What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: Why did you choose not to address hell in TFIOS?

I really haven’t known any terminally ill people who lived in fear of hell. Maybe that’s just my personal biased experience, but yeah.

(Also this is definitely a personal bias: I just don’t find hell very interesting theologically.)

Q: Why did you choose to have Van Houten be a Swedish hip hop fan? Was it simply a way to make Van Houten quirkier than he already was or do you listen to Swedish hip hop yourself?

Well, for starters I really like Swedish hip hop, and especially Afasi och Filthy. But yeah, I wanted Van Houten to be the kind of guy who cultivates his own eccentricity, which is basically the most narcissistic and self-indulgent variety of human being I’ve ever come across.

Q: Why did Gus die?

Every single human being alive on the entire planet is going to die, including you. The question for me is not why we die; the question is what constitutes a full and well-lived life.

I wanted to argue that a good life need not be a long one.

Q: Why was Caroline Mathers included? Why was she portrayed the way she was?

I didn’t want to sentimentalize or romanticize anything in the book. And one of the most common ways that we sentimentalize death and dying is by talking about the dead or dying person’s “beautiful soul,” or just generally by talking about the soul and its imperishability and resilience and so on.

But when I worked at the hospital, I saw several young men and women with brain tumors whose personalities and spirits were utterly transformed by their disease, which calls into question the whole idea of a soul.

I was so tired of the idea that suffering is transcendent, and that cancer suffering in particular strengthens you and makes you better. That can be true for many people, but it’s an oversimplification, because there are cancers that attack parts of the brain and turn kind, generous people into selfish, impulsive, cruel people.

I wanted to make that clear, to make it clear that when we talk about the human soul we had better do so carefully and thoughtfully, because otherwise we dehumanize people like Caroline Mathers whose diseases attack and transform their personalities.

Also, I didn’t want Gus and Hazel to be this Pure As The Driven Snow, Never Loved Before couple, because I also dislike the convention of the epic romance genre wherein the doomed lovers are somehow more innocent and golden than the rest of us. I wanted Gus and Hazel to be people, just regular nice smart people, who also happen to have a chronic illness.

Q: Why did you make Augustus and Hazel perfect? They seem too flawless.

I don’t know how you can say that Hazel does not have one huge terrible flaw when it is repeatedly stated throughout the novel that she regularly watches America’s Next Top Model.

Q: Why do you make your characters physically beautiful?

The characters in the novel who are romantically interested in each other often describe each other as beautiful not because they’re objectively beautiful but because they find each other attractive. But in books like LfA and Paper Towns, part of what I was trying to do was explore the weird and worship-y relationship contemporary American boys in high school often have with the girls they admire from afar, an attraction that is usually seen pretty positively even though I think it is kind of sick and crazy to treat a person like a precious object.

Q: Why didn’t anyone see Monica after she broke up with Isaac?

Well, she is a voiceless character. (You never directly hear her speak, except for the word “always.”) I wanted Hazel to be aware of this voicelessness in a way that Gus and Isaac weren’t, and to stand up for her even when it was very difficult to do so. (Throughout the novel, she repeatedly defends Monica and seeks to understand her, while the boys just want to put her into the easy category of Enemy.)

Hazel does this quite a bit—she’s a very empathetic person and repeatedly defends and seeks to understand people and be generous to them. (See also when she doesn’t get mad at Augustus for hiding his diagnosis from her, or when she delivers the eulogy full of Encouragements).

This compassion breaks down only once, I think—when she sees all the posts on Gus’s wall about how he’ll live forever in the memory of his acquaintances.

I wanted her to break there so the reader really felt Hazel falling apart—even the core ideas of humility and compassion that make her up abandon her in the crush of loss and grief.

Q: Why do you use past tense?

Well, the last sentence is not in the past tense, just to be clear.

I wrote the book in the past tense so the reader would know that Hazel is telling the story of something that happened to her in the past—at least until the last sentence.

