From the archives: Author John Green finds the emotion, and the humor, in fatal disease.
06/05/2014 2:41 PM
Editor’s note: This story originally ran May 12, 2012. To coincide with the new movie based on “The Fault in Our Stars,” KansasCity.com is republishing the interview with author John Green.
Hazel Lancaster is 16 and alive, but that’s only because an experimental cancer drug has kept her so.
This young narrator in John Green’s novel “The Fault in Our Stars” has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. Ultimately the cancer isn’t going away, but for now, while she’s not dead, her nose is tubed to an oxygen tank, which she can wheel on a cart.
Not that she and her tank roll anywhere. Hazel, an only child, has become reclusive, save for appearances at a cancer support group for teenagers. To most of them, the gathering, with its overly earnest leader Patrick, is terminally lame, pardon the pun.
Still she goes, and it’s a good thing. Because that’s where she meets 17-year-old Augustus Waters, a confident - and completely hot - former high school basketball star who lost a leg to cancer. They are drawn to each other despite their clashing outlooks on how to live, and possibly die, with cancer.
“The Fault in Our Stars” has won accolades for Green, who is a multiple award winner for previous novels in the “young adult” category (though adults have been snatching up the book for themselves). Now the producers behind the “Twilight” series are preparing a film adaptation.
Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Green.
Q This isn’t the first novel about cancer, of course. As you decided on the topic and started writing, what were you hoping your story might do differently, or better?
A I worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital for about six months in 2000. The young people with cancer I met there were not very much like the young people I read about in novels in the cancer genre, which, for better or worse, is a genre.
They weren’t these wise-eyed creatures who discuss the meaning of life and who have come into the rest of our lives to make our lives better. They were much more complicated than that. I wanted to tell a story that was closer to the kids I knew.
Q Cancer stories are often about winning the battle, beating cancer, being a survivor. But this isn’t a “we’re going to win this thing” story.
A Hazel in the novel doesn’t take a lot of stock in that metaphor, about winning the battle. It’s a problematic metaphor, and I understand it’s helpful to a lot of people.
The truth is there’s a variety of responses to major illnesses. There’s no right way to be sick. And I’m not in the business of telling people how they should do it.
But I know for a lot of people that metaphor doesn’t ring as true as it does for some. There is easy hope you can take from it, but a lot of people don’t find that kind of hope particularly convincing. And certainly a lot of the kids I knew and cared about were totally unimpressed with “everything happens for a reason.” They were totally unmoved by “God has a plan for you.”
That just didn’t make sense to them. That didn’t resonate with their experiences and their lives. I wanted to write a novel that could still be hopeful and be honest to the people I had known.
Q But is the reality too harsh? Hazel talks about cancer as a random byproduct of existence.
A It’s harsh and it isn’t. The reality of cancer is that it comes from this process of mutation that is central to our existence. That’s one of the great and terrible ironies of cancer.
Of course I hate cancer. In many ways cancer is to us what tuberculosis was to people in the 19th century, a random, capricious disease. Sometimes you lived and sometimes you died. There’s no way to find any fairness in that.
Q And yet Hazel and Augustus and their friend Isaac are really very funny. Are sick people funny?
A They’re about as funny as most people. One of the things that bothers me about cancer stories is when the sick or the dying person suffers beautifully so the rest of us might learn the lesson of how to suffer and how to be grateful for our own health. That makes the sick person’s life about you.
So part of this is acknowledging that sick people and dying people are people. They are exactly as human as a healthy person. And that means they are still funny. They are still clever. They are still alive. They are still capable of observing the universe.
Plus I get bored if books aren’t funny.
Q They’re also incredibly smart. Their wordplay is something I loved about the book. But are they beyond their years?
A Novels tend toward heightened reality. I side with the writers who think characters should sound like we think we sound. When you write down actual human conversation, people tend to ramble.
And I wanted them to be really smart because I wanted them to be grappling with these difficult philosophical issues and have some background to be able to do it.
Q Hazel’s view is that she’s a human grenade about to explode, messing up the lives of people close to her, particularly her parents. Where did that idea come from?
