What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: At the party when Q goes to talk with Lacey in the bathtub, you describe her as wearing a sleeveless t-shirt. What is a sleeveless t-shirt?

I imagined one of those scoop-necked cotton tops with relatively narrow straps, I think. The pleasure of writing from Q’s perspective is that you don’t need to use particularly precise language when it comes to girl clothes, because what the hell does he know about girl clothes?

Q: In the passage where Q says, “Margo’s beauty was a kind of sealed vessel or perfection – uncracked and uncrackable,” were you intentionally making a point about the way Q views Margo?

Yeah, that was purposeful, but this is a great example of books belonging to their readers and how it doesn’t really matter whether it was purposeful.

Let’s say that I included that by accident—like, in that moment of writing, I just thought of Q thinking of Margo as a sealed vessel.

And then much later in the novel, I happened to have Q and Margo to cracked vessels, and argue that the only way light can get in and out of those vessels is via the cracks.

Let’s just imagine that’s a total coincidence and meant nothing to the author.

It can still be useful and meaningful to us, because it can still be a way into thinking about how imagining people as human (rather than uncracked and uncrackable sealed perfection) proves not only to be more accurate but ultimately a lot more fulfilling.

So that journey—from imagining the other as a sealed vessel to imagining the other as a cracked one—is kind of the journey of adolescence, the journey toward empathy. Intent is irrelevant there. The thing stands on its own. (…if it’s any good, at least.)

Q: What happened after the end of the book?

You guys.

Q: Do you always like to leave a little bit of ambiguity at the end of your novels for the reader to decide?

Well, ambiguity is inherent to writing novels unless you take things to a serious extreme. Like—without spoiling it—you could argue that the very end of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle is unambiguous, but that’s the only novel I can remember reading that doesn’t end with some ambiguity.

Ron and Hermione are married? Okay, but when do they die? When do their children die? When does the world end? Does the world end for wizards and muggles alike or only for wizards? What happens to the house elves? Do they go to war for independence? There are always questions that a reader can ask about what happens after the end of a story; there is always more to tell. For me, that’s one of the pleasures of reading.

I try to leave my characters in a place that is fair to them and fair to the reader. I feel like that’s the best we can do in a world that’s so defined by its unknowns.

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.

and

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.

Q: In many of your books, the main character has a very extroverted best friend. Why do you do this?

Well, I think people who narrate stories tend to be naturally a bit introspective, because the rest of people are busy out, like, living their lives, rather than obsessively trying to chronicle life. This is a very old convention in storytelling, and I certainly didn’t invent it, but it’s always struck me as both enjoyable and authentic.

I did try to play with it a bit more sophisticatedly in TFiOS, where Hazel is making a journey toward that extroverted kind of life and Augustus is making a journey away from it.

Q: Does Dr. Jefferson Jefferson change his name to “Dr.” despite not actually being a doctor because of the whole theme of the novel about people not actually being who they pretend to be?

Well, I wanted to write—as I often do—about the relationship between given identities and chosen identities.

When you’re a teenager, you have to make a lot of decisions about which of your given identities you’re going to hold onto, and which you’re going to abandon. Like, say you were raised going to church every Sunday. Well, to be honest, you probably didn’t have much say in whether you went to church. But at some point, that WILL be your decision, and that identity will shift from given to chosen.

But there are a billion examples of this in adolescence. And I think that’s why we talk so much about being phony or fake and so on: Teenagers are beginning to realize that these identities are very complicated and fluid, and that can make them feel inauthentic.

So if your name is Jefferson Jefferson and then you go to court and have your name changed to Dr. Jefferson Jefferson, with Dr. as your first name, are you a doctor? Of course you’re not. But then you also are a doctor, because everyone calls you doctor and everyone assumes you’re a doctor. You are something to others but not to yourself, which is an experience a lot of us have as teenagers (and afterward, for that matter).

Margo especially goes through this, because the way people think of her is not at all the way she thinks of herself, and the interior life people imagine her having is wildly different from her actual interior life. So I wanted to use Dr. Jefferson Jefferson as a way of beginning that book-long conversation about whether your you-ness is imposed from within or from without.

Q: Why the name “Myrna Mountweazel”?

Myrna because it sounded good with Mountweazel. Mountweazel because of reasons.

Q: Why are all of the streets in Q’s neighborhood named after the same person (Jefferson Road, Jefferson Way, Jefferson Court, etc.)?

It was just meant to indicate the lack of creativity and sameness in the design of Q and Margo’s neighborhood, which is part of what Margo finds so completely unbearable.

Q: Why did you have Radar’s parents collect Black Santas?

When I was growing up I had a girlfriend whose parents had a huge Santa collection, so the possibility of such a thing was already 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 a heterosexual white male (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 and more complexly.

Q: Why is there so much emphasis on Margo’s nail polish?

Well, there are a couple ways you could read it, I guess:

1. Nail polish is this traditionally feminine object, and Q is in many ways seeing this female person primarily as an object throughout must of the novel.

Also, 2. You could think about color and the way colors like black, red, and white are used in the novel, and what then a redblack nail polish color might mean.

Also, 3. You could just choose not to find that stuff very interesting/important.

Or 4. Find some interesting connection to stuff that I can’t find. This is the pleasure of reading: It’s up to you!

Q: Why did you use the names Q, Ben, Radar, and Lacey?

I liked the idea that Margo Roth Spiegelman had this massively polysyllabic name that most people use in its entirety, and that Q’s name was a single letter (and an interrogative one).

Radar: Among all the characters in the book, he is the one with the best sense of where people actually are.

Lacey Pemberton: Just liked the sound of it.

Ben Starling: Just liked the sound of it.

(Of course there may be useful/interesting resonances to these names or any others outside of what I intended, and if so, yay!)

Q: Why was Lacey’s screen name “sackclothandashes”?

It’s a Biblical reference intended to subtly indicate Lacey’s religiosity.

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.”