The John Green Interview

August 29, 2003

Today is the day to make up a really awful excuse.

I was, once, hot for teacher, yes.

I'm always extremely proud of myself when I meet somebody who is about my age and supremely successful and ambitious and I'm not jealous of them. That's how I feel about today's interviewee, who is a regular contributor to NPR, just sold a book, is writing another one, has a cool job: I'm not only not seething with envy, I'm proud to know him, too. Last night, instead of my usual emailed interview questions, we conducted our interview via AOL instant messenger. Hope you enjoy.

The John Green Interview: A Bit of Back and Forth

We're both watching the MTV Video Music Awards. What's been your favorite part so far?
My favorite part was all the parts where they showed Eminem. He's so handsome.
Yeah, he is sort of good looking. I wonder if I'd think that way if he didn't have millions of dollars.
I think he was handsome even before he was famous. Because he's all kinds of dangerous. My hypothetical favorite part of this show is the part where Johnny Cash rises Lazarusly from his deathbed to sing, "Hurt."
I like it when pop stars are forced to pay homage. Okay, moving on, you recorded something for [Chicago NPR station] WBEZ recently--what was it?
In terms of Eminem, dangerous = handsome, whereas WBEZcommentator = let's face it, kinda dorky.
Well, I know people have crushes on Ira Glass, so...
It was this piece I wrote about Bow-lingual, a new device that translates dog barks into English. It was an assignment, needless to say.
So what did you have to say about it?
I believe I was in favor of it. But mostly I used it as a springboard to make jokes about Mayor Daley, which is my general strategy when it comes to radio pieces. Also I made some Nicorette jokes. Nicorette jokes and Daley jokes are my bread and butter.
What kind of jokes do you make about Daley? You're from Alabama, right?
Most of my Daley jokes are along the lines of, "I think Mayor Daley is kind of a jackass. Don't you?" Yes, I'm from Alabama. Are you going to talk smack about Alabama?
No, I was going to ask you about what Alabama people are like. Is that okay? And do you like Chicago?
Alabama people are normal and nice. I'm so tired of people making fun of Alabamans. It's too easy a target. It's like making fun of sorority girls. I like Chicago, yes. I like the sushi and the baseball and the good jobs. But I miss home.
What do you miss about it?
I miss the winding, hilly roads. I miss the chewing tobacco. I miss living in a city where pretty much everyone has read Faulkner and pretty much no one has read Hemingway.
Mostly the chewing tobacco, though.
Is that why you chew Nicorette? In lieu of chewing tobacco?
I'm on a five-year plan to quit smoking. For the first year, I chewed tobacco. I'm about a year into phase II, which involves chewing Nicorette through 2005. Then I'll switch to the patch for a year. Then I'll be done with it.
Good for you! Tell us about the book you just sold.
I wrote a Young Adult novel about a small boarding school in Alabama. It's a comedy about suicide. I sold it to Dutton.
How hard was it to sell it? And when will it be coming out?
In my case, the hard part was writing it. Selling it was kind of easy, insofar as all I had to do was sit around and wait for someone to buy it. Also I was very fortunate in that it was purchased by the first house I sent it to. That was, technically, miraculous. Hopefully it will come out in the fall of 2004. But probably it will come out in the spring of 2005, because right now my editor and I are in agreement that the book is not all that great.
How long did it take you to write it?
Two years. But the first year was mostly spent breaking up with a girl, which is not, in my experience, conducive to novel-writing.
Did you just send it blindly?
No. My editor at Booklist, Ilene Cooper, is an author, and so we sent it to an editor friend of hers. People are always whining about how the New York publishing world is all about whom you know and has nothing to do with the quality of writing...
What do you like about the young adult category?
Well, many of my favorite books--Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye--are YA novels in the best sense of the phrase. Also, writing for teenagers allows you to play with narrative forms and still keep your audience, because they don't have too many built-in expectations of what a book ought to be.
What do you think about that book coming out by the woman who just talks about how she had sex with JD Salinger?
That woman has made a living by gossiping about herself and the people around her. I just hope she sits in the dark at night and knows that she's a shitty writer.
Who would win a fight, her or the girl from "The Devil Wears Prada"?
The girl behind "The Devil Wears Prada" is going to find out exactly what the devil wears when her time comes.
What are you working on now?
Now I'm working on a second novel. This one is about a washed-up child prodigy who keeps dating, and getting dumped by, girls named Katherine.
Is this a YA novel as well?
Yeah. It's kind of a relationship comedy. Except it's about geniuses and Islam.
Tell me about your recent roommate issues.
One of my roommates is Kuwaiti, and John Ashcroft hates Kuwaitis with a white hot passion even though they are ostensibly our allies, so we're losing a roommate, which necessitated finding a new roommate. So we tried out a bunch of losers, and then I asked the public radio listeners in Chicago to find me a roommate. Eventually we picked Dan, because 1. He has a job and 2. He doesn't play Dungeons and Dragons.
You recently turned 26, yes? How did you celebrate?
Well, as you know, John Keats is one of my favorite writers. And he died before he turned 26. So this is kind of a depressing birthday for me, because John Keats wrote some of the best poems in human history in his 25+ years, and I have written a couple ex-girlfriend jokes. I'm obsessed with people's last words, and while Keats' last words weren't great, his last will and testament was. It's a single line of perfect iambic pentameter: "My chest of books divide amongst my friends." So for my 26th birthday, I had some friends over for dinner and gave them some of my books. I had great ones picked out for you, but you had to make out with your boyfriend or something.
