What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: A friend of mine read Looking for Alaska and said Alaska should never have died and it was pointless. What would you say to her?

I agree with your friend that death is infuriatingly pointless. But it’s also, really, really common. (I am reminded of the Onion headline: Despite Efforts, World Death Rate Remains Steady at 100%.) To me, Alaska is about loss and grief and struggling against the nihilism that many of us feel when confronted with death. So it could never have been about anything else, because I never had another story in mind. I wrote every word of the first half knowing the second half was coming, so I can’t imagine it any other way. If Pudge and the Colonel and Alaska had gone on having a rip-roaring time,then the book would’ve been about…what? 

Usually when characters die in books, it happens at the very end or the very beginning. I wanted it to happen in the middle, because I wanted readers to meet and care about and empathize with Alaska, and then to lose her, and then to have to make the same journey that Pudge and the Colonel and the rest of them are making. I wanted the reader to have to battle against that feeling of pointlessness and to find some hope in a life that includes unresolved and unresolvable grief.

 

Q: Surely you must have some theories on whether Alaska killed herself or not.

Surely I must.
But here’s the thing: I left it ambiguous on purpose, right? I made this conscious decision not to be in that car with her, and to force all of us—including me—to try to find a way to live hopefully even in the face of eternally unanswerable questions.
If I were now to speculate about that question, I would be giving you an out. I’d be letting you off the hook, and erasing the ambiguity. But that wouldn’t be fair to Alaska (the character or the book). We have to live with ambiguity. We have to give ourselves over to it. The question is: How? How are we going to live in a universe where important questions will always go unanswered?

Q: Do you have an idea of what Alaska’s last words were?

No, I don’t know her last words. From the moment I began to think about the story, I knew I’d never be inside the car with her that night, and that my readers wouldn’t be, either.

This is actually pretty much the whole reason I wanted Pudge to be obsessed with last words: I wanted him to believe in the value of dying declarations as a kind of closing of the book on a human life, but then to be denied that closure when it comes to the death of someone he loves. He is denied that closure in one way by not knowing whether she committed suicide, and he is denied that closure more abstractly by never knowing her last words.

Q: What do you think happened to Alaska? I know you don’t say it in the book,but what’s YOUR opinion?

I knew when I started the book that we would never be inside Blue Citrus with her that night, and so I still don’t have any idea what happened to Alaska—which is to say that I genuinely don’t have an opinion. I really believe that your reading of a book I wrote is just as legitimate as my reading of a book I wrote. (It’s
possible you can even read the book better than I can.) I know that’s not a terribly fulfilling answer, but it’s the only answer I have. Frankly, I kind of want you to be haunted by the unansweredness of the question, because I think being haunted by such things is a valuable part of being a person.We have to live with ambiguity, and that’s a lot of what I was thinking about when I wrote the book. Sometimes, there are questions that NEED answering—did my friend kill herself or was it an accident, for instance—but that never get answered.

I wrote the book because I wanted to explore whether it is possible to reconcile yourself to that ambiguity, to live with it and not let your anger and sadness over the lack of resolution take over your life. Is it possible to live a hopeful life in a world riddled with ambiguity? How can we go on in a world where suffering is distributed so unequally and so capriciously?