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The Interview Show. Interview with "Looking for Alaska" novelist John Green on Feb. 8, 2008. Hosted by Mark Bazer at the Hideout, in Chicago, the first Friday of every month.
Mark: You've lived--you w--we had a bet that you'd move to New York City.

John: We did have a bet.

Mark: And I said you'd stay there for the rest of your life.

John: Right.

Mark: And just to prove me wrong, you moved to Indianapolis.

John: Yes.

Mark: What are you doing in Indianapolis?

John: Well, it's the New York City of Indiana.  It's actually not even the New York City of Indiana, it's--it's the Buffalo of Indiana.  

Mark: You just wanna piss the people of Buffalo off.

John: Yeah.  Oh, God, I hope they don't go through the Red Eye website every day.  Yeah, no, the--we moved to Indianapolis because my lovely wife who went to grad school in New York City, which is the reason we left Chicago in the first place, got a job working as an Assistant Curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which is a really well-funded museum doing a lot of interesting work and so, we thought that it would be worthwhile to move there.  Also, the houses there are like, functionally free, like, uh, when we were first looking at real estate, we figured that we could probably buy just a block, tear everything else down.

Mark: You know, I wrote a column about--my parents now live in Toledo, and I wrote the most obnoxious column--

John: You could probably purchase Toledo.

Mark: That's what I said, we should all move to Toledo and purchase the city and then I got a nasty letter from someone in Toledo.

John: One of the eight remaining residents.

Mark: That they didn't want me in Toledo.


Mark: So you--tell me a little about your novels.  You can start with your first novel, just so--I just want the audience here to know a little bit about--

John: Well, the library copy of Looking for Alaska, if you wouldn't mind holding up that beautiful copy from the Cook County Public, is about a group of kids at a boarding school--there's--the young man who memorizes the last words of famous people named Miles and the last words of Francois Rabelais which is a hobby of mine as well, but the last words of Francois Rabelais were, "I go to seek a great perhaps," and Miles goes to this boarding school with the notion that he's gonna sort of seek his "great perhaps" at this school, and he falls in love with this girl named Alaska.  My second book, An Abundance of Katherines, is about a child prodigy who's 17, so he's sort of washed up, I mean, almost all child prodigies hit their peak when they're about 11 or 12 years old.

Mark: Were you a child prodigy?

John: No, but I did know some, you know, like I was nerdy enough that I was able to associate with them, even though I didn't have any particular intellectual talents.

Mark: So they don't turn into geniuses, necessarily?

John: Right.  In fact, the most famous child prodigy in American history is this guy, William (?~2:28) who is very famous in the early 20th century.  He got his PhD from Harvard when he was 12 or 13, and he was lecturing in Astrophysics when he was 13, and then when he was 18, he got really, really interested in railroad traffic signals, like, when they should be red, when they should be yellow, when they should be green, and he died when he was 58 and for 40 years, he wrote this 8,000 page manuscript on the topic of railroad traffic signals, for which he was unable to secure a publisher, and then he died alone in a basement apartment in Brooklyn at the age of 58 of liver failure, because he was afraid of doctors, so like, that's sort of the usual trajectory of the American child prodigy.  You know, very promising, very promising, very promising, railroad traffic signals, liver failure, death.  

Mark: But that's not what happens in the book.

John: He also died--he was also died a virgin, not relevant, just interesting.

Mark: What's your fascination--I mean, both last words and in this book, the guy has an obsession with trivia--

John: Right.

Mark: If you call it trivia.  Do you call it trivia?  Are you-and you're interested in that, 'cause you worked for mental_floss magazine.

John: Yeah, I mean, I am fascinated by trivia, and also he's unusually good at anagramming and so he has this sort of facility with language that maybe most teenagers wouldn't have and in Alaska, the kid has a fascination with language that maybe most teenagers wouldn't have.  I mean, I think part of that is that teenagers think that they're a lot more interesting than they actually are, and part of it is that I--

Mark: And 34 year olds.

John: Yeah, no, I mean, that goes all the way up.  And you know, up to our parents.

Mark: But what's your interest in trivia?  Where does that--where do you think that comes from?

John: Well, I just think it's--I just--well, I was always a nerd, and I was always interested in something that was funny and true.  I mean, the idea of, you know, the great line from The Simpsons, "It's funny because it's true", but I was always interested in the idea that it's funny because it's true, like, you know, it wouldn't be particularly interesting to say that Jean Jacques Rousseau got off on mooning women in dark alleyways if it weren't true, you know, it wouldn't be funny if--

Mark: Is that true?