I'm sorry I couldn't make it, but that wasn't the reason. You recently had to say a sad goodbye.
Giordana, who was my girlfriend, moved to Italy.
Why did you decide to call it quits intsead of doing the long distance thing?
Sometimes you have to be reasonable about relationships, I think. Sometimes. And there's a distance between a long-distance relationship and an inter-continental relationship. Inter-continental relationships are harder, particularly when one of the people in the relationship does not enjoy visiting other countries.
Why would that person not like that?
Well, a person could, for instance, be a xenophobic Southerner. But in my case, I just don't like air travel. David Foster Wallace makes a very nice comment about it in his new (and extraordinarily good) book, saying that people who fear air travel are not irrational at all. We are quite rational.
Speaking of women, you said the other night that you have been dumped 51 times. Is this anywhere near true?
Jennifer Keene; Julie Baskin; Maggie Smith; the very amusingly named Summer DesMoore; Tiffany-with-no-last-name, Andrea Sinclair; Davonne Raizor; Whitney with the perm; Erin the seventh-grade figure skater; Wendy Galeski; Barbara the Goth; Angela Sinclair (the only time I've been dumped by actual siblings). Then you move into high school, where it really gets nasty. Fran Hutchins; Katie Hare; Olga; Nadia whose last name I can't say because I mentioned her in a radio piece and she threatened to sue me; Jill Russell; Holly Brown; Ruth Fitts; Jen Spears (that one stung--I said, "I can't imagine never kissing you again" and then she said, "Well, try.") Molly Red Hair; Molly W, the recovering alcoholic. Now college. Oh god I forgot Clara's last name, possibly because she dumped me after a single kiss; Ali Lacavaro; Marie Ponzillo (two Italian girls in a row--big mistake); Mary Jacobsen (who once told me, "That was the best orgasm I ever had," and then paused for about eight minutes before adding, "with you"); Emily Chambers (who actually dumped me three times, but she was only one girl, so she only counts once); Laura Turbull; Annika Pfaender; Melba Major; Paige whose last name I'm not allowed to say; and oh, the horror, Laura Wallace, whom I couldn't bring myself to dump even though she kissed like a snake; Jenny Lawton (dumped me twice, but in my defense, I also dumped her once); Leah Green (to whom I am not related); Hannah the girl in Switzerland.
It should be mentioned here, by the way, that I have a rather loose definition of dumping. Being dumped is when you have kissed someone once, and you want to kiss them again, but they do not wish to kiss you again. And you try and they pull away and then there is that moment, that moment that I have not yet gotten used to, despite my prodigious experience with it.
Madeline Jackson; Ericka with the teeth black as midnight. I kissed her because she said I reminded her of Holden Caulfield. Beth Larkin; Jen Bloodsworth; Betsy Hinkle (prom date). I think that's it.
Then a much less fun question. Tell me about your job as chaplain.
Well, I got into the U. of Chicago divinity school, and I thought I wanted to be an Episcopal priest who studied Islam and bridged the gap between the two faiths, and to become a priest, you have to be a chaplain for a while, so I worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital for about six months.
Why did you stop?
It was hard for me, partly because I was 22 and partly because it is just hard to spend a lot of time around dead children and their parents. I realized that I did not want to be in the ministry at all, even though that was doubtlessly the most important job I'll ever have. Part of the problem, in terms of me being a chaplain, is that I am not a very religious person. And I never really was.
Why did you want to be a priest then?
Well, for one thing, I thought people would think it was cool and weird and eccentric. Also, I thought girls would think I was aloof and sophisticated. But I also believe very deeply in the importance of religion. And I thought I could participate in the liberalization of Christian theology.
What percent of your actions are motivated by getting chicks?
Oh, come on, Claire. I'm just like Justin Timberlake: I'm not in it for the ladies or the money. I do it for the fans.
You recently endured what is maybe most internet writers' greatest nightmare: having somebody find out online that you wrote about them. What happened and how did you deal with it?
My grade-school nemesis, Kelsey Durkin, beat me in the oration contest in fifth grade, and I spent the next 17 or so years hating her with the fire of a thousand suns. So when I finally got on All Things Considered, I wrote on my web site about Kelsey Durkin and the oration contest debacle, and then said, "Now that I've been on All Things Considered, I've got one question for Kelsey: Who's orating now, bitch?" And then Kelsey googled herself, found the above quote, and emailed me a surprisingly polite email, the basic gist of which was, "I am sorry I teased you when we were eight. But I was eight years old. What's your excuse?"
Okay, how does it feel to be the first person interviewed via instant messenger for
You know that part where you lean in to kiss them and they sort of turn their heads and then you are stuck there, in space, making the kissy face, your eyes half-closed?
Or, alternately: I think the question your readers really want answered is, "How does it feel to be the first person ever to have interviewed John Green?"
Does John Green want a funny answer or a sincere answer?
One of each, maybe.
1-It is a pleasure and we need to hang out more than once a month 2-It makes me feel good and bad at the same time. Bad because I just beat Johnny Cash who is on his deathbed, but good because I got best male video.
Oh, Claire Zulkey. You're the sweetest. Wanna be #52?