The organizers of 2012 LA Times Festival of Books knew exactly what they were doing when they teamed John Green and Lev Grossman “in conversation.” The two authors had a bit of a mutual-admiration-society thing going on. Grossman’s Time Magazine review of Green’s latest young-adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars (my “book of the year-so-far”), described it as “damn near genius,” and he really nailed it with this observation:
“One doesn’t like to throw around phrases like ‘instant classic’ lightly, but I can see The Fault in Our Stars taking its place alongside Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in the young-adult canon. Green’s book is also a good example of why so many adult readers are turning to young-adult literature for the pleasures and consolations they used to get from conventional literary fiction.”
Although the YA section is overrun with paranormal activity these days, writers like John Green are preserving a place for realistic, contemporary fiction for and about teens–and building it into a place where adult readers also want to be. Having said that, the audience for this session definitely skewed toward the 25-and-under demographic, as Green was greeted by the eager screams of the fangirls and -boys who call themselves “Nerdfighters.” I had a first-row seat for this panel (thanks to the early arrival of Amy and Danielle, who saved one for me), so I had an excellent view of the proceedings, but I may have been less deserving of it than many others in the auditorium.
Most of the discussion, unsurprisingly, centered on The Fault in Our Stars. The original inspiration for the novel was Green’s post-college stint as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, where he was usually on call for trauma patients and their families. When he wasn’t actively ministering, he wandered around the floors, talking to patients and joining them playing video games. The chaplaincy ended after a few months, and Green’s time in divinity school didn’t last much longer either, but he knew he wanted to write about the kids he’d met in the hospital…eventually. The catalyst that took him from “eventually” to “write now” was the friendship he developed with Esther, a young cancer patient he met at a Harry Potter convention in 2008.
A significant part of The Fault in Our Stars revolves around another book. Green’s narrator Hazel is obsessed with a novel called An Imperial Affliction; at one point, he considered having his book be Hazel’s own sequel to it, which would be called The Sequel. Although he ultimately went in another direction, he kept the book-within-a-book structure; there’s a tradition of that as a device in the “star-crossed-romance-with-disease-as-an-obstacle” that he knew he wanted to write.
There’s less of a tradition of video games within that type of story, but they’re a big part of Green’s story too. This led into a discussion about narrative structures in video games, and the authors’ observation that conflicts between high culture (books) and low (games) seem less pronounced when writing for teens, who may be more open to story conveyed in multiple forms because they move between them more readily than adult readers do.
Although Grossman was listed as the “interviewer” in the Festival of Books program, this really was a “conversation” between him and Green–and the audience was part of it too, beyond the official Q&A portion. John Green told us that he hasn’t found writing YA at all limiting and has no real interest in writing outside the niche he’s currently in, and over a thousand readers in the theater–not all young adults, but all appreciative of great realistic fiction–were very happy to hear that.