What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: Why do authors use foreshadowing?


It makes you nervous; it keeps you reading; and ultimately, anticipation makes for more interesting and engaging reading than surprise.

Q: Do you like Alaska as a person?


 I love her as a person.

As for liking her: I’ve always sort of preferred people who are not entirely likable.

Q: What would you say to a girl like Alaska?


You are helpful, and you are loved, and you are forgiven, and you are not alone.

Q: I don’t focus on the metaphors, symbols, and foreshadowing in your books. Does this bother you?


No, it does not bother me. There is no one right way to read a book.
(There are wrong ways, certainly: If you read Huck Finn and think it is a great defense of slavery, you are doing it wrong. But there are many right ways.)

These Q&As exist to answer specific questions from people who are usually reading the book very closely and have intertextual questions about them. I answer those questions because A. it’s interesting and useful for me as a writer to think about this stuff, and B. I hope it might be interesting and useful to some minority of readers, and C. I like to get insight into other writers’ processes and so feel like mine should be fair game.

The truth is, if the foreshadowing and the metaphors and everything else work, you don’t need to be conscious of it—and you certainly don’t need to be hunting for it. The foreshadowing will unsettle you whether you’re aware of it or not, and when the twist comes, it won’t feel like as much of a twist as it otherwise would’ve.

And metaphor (which to me is not really distinct from “the beauty of the language” that you refer to above) is just another way to build the story and its inhabitants so that it will be real and alive to you as you read it.

You don’t need to think “smoking cigarettes is a symbol for adolescents’ self-destructive impulses” to know that smoking is bad for you, and these kids are aware that it’s bad for you.

Your job as a reader is to read the book you want to read. You shouldn’t worry too much about which book I want you to read, but rest assured: I am very, very happy when people like my books and find them helpful or interesting or fun or anything other than dreadfully boring.

Q: If you could go back, would you take out the blowjob scene in order to have the book reach a larger audience?


No.

I guess the book might have a broader audience without that scene, but if I wanted the broadest possible audience, I wouldn’t write books at all. I’d write screenplays.

I wrote that book almost ten years ago, and while I certainly don’t think it’s perfect, I’m still proud of it. That means a lot to me. I’d be much less proud of it if I’d taken out a scene that’s central to the emotional arc of the book just so that it would be more acceptable to censors. And if people are reading the scene out of context, they aren’t reading. There is no text without context.

If a terrible blow job keeps Alaska from being taught in schools, that’s unfortunate. But what matters to me is that so many people have found the book and shared it with their friends and family. I could never have imagined that little book would be published in dozens of languages and read by so many hundreds of thousands of people.

I’m very happy, and very grateful, and I stand by the massively unerotic blow job.

Q: Does it annoy you if people picture your characters as having a different race or appearance than you describe?


If I recall correctly, I was conscious about not identifying either the Colonel or Alaska by race, so I’ll continue not doing that. But yeah, I think those are certainly valid imaginings.  

Q: Do you wish that people would take the story as it is without endlessly searching for metaphors and deeper meaning?


The story as it is includes metaphor and meaning and symbolism and all the rest.

But there are lots of different ways to read a book well, and one of them is to be—as J. D. Salinger put it—the reader who reads and runs. I don’t want to tell people how to read my books, or anyone’s books. I do think there’s a lot to be gained from reading critically—I think it can help us feel less alone and more engaged and also help us better formulate ideas about our responsibilities to ourselves and to others.

But I also think reading should be enjoyable. It should be fun. And if all the symbolism is working right, readers don’t have to be conscious of it for those elements to add power and emotional heft to the story. 

Q: Have you ever heard a reading of Looking for Alaska that you disagree with?


Oh, sure, of course. If people say that Looking for Alaska is a defense of Marxism, or an attack upon elm trees, or a book about caramelized onions, then I absolutely disagree with them.

I also disagree absolutely with people who claim that Alaska is pornographic or that it encourages promiscuity or alcohol use or cigarette smoking or mixing vodka with milk. (…which is a terrible idea.)

A book is a conversation between a reader and a writer, but we both have to hold up our end of the bargain there. It’s possible to write a book terribly; it’s also possible to read a book terribly. (Witness, for instance, those who read Huck Finn as a defense of slavery.) 

Q: I know you say that books belong to their readers. But do you ever share your take on ambiguous parts with Sarah, Hank, or anyone else?


I love you guys.

No.

I’m just going to shorten Books Belong To Their Readers to BBTTR from here on out. 

Q: When and how did you find your Great Perhaps?


 

Oh, I think the pleasure is in the seeking. That’s what I eventually realized. 

Q: What’s your favorite part of LFA?


I’m not sure I have a favorite part. (For one thing, I wrote it a long time ago, and I haven’t read it since it came out, so to be totally honest there’s a lot of it I don’t remember.) I guess I am still pretty proud of that line at the end about never needing to be hopeless because we can never be irreparably broken; that line seems to have meant something to a lot of people. (For instance, I recently saw it tattooed around a person’s neck.)

Oh, and I still like the fox hat.