John: It is true.  

Mark: Okay.

John: Or Rene Descartes, part of the reason that Descartes formed his ideas about free will was because he had a fetish for women with crossed eyes.  Really, I mean, that's not a joke.  I mean, it is a jo--it both is and is not.  But, and he was able to conquer his fetish for women with cross eyes because he wasn't attracted to anyone else until he was about 35. 

Mark: Okay.

John: And it was because he was able to conquer this, in part, tha the began to believe that man was capable of a genuinely free will.  So I mean, that stuff is interesting.  It's a way into knowledge that maybe you wouldn't take naturally.

Mark: Do you look down on like, trivial pursuit, like, that's not real trivia?

John: Well, it's not very--it--yeah, it's not--it doesn't tend to be very funny.  

Mark: Right.

John: I actually, I actually almost had a gig once writing for them, but the money didn't work out.

Mark: You know, I used to write trivia.  I had a gig writing trivia.

John: Really?

Mark: No joke.  No joke.

John: For whom?  

Mark: A company called JellyVision, they did You Don't Know Jack.

John: Ohh, yeah.  You know, I almost got hired by them but then they went bankrupt.  

Mark: No, I remember, I saw your resume and we just--we just--

John: You were like, we're about to go bankrupt, we can't hire this guy.  He's useless.

Mark: You know, I was going to ask you if you've ever done any teaching of writing, and then I was reading the book this week and I came across a passage that I want to read, which I just think is hilarious and hopefully you don't mind if I read a little bit.

John: I don't mind.  Can I heckle?

Mark: Sure.

John: Okay.

Mark: And this--let me set it up.  The character is a woman named Lindsey and she is explaining to the main character, Colin, that he doesn't know how to tell a story.  He goes on and on but he never gets anywhere, so she describes him, she tells him how to tell a story.  She says, "Here's the thing about storytelling.  You need a beginning and a middle and an end."  And then I've skipped a little bit.

John: Sure.

Mark: "And you need a good strong moral or a theme or whatever.  And the other thing is romance and adventure.  You've gotta put some of those in.  If it's a story about peeing into a lion cage, give yourself a girlfriend who notices how gigantic your winkie is, and then saves you from the lion at the last second by tackling you, because she's desperate to save that gorgeous, ginormous winkie.  Colin blushed, but Lindsey kept going.  In the beginning, you need to pee, in the middle, you do, in the end, through romance and adventure, your winkie is saved from the jaws of a hungry lion by the pluck of a young girl motivated by her biding love for giant winkies.  And the moral of the story is that a heroic girlfriend combined with a giant winkie will save you from even the most desperate situations."  

John: I'm a very happily married man, I mean, that's my only response to that story.  

Mark: And the people in Buffalo are upset with you?  (?~7:22)

John: I know, I don't understand what would offend them, yeah.  

Mark: Oh, I just--I really, I just absolutely love that.  So what are you working on now?

John: My new novel is called Paper Towns, it's set in Orlando, Florida where I grew up and it comes out in October, I think, so I'm still working a little bit on that.  That's sort of the uh--

Mark: Is it a young adult book?

John: It is, I mean, I'm going to keep writing those books until someone tells me that I can't write them anymore.  I love the audience, I love that kind of work, I love those characters.  I'm fa--I think it's really endlessly interesting to write about 17 year olds, I mean, I think that you know, they're in this part of their life where they're doing everything for the first time, and you know, to be able to participate in that in even a very small way is quite interesting to me, and plus, I feel like I can get, you know, I can get a fair adult audience out of it, you know, I have you, I have Sarah, my cousin's here.  You know, like, that's the--that's enough adults for me, I think.  

Mark: Do you worry as you get older and you get further away from--

John: Yeah.

Mark: --the age that you won't know what's going on?  

John: Yeah, I mean, in a way, I do.  In another way, I feel like I don't--I never knew what was going on.  I didn't know what was going on when I was 16, like, I didn't know what the cool people liked, I didn't know what they were into, I didn't get--I mean, I don't even remember, like, I didn't understand why Green Day was a good band then, and I don't understand why Radiohead is a good band now, prepares to be pelted.  But uh, it's worked out alright so far, you know, I mean, I think very little--I mean, you read Catcher in the Rye, and that book, none of the slang makes sense anymore, but it's still damn good, and the reason it's good is because you believe in the kid and you believe in him sort of in a world out of time.  

Mark: Well, John, thank you so much.  

John: It's a pleasure.

Mark: I really appreciate it.  


Mark: Buy his books, they're excellent.