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September 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
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Last Words from a First Novelist
When John Green walked into the Booklist office as a temp, he was a tie-wearing 22-year-old with aspirations to write. He shed the tie after the first day, and four years later, he’s just published his first novel, Looking for Alaska (Dutton), which has already received starred reviews from the Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books and SLJ.
Ask John, who now works as a production editor at Booklist, how his career as a young-adult novelist evolved, and he graciously acknowledges the support he received from his Booklist colleagues. (Full disclosure: I helped John shape his novel before he sent if off to Dutton.) But the talent was John’s alone, and it shows not only in Looking for Alaska but also in his other work, as a reviewer for Booklist, as a writer for the magazine mental_floss, as a commentator for Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ, and as a contributor to the national public radio program All Things Considered.
Looking for Alaska is based on an incident that occurred at John’s boarding school in Alabama. Here, it’s transformed into the story of Miles Halter, who comes to Culver Creek School and finds all that he hoped for: friends, fun, and even first love in the person of the enigmatic Alaska Young. But there is death, too, perhaps even more keenly felt by Miles because of his unique hobby of collecting famous people’s last words-a predilection he shares with his creator, John Green.
“When I was 12, I read in an American history text that when John Adams died on July 4, 1826, his last words were, ‘Thomas Jefferson still survives.’ But he didn’t. Jefferson had died a few hours earlier, and his last words were, ‘Is it the fourth?’ I loved the circuity of that story,” John recalls, “and that led me to keep looking for last words.” Among his favorites are those of Emily Dickinson: “I must go in, the fog is rising.” Hitting a different note was Oscar Wilde on his deathbed: “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.”
The words of Simon Bolivar, “Damn it, how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” play an important part in Looking for Alaska. As John notes, “The characters are aware that they are in this labyrinth of suffering and that they are unable to navigate it or escape it.” Yet the book, like John, is also very funny.
John, who likes getting feedback on his NPR pie-ces (“I even love hate mail!”), knows that he may soon be hearing from people who lived through this high-school experience with him. “As I was writing, I was really nervous about my friends and family reading the book. But a friend, who’s also a writer, was very blunt with me. He said if you think about those people and their feelings and speculations, you’re not going to write a very good book. Writing Alaska was most enjoyable when I felt I was communicating to a reader I didn’t know.”
In a Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown once sighed, “There is no heavier burden than great potential.” So how does John feel about having written a book that’s been praised by young-adult literature critic and Booklist columnist Michael Cart as “flat out wonderful,” and that has been snapped up already by publishers in Italy, Great Britain, and Holland?
“Well, it’s better than the alternative. But I am stunned and thrilled. It’s a mix of gratification and pressure.” Especially as he works on his second book, An Abundance of Katherines, to be published in 2006, about a washed-up child prodigy who keeps falling in love with girls who have the same name. “It’s been great fun and satisfying to work on, but it’s a different experience when you’ve already signed a contract and someone is waiting for it. I’m coming to terms with the fact that if my goal is to find readers, I can’t be intimidated by the process. Because the great joy is finding an audience. It’s such a solitary thing to write a book.”
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