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John Green Finally Goes to the Movies!
Photo by Tony Valainis
On a rainy Friday morning in April, three hours after an on-air chat with radio personalities Bob & Tom and about a week before strolling down the red carpet at the MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles to promote the 20th Century Fox adaptation of his novel The Fault in Our Stars, John Green sits beneath a small fluorescent video light in his Broad Ripple studio, trying to read from a teleprompter.
“Like, here’s another … here’s another example of … here’s … ummm.” (There is an actual script for this video production, a clever, full-tilt lesson on Slaughterhouse-Five aimed at high-school lit-class students. But Green—whose lightning-paced YouTube video blog, or “vlog,” channels have amassed millions of subscribers and a loyal following hooked on his charmingly erudite observations on topics from pizza-flavored Combo snacks to North Korea—shuffles the words on the teleprompter as if they are pieces on a sliding-tile puzzle.) He mind-bends the sentence structure, thinking out loud in a rapid-fire monologue that his editing staff will relieve of all its little fits and starts before it becomes a 10- to 12-minute installment on his free online education channel, Crash Course.
Finally, he nails it. “Here’s another example of trying to see the horror of war without looking directly at it. Vonnegut describes post-bombing Dresden as a mute reflection in the contorted faces of prison guards. And he creates a shocking and memorable image.”
Green takes a breath, looks off camera. “Does that work? Does that get you there?” The Crash Course film crew, which today consists of producer Stan Muller running the video and 22-year-old office assistant/intern Elise Lockwood serving as script supervisor, nod their approval. Muller jokes, “People like it when it seems like you’re just making this up.”
“Yeah, it makes them think I’m smart,” says the Printz Award–winning, New York Times bestselling author who was just named to Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Moments later, one of the handful of youngish, skinny-jeaned office employees—as sweetly sharp-witted as the characters in all of Green’s books—pops his head in the door. He is eating Frosted Flakes straight from the box. “Did you say you are busy at 2:30 on Wednesday?”
“I did,” Green says. “Are you telling me Lil Bub can’t come in until 2:30?”
Yes, Lil Bub’s people have been talking to John Green’s people, and this unintentionally hilarious “Celebrity Problems” moment is made even more surreal by the fact that Green will himself soon be making the Hollywood talk-show rounds alongside actors Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, the leads in this month’s mega-hyped movie based on Green’s 2012 book about two teenage members of a cancer support group who fall in love. “What about 3 or 3:30? I should be back here by then.” After some deliberation, it is decided that the eminently cute “perma-kitten” and Internet star, Bloomington’s pink-tongued answer to Grumpy Cat, will arrive at Green’s studio on Wednesday at 2:30, as originally planned. The staff will pet her for half an hour, stalling for time. At the end of the conversation, Green admits, “I have no idea who this is. She’s a famous cat, right? Is she famous?”
“She was in a movie about famous YouTube cats,” the script supervisor offers.
Well, you have to start somewhere.
If you have no idea who John Green is, you will very soon. Your 14-year-old son or daughter almost certainly can bring you up to speed. Even before a young director named Josh Boone (Stuck in Love) got his hands on a script that was circulating Hollywood (the film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars that hits theaters June 6), Green had already attained a certain degree of fame. He was an early adopter of the vlog and an award-winning young-adult author who broke the YA blockbuster mold, writing books that stand on their own as independent works, rather than installments in a series a la Harry Potter. And he has a knack for creating the kind of quirky-cool characters that make you want to go back to high school, just so you can sit at their lunch table. On the spectrum of stardom, he falls somewhere between, say, Lil Bub and Kurt Vonnegut.
But that level of fame seemed unfathomable to Green as a kid. He thought being a writer was something on par with being an astronaut. “As in, it’s not something that regular people did.” He was born in Indianapolis, where his father was a surveyor and his mother worked for the phone company. But the family moved away when Green was just 8 weeks old; his dad would eventually take a job in Orlando as Florida’s state director of The Nature Conservancy. Three years after John arrived, Mike and Sydney Green welcomed a second son, William Henry Green II—Hank (as in Hank Green, the other half of Crash Course, as well as the wildly popular Vlogbrothers video series and almost everything else in John Green’s expanding online universe). Though the two are practically cerebrally conjoined today, Green recalls that they were not particularly close growing up. “I left for boarding school when he was 10,” he says. “Hank was in fourth grade, and I didn’t know anything about him. I mean, we stuck up for each other. But, you know, he had really bad learning disabilities. I was really, really nerdy and struggled a lot between schools, and I think I probably took some of that out on him.”
