What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: It seems like there’s a symbolic reason behind most things in this book. Is that just the way you write or did you specifically choose to write TFiOS in this way? Why?

Well, I always want to write books that stand up to re-reading, but to be clear, there’s more than one good way to read a book. The great thing about figurative language and symbols and the like in novels is that you don’t have to be conscious of them for them to work.

Like, let’s say you read The Catcher in the Rye and somehow your English teacher doesn’t tell you about the red hunting cap, and so you read the whole damn novel without ever thinking much one way or the other about this hat Holden keeps putting on and taking off.

Even if you haven’t thought about any of this consciously at all, there’s still a pretty good chance that something inside you will break open when Phoebe puts the hat on Holden at the end of the book, because it’s such a small and kind and humane gesture. And maybe if you’re heavily invested in the red hunting cap, that moment will hit you harder, but it will hit you regardless.

But the red hunting cap isn’t what makes Catcher good, and if TFiOS is good, it isn’t because of any symbols or metaphors in isolation. Catcher is a great book because it lets you see the world out of someone else’s eyes; it gives you the rare opportunity to escape the prison of your consciousness and imagine in a big and complex and generous way what it would be like to be Holden Caulfield. All the language in the novel exists to make your experience of Holden’s life richer and more compelling and more real.

Q: How did the birth of Henry during the writing process affect TFiOS regarding your worldview of parents/children/humanity?

I couldn’t write the book until I understood that the love between a parent and child (like many other kinds of love) is literally stronger than death: As long as either person survives, the relationship survives.

So my grandmother may be dead, but she is still my grandmother. Augustus may be dead, but he is still the great star-crossed love of Hazel’s life.

I didn’t really understand that until I got to know Henry.

Q: Did your time as a chaplain and your interactions with Esther contribute to your honest portrayal of the mindset associated with illness? What were the other sources? What about the medical details?

The time I spent as a chaplain was very helpful, because I got to know a lot of different people with many different kinds of cancer. But for the first several years after my months as a chaplain, all the writing I tried to do about illness was terrible.

So I do think knowing and caring about Esther was probably the most important thing in terms of thinking about the mindsets and emotional realities of chronic illness. I also talked a lot to families of people with cancer and I read a lot of books about cancer, which were extremely helpful. But if I hadn’t known Esther, I never would have written The Fault in Our Stars. I might’ve eventually finished a book about adolescent illness of some kind, but it wouldn’t have been this one.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the story? Do you see yourself as Patrick?

I do see myself as Patrick-like in a lot of ways, yes. Also PVH. Also Hazel’s dad, I guess. I identify personally closer with the (male) adults in the novel than the teenagers, I guess.

Q: Was TFIOS edited from the content you created from NaNoWriMo a few years back?

No. Everything I wrote for NaNoWriMo was about a zombie apocalypse caused by corn monoculture.

Q: Did you have any second thoughts about the way in which you described the degeneration of Augustus’s health in his final days?

Well, I didn’t want to bullshit the reader, but I also didn’t want to be gratuitous about it. I left the worst of it off the page, I guess, but I don’t really regret that. You might be asking whether I regret being so explicit, in which case the answer is definitely not. Our literature has enough novels that glorify suffering as transcendently beautiful.

Q: Is it hard for you to kill a character? How do you go about doing that and how do you know it’s the right thing to do as opposed to gratuitous hurt for the characters?

1. I don’t feel like I’m killing anyone. The person is dying, and that sucks, but I don’t feel responsible for it any more than I feel responsible when a friend in real life dies.

2. With TFiOS, for me, there is no book without death. You cannot meaningfully confront the universe’s indifference to us without seeing the horrific suffering and injustice and awfulness of what really happens to real people who do not deserve to suffer and die. When writing the novel (and really throughout my writing career), I was very angry about this, very angry that people die for no good reason, and very dissatisfied with all the flimsy, Encouragement-y things that people say in the wake of such tragedies. So honestly, I wasn’t trying to make you feel anything gratuitous; I just could think of no other way to lay bare the absolute hideousness of living in a world where parents have to bury their children. And we live in that world, humans have always lived in that world, and always will.

3. The challenge—and this is not just a challenge when writing a novel but also when, like, trying to get out of bed every day—is to acknowledge these truth and still live a hopeful, productive life. Are the only options 1. lying to yourself or 2. nihilism? I believe not. I believe there is great beauty and meaning to be found and constructed in this life, but we must find and construct that meaning in this world, and to do that, we must be honest about this world.

Q: Why do you refer to TFIOS as a “problem” that you’re glad to be done with? Why were you so ready to be done with it?

I mean, for ten years of my life, I tried to write this book and it taunted me and it sucked and it kept sucking and nothing I could do for years and years made it suck less, and then finally I was given a way into it and I worked very hard to make it the best book that I could possibly make it, but books will always be a collaboration between reader and writer, and at some point I have to stop doing my job so I can start letting you do your job.

I mean that a book is a problem in that it is composed out of meaningless scratches on a page that must be translated into ideas that live inside your head, and you use a set of skills (literacy, critical thinking, etc.) to make that happen. I don’t mean that it is an UNFORTUNATE problem; I just mean that it is a thing that has to be created by both of us, like a crossword puzzle or something.

Q: What did Hank say when he first read TFIOS?

Honestly, I think he said that he thought it was going to change my life a lot and that I didn’t really know what I was getting into. (That proved prophetic, as Hank usually does.)

And then he told me that I had to keep making vlogbrothers videos no matter what.

Q: Does Sarah like the book?

She does like it, yeah. It’s her favorite of my books, I think.

