Author Interview: John Green on An Abundance of Katherines

John Green on John Green: “To quote Holden: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I really don’t feel like getting into it, if you want to know the truth.’ (I’m 29, and I now live in New York but grew up in Florida and Alabama. After college, I worked for a few months at a children’s hospital and then decided once and for all that I wanted to be a writer, and then I got a job at Booklist Magazine, which led to everything else. I just got married. And my lousy childhood was actually pretty idyllic. Just like Holden’s.)”

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

In spite of having a tight-knit family who loved and supported me, I was very awkward socially and I didn’t have a lot of friends. By the time I started ninth grade at my public school, I felt a lot of existential despair–nothing was really that wrong with my life in particular, but it seemed to me that something was very wrong with life in general. Then I decided to go to boarding school, where I met close friends and put the despair to rest (well, to an extent) and started enjoying the thrill of being close to people. I became kind of the court jester of my school, I guess, which was a role I relished.

What first led you to write for young adults?

I mentioned earlier that I worked for a few months at a children’s hospital (I was a student chaplain). That’s really when the idea of “Alaska” first came to me as a book, and it’s also when I started to think I wanted to write for teenagers.

I didn’t know then that YA literature even existed, really. When I was a kid, YA books were mostly for middle-schoolers, and I knew the books I wanted to write were definitely for high school students. I was thinking of authors like Vonnegut and Salinger, and books like The Virgin Suicides.

When I started working at Booklist in 2000, I became acquainted with what had happened in the world of YA, and that’s when I realized that my book was a YA novel also. But I very much wrote both my books with a teen readership in mind–although I’m flattered adults have liked them.

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I was very fortunate to have a mentor in Ilene Cooper. Ilene is a children’s book author and editor at Booklist, and when I told her I was writing a YA novel, she really supported me tremendously. She gave me deadlines, worked with me on revisions, and everything else. I think Ilene helped me avoid many of the traditional stumbling blocks aspiring authors face, although it did take more than two years of writing and rewriting to get the book publishable.

Once Ilene was happy with the book, I sent it to publishers, and Penguin called me after 5 months and 17 days and said they wanted to publish it, and then I immediately called all of my ex-girlfriends. But it wasn’t over then.

With my (brilliant) editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, I spent two more years revising “Alaska,” and between when I sold the book and when it was published, about 80% of the words changed. It was a very long process, but quite fun.

As we all know, Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005) was a grand-slam hit. Looking back, how would you describe that initial ride? Is there anything about it you wish you could change, and if so, why?

No, I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the flu on the day I accepted the Printz Award, but other than that, everything has been a lot of fun.

I had such low expectations for “Alaska,” because after five years of reviewing books for Booklist, I knew that books come and go. I remember telling my editor, “I just hope this makes it to paperback.” So everything really did come as a great surprise to me–the foreign editions and the movie stuff and the awards–but it didn’t really change much about the way I see myself as a writer, or the way I see “Alaska” as a book.

Honestly, the only thing that has felt good in a deep and lasting way is the emails and letters I receive from readers who’ve found in the book something they needed, and who have read the book with the kind of depth and thoughtfulness that all authors hope and pray for.

How did you find out that you’d won the Printz Award, and what was your initial reaction? How did you celebrate?

My parents were visiting us in New York, and we’d just left the American Folk Art Museum (which is one of the best museums in New York, incidentally). So Sarah and I were dragging my parents to Macy’s, because we had to register for wedding gifts.

We were walking down sixth avenue, and my cell phone rang, and I answered it, and someone said something about the Michael L. Printz Award Committee, and then the phone stopped working.

During the thirty seconds of silence that followed, my dad took out his camera, so he got all these shots of me right as I was finding out.