A self-described “horribly pretentious and terrible” student, Green switched schools several times before he ended up at a small, feel-good boarding school in Alabama—Indian Springs—which, according to its mission statement, endeavors to “develop in students a love of learning, a sense of integrity and moral courage, and an ethic of participatory citizenship.” Sarah Urist Green, John’s wife and fellow Indian Springs alum, remembers it as “the sort of school that celebrated geekdom, where being popular and being smart weren’t mutually exclusive.” In 2000, he graduated from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, with a double major in English and religious studies, his sights set on becoming an Episcopal priest. But after spending five months working as a student chaplain in a Chicago children’s hospital, he gave up the cloth to become a writer—though the experience of working with very sick kids and their families clearly left a sort of beautiful scar on his imagination.
In his early 20s, he worked as a publishing assistant and production editor at Booklist, the journal of the American Library Association. There, he reviewed hundreds of books, learned how to read fast, and spent his free time penning his own work of fiction: a young-adult novel with a boarding-school setting much like Indian Springs, that Hogwarts for brainiacs. He also started picking up work from National Public Radio—and making an indelible impression on his fellow ink-spillers, apparently.
Mental Floss magazine co-founder Mangesh Hattikudur remembers meeting the “charming, funny whirlwind of facts and stories” at a Birmingham house party in 2002, where he was first treated to what he calls “The John Green Experience.” Green was chewing Nicorette and talking super-fast. “I just sat there, entertained,” says Hattikudur, who ended up working with the writer on various Mental Floss print projects and, beginning in 2013, Green’s own weekly show on the Mental Floss YouTube channel. “He told me he lied sometimes,” Hattikudur says with a laugh. “He said he liked to lie because it kept his storytelling skills sharp.”
Those proved to be marketable skills. Green published his first book, Looking for Alaska, in 2005. The awards piled on. Most notably, it won the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young-adult literature and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Paramount Pictures acquired the film rights, and Alaska was translated into 15 languages. (The book, which currently has 2.5 million copies in print, would eventually make the New York Times bestseller list, more than seven years after it was released.) Realizing he had found a niche in YA fiction, Green followed up with An Abundance of Katherines in 2006, Paper Towns in 2008, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (co-written with David Levithan) in 2010. But he had another story to tell—one that took its cues from his days at the hospital and would ultimately catapult him to fame far beyond the borders of the young-adult community.
Green had long wanted to write about teenagers living with illness, but without weighing them down in layers of angst or, at the other extreme, painting them as bruised heroes who teach us all an important lesson about being brave. Why couldn’t they just be the same fun, flawed, and complex kids he wrote about in his other novels—the kind of restless youth who play video games in their basements, throw eggs at their exes’ cars, and make out?
There are a hundred ways to design that narrative, and Green struggled with several of them. In a Q&A on his own website, he pointed out that an early, scrapped version of the story centered around a group of kids with cancer who created a club called the Dead Person’s Society that met in a cave. In another draft, he chose a blind character to narrate the story. But all of the right elements started to fall into place when he developed a friendship with a feisty teenager named Esther Grace Earl, an active member of the author’s online fan community whom he first met at a Harry Potter convention. Earl was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 12 and died four years later, in 2010. A prolific video blogger, she might have influenced Green’s decision to tell his kids-with-cancer story through the spot-on voice of a female narrator. She certainly ignited the book’s theme of short lives lived fully, though Green insists the female character in his book, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is not the fictional version of his friend with the same middle name. When he finished the book, more than a decade in the making, Green—who eventually would help Earl’s parents publish a posthumous collection of her essays through Dutton (a division of Penguin Books)—dedicated The Fault in Our Stars to Earl.
