What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: When you write an eloquent sentence (i.e. “I think the universe is improbably biased (…) in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed”), do you realize that you’re being profound?

I stole that sentiment from a friend who I’m inclined not to identify, because I think she probably does not actually believe that the universe is biased toward consciousness and would be embarrassed to be associated with such an aggressively theological statement.

Anyway, the friend in question never actually said the quote from the book, but she got me close enough to it that it was easy for me to do the rest, so when I was writing that, I mostly just felt like a thief.

But yeah, I am aware that I am fairly good at turning phrases, and I do get a rush out of it. That said, I delete most of them, because they’re usually pretty Encouragement-ey.

Q: Do you think Gus is a heroic character? What about Hazel?

Yes, I think Gus is a hero.

For me, the hero’s journey is not the voyage from weakness to strength. The true hero’s journey is the voyage from strength to weakness.

And to my mind, that makes Gus very heroic, indeed.

Q: Is Gus’s name related to Gus is a Bug?

Total coincidence, but good example of what I was talking about before—how Gus is a little kid’s name and Augustus is an emperor’s name.

Q: Why the name “Augustus Waters”?

Augustus: see above.

Waters: There’s a lot of water in the book. Key moments occur in a city famous for its canals, a city basically that engineers built by pulling away the water, and Hazel is herself a person surviving thanks to doctors pulling away the water in her lungs. (Hazel explicitly makes this connection at one point, calling herself Dr. Maria’s Amsterdam.) Also, water is both a source of nourishment and a potent force of destruction.

Q: “Without pain, could we know joy?”- I’m trying to grasp Hazel’s opinion. She thinks it’s ignorant, and I agree. But aren’t they relative? Why did you give Hazel that view? What is your stance on this?

Well, okay, join me in the following thought experiment: Let us imagine a world without pain, in which everyone is overwhelmingly joyful each moment of their lives.

It is possible that these people wouldn’t call joy “joy,” because it would just be the omnipresent, unshakeable emotional reality. But it would still be joy, in the sense that it would be identical in feeling to our joy, only we have something to contrast joy with.

So pain helps us to define joy, but pain does not create the possibility for joy or allow joy to exist. Joy could exist without pain. We might not have precisely the same relationship with joy, but it would still be there. (Similarly, an awareness of broccoli might make one grateful for the existence of chocolate, but it doesn’t create the taste of chocolate.)

Q: Did you consider Keats or his epitaph when you were writing Gus? Each worries whether or not he will be remembered, and must confront impending mortality. Is Augustus’s name writ in water?

Well, in a lot of ways, Keats was still a kid when he died. To me, he is the romantic poet of innocence (which I mean as a compliment), but the whole idea of “immortal work” is a faulty one. Keats never really recognized this; he genuinely believed that you could write something that could last “forever” and never seemed to consider the nonexistence of forever or the implications of its nonexistence.

But in the end, his loyalty to beauty, his worship of it, his seemingly sincere belief that beauty and truth were the same thing, is what makes his work so powerful to us today.

And it’s true that he would’ve been a better poet if he’d lived, but his name still would have been written in water. All names are written in water, which is what Keats never had to reconcile himself to.

Anyway, that Romantic urge to be remembered and to create immortal work certainly isn’t unique to Keats but that sort of thinking was very much on my mind when I was writing about Gus.

Q: Was Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” considered while writing TFiOS? She discusses the danger of wrapping experiences with illness in myths and symbolism, seeming pretty relevant to the novel.

Yeah, I reread Illness as Metaphor and also her brilliant Regarding the Suffering of Others while writing The Fault in Our Stars. In fact, there were a couple Sontag quotes as epigraphs in earlier drafts.

Sontag was a brilliant public intellectual, and I don’t know of anyone who wrote about suffering with as much thoughtfulness. So, yes, her work definitely shapes the way I think about illness (and metaphor).

Q: Was everything a symbol? Was the swing set actually a swing set? Was Augustus’s prosthetic leg just a prosthetic leg? Were the people actually people or were they symbols like in Lord of the Flies?

The people in the Lord of the Flies are people; just because it’s possible to read them symbolically doesn’t mean they stop being people. (For example, it is possible—and in fact all of us to do this—to read the real people in our actual lives symbolically, to see so-and-so as A Cautionary Tale and what’s-her-name as the Definition of Cool, etc.)

You shouldn’t feel like an idiot. There are more than one ways to read a good story, and my first job as a writer is to write something you’ll enjoy reading. I hope that I also write something that holds up to critical reading; i.e., the deeper you look, the more you will be rewarded for looking, and the more you will be able to see into questions that are hopefully interesting and important.

To repeat something I’ve said again and again, the writer’s intention is irrelevant. So you decide whether the swing set is just a swing set; you decide whether Augustus’s prosthetic leg is just a prosthetic leg. Whether the author intended a symbol or a theme or whatever is irrelevant; if you find that it aids you in your observation and interrogation of the universe, then it succeeds regardless of authorial intent.

I’d argue this is the case with Lord of the Flies, too: It’s a fun adventure story, and also a very sad one, but the more you think about it, the richer and more interesting it becomes.

Q: Scrambled eggs are supposed to be a metaphor? I thought it was reasonable to think food is discriminated against by the time of day that it’s eaten. I’ve been trying to tell my parents that forever!

Right, but I would submit that you have been telling your parents that as a metaphor. (That something can be read metaphorically does not make it untrue or less valid.)

The reason that you and I both find it unfortunate that some foods are discriminated against by time of day is not just about food; it’s also about our values we’ve inherited regarding equality and fairness and this particular view of justice that we share with other people who do not ghettoize scrambled eggs.

