If the soreness of one’s writing hand is a gauge of literary success, Indy-based novelist John Green is on a tear. He recently inscribed every copy of his new young-adult book, The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Juvenile), out this month, and needed steroid treatments to sign all 150,000 autographs. “When I did a bad one, I wrote a secret URL on the page that takes you to a video of me apologizing for the bad signature,” says the 34-year-old, who has a huge fan base online. Half a million people subscribe to his YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers, on which Green and his brother Hank do stuff like perform Star Trek parody songs and discuss the travails of the writing process. Like Twihards and Gleeks, their fans even have a nickname: Nerdfighters.
But Green is no mere Web sensation. Fault is his fourth solo work with a major publishing house. His first, Looking for Alaska, won the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association and has been translated into 15 languages. His follow-ups, An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns, won prestigious national awards. The latter debuted at No. 5 on The New York Times bestseller list for children’s books.
While working on Fault last summer, Green announced—online, of course—that he would sign every first-edition copy of the book. The pledge didn’t seem like a big deal because the first printings of his previous novels each had been in the 20,000-to-30,000 range. “That’s a lot of signatures, but totally doable,” he says.
Then Nerdfighters placed tens of thousands of pre-orders. “In a feat that even best-selling writers might envy,” wrote The Wall Street Journal in July, “young-adult author John Green’s latest novel is No. 1 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com even though he’s still working on it from his comfy La-Z-Boy in Indianapolis.”
To put it simply (too simply), Fault is a funny, fast-paced story about very sick kids resolutely getting on with their lives. Green had struggled with the concept since he spent five months as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital in Ohio. Everything he tried to write about that experience turned out hopelessly dark—until he realized that the kids weren’t martyrs or saints, but regular teens making the best of their situation. “The truth is, every kid I’ve ever known with cancer was normal,” Green says, “not like the long-suffering kid with wisdom beyond her years or any of that crap. Just normal—funny and smart and empathetic and self-involved, like any other teenager. I wanted to find a way to reflect that, so that we could see that there is value and heroism within short lives.”
The book is set in Indianapolis, with Holliday Park and the IMA playing pivotal roles. The protagonist, Hazel, lives in Green’s own neighborhood.
The author is deeply set in Indy, too. He was born here, but his family didn’t stay long. He earned degrees in religious studies and English literature at Kenyon College, and then moved around before returning to Indy with his wife, Sarah, an assistant curator at the IMA. “I’m the trailing spouse,” Green says.
Right now, the couple—along with their 18-month-old son, Henry—are happy to stay put. Green shoots his videos in his basement. He also does some writing there, and in a few coffee shops and restaurants around town. “I’ve come to really, really like it here,” he says. “It feels very much like home to me.”
Photo by Tony Valainis
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.