Q: How much of TFIOS came from Sarah? Did she help you a lot in writing?

Sarah, did you submit a question anonymously?

Sarah helped in every possible way; it is impossible to list or even verbalize all the ways she shaped the book through her readings of it, our conversations, our life together, etc.

Q: You said that TFIOS was once a very different book. What was it like? Was it always about two kids with cancer?

It was about like a dozen kids with cancer who created a club called the Dead Person’s Society in a cave (ridiculous) near the children’s hospital (doubly ridiculous) and they’d sneak out of the hospital together and visit the cave and convene the DPS (triply ridiculous).

It was basically a very flimsy, high-concept way of allowing me to think through my own thoughts and angers about death and suffering and so on. It was not good.

Q: You said in a Tumblr post that some of your favorite parts of your desert island story ended up in TFIOS. What are these parts?

I wrote like 40,000 words of the desert island story and the only things I really liked were:

1. The sentence, “It was kind of a beautiful day.”


2. This rant about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its weird, paternalistic, imperialist insistence that humans cannot be fully human when they are sick or deprived of necessities, when in fact the truth is that humanness is always transformed by whatever we are in want of, and we are always in want of something.


3. A shoe-shopping flashback.

All three of these things ended up in TFiOS in one form or another.

Q: What portion of the novel did you enjoy writing the most?

The beginning was really fun to write—Hazel making fun of Patrick and all that. I’m kind of a Patrick in real life, and I’m very conscious of it: Like, it’s super easy to make fun of me for being this hugely earnest Internet persona, and I guess I am really narcissistic because I really enjoy making fun of myself in fiction.  (See also, Peter Van Houten.)

Q: In Augustus’s first heroic death in pixel form, he covers the grenade to prevent the blast from harming the school children. Later, Hazel refers to herself as a grenade. Was this a coincidence?

I was conscious of that connection when writing, yes. I wrote the video game scene in a very early draft of the novel, years and years ago, and then the first time Hazel imagines herself as a grenade appeared in revisions (probably in early 2011? I think before we went to Amsterdam), and I got the idea from the earlier scene.

Whether it’s a coincidence in the story is up to the reader to decide, I guess?

Q: How much of Esther went into the novel? What parts were specifically inspired by her? Did she ever get to see parts of it before she died?

Esther did not see any of the book before she died. (It did not feature a character named Hazel with thyroid cancer when she died, either. It was a vastly different story.)

So much of the story was inspired by her and my friendship with her and my affection for her family and friends, but I didn’t take very many specific things (except for superficial stuff like the oxygen and whatnot).

What inspired me most was Esther’s unusual mix of teenagerness and empathy: She was a very outwardly focused person, very conscious of and attentive to her friends and family. But she was also silly and funny and totally normal. And in our conversations about heroism and strength or whatever, she was very conscious of cliches (many of which I threw at her) but mostly unconvinced by them.

I just really liked Esther. That was maybe the biggest thing. I really liked her, and I was really pissed off after she died, and I had to write my way through it, because I was desperately looking for some hope in it. (I am still pretty pissed off about it, for the record.)

All that said, I really don’t want to seem to be appropriating Esther’s story, which belongs to her and to her family and not to me. Hazel is a fictional character, and she is in many important ways very different from the person Esther was.

Q: Have you ever had a similar experience to Van Houten’s in terms of meeting a fan, like Hazel, who was frustrated that you couldn’t give her the answers she was looking for?

Yes, this happens all the time. It happens a lot with Looking for Alaska, and now it is happening even more with TFiOS, which surprises me, because I did not think the ending of TFiOS was particularly ambiguous. (To be fair, I have a pretty high tolerance for ambiguity, I guess.)

I understand the impulse, I guess, particularly since many contemporary readers have read a lot of book series, which leave cliffhanger after cliffhanger before wrapping things up with some marriages and crazily named children.

But I genuinely feel unqualified to tell you what happens after the end of the book, and to make something up—as Van Houten briefly attempts to—feels really disingenuous.

In general, I personally agree with a lot of what Van Houten says in the novel. He’s like a drunk, dickish version of myself, basically.

Q: When you were writing TFIOS, did you also switch from calling him Augustus to calling him Gus? Do you see him as the boy he was at the end rather than the manic pixie dream boy at the beginning?

Well, you have to remember that at the time of answering this question I am 34, so the bravura performances of teenagers do not impress me in quite the same way that they did when I was 16.

(Also, I was writing a novel, and I was very conscious that I was writing a novel. I am not one of those writers who believes that, like, the book is writing itself or that God is telling me which words to write down or whatever.)

So I always saw Gus as fragile and frail, even at the beginning of the book, when he (for example) misuses big words and is clearly not quite the guy he’s trying to play. And obviously I like that boy more.

Q: TFIOS seems to connect intelligence with atheism as opposed to a willingness and openness to ideas. Why is this?

Well, I think Augustus is pretty smart, and he does not present an atheistic worldview (or at least an inherently atheistic worldview), nor does Hazel’s pretty smart dad, whose argument about the universe wanting to be noticed perpetually is a very theistic/faith-based/spiritual kind of thing to say. (Like, embracing even the possibility of concepts like forever or consciousness that survives death is impossible in a rigidly atheistic worldview.)

Augustus’s parents, who I think are also pretty smart but perhaps not in the ostentatious way that Hazel and Augustus are, are clearly religious people.

And the last words of the book represent a moment where the author himself perhaps interjects his own let-us-not-deem-consciousness-temporary-just-quite-yet with the present tense marriage vows that could be read as a statement about celestial marriage or a marriage that survives death or etc. if you wanted to read it that way.