What kind of question would you like answered?

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: Were you aware of the last phrase of Ulysses while writing the last line of TFiOS?


Q: How did you come up with the idea that Hazel and Gus were in a shared third space while they were talking on the phone?

The idea of the third space was stolen from the brilliant artist Joshua Mosley. He mentioned it in a talk he gave while introducing a new artwork.

Q: There are references to the poem “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” on pages 18 and 274, as well as the title of An Imperial Affliction. How did you decide to use this poem?

I read Emily Dickinson’s collected poems when I was in college, and of course that is one of her most beloved poems. (That said, like a lot of her poetry, it suffers from this kind of failure to make up its mind in re. faith and fate and so on, which I generally see as kind of a weakness in her work, but in that particular poem it really works for me.)

Q: Can you elaborate on which of David Foster Wallace’s ideas you used in TFIOS?

Well, to the extent that An Imperial Affliction exists, it is similar in some ways to Infinite Jest. (The first line of AIA, for instance, which is something like “My mother’s glass eye turned inwards,” can be read as a quiet reference to the IJ character Nell Gunther, whose glass eye often faces inward. This idea—of the unseeing eye turned not out toward the world but into the self—is a really beautiful symbol, and always struck with me.) Previous drafts of TFiOS made the connection between AIA and IJ must more explicit (for instance, they had the same last sentence), but that stuff got stripped away as the role AIA played in the novel changed.

Mostly, though, I was influenced by Wallace’s famous commencement address at Kenyon College and to a lesser extent by some of the passages in The Pale King, where Wallace extolls the many virtues of noticing and the daily business of paying attention, which Hazel comes to believe is the core responsibility and privilege of being a person.

Q: Have you read David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More? Because it verbatim says that it’s possible for some infinities to be larger than other infinities.

Yeah, I reviewed Everything and More in Booklist Magazine when it was first published, and I was really fascinated by the book—although the math confused me, partly because some of it turns out to be wrong/oversimplified.

I wanted An Imperial Affliction and generally some of PVH’s thinking to resemble some of DFW’s thinking, although obviously DFW was not an alcoholic and not (at least so far as I know) cruel to his teenage readers. But the relationship that Hazel has to AIA is similar in a lot of ways to the relationship I had with Infinite Jest (which in college I basically believed to be, like, scripture) and certainly DFW’s arguments re. attentiveness and focus and the pleasure/significance/responsibility of observation were very important to me and to this book.

So, yes, I borrowed a lot from his work, definitely.

Q: Do you think Prufrock’s hesitance to disturb the universe is similar to Hazel’s walking lightly? Were you trying to show the heroic side of this versus the feeling of cowardice portrayed by Eliot?

Yes and yes.

Q: What made you choose “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for Hazel to recite?

I picked “Prufrock” because A. a lot of teenagers have memorized it, and B. it has drowning in it, and C. it is concerned with what Eliot famously called “an overwhelming question.”

Q: Is there a meaning behind “The Hectic Glow”?

In a journal entry, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Decay and disease are often beautiful, like the pearly tear of the shellfish or the hectic glow of consumption.” (People with tuberculosis get reddened cheeks—a hectic glow.)

There were two things I really liked about this: first, the problematic (but not totally untrue) statement that disease is beautiful/attractive, and second, that Thoreau would write this about consumption, a disease that was famously capricious and mysterious: It attacked the young and the old. Sometimes it killed you and sometimes it didn’t. Treatment was brutal and ghastly and socially isolating. In short, the way people in the 19th century experienced and thought about consumption was similar in a lot of ways to the way we think about cancer today.

In earlier drafts of the book, there was a lot more stuff about lung functioning and tuberculosis and blah blah blah it was really boring, and back then I wanted to call the book itself The Hectic Glow, but in the end we decided A. it wasn’t the right title for the book, and B. it’s pretty hard to say out loud if you’re trying to recommend it to a friend, so we went in a different direction.

But I liked it too much to let it go all the way. Hence the band name.

Q: Were the references to The Great Gatsby in this novel intentional? Like, Isaac’s “disembodied eyes,” the green light in Amsterdam, etc.?

Yeah. Also the green car that looks like all the hopes that we were foolish to hope, etc. (But again, just because I intended it doesn’t make it more or less useful/real/whatever.)

Q: Why did you mention the Red Wheelbarrow?

Just a really good poem about the pleasure and importance of observing the universe.

Q: What inspired you to include a reference to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five?

I didn’t really think of it as a reference to Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut didn’t invent the sentence “so it goes,” although he did invent pairing it with death. I didn’t do the Vonnegutian thing of announcing a character’s death and then following it up immediately with “So it goes,” so I didn’t think of it in that directly referential way.

Vonnegut was playing with something that predated his book: our ability to express in a very short sentence the universe’s disinterest in us. I was trying to get at something similar, I guess.