What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: In Alaska and Paper Towns you use a lot of nicknames. What’s the reasoning behind that?


It’s a way of writing about the relationship between the identities we’re given (our names) and the ones we choose or adopt as we come of age (nicknames). Most of the nicknames in my books are nicknames that are given to, and accepted by, a character in his or her adolescence. Taking a nickname is a way of establishing identity and claiming some sovereignty over one’s self. So Miles will not only be Miles, the person named by his parents. He will also be Pudge, the person named by his peers.

The relationship between these identities—and the shifting between them—is really interesting to me, because it’s a way of thinking about how in adolescence you go back and forth between identifying as part of your biological family and identifying as part of the social network you’re building separate from that family.

Q: Why did you make the Colonel and Pudge bad at ironing? It’s like the simplest household task a person could hope to accomplish.


Because it’s like the simplest household task a person could hope to accomplish.

I wanted that moment to show them as kids, albeit very different ones: Pudge doesn’t know how to use an iron because someone has always done his ironing for him, and the Colonel doesn’t know how to use an iron because he’s never worn anything that needed to be ironed.

But neither of them knows the first thing about how to be an adult in the world. 

Q: Why do none of your characters have pets?

What about Myrna Mountweazel!?

(Pets bore me. They’re so loving and generous and good.) 

Q: Why is it called “Looking for Alaska”? Is it because Pudge, the Colonel, and Takumi are looking for her in the metaphorical sense?

Yes.

It is my experience that you don’t stop looking for your lost friends simply because they are dead. In some ways, you search even harder for every scrap of information you can find that will help you to understand the people they were and also help you to understand what led to their deaths.

But as Pudge and the Colonel find out, while the search can be informative, it can also be destructive. The core question—why did this person I love die—cannot be answered by reading their diaries or retracing their journeys.

It is a question that must be asked of the universe. And this is why philosophy and the study of religious traditions and history etc. is not some abstract boring intellectual enterprise: It is the very stuff that makes it possible to go on and live an engaged, attentive, productive life even though the world contains so much suffering and injustice.  

Q: Why did you have Alaska choose the name “Alaska” for herself?


The idea initially came to me while watching the movie The Royal Tennenbaums, which features a cover of the Velvet Underground song, “Stephanie Says,” part of which goes, “She’s not afraid to die / The people all call her Alaska.”

I liked the name Alaska because it’s grand and mysterious and far away, part of our country but a mythologized part, in much the same way that Alaska herself is (disastrously) mythologized by her classmates.

I also liked it because of what it actually means. It is often translated “that which the sea breaks against,” and I think that is Alaska’s experience of herself: She feels that the sea is breaking against her, again and again, with all the incumbent turmoil, excitement, and pain.