A I became really good friends with a young woman who had cancer in 2008 and 2009. I don’t think she would put it the way Hazel did, a grenade, but she was a really empathetic person, very conscious of the feelings of others and very aware of how difficult it was for everyone else that she was sick. It made me like her a lot, that she was so young and so outwardly focused.
Early in the book Hazel’s mom has this realization that she won’t be a mom anymore if Hazel dies. I heard a parent say that when I was working as a chaplain. I don’t think I could have written this book until I became a father. My relationship with my son is not contingent on anything except one of us being alive. As long as one of us is alive, he will be my son and I will be his father. I find great comfort in that. So what I realized is that what Hazel’s mom says is not true. Hazel’s mom will always be her mom.
Q Then there’s Augustus, who says he’s on a roller coaster that only goes up.” Why the contrast between the two?
A I wanted them to have two very different ideas of what constitutes a good life and two very different ideas of how best to live with disease. Augustus is focused on grand ideas of heroism, which he sees in video games and movies he likes - these big sacrificial gestures.
Hazel is interested in a quiet life and the subtle heroism of that kind of life. I wanted them to love each other even though they don’t agree. They never reconcile that argument, but they respect each other, and they respect that both ways of thinking are thoughtful, thought-out responses to life.
Q They have their teenage obsessions, Hazel with “An Imperial Affliction, “ a novel that sort of runs her life, and Augustus’ video game, “The Price of Dawn.” I know both aren’t real, but “The Price of Dawn”?
A Actually someone on Twitter made up that title for me. I said I was making up a game like “Modern Warfare, “ and it needed a name. I can say this, it’s my favorite thing about the book. I love that title. I’m completely interested in writing the novelization of that video game.
Q So what is the price of dawn?
A Blood. (Which Hazel discovers when Augustus gives her the novel based on the game.)
Q And what about Hazel and “An Imperial Affliction”?
A A lot of people have that kind of relationship with a text, but it’s usually Scripture. Christian kids go to the Bible for consolation and guidance. But for Hazel it happens to be this novel. She’s a very secular kid.
I had that experience myself with a couple of books in high school. The main one was “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace and the other was “The Blood of the Lamb” by Peter De Vries. “An Imperial Affliction” in my mind is an amalgam.
Q I’m going to give you a chance here to redeem yourself about support groups, which get lampooned by your characters.
A First off, I’m a big fan of support groups. Really I’m closer to being a Patrick than a Hazel.
Q So you were sort of making fun of yourself.
A In a way I was. I’ve worked with kids who looked at me like I was completely full of (expletive), that everything I said to them was profoundly unconvincing.
At the same time, they come to support group. There’s a moment in the book when Augustus asks Isaac, why go to this? And Isaac says, with a question mark, “It helps?” So they can be dismissive, but it helps. Being with people in the same boat as you, it’s very helpful.
Q So is the fault in our stars, or not? The quote from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves...”
A This is a conversation between two Roman nobleman, and that was true in the play. But that quote has been decontextualized and applied to all facets of human existence. There are obviously faults in our stars. There are obviously radical injustices in our world. There is obviously unfair distribution of suffering.
Q Why did you choose the names Hazel and Augustus?
A Augustus is an emperor name, and I wanted his name to be both big and grand and imperial but also a name that could be shortened to become a little kid’s name, Gus. When Hazel first meets Augustus, he’s this brash, confident, extremely handsome guy that turns out to be like anyone else: frail, vulnerable and afraid. It was important to chart that journey from Augustus to Gus.
Hazel is a color that’s in-between. And she’s in-between, in-between death and life, drowning and swimming.
Q Thousands of young people know you as one half of the Vlog Brothers (his YouTube video project with his brother, Hank Green). How did that happen?
A The Vlog Brothers started in 2007 when my brother and I decided to stop communicating textually and instead for a time we communicated daily through public video blogs. A couple of hundred people watched at the beginning. It got bigger, and a really strong community of people grew up around these videos, now almost 700,000 people. That’s hard to get your head around.
By far the best thing is not the number but the engagement, the commitment they have to our projects. We do a lot of philanthropic projects now.
Q Do you have a new writing project in mind?
A I have no idea. I spent 10 or 11 years on this book, and it was always my answer to that question. Now I have no answer.
To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or email email@example.com.
