Author, vlogger, and “nerdfighter” John Green has written books for young adults on a number of difficult topics, and he’s back with a remarkable book, The Fault in Our Stars, (out Jan. 10) about Hazel and Augustus (who goes by “Gus”), two teens battling cancer. It might sound like a dreary topic, but the novel is quite the opposite. It’s bursting with humor and exuberance, even if there are some extremely sad moments. Green took the time to talk to EW, and he also shared with us the exclusive trailer for this must-read novel. See below, nerdfighters!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you choose to tackle cancer as your next topic?
JOHN GREEN: When I first graduated from college, I worked as a chaplain at a children’s hospital for about five months. While I was there, I saw a lot of young people with cancer and other serious diseases, and I was struck by how different they were from my expectations. The culture surrounding sick kids tends to tell us they are either going to be these fountains of wisdom or they are going to be these sad-eyed, terrible tragedies – the truth is a lot more complex than that. Sick kids are a lot like other people. I learned that during my time at the hospital and also the next 10 or 11 years trying to reflect it in fiction. Then in 2008 I met a young woman who had cancer who was a reader of my books, and through knowing her it became possible to write the story.
Did you have reservations about fictionalizing cancer and its treatment? As you note in the acknowledgements of the book, Phalanxifor, the “miracle” drug that keeps Hazel’s cancer from spreading, doesn’t actually exist.
Well, there are amazing treatments for some kinds of cancer. So the drug Phalanxifor is very similar to the drug Herceptin. It’s just that Herceptin is for one type of cancer and Phalanxifor is useful for this one type of thyroid cancer. I didn’t have reservations about fictionalizing the treatment because it was important to me that people didn’t think I was trying to write a memoir or some kind of nonfiction story. This is a novel. I don’t want to try and tell a true story about cancer treatment. That is not where my talent lies.
The original title of the book was The Sequel, which I can guess refers to the subplot about Peter van Houten, the Dutch author that Hazel and Gus are obsessed with. I imagine this novel went through lots of changes over the years.
It was a long ten years of finding different ways to do the story. For a long time the book was a sequel to this novel by Peter Van Houten. Or that Hazel was seeking a sequel in the novel, and in that search she found this sequel. But writers tend to fall in love with their own schtick. I clung to it for a long time, even though it didn’t work. One of the complicated things of living in the internet age is you feel close to people, or feel close to people who you actually have a very complicated relationship, and the complexity of that relationship doesn’t come out until you encounter each other in real life.
I know that you’ve written from the point of view of many different types of characters. Were you nervous at all about writing as a teenage girl?
It wasn’t uncomfortable for me at all. Maybe it should have been. It was a little uncomfortable for me when I was reading the audiobook – that was a little awkward. [Laughs] I never thought I would write a female narrator. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I was writing a female narrator – I felt I was writing Hazel. I felt very, very close to Hazel and deeply empathetic to her. You know, I hate it when writers say this – I think it’s the most pretentious thing in the world – but unfortunately it’s true in this case: I did not feel as if I were writing her. I felt like she was kind of taking care of herself. That said, when my wife and editor first read the story they were like, “Girls don’t wear those clothes anymore. You’re clearly imagining 1996.” So they updated me on the clothes.
But you got America’s Next Top Model down.
I’m suddenly rooting for that show to stay a hit for many more years.
I feel like it will for at least five more season – sorry, cycles.
As for Gus, he’s such an amazing, unique character who really brings Hazel to life. Where did he come from?
Part of him comes from high school and my own feelings about heroism – wanting to find a way to have a heroic life but at the same time living in a world where all those old ideas of heroism didn’t make much sense. There was no way I was ever going to be able to jump on a grenade for my buddies in the way that video games celebrate heroism or the way that Hollywood movies traditionally celebrate heroism and sacrifice. For most of us the path to that heroic act of sacrifice that we all imagine is a lot more complicated and a lot less glorious. So some of that comes from me and my own confrontations with that, although I dealt with it later in life. I also didn’t live with illness the way Gus had to. Some of it comes from hanging out and playing video games with teenagers in the hospital while I was working there.
Gus got the opportunity to save Hazel in that way in video games.
I think that’s one of the weird pleasures of playing video games. You get to live out these heroic lives that really don’t apply anymore. There’s a reason that most popular video games are period pieces. Assasins Creed makes a lot of sense if you’re in Italy or whatever. It makes absolutely no sense if you’re in contemporary suburban Indianapolis. I’m not going to have that, you know?
I’m sure one of the things people are going to comment on most about this book is the humor. Was it difficult infusing humor into a story about teens with cancer, or did it come naturally?
It came pretty naturally. I don’t see them as separate in my life or the lives of my friends. Humor and sadness co-exist everywhere and always. It was really important to me that the book be funny, and that it be kind of celebratory of life and these people and their lives. The last thing I wanted to write was a dreary novel about illness. The world has those. I wanted it to be, you know, fun to read. That’s your first job as a writer: Write something that people want to read.
By the way, the song you’re hearing in the trailer is by a young artist named Laurena Segura, who won the Nerd Factor contest that John and his Vlogbrothers partner-in-crime Hank ran this summer. You can download it for free from the PenguinTeen Facebook page!