What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: In Chapter 11, when Hazel wakes up to the excruciating pain in her head and tries to unmake the world, what do you mean when you say “when there was the Word”?

Hazel is referencing the Gospel according to John, which begins, “In the beginning was the Word.”

In the Greek, the word used there is logos, which is a really fascinating work in both secular and religious contexts, and a word she might’ve learned about—or so I imagined, anyway—in college literature classes.

Q: I really love the line, “Pain demands to be felt.”

Thanks, but I did not write that line. Peter Van Houten wrote it.

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.

Q: What do you mean by “depression is a side effect of dying”?

Depression is (literally) a side effect of all processes of dying.

Hazel’s broader feeling is that dying—its permanence, its ubiquity—is kind of the defining characteristic of human consciousness, and that all feeling proceeds from it.

Or at least that is her contention at the beginning of the book. It’s worth noting that characters often (always?) say things at the beginnings of novels that they would not say by the end of those novels.

Q: In the chapter where Augustus and Hazel first use “okay” as their “always,” it ends with “it was Augustus who finally hung up.” Is that foreshadowing his death?

Well, as always: Books belong to their readers. I didn’t have to intend foreshadowing for it to BE foreshadowing. I was conscious of doing that, I guess, but it seems to me that foreshadowing doesn’t really have a point except to instill a sense of unease in the reader that can only be resolved by continuing to read—like, I think foreshadowing is just a subtle way to ratchet up the pace. I don’t see much, like, real philosophical or thematic guts to it. (I might be wrong, of course. I don’t really know how much about how/whether writing works.)

Q: In regards to the quote that talks about how one feels after reading a great book – how does it feel to know people feel that about your books?

It’s wonderful if people feel the connection to one of my books that Hazel feels to AIA. I didn’t write that bit thinking about my books, though; I was thinking about my own reading experiences as a teenager.

Q: You use the phrase “irreparably broken” in both Looking for Alaska and TFIOS, but with two different viewpoints. Had you changed your stance on the phrase between writing the two novels?

Interesting question. (I reused that phrase by accident, for the record.) It certainly doesn’t reflect a change or evolution in my thinking. But I’ve had a very different life from Hazel, and also a somewhat different life from Miles, and if I’m doing my job as a writer, they’re coming to the question of irreperability from their own perspectives, not from mine.

Q: Were you aware of the last phrase of Ulysses while writing the last line of TFiOS?


Q: How did you come up with the idea that Hazel and Gus were in a shared third space while they were talking on the phone?

The idea of the third space was stolen from the brilliant artist Joshua Mosley. He mentioned it in a talk he gave while introducing a new artwork.

Q: There are references to the poem “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” on pages 18 and 274, as well as the title of An Imperial Affliction. How did you decide to use this poem?

I read Emily Dickinson’s collected poems when I was in college, and of course that is one of her most beloved poems. (That said, like a lot of her poetry, it suffers from this kind of failure to make up its mind in re. faith and fate and so on, which I generally see as kind of a weakness in her work, but in that particular poem it really works for me.)

Q: Can you elaborate on which of David Foster Wallace’s ideas you used in TFIOS?

Well, to the extent that An Imperial Affliction exists, it is similar in some ways to Infinite Jest. (The first line of AIA, for instance, which is something like “My mother’s glass eye turned inwards,” can be read as a quiet reference to the IJ character Nell Gunther, whose glass eye often faces inward. This idea—of the unseeing eye turned not out toward the world but into the self—is a really beautiful symbol, and always struck with me.) Previous drafts of TFiOS made the connection between AIA and IJ must more explicit (for instance, they had the same last sentence), but that stuff got stripped away as the role AIA played in the novel changed.

Mostly, though, I was influenced by Wallace’s famous commencement address at Kenyon College and to a lesser extent by some of the passages in The Pale King, where Wallace extolls the many virtues of noticing and the daily business of paying attention, which Hazel comes to believe is the core responsibility and privilege of being a person.

Q: Have you read David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More? Because it verbatim says that it’s possible for some infinities to be larger than other infinities.

Yeah, I reviewed Everything and More in Booklist Magazine when it was first published, and I was really fascinated by the book—although the math confused me, partly because some of it turns out to be wrong/oversimplified.

I wanted An Imperial Affliction and generally some of PVH’s thinking to resemble some of DFW’s thinking, although obviously DFW was not an alcoholic and not (at least so far as I know) cruel to his teenage readers. But the relationship that Hazel has to AIA is similar in a lot of ways to the relationship I had with Infinite Jest (which in college I basically believed to be, like, scripture) and certainly DFW’s arguments re. attentiveness and focus and the pleasure/significance/responsibility of observation were very important to me and to this book.

So, yes, I borrowed a lot from his work, definitely.

Q: Do you think Prufrock’s hesitance to disturb the universe is similar to Hazel’s walking lightly? Were you trying to show the heroic side of this versus the feeling of cowardice portrayed by Eliot?

Yes and yes.