What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: Did you intentionally focus less on descriptions of Alaska as opposed to the effect that she had on people?

Yeah, that was very intentional.

Like, the first time Pudge and Alaska have a real conversation, she’s sitting next to him in the dark and he can’t really see her. And throughout the story, there are times when he’s looking at her without seeing her, or there’s something between them that prevents him from seeing her whole face, or he only sees the back of her head, etc. etc. etc.

That was all meant to indicate how incompletely he sees Alaska, something she mentions to him again and again. But in all his fascination with her, he can’t help but romanticize her, which makes it difficult for him to understand the reality and seriousness of her pain.

 

Q: Pudge seems to lack autonomy and only does what he’s told to do. Is this intentional?

Yeah, he starts to affect the action in the second half of the novel, but he is very conscious of this passivity. (He calls himself drizzle to Alaska’s hurricane, and the tail to his friends’ comet.) This inability to act is part of what keeps him from following Alaska out to the pay phone, a decision that he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life.

It was important to me when writing the story that Pudge not be blameless. It’s natural to feel guilty in the wake of a friend’s death, but usually, you can eventually say to yourself, “You know what? This wasn’t actually my fault. There was really nothing I could’ve done.” But in Pudge’s case (arguably like Alaska’s case with her own mother), there is something he should’ve done. He should’ve followed her to the pay phone. He should’ve stopped her from leaving. He should’ve acted.

And that’s a much more complicated kind of guilt to live with. Alaska’s death still isn’t his fault, of course. But he will always know he could’ve—and should’ve—stopped her.

The question for me becomes whether you can find a way to live with yourself, whether forgiveness is still available to you even though the person you need to forgive you is gone. Alaska can never reconcile that question for herself with regards to her own mother. Pudge does eventually find an answer that brings him comfort, but along the way he has to become much more proactive about his life and his choices.

 

Q: Miles promises his dad that he won’t smoke/drink, but he starts doing so right when he gets to Culver Creek. Did you intentionally make him a weak-minded character?

Oh, I think Miles is probably just lying to his father. You know, as one does. I don’t think he has any intention of clean living at Culver Creek.

But yeah, Miles is weak-willed. He engages in self-destructive behavior and fails to recognize the seriousness of the self-destructive behavior around him. He doesn’t take full advantage of his extraordinarily privileged opportunities. He gives money to tobacco companies, which do not deserve his money. 

And he drinks horrible wine when he could afford to drink better wine, which is one of the worst sins of all.

But let me submit to you that we are all weak-willed, that we all participate in destructive systems, that we all fail to use our opportunities as fully as we might, and that the whole business of being a reader (and also being a person) is empathizing with the flawed and uncertain people we meet in books and in life. Miles is not simply heroic, but neither is your friend. Neither is anyone.

And for the record, he does make some changes. (Most notably, you don’t see him drinking in the second half of the book.)

 

Q: Do you think that Pudge chose to “seek a great perhaps” by going to Culver Creek or was he always going to be sent there because that’s where his dad went?

That’s an interesting question, and it gets into the subtle way that privilege functions throughout the entire novel.

If you’re like most American teenagers and you announce to your parents that you wish to attend boarding school so that you can seek your Great Perhaps,your parents will say, “Yeah, no.” This may be because they don’t want you to leave the house yet; more likely it is because they don’t have 30,000 spare dollars to pay for a year’s tuition and board.

Pudge is privileged in many ways, and what he sees as “seeking a Great Perhaps” other people might see as an expensive lark where he wastes his opportunities by drinking too much wine and not studying enough. And I think it’s fair to assume that if Pudge hadn’t come from this relatively privileged background, he wouldn’t’ve found himself at the Creek. He would’ve had to find a different way to seek his Great Perhaps.

But at its core, your question gets to free will, and to what extent we are governed by our backgrounds and experiences. I can’t answer that question here. I will keep trying to write stories that poke at that question from various angles, though, and hopefully together we’ll learn more about whether the fault is in our stars or in ourselves.

 

Q: So why would there be a boarding school that does not provide at least a window unit to their boarding students in this day and age?

All the things in the book that seem really improbable are just things from my boarding school that I assumed would read as plausible because they had happened.

