A signature move pays off for John Green
It would be completely understandable to discover, upon meeting John Green, that he’s tired and hoarse and must sleep with his hands elevated on the softest of pillows every night.
After all, the award-winning, best-selling author lets nary a day go by without updating his Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook and blog. And all the while, he’s writing books, too—including his latest novel for teens, The Fault in Our Stars, which goes on sale January 10.
“It was sort of fun in a weird way,” Green says of signing more than 150,000 books.
Still, Green was energetic and smooth-voiced (and, because “it’s all about keyboard positioning,” carpal tunnel syndrome-free!) when he spoke with BookPage from his home in Indianapolis, where he lives with his wife and son. This despite having recently added a significant undertaking to his daily routine: He signed his name for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for about a month.
Why 400 hours of writing “John Green,” Sharpie marker in hand? “I came up with the idea to sign all the pre-orders of The Fault in Our Stars,” he says. “I kept thinking about all the kids who live in North Dakota or Guam, places I’m never going to go on tour. It seemed unfair that people who live in major metropolitan areas could get a signed book, but people who don’t, can’t.”
He adds, “It became clear that the only way to do it was to sign the entire first printing, because of the nature of book warehousing—150,000 [autographs], plus an extra 2,000 in case of spoilage.”
After Green announced plans for the signing last summer, pre-orders shot the novel to #1 on bookseller websites. Of course, Green posted progress videos of the signing on his website and—despite getting a bit wild-eyed, mussy-haired and tense-armed—he says, “It was sort of fun in a weird way. I got to watch lots of Ken Burns, ‘MythBusters,’ a show I didn’t even like called ‘Pawn Stars’ and listen to lots of audiobooks. In the end, it was a privilege, honestly. It felt very much like a gift given back to me by my readers.”
Green’s willingness to undertake the task is but one indication of his connection with his fans, who call themselves Nerdfighters. Other authors may have a social media platform; Green has a loving, vocal community that works toward common goals and has its own lexicon.
While Green’s fan base has been growing since his first book (2005’s Looking for Alaska), the Nerdfighteria community was born during a project he started with his brother, Hank. During 2007, the two communicated only via YouTube videos. Their VlogBrothers YouTube channel now has 607,000 subscribers, and they’ve launched VidCon, an annual conference for creators and fans of online video.
“I’m ultimately much more passionate about writing and books, but I really love YouTube and the community that’s built up around our videos,” Green says. One example: “We’re one of the largest groups that donate to Kiva, a microfinance website that makes loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. We’ve loaned more than $100,000 in the last six months. Books are great, but you can’t have a visceral connection to changing the world, and doing stuff that makes you feel better about being a person. It’s a different kind of work.”
The Fault in Our Stars has already developed a following; at presstime, two chapters had been released online, plus video readings by the author. No spoilers here, but we can say this: Green’s trademark grace, wit and creativity have resulted in a story that will stir the Nerdfighters to even greater adoration.
Sixteen-year-old Hazel Lancaster is the narrator, and the heart, of The Fault in Our Stars. Diagnosed with incurable thyroid cancer at age 13, Hazel left school, but got her GED and now attends community college. She gets around all right, oxygen tank in tow—and dreads going to a weekly support group attended by a “rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.”
Hazel’s matter-of-fact-ness doesn’t go untempered by fear or sadness, but she and her cohorts are nothing like the saintly, heroic, very quiet sick people who populate so many books and movies.
The creation of un-saintly characters was essential, Green says, to the genesis of The Fault in Our Stars. “After I graduated from college, I spent five months working in a children’s hospital. Immediately after I left, I started writing a story. . . . I was trying to write about sick kids that were like the sick kids I’d known in the hospital, not these fountains of wisdom, and not a sentimental story about poor little kids. Everything I wrote was crap. I couldn’t . . . imagine them as people outside of their illness.”
All that changed when he encountered another young cancer patient. “I met Esther Earl in 2008. I never thought about her as inspiration for the story—it’s the one I’ve been waiting to write pretty much my whole career—but I wouldn’t have been able to write it if I hadn’t known her. She was so funny and thoughtful and normal. I was able to find another way into thinking about illness and lives that are shorter than they ought to be.” Esther’s was: She died of thyroid cancer in 2010, at age 16. Green dedicated the novel to her.
“To be frank, I think it’s extremely difficult not to be nihilistic when faced with the reality that children die,” Green says. “That’s the real reason I couldn’t write The Fault in Our Stars until I knew Esther: I couldn’t reconcile myself to looking at it honestly, and being hopeful. [And] reading should be fun; I wanted to write something that was funny and evocative of life and embraced life. That was important to me.”
Throughout his career, Green has been a vocal proponent of the importance of books and reading. Speaking of change in the industry, he says, “I really believe in publishers and publishing, [and that] publishers serve a tremendously important role in literature in the U.S. Even if that’s not a statement in favor of print, hopefully it’s a statement about quality. I don’t care if people use e-readers, I just want them to read books.”
Green’s doing his part to keep people turning those pages, and they’re clearly responding. In fact, the Nerdfighters’ enthusiastic pre-ordering resulted in an earlier release date for The Fault in Our Stars (it was moved from May 2012 to January). Now that shows the power of the people—especially those who really, really want John Green’s autograph.