September 30, 2009

Author John Green, YA Fiction, and Weltschmerz

The Writer

John Green is the Michael L. Printz Award-winning author of Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns. He is also one half of the vlogbrothers on YouTube, where he makes videos with his brother Hank. When he was little, he wanted to be an earthworm scientist. (There is a word for such a person: oligochaetologist.) But he killed off his entire earthworm farm due to his general inability to care for pets. Later, he made a list of things he was good at. The list included "telling lies" and "sitting." So he became a writer.Green currently lives in Indianapolis, IN, where he is working on the screenplay of his third book, Paper Towns, which is the recipient of the 2009 Edgar Award by the Association for Mystery Writers of America.

You can follow John through Cyberspace by checking out his website, Nerdfighters, and Twitter.

The Book

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life--dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge--he follows.

After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues--and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.

Click the cover above to pre-order your copy of Paper Towns today!

On Young Adult Fiction

Why write teen fiction?
Well, I like teenagers both as characters and as an audience. I like them because they're in the process of forming their values, and because they're willing to grapple unironically with the big questions of our species: Why is the suffering in our world distributed so arbitrarily and unfairly? What are our responsibilities to ourselves, to those we love, to those we don't love? What does it even mean to be human? That's the kind of stuff I like to think about, and so it's the kind of stuff I like to write about, and I find that teenagers are just a great audience.

Like, this does not directly relate to my books, but once a week or so, I do a live show online. People (mostly teens) watch online while I answer their questions and read from old poems and stuff. It's amazingly fulfilling to read Whitman and Dickinson and Keats with these kids; I feel like my writing is just another path to that same experience, the chance to have a conversation with people who are really engaged and curious and conscious of the connection between their values and their lives.

How much research do you do to get into the mindset, the culture of teenagers?
Very little. The research I do is stuff I'd be doing anyway: reading blogs, watching YouTube videos, talking to people online. I mean, I didn't know anything about teen culture when I *was* a teenager, and I don't know much about it now. I am always blown away with the ways that teenagers are constantly inventing the language (giving us, just in the last few years, such words as "pwn" and "nerdfighter"), but there's no way I'm going to sound hip by trying to ape them. Personally, I think the key is to invent a world that is consistent and believable in and of itself; that world will never perfectly match the teen culture of the moment, but it also won't sound dated so quickly.

What are some of the themes you tackle most often in your works?
I'm interested in firsts: first love, first loss, first intellectual engagements. And I'm really interested in the way teenagers (and the rest of us) misapprehend other people and the world around them. There's this word I just learned when I was in Germany: weltschmerz. It means the sadness one feels when considering the difference between the world as it should be with the world as it is. If I had known about this word from the beginning, I wonder if I would have ever needed to write books. It turns out that everything inside all of my books is right there in a single word. Weltschmerz! Weltschmerz! Weltschmerz!

So, yeah. Weltschmerz. And I try to be funny, because the whole sad affair is kind of hilarious.

I notice there are a lot of YA book series in the market; do you think this is a trend with longevity? What do you think it takes to have a strong YA book series?
I don't really know. There have been series for a long time (I read all of the Babysitters' Club books), and even though I've never attempted a series, I really admire good series and enjoy reading them. I have no idea what it takes to write a good YA series, but from observing my friends who've written good series (Cassandra Clare, Lauren Myracle, Libba Bray, and the like), it requires a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth over how to resolve everything satisfactorily.

What are three sources VITAL to writers interested in writing YA fiction?
Well, the only sources I'm going to list are YA novels because I think the best apprenticeship we have is reading. There are all kinds of helpful resources for publishing YA, like SCBWI and the book Literary Marketplace. But as far as writing goes, I would read:

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, because it shows all of us what can be done.

2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, because it shows that a book can be ceaselessly gripping while still being deeply interesting. (I recommend the sequel, too, but I'm positive you'll read it once you've read the first one).

3. Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr, because it is such a perfectly structured character study that can teach us all a lot about how to make characters readers will love and remember.

To read the first pages of Paper Towns, head HERE!

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