What kind of question would you like answered?

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: A lot of people identify with TFiOS as Hazel identified with An Imperial Affliction. How does it feel to be somebody’s Peter Van Houten?


Q: What do you think of Laurence Perrine’s claim that the problem with symbols is we believe they mean anything we want? He argues that symbols are confined to an area of meaning defined by the author.

I don’t think the area of meaning is defined by the author—at least not exclusively—but otherwise I agree.

When I say books belong to their readers, I do not mean, “If you think Huck Finn is a novel that defends slavery, you are entitled to your opinion.” That reading is wrong. It’s as wrong as thinking that 2 + 3 = 7.

I mean that readers should not define reading as the act of divining an author’s intents. Readers are co-creators of a fiction, and should be empowered.

As a thought experiment: Imagine that Huck Finn contained the exact same words that it currently contains, but that Mark Twain insisted it was a book about how slavery is a great idea. I would argue that Mark Twain would be every bit as wrong about the novel as anyone else who thinks that it is a pro-slavery novel.

The author defines the area of meaning through choosing the words in the novel. But beyond the words in the novel, the author is not in the defining-an-area-of-meaning game. Readers do that collectively.

(All of this stated with the caveat that I might be wrong and have been wrong before.)

Q: Do you think Gus’s decision not to tell Hazel about his relapse was a selfish or selfless act?

I think that’s more of a both/and proposition than an either/or one.

Q: What kind of relationship do you have with your characters?

I am conscious that they don’t exist, but I still feel bad for them.

This is the same way I feel about house elves, come to think of it.

Q: Do you think Phalanxifor is a drug that will ever really exist?

Drugs like phalanxifor will exist, although probably with less metaphorically resonant names.

Phalanxifor is based on the breast cancer drug herceptin, which is for certain patients very effective. Targeted therapies like herceptin are a very promising site of research in cancer treatment, though, and hopefully there will be hundreds of drugs like it within the next decade or two.

(That said, it is now clear that “curing cancer” will be extremely complex, because cancer is not just one disease. It is thousands—arguably millions—of diseases.)

Q: How do I explain to people that certain mathematical facts are facts (i.e. infinities, .999...=1) when they refuse to understand the mathematics behind it. How do I do this without being rude?

The general problem here is one of entitlement: People think it is okay to have an opinion about facts. This happens all the time and not only in mathematics (as, for instance, when people think it is legitimate to have the opinion that capitalism hasn’t resulted in GDP growth, or that humans aren’t contributing to climate change, or that Huck Finn is pro-slavery).

You are not entitled to have an opinion about a fact.

But anyway, for a good explanation of why .999… = 1, visit wikipedia.

Q: What are your opinions on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

I think people tend to spend a lot of their time thinking about food when they are hungry. But to classify this phenomenon into some rigid hierarchy is ridiculous and unfair to the hungry, because it says, “The highfalutin’ world of art and music and philosophy is not for you. It is only for we rich, well-fed people.” That bothers me.

In general, Maslow’s ideas about human motivation don’t hold up for me, and the whole affair smacks of the mid-20th century believe that psychology could describe and quantify human experience and behavior at least as precisely as physics can describe and quantify gravity.

Q: As a Christian, sometimes it’s hard to believe in a God that will love me and protect me forever. As someone who has worked in a hospital as a children’s chaplain, how do you reconcile the two?

I think you have define your terms pretty carefully—terms like “God” and “love” and protect” and especially “forever” mean different things to different people. So you have to decide what those words mean to you, and it may be that these words are being defined for you in a way that you find to be theologically inconsistent or implausible way. (This is pretty common, I think.)

The actual seeing of horrible things shouldn’t affect your worldview that much, at least if you’re able to acknowledge and internalize the reality (and relative commonness) of horrible things. If you understand that half the planet lives on less than $2.50 a day, that for almost all of human history infant mortality was above 20%, that until very recently children dying of disease was astonishingly common, you do not need to see anything personally to have trouble reconciling some constructions of God with the reality of suffering in the world.

