What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: What titles did you consider before coming up with “Paper Towns”?

More Light Than Heat. I was really in love with that one for a long time. (Shakespeare)

Love Loves to Love Love. I thought that one was a hot slice of clever. (Joyce)

The Life and Hard Times of Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Chasing Margo. This ended up being the German title.

Margo Roth Spiegelman: An Incomplete Life


They were all more pretentious than Paper Towns. I come up with like 1,000 titles, and then Sarah and Julie laugh at me for my pretentiousness and we try to settle on the least pretentious title. I don’t know how I ever got The Fault in Our Stars past their pretention detectors.

Q: Have you ever thought about turning one of your novels into sequels?

I certainly don’t have any plans to write sequels. It would be hard to take up any of the characters from any of my books again (except maybe Hassan from Katherines) just because I don’t know that I could ever get their voices back into my head to my satisfaction.

I’m not going to say a flat no to this question, because some day I might have an idea I like or I’ll need money or something, but one of the big pleasures of writing for me is being done.

Q: Fear seems to be a concept that comes up often in Paper Towns. Do you think of this more as a characterization emphasizing Q’s anxiety or a recurring theme in the story throughout?

Well, Q is a very anxious person, and his life is circumscribed by that anxiety, but not always in unhealthy ways.

More generally, I was really interested in thinking about the ways that fear works—all the ways in which it can be helpful, and also all the ways in which it can be destructive. And I also wanted to think similarly about fearlessness.

When I was writing the book, I kept thinking of a conversation I had with my high school best friend, who was extremely ambitious and bright and also somewhat poor. We were at McDonald’s, and I was talking about going out that night and trying to meet up with this girl I liked, and Todd was like, “I’m gonna stay home and do some work.”

And I told him, “Carpe diem,” and he said, “If I only think about maximizing the pleasure of today, how am I ever going to get into med school?”

So you could argue that I was being bold and fearless* and that Todd was being ruled by his fear of poverty or failure or whatever. But the truth is a lot more complicated than that, and I wanted to explore that stuff.

* You could also argue that I was being fearful by not applying myself as completely as I could to my studies, for fear that my best still wouldn’t be very good.

Q: Which cover of Paper Towns do you prefer?

The one with the map on it. I don’t like covers with human faces on them, as a rule.

Q: Can you explain the title?

Sure. The phrase “Paper Towns” is used in three different ways in the three different parts of the novel.

In the first part, “The Strings,” Margo and Q use the phrase “paper town” to refer to Orlando, and Margo calls it a “paper town” because it’s flimsy and planned—from above, Orlando looks very much like a city that someone built out of origami or something. But of course what Margo’s REALLY doing by using this phrase is giving Q a clue. She’s doing a lot of things that night that he misreads, and this is one of them.

In the second part, “The Grass,” Q discovers a new meaning for “paper towns.” He learns that they can refer to subdivisions that were started and then abandoned—subdivisions that exist on paper but not (entirely) in real life. These abandoned subdivisions are pretty common in Florida.

In the final part, “The Vessel,” Q learns a third meaning of “paper towns,” this weird cartographic phenomena wherein mapmakers will insert fake places (called copyright traps or paper towns) onto their maps to make sure no one is copying their maps. It is through this that he eventually finds Agloe, a town that was fake but then made real by virtue of having been put on a map, and in doing so finds Margo.

Basically, I wanted a different definition of “paper towns” for each section of the book, each representing a different way of his imagining Margo. In the first part, he’s viewing Margo very one-dimensionally. She’s paper-thin to him; she is nothing but the object of his affection. In the second part, he’s seeing a girl who’s half there and half not—so he’s thinking about her with more complexity but still not really thinking of her as a human being. In the final part of the novel, his complex imagining reconnects him to her, albeit not in the way he might’ve hoped.

Q: Is Agloe pronounced like Aglow or like AGG-low?

I suspect if I say one more time that books belong to their readers you will potentially punch me in the face, but books belong to their readers. Never has this been more true than in the example of Agloe, which I didn’t even invent. (I’ve never heard any cartographer familiar with the story say Agloe out loud, so I don’t know how they say it, either.) I happen to say it AGG-low; my lovely editor Julie Strauss-Gabel happens to say it Aglow. It’s up to you!

Q: Is there going to be a movie?

The movie was released on July 24, 2015. Paper Towns is directed by Jake Schreier and stars Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, and Jaz Sinclair.

