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Booklist Senior Editor Ilene Cooper speaks to author John Green about his new novel "The Fault in Our Stars," the difficulties of honestly depicting cancer survivors, and the challenges of signing every single copy of the 150,000 first printing.
Ilene Cooper: We're here at the NCTE conference in an anteroom of the Hilton Grand Ballroom, uh, to talk about John's new book, The Fault in Our Stars.  So, John's gonna give us a brief synopsis.

John: Uh, okay, The Fault in Our Stars is about two kids, Hazel and Augustus, who meet at a support group for kids with cancer, and uh, come to share a love of this book called An Imperial Affliction, written by a reclusive author named Peter van Houten.

Ilene: And the real quote of The Fault in Our Stars is "The fault, dear Brutus, lies in ourselves, not in our stars."

John: Right.

Ilene: So, where were you going with that?

John: Well, I mean, you never wanna say you're arguing against Shakespeare-

Ilene: And yet.

John: -But I was arguing against Shakespeare.  I mean, I think it's easy for Cassius and Shakespeare to say that the fault is not in our stars, but the truth is that like, we live in a world where there is fault in our stars always and everywhere, and I find that very difficult to reconcile myself to, and I think I've been writing this book for so long as a way of trying to find value and meaning and hope in the most, like, difficult and painful parts of life.  

Ilene: Now, you say in your author's note that (John and Ilene laugh) do not think that, uh, don't read anything into this book, you're writing fiction.

John: Right.

Ilene: But you did um, become friends with a girl in Nerdfighteria who was very ill and did die of cancer, um, so that influenced you, it must have.

John: Esther gave me a way into the story that I hadn't found before, um, because I think that it was impossible for me to write characters who weren't either sort of uh, sad creatures for us to mourn and sympathize with, or then alternately, these like, fountains of wisdom that you see so often in, in books about young cancer survivors, so um, Esther was such a normal kid and so charismatic that she drew me out of myself and my expectations for what illness was and um, helped me uh, see things broader. 

The reason I wrote that author's note is that I don't want people to think that Hazel is Esther, because, a) because Esther's not here to defend herself against such charges as liking America's Next Top Model, which she hated, um, or any number of other things, you know, so, so it's important to me that, that it be read as a novel, but certainly I could never have written it without Esther.

Ilene: There's also an author in the book, who-

John: Yeah.

Ilene: -who I presume is not you?

John: I hope not!

Ilene: He's a bit cranky.

John: Yeah, I mean I wrote him, I mean, in some ways, Peter van Houten is the - my darkest secret self, you know, the person I fear becoming.  He's a horrible, horrible person, but I have an affection for him that um, that I think comes from being a writer and having interactions with readers that are difficult and complicated and - and it's difficult to know - it's difficult to know how to work that relationship in this weird, new, contemporary world, where it's very easy to interact with everyone.  

Ilene: And speaking of it being easy to interact with um, your fans, you had the idea that it might be fun to autograph all the pre-ordered copies of The Fault in Our Stars, and so what was your expectation when you had that idea?

John: Well, I mean, there had been about 1200 pre-orders for Paper Towns, and so I figured that realm, about 1200, but then Penguin said the only way to sign all the pre-orders because of warehousing or something boring that I didn't understand was to sign the entire first printing, and then my first printings had been about 20,000 or so, so I figured that's doable.  

Ilene: Mm-hmm.

John: Take - take a few days, maybe, but it's doable, but then the first printing got much larger, so I ended up having to sign a lot more books.

Ilene: And that would have been?

John: 150,000.  

Ilene: And there - there were actually physical problems?

John: Yeah!  Yeah!  

Ilene: Bad - bad paw.

John: Yeah, I mean, my arm, well, it's a repetitive stress injury, this ulnar nerve problem, but my doctor said that if I - once I finished, it would go away.

Ilene: And you didn't cheat.

