You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.
—W. H. Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening”
...He had very little. But he always had books. Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they’ll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they will always love you back.
—John Green, An Abundance of Katherines
Ten pages into John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines I was already upset about two things: 1) that the book wasn’t around for me when I was a teenager; and 2) that the book was going to end.
Katherines’ geek hero, 18-year-old Colin Singleton, is no longer a child prodigy, but not yet a genius. His extraordinary intelligence hasn’t spared him the emotional devastation of being dumped 19 times by girls named Katherine. While Colin is mourning the loss of the latest Katherine, his best friend/sidekick, Hassan, takes him out on a road trip. The two end up in a tiny southern town where a saucy country girl and her mother take them in.
Green punctuates Colin’s coming of age story with graphs, copious footnotes, and math. Yes, math. Colin attempts to derive a formula that will predict future relationships with girls named Katherine (his “type”). Affection for math is not required to enjoy the book (most of the equations are relegated to an appendix), but it is a math geek’s literary paradise.
Green’s Michael L. Printz award winning first novel, Looking for Alaska (2005), is set in an Alabama boarding school. Alaska follows Miles Halter, a awkward lanky boy with a thing for memorizing famous last words, through his traumatic first year. Miles is immediately taken under the tutelage of his roommate, a brainy reprobate that goes by “the Colonel.” Miles grows obsessed with Alaska, a brilliant but self-destructive girl with a knack for coming up with naughty things to do. The book is divided into before and after sections, and the event that demarcates the break is as traumatic for the characters as it is for the reader.
Both Katherines and Alaska have been primarily marketed to young adults, but there is substantial appeal for adults. His characters are odd, flawed, and complicated and his storytelling is spot on. There is a reason that his books are librarians’ darlings: they’re tight, honest, and funny; both accessible and thought provoking; engrossing and endearing.
Green, a 29-year-old recent Indianapolis transplant, is working on another young adult novel to be released in Fall 2008. He is also involved in creating a film version of Alaska to be directed by the O.C.‘s Joshn Schwartz and a Katherines film is possible.
Green follows in the footsteps of early emo bands: he makes himself accessible to his fans on his website sparksflyup.com where he keeps a written blog. In addition, he resolved to only communicate with his brother via video blog, and the result, “Brotherhood 2.0,” is available to fans at brotherhood2.com. He is on his way to cultivating a cult of personality among his fans, who call themselves “the nerdfighters.” PopMatters interviewed Green via email about his books, young adult literature, and wunderkind.
The dust jacket of Katherines includes the quote, “The Spirit of Holden Caufield lives on,” and like Catcher in the Rye, your books appeal to boys and girls and adults. Were you worried that being marketed as young adult would limit your potential adult readership?
Well, I think it does limit my adult readership. But the nature of contemporary American publishing is that you must limit your readership in one way or another, unless you are Dan Brown or JK Rowling. I like publishing for teens because I think of teenagers as being my core audience: They are the readers I care the most about, I think. Ten or 20 years ago, the best way to reach teenagers was by publishing for adults. Now, I think the best way is by publishing for teens.
All that said, Katherines was published in two different editions with two different covers—one for adults and one for children—in the Netherlands. That publishing model has worked really well in Europe for many books (including mine), and I would like to see it take hold in the States.
Also like Salinger your books are somewhat controversial. What have been the repercussions of writing about teenagers that drink, smoke, watch porn, swear, have sex, and choose watching Judge Judy over going to college? Why do you think there is resistance to writing about what teenagers actually do?
There is no resistance abroad. I am never asked about it when I do interviews in Europe, because it has never occurred to anyone that it would be a problem for teenagers to read books that contain activities that teenagers should not engage in.
But there are repercussions in the States, definitely. It is much less likely that your books will be taught in English classes. What’s interesting to me is that the Judge Judy stuff doesn’t bother anyone, and the drinking and smoking doesn’t bother anyone, and the violence doesn’t bother anyone. People in the States are worried—pretty much exclusively—about fucking and the word “fuck.”