You cannot separate metaphor from reality. Metaphor is part of reality. Metaphor is an exploration of the nature of reality.

Q: If the cigarette metaphor means Augustus controls his own life, does the scene where he buys cigarettes foreshadow his death? Since he no longer has control over his health?

Well, the feeling of control is always an illusion, but it’s a pretty easy illusion to cling to while you are well, right? That’s why people say things like, “I am going to the mall tomorrow,” when what they actually mean is, “I hope to go to the mall tomorrow, but I might die before then or experience a Major Life Event that prevents me from going to the mall.”

Gus very much wants to cling to this feeling of power over his illness, but he can’t. The circle of what you can do with your life inevitably begins to close, whether at 16 or 116.

That’s why to me the hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness. Gus must reconcile himself to the world as it is, and still find meaning and hope in that life, instead of being able to hold onto (as we almost all do almost all the time) a false sense of power and autonomy.

Q: Was there a reason that you chose your hometown as the setting for TFIOS?

My best friend Chris just read The Hunger Games, and he was like, “I really loved the world-building in that book. Panem just felt so real, you know?”

And I was like, “Yeah, I totally agree.”

And then he said, “I mean, the worldbuilding in your books feels real, too, but you just have stuff happen at, like, the Speedway at 86th and Ditch.”

I wrote about Indianapolis partly because I know Indianapolis, and I wanted to ground the story in a place I know and love. But there were other reasons, including:

1. Indianapolis is a very typical, very American city. This is a stark contrast to Amsterdam, a city that lights up the romantic imagination with images of canal boats and the red light district.

2. Indianapolis, like Amsterdam, is a canal city. They are both places that live amid water, just like Hazel does.

Q: Why did you choose an Episcopal church?

Well, 1. I am Episcopalian, so I could picture the church, because I’ve been in churches like that a lot (and in fact the church at my college looks very much like the church in the book), and 2. there aren’t that many cruciform churches in the United States, and they tend to be either Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, or Episcopalian, and I suppose I’m just biased.

Q: Why Anne Frank’s house?

It’s a sacred space, but it’s important to remember that real people lived there. Our usual way of honoring the dead–by freezing them in time and mythologizing them, by building the marble statues Shakespeare rails against in that sonnet–that’s not Hazel and Augustus’s way of honoring the dead. As Hazel notes, Anne Frank made out with a boy in the Anne Frank house. I think Hazel wants (and I wanted) to reclaim that sacred space for doomed people who are nonetheless still alive, and still full of desire.

Q: It seemed to me that Van Houten was a metaphor for God. Why is the Dutch Tulip Man a metaphor for God, rather than Van Houten?

Well, I don’t think these ideas are mutually exclusive. Van Houten imagines the Dutch Tulip Man as a metaphor for God, and the way Hazel and Gus talk about the Dutch Tulip Man reflects something about how the characters think about/imagine God: Is God (or the Dutch Tulip Man) a con man, a kind but powerless benevolence, a savior, a mirage, or what?

But that noted, Van Houten is definitely a metaphor (or at least a stand-in) for God (or at least some kind of prophet) to Hazel. Hazel actually makes this explicit a couple times, saying for instance that An Imperial Affliction is as close a thing as she has to a Bible.

Q: You used Amsterdam as a setting because of the water metaphor. Is there a reason you chose it rather than another water-dependent city, such as Venice?

Well, Venice is not really a city anymore, to be honest with you. Fewer than 60,000 people live there, and while it still hosts important events like the Venice Bienale, it is primarily a tourist destination. It’s very different from a city like Amsterdam, which has a million people, a very good soccer team, and a present-tense vitality that Venice just lacks.


Q: Why Amsterdam?

1. Drowning city; drowning girl. (Hazel makes this explicit at one point, saying that she feels like Dr. Maria’s Amsterdam.)

2. Indianapolis and Amsterdam are both canal cities, but in our imagination, they’re total opposites: Amsterdam is a city of romance and freedom and debauchery; Indianapolis is a midwestern city of straight-laced worker bees living in suburbs. Hazel romanticizes Amsterdam as much as she romanticizes Van Houten, and I needed her to want to be in some place radically different from Indianapolis.

3. Anne Frank.

Q: In the epigraph, you quote An Imperial Affliction, which isn’t a real book, just like F. Scott Fitzgerald quoted a made up poem in the epigraph of The Great Gatsby. Was this on purpose? Why?

Yes, it was on purpose.

1. I thought it would be funny.

2. I wanted to create in the reader that uncomfortable, excited feeling that she is on somewhat unstable ground, entering a story that seems to believe in the existence and importance of fictional stories.

3. I wanted to make a nod to my old, dear friend Gatsby.

Q: Can you explain the cigarette metaphor? And the implications of having a character so concerned with metaphor and grand romantic images over the reality of their lives?

Right, so there are a lot of ways to answer this question, I think.

The very straightforward way: If you think of symbols as “enchanted objects,” Augustus associates the unlit cigarette with taking control over his health, which often feels (and is!) out of his control. So he puts the killing thing in his mouth but denies it the power to kill him.

The less straightforward way: Augustus is a very performed character, right? He delivers monologues, for God’s sake. He’s one of those kids who is super self-conscious and always assumes that people are watching him and/or listening very closely to him. So this is one of the ways that we see him performing the role of Augustus Waters instead of just being authentically himself. (This changes over the course of the novel; even though he clings to the IDEA of the cigarettes to the very end, it’s worth remembering that he never actually GETS them in that scene at the Speedway.)

There are even less straightforward, metafictional ways to read Gus’s obsession with symbol and metaphor (like, he’s a character in a novel that’s about how fiction is important and ‘real’ even though it is made up and not real, etc.), but I find that stuff a bit much, personally.