It’s a sweet boy-meets-girl story, full of characters who are comfortable in their own skins and possess enviable language skills, elements that resonated with Green’s core readers. But more than any of his other books (none of which, by the way, shy away from heartbreakingly PG-13 motifs), The Fault in Our Stars recalibrated the scales for the teenage love story by retelling the romantic epic in the language of PET scans and G-tubes.
By the time he started writing TFIOS, Green had moved back to Indianapolis from New York City, where he and Sarah had lived while she attended grad school at Columbia University. Sarah accepted a position at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2007—a great opportunity to work under then-director Max Anderson and senior curator Lisa D. Freiman. “The IMA had this reputation for being the next cool museum to work at,” Green says. “Sarah felt like there would be opportunities for growth, which of course there were. She went from being a curatorial assistant to being a curator in five years.” Indianapolis was also a good place for him to settle into his typical creative mode: blocking out huge chunks of uninterrupted time to write.
And Green is no John-Boy Walton when he writes. He becomes irritable and hard to be around (no one wants to go to lunch with him), and the perfect words do not just flow onto the page. He writes with the intention to revise, in rough drafts that he wants someone else to read as soon as he’s done with them. That could be Sarah, at night after they put their two kids (4-year-old Henry and 1-year-old Alice) to bed, or his editor of 11 years, Julie Strauss-Gabel at Dutton Children’s Books, who says that all of his novels endure “a constant back and forth.” And though her client’s public persona is anything but sedate, when it comes to the actual writing, she insists, “he’s always been such a great partner in the quiet craft of working through projects.”
But there was nothing quiet about the escalating buzz when word got out about Green’s forthcoming book. The buildup to The Fault in Our Stars’s publishing date hit a feverish pitch when Green promised to sign all 180,000 copies of the work in its first printing—an endeavor that sent him to physical therapy with an “astonishingly painful” elbow condition called ulnar nerve entrapment. He believes his signature changed 2,000 copies in—an unnecessary “h” evolved, and it nearly drove him mad. “I would get paranoid about my signature, because I knew that someone was going to get this book, and they would open it up and be like, ‘Well, that sucks.’ Sometimes I would apologize in parentheses underneath.”
But the commitment paid off. The book that Kirkus Reviews described as “a smartly crafted intellectual explosion of a romance” and Time called “damned near genius” has seven million copies in print. And while Green’s books had been optioned for films before, leading nowhere, Hollywood’s interest in this one was more urgent. Director Josh Boone—who had lost a friend to cancer and was struggling with the healing process when he came upon Green’s book—championed the project, and, to Green’s surprise, the wheels quickly started turning.
Green’s personal imprint on the book proved so deep and indelible that the author was granted an unusual amount of pull when it came to the film treatment. During the casting phase of The Fault in Our Stars, he lobbied for the relatively unknown Elgort, who auditioned for the male lead of Augustus Waters alongside fellow lanky, soft-featured up-and-comers like Brenton Thwaites, Nat Wolff, Nick Robinson, and Noah Silver. “He didn’t look like Gus in some ways that I felt might be problematic to the audience,” Green says. “But I felt like he understood Gus in such a deep way. I knew I was going to have to sell him. And I feel totally vindicated because he is so great in the movie.”
Though the story takes place in Indianapolis, TFIOS was actually filmed in production-friendly Pittsburgh—where the tax credits were worth re-creating local landmarks like the sprawling Funky Bones sculpture at 100 Acres and other details, right down to the Indiana license plates. Green was on-set for much of the filming, and he traveled with the cast and crew when the production took them to the Netherlands for a few pivotal scenes against the real-life backdrop of Amsterdam, including some rare footage shot inside the historic Anne Frank House. The author’s Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter feeds served as both travelogue and cogs in the movie’s hype machine, whipping up behind-the-scenes excitement. Meanwhile, that clearinghouse of the teen psyche, Hot Topic, came out with a line of T-shirts featuring The Fault in Our Stars lines and imagery, including “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities,” and “Maybe okay will be our always.”
