What kind of question would you like answered?

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.