So, yeah, my boarding school did not (at the time) have AC. Window units were only available if you got a letter from a doctor saying you had asthma.

We were all obsessed with developing asthma, of course. Having asthma seemed like winning the lottery to me.

 

Q: How much of the Culver Creek school was actually true about Indian Springs? 

The dorms are vastly different, and the barn where Alaska and Pudge and Takumi and everyone spend the night is no longer there. The physical campus of Indian Springs is very similar to the physical campus of Culver Creek, and I do think it’s a great place to seek your Great Perhaps. The novel is fictional—although it was inspired in uncountable ways by my high school experiences—but this isn’t: Indian Springs really is a magical place to go to high school. And I continue to be impressed and inspired by the students there.

 

Q: What about Culver Creek is realistic, and what isn’t?

The physical setting of Culver Creek is very, very similar to the physical place where I went to boarding school, Indian Springs School. There’s a lake and an evil swan and a barn and there was an unairconditioned dorm circle when I was a student. (The dorms are now much nicer.) It’s an excellent school. Attending Indian Springs made my life possible, and I am very grateful to the school and its teachers.

 

Q: Are bufriedos real?

Sort of. There was a similar thing at the boarding school I attended called a crispito. A chimichanga is basically a deep-fried burrito. I imagine bufriedos tasting a bit fried-er than chimichangas, but again, the way I imagine things is totally irrelevant because books belong to their readers.

 

Q: Is “bufriedo” pronounced bu-FRY-do or bu-FREE-do?

Well, first let me say that books do not belong to their authors. Books belong to the reader. So you can pronounce bufriedo however you’d like; my pronunciation of it is not inherently better than yours. But now that we’ve got the philosophical question out of the way, I say buh-FREE- doh.

 

Q: Can you explain the significance of the last few sentences?

It is an invocation of hope in the life of the world to come.

 

Q: Can you explain Alaska’s knock-knock joke?

No one gets the knock-knock joke. It was a bad joke, and Julie told me to cut,and I should’ve listened. If they ever give me a chance to release like a “revised and updated” version of the novel, it will be the exact same book only without the goddamned knock-knock joke.

So the joke is: You say, “It’s a knock-knock joke. You start,” and then the person says “Knock Knock,” and then you say, “Who’s there?” and then the person realizes that they’ve been had, that one cannot start a knock-knock joke without knowing the end of the knock-knock joke. So when you say “Who’s there?” the other person has a slight little self-deprecating chuckle over not having realized from the beginning that they were going to end up in this pickle.

I had all kinds of super symbolic reasons for this knock-knock joke about Alaska asking Pudge, “Who’s there?” and Pudge not being able to answer, about his failure to really know Alaska, about how her air of mystery was mostly about his just not being very perceptive, etc. etc., all of which was stupid and irrelevant because no one gets the joke.

Q: Is there significance to the Colonel calling Miles “Miles To Go Halter”?

 Halt Her.

 

Q: Was “from a hundred miles an hour to asleep in a nanosecond” supposed to foreshadow the way Alaska dies?

Yup. I like foreshadowing, because as both a writer and a reader I value anticipation over surprise.

 

Q: Where did you come up with the idea for, “No one can catch the motherfucking fox”?

In high school, I had a friend who would wear a fox hat when breaking rules, and when asked why he was wearing a fox hat, he would always say, “Because no one can catch the motherfucking fox.” 

 

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Q: Why did you decide to use the word disintegrating to describe the school after The Eagle told everyone of Alaska’s death, rather than say falling apart?

These little language choices are really interesting and important to me, and it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about, even though often especially in my early drafts the word choices often aren’t particularly good.

But because I have this uncommonly brilliant and thoughtful editor in Julie Strauss-Gabel, she is always calling word choice to my attention, and wondering whether there might be a more interesting way to say something, etc. What I like about the word disintegration in that moment is that it implies there had been up until then an integration. Pudge had assimilated into the culture of Culver Creek, and although certainly not all the students like each other, there is a feeling of balance and unity and integration: Almost everything that has occurred so far in the story has been either about people living on that campus or visiting it.