Fans got their first glimpse of the movie during a 30-second clip that aired on the Today show in January. Another clip premiered before a live young-adult audience during the MTV Movie Awards, which Green attended, wearing a Burberry suit and tweeting a play-by-play from the inner sanctum: “David Hasselhoff is sitting seven seats away from me. What?”
A whole new audience will get its first taste of “The John Green Experience” when the movie comes out this month and its writer makes the rounds with the publicity dog-and-pony show—the movie junkets and long days spent answering the same questions over and over. He doesn’t like doing TV interviews. He gets nervous and spends too much time fretting and thinking of what to say—like when he went on the Craig Ferguson show last March and couldn’t get any work done for weeks leading up to it. But this time he’s on board with anything 20th Century Fox asks him to do. “If I didn’t like the movie, I wouldn’t do any of that stuff,” says Green, who was treated to a private screening in Los Angeles. “But this is something that I’m really proud of.”
In one of the many passages in The Fault in Our Stars that will probably make you cry, 17-year-old Augustus Waters, a former high-school basketball star who lost his right leg to osteosarcoma, grapples with the idea of love and nothingness with such blue-eyed eloquence that Romeo Montague would give him a chest bump at the club: “I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.” Spoiler alert: The theme of oblivion runs throughout the story. But it is also a theme that seems to guide Green in his own life’s storyline, which, much like his Crash Course videos, is at its best when he goes off-script.
“My idea was that I would escape oblivion by doing something memorable,” he says. “After my first book, which was my first attempt to grapple with this urge that we all have to be larger than life, I used to ask kids when I would visit high schools how many of them wanted to be famous, deep down. And most of them did. Or they were lying. And I would be like, why? We are very focused on this idea of surviving death. It is not possible—there is 40,000 years of evidence. I have tried to refocus, in my proper adulthood, toward other things.”
Much of Green’s focus these days is on providing content for the legions of Nerdfighters (which is what fans of the author and his Montana-based Web-designer brother, Hank, call themselves) who follow the Greens via their robust network of websites, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates. John and Hank bill themselves as the Vlogbrothers, and they have eliminated much of the grueling legwork for people who want to be their groupies. For starters, at the beginning of 2007, the brothers gave up all text-based communication with each other and launched a project called Brotherhood 2.0, which was basically a yearlong performance-art piece in which the two conversed every weekday by way of public-accessed video updates on YouTube. They managed to rack up about 200 subscribers who stumbled upon their stylistically choppy videos of alternating bespectacled men with a striking family resemblance and a similar clipped cadence to their speech patterns—their P’s sharpened for emphasis, their S’s slightly drawn out. Then Hank, a former biochemist and a successful entrepreneur (perhaps you’ve heard of 2D glasses?) who also happens to be an accomplished musician, uploaded a video of himself singing “Accio Deathly Hallows,” a song he wrote about the upcoming release of the seventh Harry Potter book. While playing along on acoustic guitar, Hank crooned that he needed Harry Potter “like a grindylow needs water,” and the video made the coveted front page of YouTube—the Powerball jackpot of self-promotion. The Vlogbrothers went from about 200 subscribers to 7,000, that fast, and became a Muggle household name.
Fans came out of the woodwork, creating their own online Nerdfighter tributes, like nerdfighteria.org, effyeahnerdfighters.com, and the Nerdfighter Problems Tumblr blog. There are inside jokes, made-up words (like “worldsuck” and “doobly-doo”), tons of fan art, and guides for how to be a Nerdfighter. In January 2013, the Vlogbrothers performed “An Evening of Awesome” to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. The variety show and three-hour live-streamed event featured a performance by indie folk-rock group The Mountain Goats and a Q&A session led by the author Neil Gaiman.
» MORE: Quick Reads—A Smattering of John Green's Best Tweets
You could, in fact, break the Internet tracking down all of the creative endeavors that bear Green’s signature. An avid soccer fan, he provides commentary—via a YouTube video-game voiceover—for matches played by his made-up team, the Swindon Town Swoodilypoopers. He made pizza alongside the smoke alarm–activating Hannah Hart on My Drunk Kitchen. President Obama even sat down with Green for a Google+ Fireside Hangout following his State of the Union address. The brothers launched the online industry conference VidCon in 2010. They head up the community-driven charitable movement Project for Awesome, which inspired fans to raise $870,691 for their favorite charities in 2013 by creating innovative videos.