John: I didn't cheat, I signed every single - I mean, yeah, I signed every single one of those books.  I did not cheat ever.

Ilene: Tempted?

John: I didn't always - I didn't always sign them well.  Um, in fact, like, when I messed up a signature, there's a secret URL that I would write at the bottom that takes you to a video of me apologizing for your terrible signature.

Ilene: And what did you do while you were - I mean, you must have been watching TV or...

John: I watched a lot of TV.  I had like an Ilene Cooper level relationship with television, I watched...

Ilene: That means PBS.

John: HAH, I did - I watched, uh, I watched all of Ken Burns' documentaries. All of them.  I watched all of The Civil War, I watched Baseball, Mark Twain, Jack Johnson, Prohibition, I saw everything.  I saw um, the entire oeuvre of MythBusters, uh, I've seen every episode of MythBusters.  I watched the entire five seasons of this show called Pawn Stars that I didn't even like.

Ilene: Were there any - any points where you were writing where you thought this is really too hard to...?

John: Yeah, there were a couple times when I - a couple times when it was hard for me, just to write it.  But I felt like it was really important to me to try to be honest, particularly to try to be honest about when you're seriously ill, to try to be honest about um, how you lose that feeling of bodily sovereignty that all of us take for granted, and that, you know, the sort of separation between mind and body that we all just assume exists is ripped away from you and you realize that you have no mind without your body, and - and you're drawn into just being ill as a career essentially, but I wanted to write about it hopefully in a way that was hopeful and that embraced the belief that while it is difficult, there is this - there is this hero's journey within illness, um, that doesn't get talked about very often, where in spite of it, you - you pull yourself up and you continue you be alive while you're alive.  

Ilene: And there's a lot of humor in the book, was that hard to balance out?  Did you ever feel like okay, they're having too much fun?

John: Yeah, probably should take out some jokes here?  I mean, no, I uh - I can't - I don't know how to write without humor.  I really like writing funny scenes and I really like writing, you know, I like writing about clever kids, and clever kids tend to be funny even when things are - things are rough.  Um, there were a few times when - like, I never wanted to use humor to lighten the mood, I've always thought that's a really lame use of humor, um, so I never wanted to be, like, da-da-dum, you know, so I did - I did work to try to avoid that, um, and sometimes, I might, you know, when you are in that - that hard stuff, sometimes you wanna just pull out with an easy joke, and I did have to resist that sometimes, or Julie told me to delete it.  

Ilene: And what was your takeaway from the book?  What - when you were done, how are you different?

John: I worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital a decade ago, and ever since then, I have struggled with - against just complete nihilism, just a feeling that um, everything in human life is utterly random and capricious and arbitrary and because of that, all meaning of consciousness is robbed from us.  Um, and I think walking away from the book, I still feel like uh, it's extremely capricious and random and unfair and arbitrary, but I - I know no longer feel like that robs human life of its meaning, or that robs even the lives of people who don't get to have full lives of their - the meaning in their lives.  Um, and that was a long time coming for me, and not just as a writer, but as a person, that's an extremely helpful thing to be able to carry with you, because it was very difficult for me on a day-to-day basis to remember the kids that I'd known at the hospital and not um, despair.  

Ilene: So, now it's done and how are you going to do lighten the mood with your next - your next book?  

John: I don't know.  I - I mean, this is the - I've never - this has never happened to me before, but finishing this book - I don't have any - I have other ideas, there are other things I'm excited to write, they are lighter, um, and less - I mean, not just lighter in terms of like, theme, I hope The Fault in Our Stars is funny, I just mean lighter in terms of this was an extremely difficult writing process, and I'd like to write something that's not so difficult next time.  But um, I don't know, I wanna - I wanna take a little time off and catch my breath and um, figure out what I wanna do next and then do it.

Ilene: Thanks, John.

John: Now we're done.

Ilene: Now we're done.

(Both laugh)

John: Thanks, Ilene.