A star among teens
Novelist John Green has leveraged the Web to build a rabid fan base
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS By John Green Dutton; $19
While watching one of his recent YouTube videos, it’s immediately clear that John Green isn’t just an author. He’s a multimedia darling playing to 1,000-seat auditoriums of screaming fans.
Some of the crowds showing up for his mostly sold-out, 17-city tour in support of his latest young-adult novel are subscribers to the Vlogbrothers, the video blog Green runs with his brother that draws seven million viewers per month. Others rank among his 1.17 million Twitter followers. Many have read his new bittersweet tragi-comedy, The Fault in
Our Stars, about two teenagers fighting cancer and falling in love. Since its recent release, the book has received hundreds of five-star reviews on Amazon.com and is on bestseller lists.
Few authors have so vocal a following, but Green has a rare combination of talents. A gifted writer who, at age 34, has already won two Printz honours and an Edgar Award for his previous novels, Green has a down-to-earth yet goofy personality that he actively shares with fans in the interest of building community. What’s notable about Green isn’t the fact he’s so effectively leveraged the Web to build his readership. It’s how he’s done it — with resonant authenticity.
“When you’re writing a novel, you spend four years sitting in your basement and a year waiting for the book to come out and then you get the feedback,” the Indianapolis-based author said during a phone interview.
“When you do work online, the moment you’re finished making it, people start responding to it, which is really fun and allows for a kind of community development you just can’t have in novels.”
Not that you can tell from the Vlogbrothers’ semi-weekly videos, which are extremely personable, rapid-fire rants on topics ranging from typos to religiosity and the occasional song about Angler fish, “I’m a very introverted person. Nothing that’s happened has changed that,” Green said, “but one of the reasons I write for teens is it’s a real privilege to have a seat at the table in the lives of young people when they’re figuring out what matters to them.
“To me, part of having that seat extends beyond the world of books because their lives extend beyond books. Teenage readers also have a different relationship with the authors whose work they value than adult readers do. I loved Toni Morrison, but I don’t have any desire to follow her on Twitter. I just want to read her books.”
That’s far from the case with Green’s fans, who’ve shown up on his current tour with cakes iced in “The Fault in Our Stars” frosting and tattoos quoting passages from his bestselling, Printz-winning, 2005 debut, Looking for Alaska. Many of Green’s fans are showing up with already-signed copies of the new book, 100,000-plus were pre-sold, and individually autographed, before the book’s release.
“Teenagers have more intense reading experiences because they’ve had fewer of them,” said Green, adding that as a teenager he wanted to go to New Hampshire and find J.D. Salinger. “It’s like the first time you fall in love. You have a connection to that first person you fell in love with because it was so intense and unprecedented.”
Many of Green’s novels are about that very subject. Looking for Alaska is about a boy who falls in love with a suicidal girl. His follow-ups, An Abundance of Katherines in 2006 and Paper Towns in 2008, are, likewise, about boys falling in love with other bewitching and spirited young women.
All of those early novels were failed attempts at writing The Fault in Our Stars, said Green, who first started the story in 2000 but didn’t make real headway until 2009, when he met and became close friends with a 16-yearold fan of his books and videos named Esther Earl, who had terminal cancer “and whose humour and empathy and charisma and intelligence was really important to me and found a way into the story.”
Green is quick to point out that Earl, who has since died and to whom The Fault in Our Stars is dedicated, is not to be confused with the book’s main character, Hazel, who has thyroid cancer. The Fault in Our Stars is the rare young-adult novel in which friendships are forged in a hospital instead of a school, where the many “side effects of dying” are handled with heart and a healthy dose of gallows humour. Hazel notes early on: “When given a 20-per-cent chance of living five years ... you look around and think ... I gotta outlast four of these bastards.”
Hazel’s impending death never impedes her outrageous, trenchant sense of humour. When her mom insists Hazel attend a support group because she is a teenager who needs to live her life, Hazel answers:
“If you want me to be a teenager, don’t send me to Support Group. Buy me a fake ID so I can go to clubs, drink vodka and take pot.” Which causes Hazel’s mom to point out, “You don’t take pot,” and Hazel to say, “that’s the kind of thing I’d know if you got me a fake ID.”
Readers will fall for Augustus Waters, too. He’s smart, handsome, honest and funny and he demonstrates excellent taste by falling deeply in love with Hazel. When she tells him her cold hands are caused by insufficient oxygenation, Gus replies: “I love it when you talk medical to me.” Augustus is a fatalist. As he has occasion to point out more than once, “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”
Like Hazel, who believes “the funny choice” is the way to tell sad stories, Green, too, decided to go with humour in telling what might otherwise be a story too depressing to read. He makes us laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page.
“Humour and tragedy co-exist everywhere,” Green said. “All the sick people I’ve known were still funny. I wanted to capture the fact that people who are chronically ill or in pain, those people have very difficult lives. It’s not a joyous laugh fest, but those people are as alive and human as anyone else and part of being alive is being able to crack jokes.”
The Fault in Our Stars, straightforwardly written, is never workmanlike, and captures the depths and sensitivity one might expect from young people forced to question their own deaths and the loss of those they have come to know.
It is also not about living with cancer, even though that is the book’s ostensible plot. It’s about living, period. It’s about creating genuine relationships and opening ourselves to others, and laughing hard and often, even in the face of death.