What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: One of your characters claims that Tomorrowland is the worst of the lands in Magic Kingdom. Do you stand by this belief?

I hate all of Disney World equally. I hate every square inch of it, except for

1. The Hall of Presidents, which I merely dislike.


2. The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, which I have mixed feelings about.

Other than that, I hate the whole thing with a fiery unrepentant passion. I grew up in Orlando, so it is my birthright to hate Disney World. The mere phrase “The Magic Kingdom” makes me throw up in my mouth a little.

I for one am glad to have thrown off the oppressive shackles of monarchies in favor of representative government, and I don’t like going back to Disney and having to imagine that I am the subject of a King, particularly when the king in question is a large talking mouse partly responsible for the destruction of reasonable copyright law in the United States.

Q: Do you see your female characters as Manic Pixie Dream Girls?

No, but I’m not a 16-year-old boy.

I mean, I don’t think I romanticize the life of any human being, except maybe Steven Gerrard.

I look at Kristen Stewart or Britney Spears or One Direction or whomever, and mostly I only see the pure terror and misery of never getting to be away from being one’s performed self, which is the problem that Margo Roth Spiegelman has in this novel, although her performed self is played out on a tiny stage.

Paper Towns is a novel about the problem of imagining other people as manic pixie dream girls (or manic pixie dream boys, for that matter). No one IS a manic pixie dream girl; they’re just constructed that way by those observing them.

Q: The novel says that it’s a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person and more than words like “nice,” “smart," etc. How do you think of someone as a human being?

Right, so when you imagine yourself, you think of yourself as a massively complex individual. You may hate yourself or like yourself or whatever, but you certainly think of yourself as fully human. As Whitman puts it, “I contain multitudes.”

The problem is that your brain is the only brain you’ll ever have; your eyes are the only eyes you’ll ever see out of; your experiences are the only experiences you’ll ever know as your own. This is what makes it so easy to dehumanize people—to say, for instance, as Aristotle famously did, that some people are just naturally born to be slaves. But it also makes it easy to dehumanize people in subtler ways. (I’d argue, for instance, that I am able to spend $90 a month on cable television while 2 billion people live on less than $60 a month only because I do not feel those people’s joy and pain and desire as acutely as I feel my own. If I did feel every individual’s need as acutely as I feel my own, I would almost certainly forego cable TV and send that money to those who need it for food and shelter.) But in addition to dehumanizing people, we can also imagine them as more than human: When we think of celebrities, or those we love romantically, we may see this as superhumanly free from the fear and pain and despair that plague the rest of us.

So anyway the task of understanding the reality of other people’s experience is incredibly difficult, because you are stuck being you, and can never even for one second be them. But this is true not only for people who live very different lives from yours, but also for those closest to you. You see everybody in your life in the context of you: YOUR sister, YOUR best friend, YOUR mom, YOUR nemesis, whatever. But they do not see themselves that way. They see themselves as the center of history, just as you see yourself.

This turns out to be a really big problem that (at least in my experience) can only be solved by empathy, an imperfect and incomplete tool (see my $90 monthly cable bill) but the best one we have.  

Q: Radar points out that Q keeps “expecting people not to be themselves.” How do you think this pertains to real friendships and relationships?

It’s very difficult to maintain a friendship with someone who is very similar to you, because the overarching problem is that no one knows what it is like to be you.

When you break your arm, for instance, other people may feel very sorry for you, and they may be very nice and understanding about it, but the only person who experiences the pain and inconvenience of your broken arm is you.

This is a real problem among humans, because we are always trying to get people to listen to us, and we are always failing, because no one can understand my broken arm like I can. I think this is part of what Radar is saying in that conversation, that Q needs to reconcile himself to the fact that when it comes to knowing and loving each other, empathy is an imperfect tool but the only one we have.

Q: Isn’t answering all of these questions contradictory to your stance that books belong to their readers?

It’s all a fine line, because like

1. Authorial intent matters at least SOME, right? If reading a novel is going to be a conversation between the author and the reader, the author’s voice does matter.

But on the other hand, 1a. the author’s only real job is to write the story and leave the rest to readers.

However, 2. It seems to be useful to some readers to be able to ask me questions about intent or inspiration or process, and I’m happy to answer those questions, because it’s also helpful for me to think about intent and inspiration and process.

3. You’re definitely right that all these questions are sort of tangential to the actual business of reading books, because most of reading is about story and emotional involvement and being transported into the lives of others so that you can experience radical empathy and feel more unalone in the world, and while metaphor and symbolism and language choices are all part of that experience, they aren’t the core of it.

Q: You seem particularly interested in road trips. Why?

Well, road trips are a good example of a thing we all do in our real lives that is a metaphorical action.

When you go on a road trip, you are not only hoping that your geography will change: You’re hoping that the literal journey will be accompanied by an emotional or spiritual journey, and that you will come home different. So I think I keep returning to them because as a teenager, road trips were one of the places where metaphor was real and alive and relevant to me. And I like metaphors that are born of life instead of imposed upon a narrative.

Also, from Huck Finn to A Confederacy of Dunces to On the Road, road trips have become one of the most distinctively American symbols. And while I certainly don’t fancy myself an important American writer or anything, I am conscious of being an American writing about the United States, and the idea of lighting out for the territories is a very important one to our national imagination.