Author John Green on Writing and cancer.
By Sue Leonard.
Published in FACEUP Magazine, (for Teenagers.) April, 2013
John Green’s books for teenagers are so popular, that they’ve topped the New York Times bestsellers lists. And, the online video projects he performs with his brother – as the Vlogbrothers – are world famous. No wonder his recent event in Ireland was packed out.
But when, in his latest teen novel he chose to write about cancer, he realised he was taking a huge risk. So why did he do it?
“Before I became a writer, I was a student minister, and I spent five months working in a children’s hospital,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with teenagers who had cancer, and with their families. The experience left me sad, even traumatised.
“My struggle, working in the hospital was that I couldn’t forget the things I saw and heard. I remember one teenager saying she felt like a grenade. She felt she would damage everyone around her when she died. That was unbearably sad.”
John felt he was unsuitable for the work of a minister, and he left, and started writing for magazines. He tried, hard, to write a book based on his experiences in the hospital, but it wouldn’t gel. So he gave up on it, and wrote other books for teenagers. These became New York Times best sellers, and won numerous awards.
And one day, at a Harry Potter conference, John met a 14 year old girl called Esther.
“She read my books, and came up to talk to me,” he says. “She was smart and funny and we struck up a friendship. She had terminal cancer, and needed oxygen with her all the time. We kept in touch over the years, mostly on the internet, and I got to know her family too. She died at 16.”
Esther made John see how he could write his book.
“She taught me that a short life can also be a full life and a rich life,” he says. “Esther, obviously, wasn’t happy to have cancer. She didn’t enjoy the pain. But she was happy to be alive. She was loved and able to feel love. That gave me the hope I needed to pull me into the story. And to realise it would work much better if I wrote it from the teenagers point of view, rather from my own.”
Another event that helped him was the birth of his son, Henry, who is now 3.
“After his birth I realised that as long as either of us are alive, I will be his father and he will be my son. I realised that, in that sense, love does survive death. That was a great gift to me.”
The novel, The Fault in our Stars, is simply amazing. Through the wonderful teenagers, it makes you see cancer in a whole new way. And it isn’t too sentimental. It’s about love, and friendship, and family, as well as about cancer. It is sad in parts; but it’s also hilariously funny, thought provoking, tender and romantic.
“When people are sick they are still human,” says John. “They are still funny and joyous and sad and sarcastic and angry. I wanted to show all of that.”
Sowhat’s the Novel about?
Ever since Hazel was diagnosed with cancer, she’s known she’s going to die. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be rewritten. They become friends, then more than friends. If you want to know what happens to them, you’ll have to read it!
Wherever Hazel goes, her oxygen goes too. And people stare at her.
“A teen with visible cancer can never have a moment of feeling normal,” says John. “In public people pity her, or wonder why she is sick, or if she is dying. That, I think, must be really hard.”
How does he hope readers will react?
“I hope the book makes them laugh, but I guess it will make them cry as well. I want them to get a frame of reference so that they can ask all those difficult questions about life and death. I tried to be as honest as possible, even though the characters are made up.”
The Fault in Our Stars is now available in Ireland. But it was published in America last year. And it has proved even more successful than John’s earlier books. Does he have tips for teenagers who want to become writers?
John Green’s Tips for Aspiring Writers.
• You have to practise. Nobody picks up a violin and expects to play in Carnegie Hall. It takes a lot of practise to become a good writer.
• Take pleasure in learning to become better. And don’t mind when you have bad days. Just keep going.
• Read a lot. Reading is the best apprenticeship for a writer. It’s how we learn how people use text to create ideas in other people’s minds.
• Remember, that while not many people write novels as a full time job, there are many, many people who write books, newspapers and magazines. Writing is an achievable ambition.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is published by Penguin Books.
To view John and his brother Hank as the Vlogbrothers, youtube.com/vlogbrothers
© Sue Leonard. 2013.