Q: Why did you pick the title and how does it relate to the novel?

First off, thanks to Rosianna for contextualizing the quote for me in a way that made me want to use it as a title in the first place.

So there’s this moment in the play Julius Caesar where one Roman nobleman says to another, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” And in the context of the play, that quotation makes perfect sense—these two guys did not suffer some unjust destiny; they made decisions that led them to their fates.

However, that quote has since been decontextualized over and over and used universally as a way of saying that the fault is not in the stars (i.e., fate/luck/whatever) but in individual people.

Well, that’s of course ridiculous. There is plenty of fault in our stars. The world is a profoundly unjust place in which suffering is unfairly distributed, and in all of my novels but especially this one, I am trying to find ways to live honestly and hopefully in the world without ignoring/denying the universe’s cold and painful indifference to us.*

The whole problem of reconciling ourselves to the fault in our stars seems like a really big problem to me—and not just an abstract, philosophical problem but a problem that has to be solved in order for us to get up every day and get dressed and brush our teeth and try to live full, productive lives.

* Well, I can’t say categorically that the universe is indifferent to us. But I think the way the universe looks and the way it would look if it were totally indifferent to us are disconcertingly similar, if that makes any sense.

Q: Why did you choose “okay” and “always”?

Well, always is just an inherently ridiculous concept, but of course you want to say it to people you love, right? You want to promise them that you will always love them, that you will always take care of them, that they needn’t worry because you’re always going to be there. You won’t always be there, because at some point you’ll be dead or stuck in traffic or in love with someone else or whatever.

Most of us (me included) don’t think about the ridiculousness of what we’re actually saying when we say, “I’ll love you forever*,” or “”I will always remember this day,” or, “I’ll never forget** you” or whatever. Like, I say those things all the time, like most people do. But Hazel and Augustus are both a lot more measured in the way they imagine themselves and their love for/responsibilities to other people, hence them adopting “okay” as the word that serves as an expression of their love for each other.

* It’s important to note that forever is not a long time just as infinity is not a large number. Forever is infinite, and it’s a very bold to make declarative sentences about infinities.

** This seems to me a very fate-tempting thing to say. Like, what if you develop dementia?

Q: Did you say “Genies” instead of “Make-a-Wish” because of legal reasons?

I said Genies instead of Make-a-Wish because there are important differences between the way the Genies work in the book and the way the Make-a-Wish Foundation works in real life. (Also, there are many organizations similar to Make-a-Wish in their mission, although M-a-W is by far the most famous.)

It was important to me that the readers feel like the Genies have basically endless resources so you wouldn’t think about whether H & A could do this or that, when the truth of such organizations—like all nonprofits—is that there’s a lot they can’t do.

Q: Where did you get the name “The Price of Dawn”?

Honestly someone suggested it on twitter and I loved it, but it became in the midst of so many @replies that I could never find the person who suggested it so as to properly thank/acknowledge them. If anyone can find The Price of Dawn person, let me know!

Q: Is there a reason you chose to not write Gus’s death in a more dramatic way?

Well, the actual moment of people’s deaths tend 1. not to be peaceful, and 2. not to be romantic or poignant or anything other than violent and horrible. Plus 3. Hazel and Gus are in love, but they’ve only known each other for a few months, and it seemed most likely to me that his immediate family would be alone with him at the end of his life.

I also felt like I’d put the reader (and the characters) through enough.

Q: Why did you decide to name the hamster Sisyphus?

Well, Sisyphus is always pushing a rock up a hill without ever getting anywhere, and hamsters are always running around on a wheel without ever getting anywhere. That’s all I was thinking about, although again, books belong to their readers, and if there’s a better/more evocative/more useful metaphor to be drawn from it, then yay!

Q: Why did you put Kaitlyn in the book? Why would Hazel be friends with someone like her?

