What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: How can I help my friends understand that reading TFIOS hasn’t made them know what it’s like to be in love with someone with late-stage cancer?

I would say, “I love you, and I am grateful to you for trying to empathize, but it’s important to understand that reading a story about coal mining does not turn you into a coal miner.”

Q: Would you say that TFIOS is a realist novel?


I don’t find realism very interesting. Like, I am not convinced that there even is a reality totally independent of its observer.

I write fiction, and it’s not my ambition that a reader feel like my story is a work of journalism. My hope is that readers become so emotionally invested in the story that even though they know it’s made up, it is still powerful and alive and important to them. At times, this means using realistic elements; at other times, it involves fantastical or hyper-real elements (witness having been dumped by 19 girls named Katherine, for example).

Q: Did Hazel’s mother know that Hazel and Gus had slept together? Did you talk to any parents of teenagers for perspective?

I didn’t really talk to parents of teenagers except in the sense that I am always talking to people and trying to listen to them so that I can steal from them. But I was a teenager who had parents, so that’s something.

I wasn’t really conscious of what Hazel’s mom did and didn’t know about her relationship with Gus. When I was writing, I felt very narrowly inside of Hazel’s head, and in my mind at least, it would never occur to her that her mom would have that side of things figured out. (Of course, Hazel does frequently underestimate her mom.)

Q: Are some infinities really bigger than other infinities?

Yes. Peter Van Houten is right when he says that some infinities are bigger than other infinities, but Hazel is wrong when she concludes from this that the infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2 is larger than the infinite set between 0 and 1.

(The reasons for this are extremely complicated, but, for instance, the infinite set of real numbers is larger than the infinite set of natural numbers. Georg Cantor proved this in the 19th century with one of the most famously elegant proofs in mathematics. To give you a sense of how big a deal this was, the mathematician David Hilbert once remarked, “No one shall expel us from the Paradise that Cantor has created it.”)

Q: Did you have any say in what the cover ended up looking like?

Most authors don’t have a ton of say in their covers (and I certainly don’t internationally), but I did have a lot of say in this cover, and I was very happy with the cover that Rodrigo Corral designed. It’s abstract, visually striking, and not easily defined, which is what I wanted.

Q: What is the significance of Staff-Sergeant Max Mayhem surviving through all The Price of Dawn books while the rest of the TFiOS characters are constantly surrounded by death?

Yeah, The Price of Dawn series is interminable. I think this is one of the things we like about book series, and also about “tentpole franchises” like Spiderman and James Bond: The story is infinite, and survival guaranteed, in a way that is precisely the opposite of the actual world in which we find ourselves.

Hazel says at one point about The Price of Dawn, “It was exciting to live again in an infinite fiction.” Like, there was a lot that I liked about The Babysitters’ Club as a kid, but my favorite thing about it was that they never ended.

Q: What is the significance of the Encouragements?

 I was just making fun of my parents and their house, mostly. (Almost all the Encouragements come word-for-word from my parents’ house.)

That said, I don’t think we should dismiss Encouragements, and I certainly wanted TFiOS to be, in its way, an Encouragement.

Q: How do you know what girls like in a guy (jawline, etc.)?

That was like the only complimentary thing that girls ever said about guys when I was growing up, and it always fascinated me that a defined jawline would be somehow associated with Appropriate Mating Material.

Q: How did you come up with the name “Phalanxifor”?

I was using phalanx in the bone sense; I imagined that the people marketing phalanxifor imagined it as having these little fingers that go in and unlock/kill cancer cells.

Also it just sounded like a drug to me. (Phalanxifor is fictional, but it’s kinda based on some ways on Herceptin.)

Q: Was it wrong for me not to cry?

No, not at all. There’s no right way to feel when reading a book. I wanted to muddle those emotions—the joking moment of the egging of Monica’s car followed by the line from Hazel about how she never took another picture of him, for instance—because they’re all muddled together in life (or at least in my experience of life) and they don’t follow like a traditional emotional arc.

(This is a stupid example of what I mean, but I remember for instance the first time my college girlfriend and I exchanged I-love-yous, the same day my computer died with all these sorely needed files on it. And this magical day became the worst day ever, except that I was still really happy, except that I also really needed that paper about Toni Morrison, etc.)

Q: How do I explain to someone that this is more than just a book about cancer?

It seems like this will be the biggest obstacle the book faces in terms of reaching new readers. A lot of people (myself included) don’t like to read sad books that will make them cry. They figure, not wrongly, that there is plenty of sadness and crying in real life.

This is why I advocate the “If you don’t like this book, you can punch me in the stomach” tactic for sharing The Fault in Our Stars with your friends.