Anyway, Michael Cart said, “You are the winner of the Michael L. Printz Award,” and then I said, “Are you sure?” and he said, “Yes, I’m sure,” and then I said, “I didn’t get an honor?” and he said, “No, you won.” And I said, “I won?” and he said, “You won,” and I said, “Really?” And he, kind of exasperated at that point, said, “Yes, really.” And then I said, “Holy crap.”

And then we had a really, really, really good time registering for wine glasses. It was pretty great. I felt so blessed to have my parents and Sarah with me.

Does earning such critical acclaim early on cast off those worries that seem to plague so many writers? (I have this theory that, as a rule, writers are among the world’s greatest worriers due to our oft exercised imaginations).

Um, no, not at all. There are a lot of writers who write one good book and never do anything worthwhile ever again. I don’t want to be one of them. I worry a lot, but I agree with you that it’s just part of being a writer. I mean, part of what we do profesionally is imagine the worst things that can happen. I suspect it will never go away.

Congratulations on the publication of An Abundance of Katherines (Dutton, 2006). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I think my initial inspiration is always that I think up characters I’d like to write about, and I started with two characters: a washed-up child prodigy and his charmingly apathetic best friend. The book spiralled from there.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I happen to know the precise day I thought up those characters, because it was the same day this girl broke up with me. I’d have to look it up to be sure, but I think it was April 24, 2003. So it took about three and a half years from spark to publication.

I started writing it in earnest in the spring of 2004, and then completed an initial draft (my first drafts never bear much of a resemblance to my finished books) right around the time “Alaska” came out in March, 2005.

The next year was spent revising the manuscript over and over again with Julie. She was pretty heroic about editing “Katherines.” For instance, she literally was editing it while she was in labor with her first child. I mean, she called me from the hospital and was like, “Hey, I want you to think more deeply about Hollis’ relationship with Lindsey.”

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Well, I don’t know anything about what it’s like to be a child prodigy, since I wasn’t all that smart and wasn’t a very good student, either. So I did have to read a lot of books about child prodigies. Also, there is some math in the book (note: you don’t have to like math to like “Katherines”), and I am really bad at math, so that was tremendously difficult. Also, Colin speaks 11 languages, and I speak one, so that was time-consuming.

The biggest challenge is that “Katherines” is very different from my first novel–it’s a much more comic novel, and it has less of a built-in structure, and it is third-person instead of first-person. I wanted to do something radically different, partly because I want to have a long career and don’t want to repeat myself, and partly because I wanted to push myself a little.

Other than your own, what would you say are the three must-read YA novels of the year and why?

It’s tough to choose just three, but okay! First, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2006). In my opinion, it’s the most ambitious novel for teenagers published in the last decade. It’s important for writers because it has the potential to change what it means to publish for teenagers. But it’s also just a wonderful book by an immensely talented writer who clealy gave this book everything he had.

Second, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart (Delacorte, 2006)(excerpt)(author interview). It’s a fun reworking of Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis, and it also upends a lot of the ways we think about teens and gender. I really loved this book.

Third, Sold by Patricia McCormick (Hyperion, 2006)(excerpt). There’s a lot to celebrate about this book, but I just think the writing is fantastic.

What advice do you have for beginning YA novelists?

I think the best advice I ever received was to trust that when people give you constructive criticism, they are usually right. I think the hardest part of writing is learning how to revise and revise effectively. And in a publishing climate where books are often edited very lightly, it falls to authors to do a lot of revision themselves. So it’s very important to listen closely to what people think isn’t working.

Also, I would say read a lot. Reading is the only apprenticeship writers have.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m writing a book now. I always sound like an idiot when I talk about what I’m currently writing, though. Whenever people asked me about “Alaska,” I would say, “Um, it’s a book about a boy. And a girl. At a boarding school.” So I guess this new book is about a boy. And a girl. At a public school. I know! It sounds so good! You can’t wait to read it! (I swear I’ll try to make it good.)

Cynsational Notes

Looking for Alaska will be available in paperback from Puffin in December 2006.

An Abundance of Katherines has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and the Horn Book.

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