Oh I quite like Kaitlyn. I mean, one of the things you can’t see very well because the novel is written from Hazel’s perspective is that Hazel is 1. very beautiful, and 2. was pretty popular when she attended school. She just hasn’t attended school for a long time.

We have this idea that the opposite of “popular” is “smart.” (We nerds are particularly found of this idea.) But in fact there are many popular people who are also brilliant and deeply intellectually engaged. (Kaitlyn is maybe not such a person, but Hazel certainly is.)

As for why I put Kaitlyn in the book: I wanted the reader to be able to have a few moments of glimpsing Hazel’s life before illness, which was so radically different from the live she lives in the book, and I wanted the reader to feel the distance between A Regular Life in High School and The Life That Hazel Has Now.

Q: Why did you have Hazel and Augustus do “adult” activities (i.e. traveling the world, getting drunk, having sex, etc.) while they were still young? What was your thinking behind this?

Hazel and Augustus, like all very sick teenagers, are caught in an in-between space: They are similar to other teenagers, but they’re also similar to old people in an important way (i.e., they are not allowed the luxury of feeling that life is a thing that will just go on forever). I wanted to try to capture that in the plot of the story (and I also wanted to acknowledge that sick and disabled people are still sexual people, and that there’s nothing wrong with their sexuality, which I guess was a little preachy of me, but so it goes.)

Also, they don’t get drunk. They have two glasses of champagne!

Q: In TFIOS there’s minimal jargon-y terms (such as the specific subdivisions and motorways referenced in Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns), did you do this consciously with for international readers?

That’s a really interesting question, because it makes me wonder to what extent I’m writing with an eye toward the international readers of my novels. (Some relatively high percentage of my readers are not American.) Certainly, I was not aware of doing that: I didn’t think, and never think, “Oh, I need to write it this way so that it will play in Austria” or whatever. When I’m writing, consciously at least, I only think about what will in my opinion best serve the story.

But it’s impossible to say for sure if/whether/how commercial concerns factor into creative decisions, because you can say all day that you turn that stuff off when you’re writing, and I hope that I do, but I have no actual way of proving whether I do.

Anyway, in general I did want TFiOS to feel more, like, out of time and place than any of my previous novels, because that’s how romantic epics tend to feel, and I was very much trying to write a little epic.

Q: Why did you give the characters the cancers you gave them in the book?

1. I did quite a lot of research on cancer, probably more than a hypochondriac should. I am particularly indebted to the books I cite in the acknowledgements, both of which I read more than once. (Also, my father-in-law is a cancer surgeon.)

2. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I think cancer is to the contemporary world what tuberculosis was to the 19th century: It’s this seemingly random, capricious disease that strikes old and young alike, that sometimes kills you and other times doesn’t, and that we don’t understand very well. And this randomness/indifference was really important to me, because I wanted to think about how/whether we can be hopeful in a universe that is (apparently) entirely indifferent toward its inhabitants.

3. I gave Gus osteosarcoma because it’s a common adolescent cancer and can go quiet for a long while before roaring back, and I gave Hazel thyroid cancer with mets in her lungs because A. I was fairly familiar with it (it’s similar to what Esther had), and B. I wanted her to have some kind of tumors in her lungs because it allowed me to have the water metaphor.

It sounds so weird and cold and calculating to talk about it that way, but…yeah. 

Q: What made you decide to make Hazel’s father the weaker one?

Well, I wanted to ignore traditional gender roles whenever possible in the novel, because I was kind of working in the Romantic Epic genre, which tends to have very narrowly defined gender roles (the man is the protector; the woman suffers beautifully; etc) and I wanted to write a different kind of Romantic Epic. (A much smaller one, for starters, about disease instead of war/politics/royal families/etc.)

Q: Why America’s Next Top Model?

It just seemed to me—and I say this respectfully—like both the most reprehensible and the most formatted (i.e., functionally scripted) of the competitive reality shows I’d seen.