What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: Did any of your experiences and memories of Orlando inspire parts of the book?

Dr. Jefferson is based on Dr. Philip Philips, for whom half of Orlando is named. (Dr. Philips had a legit medical degree from Columbia University, though.) I grew up in Audubon Park (on Leu Road) but based Margo and Q’s neighborhood on the Baldwin Park neighborhood, which was built on the site of the old Orlando naval training center.

The naval training center loomed large in my childhood: Many of my friends’ parents worked on the base, and there was this huge fake ship I could see on my drive to middle school that the sailors-to-be used for practice. Of course, it’s completely insane to build a naval training center in Orlando, which is sixty miles from the coast, but something about these real sailors practicing war on this fake ship really appealed to my feeling that everything was phony and inauthentic and ridiculous.

More than Disney World or Universal Studios, that fake ship anchored in the thick grass of central Florida seemed magical, and I am very grateful to have lived near such beautiful folly.

Q: So Bluefin doesn’t actually exist?

That really depends on how you define “actually” and “exist.”

Q: Was Margo Roth Spiegelman in any way a reflection of how you felt when you were her age?

Well, sure, yes.

Like, there is a lot of talk among people about not participating in evil systems and not wanting to be fully integrated into a social order that has a deformed conscience. (We all do this: Almost all of our lives require an underclass. Like, if you drive a car or are often driven around in one, it’s worth remembering that if even half of the world’s population treated cars as Europeans and Americans do, gas prices would be >$10 a gallon and carbon emissions would be insanely high.)

But almost every human being ends up integrating into the social order anyway. A famous example of this is Mark Twain, who wrote about roustabouts and troublemakers and created, in the form of Huck Finn, the greatest rebel in American fiction, a boy who heroically refused the so-called “civilizing” forces of class consciousness and institutionalized racism.

But Mark Twain himself was fully integrated into his social order. He sought wealth and powerful friends and lived in a fancy house, etc.

So of course sitting in my suburban home with my very socially integrated life I am going to fantasize about making the radical choices. But I wanted to make it clear in the novel that the radical choices are not easy and also not easily justified: It’s not at all clear to me that Margo’s choices are more heroic than Quentin’s. I am personally very old-fashioned and pragmatic in my values, and I think very highly of political, economic, and social stability. I think there is a quiet heroism to such stability. But I also think it can be bold and brave to decide to lead a very different life and to pursue goals that the social order doesn’t value.

Q: While reading, I noticed a lot of links to Looking for Alaska.

It was purposeful in the sense that I felt that in many ways I’d failed in Alaska to adequately address the danger of imagining our romantic interests as something more or greater than human.

That said, Alaska isn’t the only story in our culture that struggles to portray women as more than mysterious nymphs who float into the lives of men, change those men for the better, and then float away. This is a widespread trope in contemporary storytelling, and it’s also not specific to women: There is also the more-than-human (usually older, usually physically strong, frequently wealthy) man who swoops in and cares for the awkward, clumsy, just-a-regular-person woman.

Paper Towns was partly by inspired by my desire to respond to those gender constructions, and more generally to the difficulty of imagining others complexly. It seems to me that the central problem of being a person is that it is extremely hard to empathize with other people, and Paper Towns is an exploration of how we learn to empathize, even with people who may be super annoying or make terrible choices.

Q: How did you come up with Q and Margo breaking into Sea World?

I knew a lot of people who broke into Sea World when I was growing up in Orlando.

Q: Did the ending to Paper Towns change over the course of revisions?

Everything in my books is constantly shifting in the first few drafts. So initially the book ended in Kashmir, with an earthquake, in this crazy miniaturized city of sculptures. Then it ended in an amusement park in Iowa.

It took me a while to get to Agloe, and then longer still to realize that Ben and Radar and Lacey needed to go with Q. This inevitably sounds like a quick process when you’re writing a couple paragraphs about it, but this evolution occurred over a few years. I ended up writing the entire road trip over the course of two very long days writing with Maureen Johnson, still the most productive two days of my life. (I wrote 7,000 words, most of which ended up in the book.)

I often think, man if I could just have days like those two back in New York, I could write a book in a month. But…yeah. That’s not how it works for me, sadly.

Q: Where did you get the ideas for Margo’s pranks?

Sarah came up with most of them. Sarah helps a lot with all the intricate plotty stuff that I suck at.

Q: Where did you get your ideas for Margo?

If I was going to identify one person in my life who influenced the character of Margo, it would be my friend Jon. There were a lot of things that went into thinking about Margo—considerations of how we romanticize the people we love, the ceaseless urge that some people feel to get the hell out of their hometowns, how weird it can feel to be popular but not have anyone actually know very much about you, etc.

