What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: Did Alaska commit suicide?

Dunno.

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?

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?

 

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: 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.

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.