What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: You named a character Hank. Are any of your characters influenced by your brother?

My brother is neither a stoner nor a basketball player, if that’s what you’re asking. :)

Influences are too broad and numerous for me to pin down like that. I’m sure Hank has influenced my work; certainly, the way he looks at the world has shaped the way I look at the world. But I’ve never consciously modeled a character after Hank.

Q: Then why did you name the character Hank?

At the time, I could never have imagined that anyone would ever know that I had a brother named Hank. (I was just a writer then, not…like….a  professional Person Of The Internet or whatever.) I was thinking about Hank Williams when I named that character, not my brother.

Q: When did you write the scene with Alaska and Pudge making out in her bedroom?

Early. The first draft of that was I think in the 40 single-spaced pages I sent to Ilene way back in 2002. I don’t even think it changed that much over time. That’s one of the very few passages that survived from 2002. (It might’ve even been written in late 2001.)

Q: Did you ever consider ending the book with a certain reason for Alaska’s death, like suicide?

No, from the moment of its inception in my mind, the story was about whether (and how) one can live a thoughtful, hopeful life in the face of unresolvable ambiguity.

Q: When you wrote the first draft, which scenes were you most excited about writing? Which did you write first?

I wrote this book over so many years, and there were so many dozens of drafts between when it was a single-spaced 40-paged blob to when it was a novel, and so it’s hard to remember the process.

I wrote the scene in the gym where they find out very early on, probably in 2001. I wrote a couple of the later scenes where the Colonel and Pudge are playing video games early on, and the scene where the Colonel and Pudge meet survived in more or less its original form. 

Also Barn Night. And Lara/Pudge’s watching of the Brady Bunch. I think those were the first scenes.

It was a lot of fun to write Barn Night. That was probably the most fun—Best Day/Worst Day, the rapping, the Strawberry Hill, all that stuff.

Q: Was there any section in particular that you had to rewrite way more than other sections? And if so, what was it that you weren’t happy with?

The funeral.

I wrote the funeral probably 15 or 20 times, and I would send it to Julie, and she’d be like, “Yeah, you have to write the funeral again.”

It was infuriating.

Then one day my roommates and I had a huge fight—I don’t even remember what it was about but I think it involved a vacuum—and I really love my friend Shannon and I hate fighting with her and we almost never really fought, and it made me really sad.

So I went downstairs and I was crying and angry and I just wrote the funeral scene in about ten minutes.

Q: What do you mean by, “No one in this novel actually has sex with anyone else”? Doesn’t that depend on your definition of a sexual encounter?

Yes, I was using the Bill Clinton definition of sex. I should probably have been more specific. Sorry!

Q: Looking for Alaska is pretty “dirty,” but you aren’t someone I relate sexuality to. When you were a teenager, were you similar to Pudge or the huge nerd that I imagine you being?

 1. Lots and lots and lots of nerds have sex. That’s one of the main ways we create new nerds, actually.
2a. There’s nothing un-nerdy about having sex or thinking about the role sexuality plays in your life.
2b. But let me just underscore the oft-forgotten fact that no one in this novel actually has sex with anyone else, at least on the page.
3. Pudge is extremely sexually awkward and inexperienced (he doesn’t even know what oral sex is supposed to look like, for God’s sakes).
4. I still don’t think it’s a dirty book. There are a few explicit scenes, but all of them are pretty nakedly arguments against vapid, emotionless sexual encounters, which does not strike me as a particularly dirty argument.
4a. I mean, just as another aside, we are discussing perhaps 800 words in a 70,000 word novel. More words are devoted to thinking about Buddhist conceptions of the desire-suffering cycle than are devoted to thinking about blow jobs.

Q: How did you come up with the pranks?

Mostly from my high school classmates, to be totally honest with you.

Q: How did you come up with writing the book with the Before/After format?

I came up with that structure right after 9/11, when I started working in earnest on the first big draft of the story. I was thinking a lot about how we construct time, because back then everyone was saying that “we will now remember American history as before and after 9/11,” and that “we now live in a post-9/11 world.” (You still hear that one a lot.)

This got me to thinking about how time is almost always measured in relationship to important historical events. Christians date things in relationship to the birth of Jesus. The Muslim calendar calculates time in relation to the hijrah, the Islamic community’s journey from Mecca to Medina. I wanted to reflect this in the structure of the novel: The event that we’re counting down to and away from is the defining moment of these people’s lives (at least so far) and it reshapes their relationship to the world so completely that it also reshapes their understanding of time.

