What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: What made you choose “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for Hazel to recite?

I picked “Prufrock” because A. a lot of teenagers have memorized it, and B. it has drowning in it, and C. it is concerned with what Eliot famously called “an overwhelming question.”

Q: Is there a meaning behind “The Hectic Glow”?

In a journal entry, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Decay and disease are often beautiful, like the pearly tear of the shellfish or the hectic glow of consumption.” (People with tuberculosis get reddened cheeks—a hectic glow.)

There were two things I really liked about this: first, the problematic (but not totally untrue) statement that disease is beautiful/attractive, and second, that Thoreau would write this about consumption, a disease that was famously capricious and mysterious: It attacked the young and the old. Sometimes it killed you and sometimes it didn’t. Treatment was brutal and ghastly and socially isolating. In short, the way people in the 19th century experienced and thought about consumption was similar in a lot of ways to the way we think about cancer today.

In earlier drafts of the book, there was a lot more stuff about lung functioning and tuberculosis and blah blah blah it was really boring, and back then I wanted to call the book itself The Hectic Glow, but in the end we decided A. it wasn’t the right title for the book, and B. it’s pretty hard to say out loud if you’re trying to recommend it to a friend, so we went in a different direction.

But I liked it too much to let it go all the way. Hence the band name.

Q: Were the references to The Great Gatsby in this novel intentional? Like, Isaac’s “disembodied eyes,” the green light in Amsterdam, etc.?

Yeah. Also the green car that looks like all the hopes that we were foolish to hope, etc. (But again, just because I intended it doesn’t make it more or less useful/real/whatever.)

Q: Why did you mention the Red Wheelbarrow?

Just a really good poem about the pleasure and importance of observing the universe.

Q: What inspired you to include a reference to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five?

I didn’t really think of it as a reference to Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut didn’t invent the sentence “so it goes,” although he did invent pairing it with death. I didn’t do the Vonnegutian thing of announcing a character’s death and then following it up immediately with “So it goes,” so I didn’t think of it in that directly referential way.

Vonnegut was playing with something that predated his book: our ability to express in a very short sentence the universe’s disinterest in us. I was trying to get at something similar, I guess.

Q: An Imperial Affliction is supposed to be written in Ana’s point of view. Why, when you use an extract of AIA as the epigraph, it is written in a third person point of view?

This has been fixed. But yes, YOU ARE A VERY CLOSE READER. I was pretty mad about this when I first discovered it; it should only be a problem in the first two printings of the book.

Q: Did you put the fact that Anna died mid-sentence in the book just to rule out the theory that Hazel would die (because she was the narrator)?

Well, that was certainly on my mind. There’s an argument to be made that first-person narration takes the teeth from the monster in any story, right? The I survives: You know, because the I is telling the story in the past tense, as something that happened to that I, and here the I is, still writing.

I guess it’s true I didn’t want to offer readers that luxury in this story, because it seems like a cheap kind of hope, you know? (I really tried to make TFiOS a hopeful novel, but I did not want it to be the kind of easily won or ill-considered hope that both Hazel and Augustus find so little consolation in.)

Q: Can you explain the Dutch Tulip Man / God thing?

All we ever know about the Dutch Tulip Man is:

1. He claims to be very rich (which in our world is equivalent to powerful), but he might be a fraud.

2. He may or may not really love Anna’s mother.

3. Peter Van Houten, who created the Dutch Tulip Man, claims he not but an unambiguous and obvious metaphor for God.

4. The way that Hazel and Augustus talk about the Dutch Tulip Man is very similar to the way that Hazel and Augustus might talk about God. Like, when Augustus says the Dutch Tulip Man is “not a con man, but not as rich as he’s letting on,” if you were reading the DTM as a metaphor for God, you could conclude that Augustus was saying something about his beliefs re. God and the limits of God’s power.

5. So my joke about going to church was based on that reading of the novel. Like, if you take Peter Van Houten’s word that the Dutch Tulip Man is a metaphor for God, and you see everything Hazel and Gus say about him through that lens, then asking me what I think about the Dutch Tulip Man is just asking me whether I believe in God.

Q: Is the Dutch Tulip Man God within TFIOS as well as An Imperial Affliction?

Right.

I mean, it’s no coincidence that throughout the novel, Hazel and Augustus keep talking about whether they think the Dutch Tulip Man is what he is claimed to be, and when they talk about this, you could very easily replace the words “Dutch Tulip Man” with the word “God.”

