From Babysitters Club to the Bluest Eye
When I was a little kid, I liked to read Babysitters Club, whatever, I know it's for girls. I was actually very helpful insight into what a girl thinks, particularly about boys, which would have been helpful if I had been even remotely interesting to girls, which I wasn't.
I read, Hatchet by Gary Paulson. I read a lot of books, but I didn't have any kind of visceral connection to books like Eudora Welty talks about childhood reading as a sweet devouring and it was very much like that for me. I would just devour everything, every book I could.
It wasn't any different then a TV show or watching a movie, it was all part of the same idea of getting access to stories. It was only when I was in high school really where I started reading interesting books and responding to them in a more thoughtful and critical way, I got a D in.
No joke, I got a D and I only got a D because I had to write a paper about the Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison over the summer to get the D. I was a terrible student but I read the books and because of the way that the book discussions happened, often I read the books after class discussions.
I think that in some ways is the power of an English class, even if the teacher sometimes feel like they're not getting to a kid, you're getting to kids in ways that you don't expect. That teacher, Paul McAdam, he had no inkling that I was reading those books.
He had no inkling that I had any level of talent or promise as a reader or as a writer, but he never gave up on me. He never treated me like I was anything less then a smart person who was underperforming. That made such a big, big and lasting difference in my life.
Don't I know you from somewhere?
Whenever I'm asked if my characters are inspired by real people, I always say no and if someone is in the audience who I went to high school with, they boo. They will literally boo. I really think that everybody in my book is fictional and all of my work is fictional and is a product of my imagination.
I do think certainly people in my life have inspired stories and I'm sure I've conflated the people from my life into characters. I spend more time writing each of my books then I spend hanging out with the guys I knew in high school.
I couldn't have stolen that much, but I have stolen a fair bit from all of them and they feel like they're entitled to some level of compensation for this. Most of them have very fancy jobs, so I don't know. I do steal here and there definitely.
If I don't say that, they'll get mad at me.
Someone who isn't there
A lot of my favorite books are written in first person, that's part of the reason I write first person, Catcher in the Rye and Gatsby and many others. But, I had to write my second novel in third person because it's about this washed up child prodigy named Colin, who literally cannot tell stories that other people find interesting.
So it seemed sort of impossible to tell a story that other people would find interesting in his voice. And I also- you know, it's so difficult with someone who, you know, Colin knows 11 languages, he's really adept at anagramming, his mind is constantly making weird connections that you or I wouldn't make.
I felt like it would be really inaccessible to the reader if I wrote him, from his perspective. But I really, I love writing a first person, the model for this I think is All the Kings Men, a novel that's written in the first person and is about the character who is writing his or her story.
But it's also about this other character who we all sort of find fascinating and certainly the protagonist finds fascinating. And that's what I did in both Alaska and Paper Towns. I wanted to write about someone who isn't always there, but whose presence sort of looms over the narrative.
I don't think I rely upon teenagers for my ideas the way some of my friends do and some of the writers I really even look up to very much do. For instance, I look up to Laurie Halse Anderson tremendously and she often says that you know her ideas come from the letters that she receives and e-mails that she receives.
I don't look for that from them, but what I have learned from the Nerdfighter community and from all my readers is that no matter how well I write, they can read better and that they can read very big, very ambitious work in a way that serious writers would want it to be read.
I'm tired of people saying otherwise. They are really smart, they're really good, they're able to read with immense critical sophistication. They have a tremendous media literacy that translates very well to contemporary fiction. I don't buy it when people say, this book is too hard for teenagers, this book is too challenging, it's too smart for teenagers. Teenagers won't get this — they do get it. I get to see that every day. I'm very blessed to see that every day.
Parents, kids, and new media
I think for parents particularly, there's a sense that when you're watching television with your kids, you know what they're watching, you can talk about what they're watching. If they see something- if you see something happen you can either pause if you have DVR or you can turn the television off or you can initiate a conversation immediately.
And you may not, parents may not feel like they have that level of control of the environment online, which they don't. More and more, television and the internet are becoming similar and I don't think that there will be a line between the two in a few years, but for now there is a line and we still think of them as separate entities. I would urge parents to go online and watch what their kids are watching or watch it with them. They maybe embarrassed, but it's still worth doing.
I cannot tell you- I've met 8000 kids in the last two months on tour for my book. I cannot tell you how many parents have come up to me and said, I drove my kid an hour to see you. I have no idea what you do on You Tube, I have never seen a video that you made, but and I was- and of course they think that it's going to be weird and socially destructive in some way and but their kids have been bugging them for months to go.
And what they find is that it's my brother and me talking about how to fix poverty in Bangladesh and talking about the importance of treating mosquito nets, getting into the right villages in Bangladesh and talking about imagining other people complexly and fairly. And talking about the importance of intellectualism in public discourse.
And so they come up to me afterwards and they're like, oh this is great! Well you know, you could have found out that it was great on You Tube, it's just as good on You Tube. You could have saved yourself the worry.
So I do think it's important to know that there are a lot of socially constructive online video projects happening right now and I think it's wonderful that kids are participating in them. But I would be very happy to see more adults participating in them.