(It’s also very important to note—and remember that I am saying this from a faith-based perspective—that religion did absolutely nothing to change any of that. There’s no evidence that over the last 1,000 years, Christians have on average been less poor or sick than Muslims, for instance.)

That doesn’t negate theistic worldviews in any way. But theistic worldviews that fail to grapple meaningfully and thoughtfully with the world as it is are not very interesting to me.

Q: Why do you say that your opinions on your books have no more weight that anyone else’s? Don’t you know the text better than any of its readers?

I don’t know the text better than any of its readers. That’s just factually incorrect. I don’t have access to a secret story. I do not know what happens outside of the story any more than anyone else does.

Stop privileging the voice of the writer. Empower yourself. You are the reader. It is your story.

Q: If you’re a Christian, why did you write TFIOS with such a Naturalist, secular worldview?

1. I don’t think TFiOS has a necessarily secular worldview. It really depends on your reading of the book. Hazel’s dad, for instances, makes the argument that the universe is invested in consciousness, which is not a strictly atheistic thing to say and is in fact perilously close to claiming the existence of heaven.

1a. Of course Hazel dismisses her dad’s argument, so there’s that.

1b. Then again, many of the central events of the novel take place in the Literal Heart of Jesus. Setting a novel inside the heart of God’s son does not strike me as a particularly unChristian thing to do.

1c. Of course the kids are always making fun of the place and claiming that Patrick’s use of the phrase Literal Heart of Jesus is a misuse of literality.

1d. But then again, Hazel and Gus and Isaac themselves come to call the place the Literal Heart.

1e. It seems to me that different characters in the book find varying degrees of secular, religious, theistic, and atheistic ways to confront the reality and injustice of suffering, and that the book (at least if I did it right) is more an exploration of the variety of responses to suffering than an argument in favor of one over another.

2. I do not believe the job of a novelist is to thrust his or her belief system upon a reader.

Q: You never actually answer the reader’s question, you just tell them it’s up to them. Probably something about the book belonging to the reader or something, right?

I’m happy to answer questions about intent, or what I was thinking about when I did something, or why I made a certain choice. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like that stuff can be helpful both to readers and to aspiring writers, and I know it was (and remains) very helpful to me to read other writers discuss their processes.

That noted, I will continue to underscore that I don’t think authorial intent is all that important to a reading experience, and I certainly don’t think the job of reading is to divine authorial intent.

Obviously, though, I can’t speak to things I intentionally left unclear, because I wanted those things to be ambiguous—and I still do.

Q: Do you believe that a book immortalizes the characters? Will Hazel and Augustus ever cease to exist as characters, or will they always exist?

Nothing (at least that can be done by humans) immortalizes anyone. The Fault in Our Stars will hopefully have a long and wonderful life, but it will eventually go out of print, and eventually the last person ever to read it will die, and then the characters will no longer live in any consciousness.

Also, that is okay. That is good, actually. That is how it should be. One of the things the characters in this novel have to grapple with is the reality of temporariness. What Gus in particular must reconcile himself to is that being temporary does not mean being unimportant or meaningless.

Q: Isn’t authorial intent important in terms of communication between reader and writer?

But it ISN’T a conversation between you and me if all you’re doing is attempting to understand what I’m saying. That’s just you LISTENING to me, which is kind of boring.

Like, don’t get me wrong, that act of listening to art/media can be pleasantly distracting and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. That’s essentially what watching an episode of NCIS is, I’d argue: The show knows who killed the person and you don’t and then at the end they tell you.

But I think what happens when you read a book—ideally, anyway—is much more complicated and beautiful and collaborative. My intent as an author matters some, but you as the reader get some agency, too. You get to discover meaning within the story, and sometimes the meaning you discover will be meaning I hoped you would discover, and sometimes it will be meaning I could never have imagined you discovering. But together, we get to build something that matters to you (hopefully), and that brings you pleasure and consolation and a feeling of unaloneness that you can never get from merely listening.

Q: You always say that books belong to the reader. How much credit do you give to the author’s intent?

I think trying to divine an author’s intent is generally pretty wrong-headed, although I guess it shouldn’t be dismissed entirely (and obviously I’m willing to answer questions about intent).