Q: Was the Dutch Tulip man a con man?

I suppose that depends upon your perspective. Van Houten tells you that the Dutch Tulip Man is God.

Q: What is the opening line of An Imperial Affliction?

The first line is “My mother’s glass eye turned inwards,” at least according to Gus’s reading to Hazel.

Q: I construed Augustus’s movie exhibiting he knew more than Hazel about the future. Since he was sick, he knew what was coming next in both life and the movie whereas she didn’t. Can it be both?

Yes, that too! BBTTR! That is a great reading!

Q: How much of An Imperial Affliction did you write?

Only what you read in The Fault in Our Stars. (There are a few AIA lines that I wrote into TFiOS and eventually cut, but they were pretty bad.)

Q: Aren’t you even a little tempted to write An Imperial Affliction?

No, I could never write a novel like An Imperial Affliction, and I don’t think I would enjoy writing it. There’s a variety of writing that David Foster Wallace once described as, “Look, mom! No hands!” AIA, as I imagine it, is very much that kind of novel: prodigious and ostentatious and full of that Pynchonian need to show every possible thing that words can do. I love reading those books, but I’m not interested in attempting to write one.

Also, one of the magical things about books (or bands) that don’t exist is that they can achieve a kind of greatness that isn’t available to real artworks. Writing An Imperial Affliction would only ruin it, sort of by definition.

Q: Is AIA a real book? Can you make it one?

I get asked this question all the time, often by journalists. (I won’t name any names, but a pretty well-known journalist once asked me how Peter Van Houten felt about my depiction of him.)

An Imperial Affliction is not a real book, and Peter Van Houten is not a real person.
However, An Imperial Affliction is in some ways based on two books I love. The first is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most of the references Hazel and Augustus make to AIA are related in some way to something from Infinite Jest, and I wanted readers of IJ to be able to make those comparisons.

But Infinite Jest is not about cancer. Peter De Vries’ amazing and beautiful and hilarious novel The Blood of the Lamb IS about cancer, and most of the broad observations that Hazel makes about An Imperial Affliction—how it is a book about cancer without it being a cancer book, how is is funny and respectful and reflects the reality of experience in a way she has rarely encountered—come from my own experience reading The Blood of the Lamb.

I can’t make An Imperial Affliction real. It’s not the kind book I could write well, and on some level, the thing that we imagine will always be better than any real approximation of it that might come to exist.

But if you wish to read An Imperial Affliction, I’d encourage you to read Infinite Jest and The Blood of the Lamb and then try to blend the feeling of those two books.

Q: Was there a deeper meaning to the passage on the plane where Hazel and Augustus both pressed play at the same time, but Augustus’s movie started first?

I believe that is known as foreshadowing. :)

Q: The story begins, “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year…” But, it later says that Hazel is 16. Am I missing something?

One is sixteen in their seventeenth year. (You are still 0 in your first year; you are one in your second year; etc.)

This is one of those annoying grammatical things where being right means being confusing.

Q: The phrase “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year…” makes it sound as though Hazel is reflecting on something that occurred a few years ago. Does that mean she lives on for a while longer?

It is certainly meant to give the reader enough freedom from fear that they don’t spend every page worrying that Hazel might die at any moment (ditto the first person narration).

 

Q: Why won’t you answer questions about what happens after the book? You answer so many questions about why Gus and Hazel did specific things or how they felt. Isn’t this a double standard?

I answer textual questions and occasionally questions about intent. I cannot answer a question about something I intentionally left ambiguous, because I intentionally left it ambiguous, and to answer the question would be to undo the thing that I spent ten years trying to do, which I don’t want to do.

I adore you guys. I really do. And I admire your perseverance. But it will never happen. In fact, the more you ask, the less inclined I am to talk about it, because it only further confirms if I ever offered an answer to that question, my voice would be privileged over the voices of other readers, which I don’t want.

Q: Do you believe, as Mr. Lancaster does, that our universe “is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed”?

I’m not going down on record personally as saying the universe is biased toward consciousness, but it does seem to Mr. Lancaster at least a reasonable thing to hope. (For the record, I tried very hard to keep my own worldview on these topics out of the text of the novel, because none of the characters are very much like me, and also they’ve all had to live with things very different from the things I’ve lived with.)