of a parent or loved one. One always feels that something should’ve been done, and the worst of it is when something actually should’ve been done, but didn’t get done because you are just a regular human being and screw up a million times a day in a million little ways.

That’s really what I was trying to get at: The universe is very capricious in the way that it punishes negligence. Usually, you don’t die if texting while driving. Occasionally, you do. As to your question, it’s so hard to speculate, even with fictional characters, about how their lives would be different if you removed central experiences. From my perspective, Alaska had some pretty serious emotional problems that weren’t about her mother but instead were probably about the way her brain was wired. But all that stuff is so interdependent. One of the reasons I find therapy so useful and interesting is that you can’t really separate nature from nurture.