What kind of question would you like answered?

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: 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: 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.

Q: Can you explain what the elevator and stairs signified?

The stairs were for healthier people; the elevator was for sicker people.

(This is also true outside of novels.)

It’s one of the few places in the novel that you can clearly see from an objective perspective Hazel’s condition deteriorating: She chooses the stairs at the beginning of the novel even though it’s a struggle; by the end, she’s choosing the elevator.

Q: Why is there so many mentions of the color blue? Was it a symbol for sadness or water?


Q: What’s with all the water references?

Well, for Hazel and for a lot of people (and also a lot of places), water is both a creator and destroyer of life.

So let’s look at this from the perspective of a person, Hazel, and a place, Amsterdam.

Water makes life possible for Hazel, but the fluid in her lungs (which she refers to as water) is killing her.

Amsterdam would never have become a great city if it weren’t surrounded by water, but the city—which has benefited so much from its geography—is also drowning, and at constant risk of disaster from flooding.

I am of course not the first person to make this observation; the Latin phrase quod me nutrit, me destruit (that which nourishes me destroys me) goes way back. But I wanted to write a novel about the things that make life possible (and valuable) and how many of those things are also what makes life painful and temporary.

Water seemed like a good metaphor for getting into some of that stuff. (Plus water does all kinds of other convenient things, like follow the path of least resistance.) But you shouldn’t feel like you’re not doing a good job of reading the novel if you’re not conscious of that kind of stuff when you’re reading. There are many good ways to read a book, and if the metaphors work, you don’t need to be overly aware of them for them to move you and make you think.

Q: Was there any symbolism to Isaac?

(First off, I did not call Isaac Isaac because his eyes are sick. I’m not punny enough to make that connection! I called him Isaac because of Isaac, who went blind.)

There’s a strong tradition of epics being told by blind people: In 300, for instance, only the blind guy is left to tell the tale. Homer was said to be blind; Milton went blind; etc. I was trying to write a little epic of star-crossed lovers—one that would be painted on a small canvas and that wouldn’t be about politics or war or family strife or whatever but about disease.

Assuming that Hazel’s lifespan is shorter than average, Isaac would be the only one left to tell the story. (So, like, if you imagine a world outside of the book, one of the things you can imagine is this future in which the only peer who can tell the story of Hazel and Gus’s love is Isaac, which gives you the typical romantic epic bard, but doesn’t adhere to the convention because for once the girl gets to tell her own story.)

That’s what I was thinking, anyway. (But like all that stuff aside, the most important thing is that I liked Isaac and wanted Hazel and Gus to have someone who could provide a different worldview to both of them—one where true love is real and triumphs everything.)

Q: Is there a link between Augustus Waters’ smoking and Holden Caufield’s red hat?


Q: What is the significance of Hazel’s Magritte shirt?

Magritte was exploring the relationship between a thing and a representation of a thing. I wanted it to be clear that Hazel is aware of this distance. She’s not, like, mentally ill. I hoped that would make it all the more powerful that she still wants to know what happens after the end of the book, especially what happens to Anna’s mother. (This is of course because she wants to know what will happen to her own mother.)

Q: What’s the significance of the swing set?

I guess I intended the swing set as a metaphor for childhood. Several times Hazel tries to go back to it but for various reasons can’t. Then finally Gus helps her realize that she needs to get it out of her backyard.

Q: Did you mean to add every metaphor and connection in the book or were some just beautiful accidents?

Well, I’m sure some are just beautiful (or not so beautiful) accidents, but I did try pretty hard to make sure the book is fun and interesting to read and offers some rewards to those who choose to read closely. But again, not to beat a dead horse, I don’t think authorial intent is all that important. Like, even if I didn’t think of the Dutch Tulip Man as a metaphor for God, he still could be read that way, you know? And it would (if the metaphor works, anyway) still be an interesting way into thinking about what role God(s) play(s) in the contemporary, hyper-secularized world.