What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: Did you used to smoke? The attitude to smoking in TFIOS is very different from the one in Looking for Alaska.

I probably smoked more while working on the book that became The Fault in Our Stars than I did while working on the book that became Looking for Alaska. (I quit smoking in like 2003, by which time I’d worked some on both books, although obviously neither was anywhere close to finished.)

I think Alaska is more of an anti-smoking novel than TFiOS is (Hazel has that one little rant about cigarettes, whereas huge chunks of Alaska are devoted to exploring all the sad ways that smoking is a way of us expressing our desire to self-immolate).

Anyway, I hope that neither of the books celebrates smoking, as smoking is a stupid and also fatal way to spend money. But smoking is a pretty fascinating (to me, anyway) example of how all of use signaling and other symbolic forms of communication to construct our ideas of ourselves.

Q: Do you believe, as Hazel does, that we are as likely to harm the universe as help it?

I think we are as likely to harm the universe as we are to help it, yes. (Actually, I think nothing any human being ever does will have any overall effect on the universe. I mean, you’re talking about a single organism among trillions living on a single sphere among trillions in a single galaxy among 100-500 billion galaxies in a universe without an edge. It’s very difficult to get your head around just how small a part of the universe we are, and on some level, claiming that we can shape the universe is a little bit like the grain of sand on the beach that believes it can control the tides.)

Also, trying to do good is not the same thing as doing good. Many, many people have tried to do good and in the process done harm.

Of course, and this is the miracle to me, none of this exempts us from trying to do good. We must still serve our fellow humans, and the idea of life itself, as best we can—we must still strive to create a world in which people can lead healthy and productive lives without destroying biodiversity on our little sphere.

I don’t find our relative insignificance disheartening at all: The main thing it tells me is that in a culture that worships celebrity and the purportedly extraordinary, ALL people are ordinary people. ALL people have the same responsibilities to themselves and to each other. Maybe the universe cares nothing for us, but WE care about each other. And most encouragingly, we care not just for our friends or family but for the whole enterprise of life—we care about strangers and about humpback whales and, most beautifully of all, we care about the dead. We try with our lives to honor theirs. That’s how we make our lives meaningful, and how we make their lives meaningful, too.

Q: What is your opinion on others who do comment on what happens after their books have ended, such as J.K. Rowling?

So, like, to me the entire experience of human beings on this planet is all these people having a conversation about what we should and shouldn’t do, and then playing out the consequences of our actions and continuing the conversation across generations etc.

And this goes for big things, like slavery and unsustainable agriculture, and it also goes for little things, like whether authors have a right to speak about their stories outside the text of those stories and whether Justin Bieber is or is not a good musician.

It is important to remember which are the small conversations and which are the big conversations, and I definitely think, “Does JK Rowling saying that Dumbledore is gay make Dumbledore gay*?” is a pretty small question in the scheme of things, but it does have some limited application outside the specific world of Harry Potter.

This is something that JK Rowling and I disagree about, but she and I can still be friends. (Seriously, Jo. I AM READY TO BE YOUR FRIEND.) It’s important to have these productive disagreements, because that’s how we push literature forward. I believe that my opinion on extra-textual questions should not be privileged. I might be wrong. As that conversation with readers and other authors continues, I might one day realize that I am wrong, and then I will flood you with ‘the truth’ about the characters and what happened after the end of the book and Isaac’s secret gayness and whatever else. But for right now, I don’t think that I’m wrong.

*This is not a perfect example, because it’s repeatedly hinted at in the books that Dumbledore is gay and in some ways Rowling was just clarifying her reading of the text rather than introducing a new extra-textual element, and obviously I don’t mind answering questions about intent etc., or this section wouldn’t exist.

Q: Can you respond to the claims that you view smart/intelligent people to be better than others?

I don’t think smart people are better than other people. More importantly, I view intelligence (at least the kind of intelligence that most of the characters in my novel display) as something learned not inborn. I don’t think Hazel or Gus necessarily have particularly high IQs (Gus in particular is constantly misusing words). I just think they’re intellectually curious.

That said, books belong to their readers, and I don’t have a problem with people disliking or criticizing books that I have written, because I don’t really see those books as mine. I did my best. The reader does her/his best. If we can make something worthwhile together, I’m grateful. If we can’t, that’s too bad, but fortunately there are lots of other authors out there.

Q: Do you believe in actions done for the sake of metaphorical resonance as Augustus does with his cigarettes?

I don’t think there are many human beings who do not act for the sake of metaphorical resonance. (Like, I think at its core this is what fashion is about, and sports, etc.) Quite a lot of life is about constructing meaning, which often (usually?) involves metaphor.

Q: I know what Hazel says in your book, but is there anything in you and Hazel that wants to live this big, grand adventure of a life? Or do you think that’s completely overrated?

Oh, there is a lot inside of me that wants a big, grand adventure of a life—I just think most of that urge is bullshit and not very deeply thought out.

But Hazel is far more thoughtful about her actions and their implications than I am.

Q: Do you really believe that it’s possible for two teenagers to be in love as truly as adults are?


Q: Do you really believe that V for Vendetta is a “boy movie”?

No. I had Hazel say that because I wanted to establish early in the book that Hazel does not buy into the notion that sacrifice and grand heroic gestures are the best model of a well-lived life. (Hazel and Augustus disagree about this throughout the book, even at the very end, although they eventually acknowledge in small ways the legitimacy of the other’s worldview.) Hazel’s initial idea that this notion of heroic sacrifice is a “boy” thing eventually goes away, but I figured that would be a nice way to introduce it, because there is something traditionally masculine about that idea of heroism, whether you’re talking about Odysseus or Romeo.