Q: Why was Radar so obsessed with fixing Omnictionary?

Well, Radar really values knowledge and empathy and understanding. And the whole project of Wikipedia (or omnictionary) is a battle between those who seek to inform the world and preserve knowledge, and those who seek to destroy knowledge and spread disinformation.

(This is why I oppose Wikipedia vandalism—even very clever Wikipedia vandalism like Margo’s.)

So I wanted him to be a committed omnictionary editor because I wanted him to be someone who stands for knowledge and understanding and balance and fairness and all the values that well-curated wikis celebrate.

Q: Why wasn’t Q in band with Radar and Ben?

I liked the idea that he really had no built-in social network (in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase), that he was friends with Ben and Radar but separated from them for large swaths of time while they were doing band stuff. I needed Q to be isolated because I needed him to see himself in Margo when she talked about her own feelings of social isolation. Instead of actually hearing her when she’s talking, all he’s seeing is himself reflected back, which of course makes him think that he and Margo are perfect for each other.

Q: Isn’t it pretty selfish for Q to skip graduation for someone that only paid attention to him once?

I mean, bear in mind that he thinks this girl is going to die.

If I were like, “You can either go to your graduate or potentially keep someone from dying,” you would probably choose the latter, whether you knew the person or not.

Furthermore, it all feeds his (wrong-headed) notion of knight-in-shining-armor-saving-damsel-in-distress heroism, which in Q’s defense is so widely and deeply celebrated in our culture that it would take superhuman effort to escape it.

Q: If Margo is so concerned about fairly capitalizing all words, why doesn’t she capitalize letters in the middle of words?

I think she is concerned about the words, not the letters. Maybe I should’ve had her be concerned about the letters. That would’ve been a little more metaphorically resonant.


Q: Well, she says herself that she feels like traditional rules of capitalization are unfair to the words in the middle.

Well, she says herself that she feels like traditional rules of capitalization are unfair to the words in the middle. Margo is super concerned with the way that people’s conformity and lack of intellectual curiosity makes life less interesting than it ought to be, and this seemed like a good (and very teenage) expression of her concern.

(That said, there are very good reasons why we do not capitalize random words in the middle of sentences.)

Q: Is Margo supposed to be Jewish?

This is one of those, “God I wrote that book so long ago” questions. I assumed that Margo and Q were both Jewish, but if it is not explicitly stated as such in the text, then my assumptions should be irrelevant. (I thought it was in the text at one point? But maybe not? I don’t know. God I wrote that book so long ago.)

“After writing this answer, someone on tumblr mentioned that she uses her Bat Mitzvah money for her escapades, so she IS Jewish!”

A. Aha! So she IS Jewish!

Q: Can you explain the significance of Margo’s name?

Margo’s name has go in it; I guess that’s probably the reason I chose it. Her last name, Spiegelman, means “mirror maker” in German—like, the guy in the German villages who made the mirrors was the spiegelman. And Margo functions as a mirror to the other characters in the novel: What they see when they look at Margo ends up saying a lot more about them than it says about Margo herself.

Roth once meant red in German, and I wanted to give Margo (in the subtlest way possible since I have a color name and I didn’t want people connecting her to me) a color name, because so much of the imagery in the novel is either black (black Santas) or white (the great white wall of cow).

The black things in the novel tend to be expressions of how human endow things with meaning, whether well or poorly; the white things tend to be things that are menacingly void of meaning and totally apathetic to us (the walls of the school, the cow).

Q: Is the reader supposed to like Margo?

I don’t really think characters need to be likable for stories to be worth reading.

To quote myself: “I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books a supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of crating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.”

Did I intend Margo to be likable? I intended her to be complex. I wanted her to be someone the reader could learn to empathize with, someone who makes very different decisions from most of us but whose decisions have a kind of internal consistency and integrity that makes them morally defensible. (She can of course be very shallow and selfish, but I would argue that basically all of us are shallow and selfish.)

Mostly, I wanted the reader to be conscious that they are only seeing Margo through Q’s eyes, and that Q—at least for much of the novel—knows absolutely nothing about the girl he says he loves.

Q: Are the pins and q-tips Quentin finds in the desk at the abandoned mall a reference to “Cotton” by the Mountain Goats?

I was conscious of the reference, yes.

Q: Was the reference to Moby Dick related to Q? Can you answer the English teacher’s question of whether Ahab (or Q) was tragically heroic or just an obsessed madman?