But I was also thinking a lot about my friend Jon, who just seemed much larger to life than me in high school. Like, he flew to Havana to sell Levi’s blue jeans on the black market when he was sixteen. He hopped on freight trains and rode them out of state to win $10 bets. And then later in life he was arrested in Central Asia on false charges after 9/11, traveled much of the world, started companies in Turkey and China, and so on.

He’s a really fascinating guy, and I think he is just governed by different rules than most people. Things that make most people uncomfortable or scared make Jon excited. And I got to thinking, What if Jon had been a girl, complete with all the weird expectations we place on young women in our society?

And that’s where the character of Margo started, I guess.

Q: When you write, do you ever find yourself laughing at your own jokes?

Not usually, but I laughed at all of Ben’s jokes about his balls. And I laughed about the beer sword.

I laughed at and with Ben a lot when writing Paper Towns, actually, because (for better or worse) Ben is a lot like my high school self.

Q: How did you come up with the opening scene?

Initially, it was a guy falling out of the sky from an airplane, which happens sometimes (usually it’s people stowing away in airplane wheel wells). They were out there playing in Baldwin Park and then a guy fell out of the sky, and the whole novel was about Margo’s search for this guy’s story and his family, etc.

This was the same first draft that involved like tens of thousands of words devoted to the glorious history of the post office box in America. It had a lot of problems.

But then when discussing it with Julie, I came around to the idea that for the event to be really creepy and disturbing in a way that would tie Margo and Q together for the rest of their childhoods, it should be as realistic as possible.

Q: Where did you come up with “honeybunnies”?

I don’t know, but I remember where I was when I wrote that: I was in the basement of Sarah’s parents’ house. I was just imagining Ben’s voice and how overbearing he would be and the word honeybunnies popped into my head.

Q: Did you write Paper Towns at a time in your life when “imagining people complexly” became an important idea to you?

Well, it was important to me when writing Alaska, too, but in the response to that novel it became obvious to me that I hadn’t made my point about imagining people complexly as clearly or forthrightly as I’d wanted to.

(The nature of the story arc in Alaska makes it difficult to give Alaska, as a character, the agency she deserves.)

I also think I was inundated with examples of people imagining their romantic others as more than human. There was at the time the literal example of this in Twilight, but I was also become aware of the way that this romanticization had harmed people in my own life, and all the ways that I’d failed to unmoor myself from my particular point of view.

All writing and reading is really deep down about empathy, so hopefully this has been a consistent theme in my books, but with Paper Towns I really wanted to put it front and center.

Q: Why did you sometimes switch from writing in past tense to writing in present tense?

So when people tell stories, they often switch from past to present tense—sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. Often, they do this because whatever they’re describing in the present tense feels so immediate and unresolved to them that it seems as if it is still happening, even though the events of the story occurred in the past.

So you might tell a story of the time your car hit a deer by saying, “So I was driving down the highway listening to Aerosmith’s new album and then BAM out of nowhere this deer jumps out and destroys my windshield.”

Putting aside the question of why you were listening to the new Aerosmith album, there’s the question of why you changed tenses when telling that story. I think it’s because driving down the highway is something you’re accustomed to and reconciled to and can definitely see as being an event in the past.

But the deer hitting your windshield was so shocking and scary that it feels as if you are still experiencing it, so you tell this part of the story in the present tense.

This happens all the time in regular human conversation, and I wanted to use this to give the reader a sense of immediacy and disquiet when Q switches to the present tense. When he narrates in the present, he’s talking about things that shake him so deeply that he doesn’t feel like they happened; he feels like they are still happening.

Q: Where’d you get the idea for Black Santas?

Well, I will repeat again that books belong to their readers, so you take away from it whatever you want to take away from it, but: When I was growing up I had a girlfriend whose parents had a huge Santa collection, so the possibility was lodged in my brain. I wanted the black Santas because the novel is about how we imagine people (how Q imagines Margo, for instance), places (how Agloe was imagined into existence), and our stories (like Santa). It says a lot about us that we imagine Santa as white (particularly given that St. Nick, on whom Santa is based, looks like this). So Radar’s parents are trying to get us to imagine Santa differently, which is actually (I would argue) pretty important.

Q: What was your inspiration? What compelled you to tell the story?

Well, 1. I wanted to write a mystery. I really like mystery novels, and I wanted to try to write one. Also 2. I was really bothered by the way that I was seeing people idealize (and thereby dehumanize) the people they were romantically interested in. Whether it’s Edward Cullen or the beautiful girl in biology class, I feel like we consistently treat the people we’re infatuated with as if they aren’t regular people but instead something more and better. So I wanted to write a mystery in which the obstacle was ultimately that one character (Quentin) has so profoundly and consistently misimagined another character (Margo) that he can’t find her–not because she’s hard to find but because in a sense he’s looking for the wrong person. And then also 3. I wanted to write a story about Orlando, because I grew up there, and 4. I wanted to write about the weird cartographic phenomenon of Paper Towns, because they’ve interested me ever since I found out about them in college.