Nerdfighters video blogging
When we started this video blog project in January of 2007, we immediately noticed that people were watching it. Back then it was like 3 or 4 hundred people, but that was way more people then we ever thought would watch it. Over the next few months, we found that this small group of people was becoming very tight knit, they were becoming friends with one another.
They were building their own projects, whether it was, you know, they were using our web site as a kind of sandbox to have conversations about books or to write stories together or whatever it was. They started calling themselves Nerdfighters, after a video game that is actually called AeroFighters, but because of weirdness in the font, looks like it's called Nerdfighters.
We often feel like we're on the outside of things. I mean I think a lot of people in the Nerdfighter community feel like they're on the outside and so this is a chance for all of us, for me and for Hank and for all the Nerdfighters to feel like on the inside.
Almost every Nerdfighter knew my work as a writer before they knew my work as a video blogger. So the books would bring people to, we called the place Nerdfighteria. The books would bring people to Nerdfighteria, but as the popularity of the video blog has expanded so dramatically.
My brother writes these songs about books that are really, really popular and also songs about video games that are really, really popular. Because of that a lot of people have come into the community who didn't know my books and so when Paper Towns came out a few weeks ago, it was completely different experience from my first two novels because this force of people were so committed and so loyal to the idea of reading my book, reading it as soon as it came out.
Reading it in this really wonderfully thoughtful and engaging way and because I'm there in video, you know, we can have a conversation about the book which has just been wonderfully fulfilling for me.
The story of the future
I think the future of the book is pretty bleak in some ways. I think that the future of text-based narrative is very good. I don't think that that's going anywhere. My brother and I were talking recently about YouTube and he asked me if YouTube had existed when you were 20, would you have ever written a book?
Which is totally a legitimate question because I love this format of online video and I think that it is a really cool format for talking to kids and for having a seat at the table at this critical moment of their lives when they're forming their values. I think it is really interesting and important.
But books do something that video doesn't do, that television doesn't do, that film doesn't do, which is why books have survived in the first place. I mean radio was supposed to kill books, television was supposed to kill books and plenty of books are still being published, some say too many.
I think that narrative text is going to hang around. Stories will hang around, written stories will hang around. These things that we make from trees that cost a lot of money and a lot of carbon to ship around the country and because of the vagaries of the book business then often have to be shipped somewhere else, that may not hang around.
It's difficult for us, look it's difficult for me, I love printed books, I love the way they smell, I love holding them. I love reading them but we are all going to have to make a lot of very serious sacrifices in the coming decades. If that is among those sacrifices, I am ready to make it because I know that text will survive, stories written down survive. That's what's really important.
Excerpt from Paper Towns
I'm John Green, this is my new book Paper Towns. Paper Towns is about a band geek named Q who's actually not even musically talented enough to be in the band and this young woman named Margot Roth Spiegelman who's responsible for everything awesome that's ever occurred at Winter Park High School the book is set in Orlando, where I grew up.
Q's two best friends are Ben, who's this guy who believes that like the surest path to a girl's heart is to call her a honey bunny and Radar who is an African-American kid who's a semi-professional editor of this web site that's identical to Wikipedia but it's called Omnicitionary.
In the scene I'm going to read, Ben and Que have just met Radar's girlfriend for the first time, Radar has a date to prom which is stunning as any Wikipedia editor will tell you. Ben and Q have just met her and she expressed dismay that she has never been invited to Radar's house.
(Reading)The period was almost over, so Ben and I got up and put our trays onto the conveyor belt, the very same conveyor belt that Chuck Parson had thrown me onto freshman year, sending me into the terrifying netherworld of Winter Park's dishwashing core. We walked over to Radar's locker and were standing there when he raced up just after the first bell.
"We just dined with Angela." I said, then smirked at Radar and said, "Yeah, she wants to know why she's never over to your house?" Radar exhaled a long breath as he spun the combination to open his locker. He breathed for so long I thought he might pass out, "Crap." he said finally.
"Are you embarrassed about something?," I asked. "Shut up." he answered, poking is elbow into my gut. "You live in a lovely home." I said. "Seriously bro," added Ben, "She's a nice girl, I don't see why you can't introduce her to your parents and show her your house." Radar threw his books into his locker and shut it.
The din of conversation around us quieted just a bit as he turned his eyes towards the heavens and shouted, "It is not my fault that my parents own the world's largest collection of black Santas." I heard Radar say the world's largest collection of black Santa's probably 1000 times in my life and it never became any less funny to me.
But he wasn't kidding, I remembered the first time I visited, I was maybe 13, it was spring, many months past Christmas and yet black Santas lined the windowsills, paper cutouts of black Santas from the stairway banister. Black Santa candles adorned the dining room table. A black Santa oil painting hung above the mantle which was itself lined with black Santa figurines.
The light up plastic black Santa that stood in their front yard from Thanksgiving to New Years, spent the rest of the year proudly keeping watch in a corner of the guest bathroom, a bathroom with homemade black Santa wallpaper created with paint and a Santa shaped sponge.