Over the years, random celebrities also have revealed their allegiance. Among them: supermodel Heidi Klum, musician Lupe Fiasco, actor Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Big Bang Theory, and British Olympic gymnast Jennifer Pinches (who flashed the cross-armed Nerdfighter gang sign after one of her routines in the 2012 London games).
What makes this brand so addictive, especially to the hard-to-pin-down millennials? Another fan, London video blogger and 2012 University of Exeter graduate Rosianna Halse Rojas, has a pretty good idea. Rojas befriended Green after reading Looking for Alaska, the two began corresponding, and she later chipped in to help him navigate parts of his 2013 U.K. tour. Green came away from the trip so impressed with Rojas’s organizational skills that he hired her to become his off-site assistant. The arrangement works out surprisingly well for two people on separate continents. Now knowing Green as both a devotee and an employee, Rojas will tell you he has just as much respect for his fans as they have for him. And maybe that’s his secret. “He doesn’t patronize his readers,” she says. “He uses big questions and big ideas. Nothing is dumbed down.”
Green loves smart teenagers—loves to listen to how they talk to each other. And it makes sense that bright, articulate kids look up to the author, himself a sort of aged-out youth with his wardrobe of polo shirts (many of them draped and piled around his office, as if it’s his dorm room) and his head of thick tousled hair that seems to change shape daily. Green somehow goes even beyond the realm of role model, though. He has built up what amounts to an army of good, solid young people—not necessarily squeaky-clean ones, mind you, but strong, positive, deep-thinkers. And if they find something to identify with in a wildly successful 36-year-old man who has been pretty open about feeling slightly lost and nerdy and unhappy as a kid, John Green doesn’t mind. He might be the poster child for “Hang In There.”
Although there has been some speculation about whether the Greens will remain in Indy now that Sarah has left the IMA to pursue her own video project for PBS, The Art Assignment, they still live in a neighborhood on the north side in a three-bedroom house with their children. The home has a lawn that Green doesn’t like to mow, but that’s as much detail as he would like to share about the place. No offense, but he doesn’t want you to show up where he lives—which, these days, is his last bastion of privacy. He can hardly go out anymore—to his favorite restaurant, Recess, or his old hangout, Smee’s—without getting recognized by admirers, an inconvenience he doesn’t mind enduring. He doesn’t turn away fans. He’ll pose for photos, take a moment to chat, genuinely engage. “Most of the time it’s kids. Adults don’t generally come up to him,” says Green’s close friend Chris Waters. “It’s to the point where it happens every single time. And I’ve never seen him be anything but polite and gracious. Never. He gets it.”
Green also gets that someday all of this might go away. “It will go away,” asserts the thinking girl’s Brad Pitt as he polishes off a black-bean burger and a couple of amber ales at the Broad Ripple Brewpub. “I don’t like people’s fascination with celebrities, although I share it. The glee that we feel when they fall apart troubles me—that we enjoy destroying anything that becomes really popular, whether it’s Twilight, or Fifty Shades of Grey, or Divergent. When does something reach a moment of cultural relevance and awareness that it just becomes more fun to tear it down than it would be to build it up?” He is wearing one of his polo shirts—his signature look—sneakers, loose jeans, and a green FuelBand on his left wrist, appearing very much like a regular guy who eats at Jimmy John’s and just bought a Chevy Volt. But things won’t settle down too soon: 20th Century Fox mini-studio Fox 2000 recently made a deal on the Paper Towns movie adaptation, for which Green will serve as one of the executive producers. And he has started working on another book, but he won’t say much more about that beyond expressing some concern that The Fault in Our Stars is a tough act to follow.
Whatever happens next, fans of Green’s video blogs, YouTube channels, Tumblr accounts, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds can be sure of one thing: He will keep us posted.
If you'd like to purchase a print copy of the June 2014 issue of Indianapolis Monthly, please call 317-237-9288 or e-mail [email protected].
Portrait photo of John Green by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the June 2014 issue.