That said, it can be a way into an interesting discussion: whether you suppose I wanted you to like Margo Roth Spiegelman, for instance, is not an interesting question to me. But if you go from there to discussing whether characters in novels need to be likable for a book to be good, and whether reading experiences need to be straightforwardly fulfilling in order to be positive, and what (if anything) the point of reading and telling stories is, and whether we can be empathetic toward people we dislike, and if shared values are at the core of human connection or if it’s something altogether less noble, and whether we can reconcile ourselves to the distance between who we want ourselves and one another to be and who we turn out to be…well, that’s pretty interesting to me.

Q: Are Hazel and Augustus in love like adults can be? How do you view their relationship?

I find it really offensive when people say that the emotional experiences of teenagers are less real or less important than those of adults.

I am an adult, and I used to be a teenager, and so I can tell you with some authority that my feelings then were as real as my feelings are now.

Q: In your opinion, is the Dutch Tulip Man a fake?

I mean, I sometimes go to church, if that’s what you’re asking.

Q: Do you truly believe that fictional characters cease to exist when their story is over? I like to imagine endings for characters I love; is that foolish?

I don’t think that’s foolish or childish at all. (I also disagree with Peter Van Houten about a number of other things, like whether it is appropriate to drink scotch in the morning.)

But it’s worth noting that your Trueblood or Hazel is not my Trueblood or Hazel, and that my characters can cease to exist in the universe of their creation while still surviving in the universe or your creation.

Q: Does it anger you when someone interprets a book in a unique way only to have a teacher tell them that they are wrong?

Well, you might have been wrong. I don’t agree with the notion that there “are no wrong answers” when it comes to reading and thinking about literature.

If, for instance, you read Gatsby and said, “This is a stupid novel about stupid rich people doing things that don’t matter,” you would be wrong. You’d also be wrong if you said the green light across the harbor was a metaphor for Gatsby’s joy and contentment.

But just as many interesting mathematical questions have more than one interesting/correct answer, and historical phenomena can be thought of in more than one way interesting/correct way, so too with literature. So if your reading of the text in question was a good reading, that opened up something in the story and offered a new way in to interesting questions, then that’s great. Like, if your teacher told you that your feminist reading of Jane Eyre was wrong, or that your Marxist reading of Jane Eyre was wrong, then I think your teacher was being unfair, because both Marxist and feminist readings of that novel can be interesting and useful.

But that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to any opinion you happen to have just because you happen to have it. It seems to me that the great pleasure of human life is not in having an opinion, but rather in learning all the ways you are wrong, and all the nuances you failed to account for, and all the truths that turned out to be not as simple as you once believed. And it seems to me that one of the central pleasures of attending school is that you get to read with really well-informed people (teachers) who can help welcome you into a complex world stuffed with rich and maddening ambiguity.

Q: Can you explain the Author’s Note? Does it mean that you can’t take a work of fiction and say that it matters in the “real world”?

1. All meaning is constructed meaning, so if we construct an association between blue and sadness, and then between the curtains and sadness, and that reading of the text allows us an interesting insight into the characters or the human condition or whatever, then we have done ourselves some good. It does not matter whether the author intended this connection between blue curtains and sadness (although the author may well have: Remember, I spent a decade writing TFiOS; you spend a few hours reading it. I had to find some way to keep myself interested during those thousands of days I was working on it).

2. In the author’s note, I was trying to say several things. Most importantly, I was asking my readers—many of whom know me and know my past—not to read the novel as autobiography, or to try to find facts in it. Secondly, I was arguing that made-up stories can matter, that they matter to us in the real everyday world just as much (and in many cases more than) the real people we know and the real things we do. Made-up stories matter for precisely the same reason that anything matters: because we decide they matter, because we imbue them with meaning. Chimpanzees, while they are very smart and interesting creatures, cannot tell each other stories about war heroes fighting sirens and a cyclops to get home. They cannot use such stories to shape their values and their relationships and their worldviews. We can, and do, and this engagement with constructed narrative is (imho) a big part of what makes us human.