I have to say I find it very disappointing that we could be having all these interesting conversations about systems of ethics, and instead we are stuck talking about fucking. Maybe I’m old-fashioned or prudish or something, but I just don’t think fucking is that interesting. Or even that important. It is interesting enough to spend, say, 700 words talking about it in a 70,000 word book. But it is not interesting enough to sustain, say, an entire school board meeting.
The flap copy on Katherines says that you were dumped 53 times before you got married. How did you manage to emerge from all those dumpings and still write lovable, complicated, and dangerous female characters like Alaska and Lindsey Lee?
Well I knew a lot of lovable, complicated, and dangerous women along the way. What I eventually realized—too late for any of my ex-girlfriends, I’m afraid—is that getting dumped by a girl doesn’t mean that the girl is Bad. Or Evil. Dumpees often see themselves as victims. But we aren’t victims, not usually. We are co-conspirators.
You’ve said that you plan to remain in the young adult genre for the rest of your career. How do you think your writing about adolescence will change as you get older? Do you make an effort to consume other media directed towards teenagers such as magazines, TV shows, and music?
I suck at writing about all that pop culture stuff already, so I don’t think I stand to get any worse. I’ve always been out of touch with what kind of music and TV shows teenagers are watching—even when I was a teenager. I may throw a contemporary joke or two into a novel (I use the word ‘emo’ a couple times in Katherines because I like it as a word), but generally, I try not to indulge too much in fads. I don’t mind dating a book—all books become dated anyway—but I don’t feel like I need to stop liking How I Met Your Mother and start liking One Tree Hill (or whatever they watch) in order to write well for teens.
I think that I’ll be okay as long as I am able to write about the emotional experiences that accompany coming-of-age. And many writers have done that well into old age. “Huck Finn” didn’t talk about the Coldplay of its day, for instance, and teens still liked (and like) it.
In your opinion, what is the difference between adult lit about teenagers and YA lit?
Sometimes there are books about children that are told with a lot of distance between the story and its telling. For instance, The Plot against America is not a children’s book, although it is about children. But there are many books published for adults that have less narrative distance and would not be out of place on the YA shelves. (The Virgin Suicides, for instance, is a great YA novel and is very popular with teenagers.) So it is often a marketing decision made by authors and publishers.
I would also argue, and no one agrees with me on this but I will argue it anyway, that not all YA novels are about teenagers. For instance, I think that Vonnegut was the greatest YA novelist of his century other than maybe Salinger, and Vonnegut never wrote about (or showed the least interest in) teenagers in any literal way. But the ideas of his books, and his stylistic choices, and his voice—all tailor-made for teen readers.
How do you respond to slights against the genre?
Almost everyone who dismisses contemporary teen literature hasn’t read much of it. So it doesn’t bother me at all, really. I wish people would read more of the ambitious YA novels being published right now, but I also wish people would read more of the ambitious adult novels being published right now.
How do you reach out to all the teenagers that shop in the adult lit isles?
Mostly by word-of-mouth. There’s a lot of crap on the YA shelves (to be fair, there is also a lot of crap on the adult shelves), so I understand teen readers who don’t want to look there for books. But if one friend loves a book, then it can ripple through to all the smart, lit-nerd kids at a school. I’ve seen that happen with both my books: I get one email from a particular town, and then two more, and then five more, and then ten more. That’s always cool to see.
You seem to have a thing for wunderkind. Several of your teenage characters sooth themselves with route memorization (The Colonel’s almanac, Miles’ last words) or cerebral tricks (Colin’s anagrams). What draws you to these kinds of characters? How do their intellects affect their stories?
I want to celebrate intelligence. I want to show how hot intellectualism can be, how cool it is. About 10 years ago, all the sudden, there was this whole geek chic thing. Being a geek was cool. But even then, it felt like being SMART still wasn’t that cool. Reading Kant wasn’t that cool. I want reading Kant to be cool. One of the chief joys of the video blog I keep with my brother at brotherhood2.com has been seeing the community of viewers come to identify themselves as “nerdfighters.” They really see this nerdiness as a positive thing, even the teen viewers. And I love that.