There are no outside events at Culver Creek. You only see Jake when he visits. The kids on other basketball teams are only relevant when they come to campus.

There are trips to McDonald’s and Coosa Liquors, but they’re all about Pudge and his fellow students. (In the case of the Coosa Liquors trip, Pudge never even gets out of the car.)

This integrated life is totally destroyed with Alaska’s death, though. She doesn’t even die among them: She dies off campus, away from this integrated world Pudge has created, and so what follows feels like a disintegration. Pudge later uses the phrase “falling apart” to describe the general condition of things in the universe, but in that intensely personal moment, it doesn’t feel like a general falling apart. It feels like his specific, insulated world has disintegrated.

 

Q: Does it bother you that the drizzle/rain quote is used so often?

No, I am totally delighted that people/rain/drizzle/hurricane has become so widely quoted online that an extensive tumblr is devoted to it.

The original line was “If people were precipitation, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane,” but then the brilliant Julie Strauss-Gabel stepped in and improved it, thank God. And then in the last big round of edits, I wanted to cut the line, and Julie was like, “Eh, I think we should keep it in,” and BOY, WAS SHE RIGHT.*

Of course, I hope lots of people read (and buy!) Alaska, and that the p/r/d/q quote is not their only interaction with it, but that little quote has brought a lot of people to the book who otherwise might never have heard of it.

* Julie was also like, “You should really use the word deadpan a bit less often in this novel.” Sadly, I ignored that advice.

 

Q: Was the blow job scene based on something that actually happened?

Right, let’s talk about the blow job. (I am not going to comment on my private sexual life, because…ew. No one wants that.)

The oral sex scene in Looking for Alaska between Lara and Pudge takes place immediately before a far less sexually intimate but far more emotionally intimate encounter between Pudge and Alaska.

The language in the oral sex scene is extremely clinical and distant and unsensual. The word “penis” is used rather than member or hot rod or whatever else you’ll find in romance novels. The adverbs and adjectives that appear in that scene include weird, nervous, and quizzically.

This is in very stark contrast to the scene where Pudge and Alaska kiss a few pages later: “Our tongues dancing back and forth in each other’s mouth until there was no her mouth and my mouth but only our mouths intertwined. She tasted like cigarettes and Mountain Dew and wine and Chap Stick. Her hand came to my face and I felt her soft fingers tracing the line of my jaw.” There’s a lot of evoking of senses in that paragraph (some might argue too much), and it’s much sexier and more passionate than the language used to describe the blow job.

I wanted these two scenes to present a dramatic contrast because I wanted it to be clear 1. that Pudge and Lara were curious about each other, and interested in exploring, but not really that passionate about each other, whereas 2. Alaska and Pudge were clearly very passionate and caring and attentive in the way they kiss, and most importantly that 3. physical intimacy isn’t and can never be an effective substitute for emotional intimacy.

It seemed to me pretty obvious that I was arguing against vapid sexual encounters in which no one has any fun and celebrating the underappreciated virtues of super-hot kissing in which everyone keeps their clothes on. (Some censors, clearly, feel otherwise, although most of them never read the blow job scene in context.)

 

Q: Can you explain the ending of Looking for Alaska?

Well, when I was writing “Alaska,” I wanted the end NOT to give us what we want, which is of course to know whether Alaska’s death was a suicide or an accident. The truth is that in our lives we are all going to encounter questions that should be answered, that deserve to be answered, and yet prove unanswerable. Can we find meaning to life without those answers? Can we find a way to acknowledge the reality (and injustice) of suffering without giving in to hopelessness? Those are the questions I think Miles is confronting at the end, and I wanted to argue that through forgiveness, it is possible to live a full and hopeful life—even if our world is saturated with injustice and loss.

Q: Does the Old Man represent a deity?

Yes, he is often likened by various characters in various ways to a deity, albeita frail one.

 

Q: Did the volcano candle stand for something?

I guess one could read the obvious symbolism of Alaska’s volatility and unpredictability. But the candle is also a reminder that Alaska clearly spends a lot of time by herself, and it is an attempt to build a new thing from a bunch of burnt-up old things, which has some connections to Alaska as a character.