In this excerpt from Chapter 1 of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars, “ the narrator, Hazel Lancaster, first encounters Augustus Waters at a cancer support group for teens. Patrick, the group’s adult leader, has had testicular cancer.
I didn’t want to take the elevator because taking the elevator is a Last Days kind of activity at Support Group, so I took the stairs. I grabbed a cookie and poured some lemonade into a Dixie cup and then turned around.
A boy was staring at me.
I was quite sure I’d never seen him before. Long and leanly muscular, he dwarfed the molded plastic elementary school chair he was sitting in. Mahogany hair, straight and short. He looked my age, maybe a year older, and he sat with his tailbone against the edge of the chair, his posture aggressively poor, one hand half in a pocket of dark jeans.
I looked away, suddenly conscious of my myriad insufficiencies. I was wearing old jeans, which had once been tight but now sagged in weird places, and a yellow T-shirt advertising a band I didn’t even like anymore. Also my hair: I had this pageboy haircut, and I hadn’t even bothered to, like, brush it. Furthermore, I had ridiculously fat chipmunked cheeks, a side effect of treatment. I looked like a normally proportioned person with a balloon for a head. This was not even to mention the cankle situation. And yet - I cut a glance to him, and his eyes were still on me.
It occurred to me why they call it eye contact.
I walked into the circle and sat down next to Isaac, two seats away from the boy. I glanced again. He was still watching me.
Look, let me just say it: He was hot. A nonhot boy stares at you relentlessly and it is, at best, awkward and, at worst, a form of assault. But a hot boy ... well.
I pulled out my phone and clicked it so it would display the time: 4:59. The circle filled in with the unlucky twelve-to-eighteens, and then Patrick started us out with the serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The guy was still staring at me. I felt rather blushy.
Finally, I decided that the proper strategy was to stare back. Boys do not have a monopoly on the Staring Business, after all. So I looked him over as Patrick acknowledged for the thousandth time his ball-lessness etc., and soon it was a staring contest. After a while the boy smiled, and then finally his blue eyes glanced away. When he looked back at me, I flicked my eyebrows up to say, I win.
He shrugged. Patrick continued and then finally it was time for the introductions. “Isaac, perhaps you’d like to go first today. I know you’re facing a challenging time.”
“Yeah, “ Isaac said. “I’m Isaac. I’m seventeen. And it’s looking like I have to get surgery in a couple weeks, after which I’ll be blind. Not to complain or anything because I know a lot of us have it worse, but yeah, I mean, being blind does sort of suck. My girlfriend helps, though. And friends like Augustus.” He nodded toward the boy, who now had a name. “So, yeah, “ Isaac continued. He was looking at his hands, which he’d folded into each other like the top of a tepee. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“We’re here for you, Isaac, “ Patrick said. “Let Isaac hear it, guys.” And then we all, in a monotone, said, “We’re here for you, Isaac.”
Michael was next. He was twelve. He had leukemia. He’d always had leukemia. He was okay. (Or so he said. He’d taken the elevator.)
Lida was sixteen, and pretty enough to be the object of the hot boy’s eye. She was a regular - in a long remission from appendiceal cancer, which I had not previously known existed. She said - as she had every other time I’d attended Support Group - that she felt strong, which felt like bragging to me as the oxygen-drizzling nubs tickled my nostrils.
There were five others before they got to him. He smiled a little when his turn came. His voice was low, smoky, and dead sexy. “My name is Augustus Waters, “ he said. “I’m seventeen. I had a little touch of osteosarcoma a year and a half ago, but I’m just here today at Isaac’s request.”
“And how are you feeling?” asked Patrick.
“Oh, I’m grand.” Augustus Waters smiled with a corner of his mouth. “I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.”
When it was my turn, I said, “My name is Hazel. I’m sixteen. Thyroid with mets in my lungs. I’m okay.”
THE JOHN GREEN FILE
Family: Wife, Sarah, and 2-year-old son, Henry
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and religious studies, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio
Previous novels: “Looking for Alaska, “ “An Abundance of Katherines, “ “Paper Towns”
Awards: Printz Award for “Looking for Alaska, “ Edgar Award for “Paper Towns”
Online video project: Vlog Brothers (youtube.com/vlogbrothers) with his brother, Hank Green