Yeah, I wanted Ahab’s obsession with the whale to mirror Q’s obsession with Margo, but I wanted to make that connection in part so that it would be very clear that Q’s obsession with Margo is inherently objectifying. He’s not seeing her as a person. He’s seeing her as Ahab saw the whale.

As for the English teacher’s question, I think Q finds a hero’s journey, but I don’t think he starts off on one.

I think Ahab is a tragic hero, but that’s easy for me to say, as I was not a sailor aboard the Pequod.

Q: What is the beer sword a metaphor for?

Well, it’s an extremely phallic object physically inseparable from a male adolescent, so it could probably be read as having some things to say about intertwining mythologizing of alcohol and masculinity.

Or it could just be a beer sword. Up to the reader, as usual.

Q: Where did the strings metaphor come from?

Someone said it to me once, after a friend had attempted suicide, that “maybe all the strings inside him broke,” and I liked that image a lot because 1. puppets, and 2. We are all aware that there is this emotional/psychological life inside of us, right? But it’s very difficult to talk about, because it doesn’t have a physical location.

When your back hurts, it’s relatively easy to address this problem using language: You say, “My back hurts,” and I can understand what you mean, because I also have a back, and it has hurt before, and I remember that pain, which makes it easier for me to empathize with you.

It is much harder for me to empathize with you if what hurts is abstract. When people are imagining sadness or despair, they often try to render it in terms we find familiar. You often hear, “My heart hurts,” for instance, or “My heart is broken.” This problem, of course, is not actually in the heart.

(I do think a lot of people feel emotional pain physically near the solar plexus, but it’s not the physical manifestation of emotional pain that makes it so difficult: It’s the emotional/psychological/spiritual/whatever pain itself, which you can’t describe easily in concrete terms.)

To talk about emotional pain (and lots of other emotional experiences), we are forced to use abstractions. (“My heart is broken,” is a symbolic statement.) And many people feel, in this world driven by data and statistics and concreteness, that abstractions are inherently kind of less valid than concrete observations. But emotional experience is as real and as valid as physical experience. And the fact that we have to use metaphor and symbolism to describe that pain effectively does not make it less real—just as abstract paintings are not inherently inferior to representational paintings.

You often hear in high school English classes, for instance, that thinking about symbols is dumb or useless or “ruining the book.” But underneath it all, this is why we have language in the first place. We don’t really need language to share the news of your back pain: You can point at your back and grimace to tell me that your back hurts, and I can nod sympathetically.

But to explain to you the nature and nuance of my grief or pain or joy, I need abstractions. I need symbols. And the better our symbols are, the more clearly we’ll be able to communicate with each other, and the more fully we’ll be able to imagine each other’s experience. Good symbolism makes empathy easier.

So why the strings? The strings inside a person breaking struck me as a better and more accurate abstract description of despair than anthropomorphized symbols (broken heart, etc.).

And this is very important to remember when reading or writing or painting or talking or whatever: You are never, ever choosing whether to use symbols. You are choosing which symbols to use.

Q: Some of the metaphors you used (strings, grass, vessel) seem to be very straightforward. Was this because you were writing for young adults?

I never think about the fact that I’m writing YA, or think of my audience as less intelligent than any other people. (I don’t really think adults are smarter than teens. In some ways, because teenagers are reading critically for classes on a daily basis, they have a leg up when it comes to certain kinds of reading.)

There are plenty of metaphors in Paper Towns that are less straightforward than the strings, the grass, and the vessel. But I wanted Q to be conscious of the way metaphor was interfering in his actual life—like, that metaphor and symbolism are not mere literary constructs. They’re human constructs, like most kinds of meaning. When you say, “If I hit this free throw, that girl I like will want to go out with me,” that’s a kind of symbolic thinking. When you look at a lone tree in a huge corn field and imagine it to be lonely, that’s metaphor working in your life.

The metaphors that you mention more from concrete to abstract, right? “The strings” is something Margo says, something that is placed verbally in front of him. “The grass” is slightly more abstract, because it’s something he reads. He has to translate the symbols on the page into ideas. “The vessel” is still more abstract, because Q and Margo themselves construct it together to help them understand their feelings and experiences.

This movement toward abstraction in symbolic thinking is (I think) a big part of adolescence, and I wanted to try to reflect that in the novel. That said, I didn’t want them to burden the novel. I wanted it to be fun to read, etc. I mean, we are talking about a book with a lot of “world’s largest balls” jokes, after all.