As with many things in the book, Ilene Cooper was instrumental in all of this: I had a draft in which I moved back and forth in time with chapters titled how many days before or after, and Ilene told me to put it in chronological order for the sake of the reader’s sanity, and then I started thinking about structure differently. Julie Strauss-Gabel further refined the structure so that it would be mirrored (chronologically, Alaska’s death occurs at the exact midpoint of the novel) and still accurately reflect the calendar year of 2005, when the book is set.

Q: Did your background in religious studies influence Looking for Alaska?

Definitely. I could never have written this book without the religion classes I took in college, and the theology/philosophy/worldview/whatever at the core of the book comes directly from conversations I had with Don Rogan, my mentor and professor at Kenyon.

Even in private conversations, I was never quite sure what Rogan believed, but he was very interested in formulations of what is called radical hope—the belief that hope is available to all people at all times—possibly even including the dead.

And the argument that Pudge makes at the very end of the book, that he believes Alaska forgives him is a pretty aggressively theistic thing for Pudge to say. (Of course, this isn’t the only viewpoint presented in the novel. There is also the Colonel’s, “The labyrinth sucks but I choose it,” which is not necessarily a theistic point of view, although I’d argue it’s still a very hopeful thing to say.)

Basically, I wanted to think about all kinds of different ways that young people respond thoughtfully to loss and grief, and show a bunch of different ways that people can prove so astonishingly resilient.

Q: Did you actually perform the prank with the stripper while at Indian Springs?


This video has gotten a lot of attention on that front, but I just want to clear some things up for the record:

1. I am not a particular honest storyteller, and this problem was much worse when this video was recorded. (2000, maybe?)

2. In the background, you can occasionally hear a girl laugh. I was in love with that girl, and I was trying to tell the story in such a way as to impress her.

3. The true story features me in a far less central role: The prank was organized primarily by some of my close friends. I was punished for my role, but…yeah. I was not really a very important cog in the machine. It remains, however, the greatest prank in the history of Indian Springs School.

Q: Is Alaska based off of someone you knew?

I dislike answering this question honestly, because the dead cannot speak for themselves and because the novel is really and truly fictional. Also, some of my classmates were understandably upset about the ways in which the novel reimagined and reinvented certain events that actually happened to us, and I want insofar as possible not to further that hurt.

That noted: When I was a student at Indian Springs, a classmate of mine died, and her death was devastating to the entire community. My relationship with her was nothing like Pudge’s relationship with Alaska (I was much more like the fake mourners that Pudge rails against), but she was someone I liked and admired a lot, and even now that it has been almost 20 years, I still don’t feel reconciled to what happened.

That’s all I’ll say about this, I think. I understand the urge to find the historical facts that may be hidden inside of novels, and I’m not going to deny that Alaska is in many ways an autobiographical novel, but I ignored the facts whenever it suited me, and the story that resulted is truly imagined and I hope that it will be read that way.

Q: Did you know when you started writing that Alaska would die or did you decide that over time?

Initially the book was about the death of a boy as narrated by a girl, but that switched very early on. I would say that had switched as early as maybe March of 2001.

Much of what readers have responded to about Alaska—last words, the labyrinth of suffering, the great perhaps—came out in revision after I’d started working with Julie Strauss-Gabel at Penguin. And the most important development in the history of the book, the thing that made it all possible, was my mentor Ilene Cooper proposing a linear time frame of the school year with xx days before and xx days after instead of what I was trying to do, which involved jumping around in time for all kind of Important Literary Reasons that in retrospect I find tremendously embarrassing.

Ilene’s insight about the structure of the novel probably came in late 2002. The revision that changed so much of the rest of the book happened in 2003 and 2004. (Alaska was published in March of 2005.)

Q: How long did it take to write Alaska?

I began the book in earnest just after 9/11, and it was published in March of 2005. But for one of those years, I was in the process of breaking up with a girl (well, technically, she was in the process of breaking up with me), which is not a situation conducive to writing well. Also, I rewrite a lot.

Q: Do you really know all those people’s last words?

Yeah. I’m sort of obsessed with last words. (Many of my favorites did not make it into the book, actually.) You can watch me reciting favorite last words here and then listing the last words of every American President here.