John Green, 2015

Notes on John Green’s Visit to Central Library

John Green received the Vonnegut Award at the Central Library on September 14, 2015 to a full house in the Clowes Auditorium.  The presentation was in conjunction with our sister city, Cologne, Germany, where librarians, teachers and high school students gathered to watch and hear John in real time via Skype. 

The first half of John’s presentation was about Kurt Vonnegut, but it was interwoven with his own life, reading and work. 

On reading Kurt Vonnegut:  If you’re reading him in high school, you’ll find them funny, but I recently reread them and found them horrifically sad.

I heard him speak in 1994 in Alabama.

On living in Indianapolis: I love living here, I love writing here, I love having kids here.  I love Indianapolis because it’s the most American city that I know of. 

John was born here, at St. Vincent Hospital.  Six days later, his dad fulfilled his lifelong ambition and “moved the hell out Indianapolis.”  He added that his parents and friends, and even his 15 year old self, are appalled that he and his wife chose to move here when his wife was offered a job at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  When he returned the U-Haul truck they had rented to move to their place near 86th and Ditch, the guy at the desk asked if he had just moved here, and John said yes, and asked how he liked it.  The guy said, “well, you gotta live somewhere.” 

On one’s direction in life:  This will make no sense unless you first watch Norm MacDonald’s Moth Joke, which John told better in real life!

We go because the light is on.  Why did I move to Indianapolis?  Because the light was on. 

He cautioned that you can’t just follow the light because “it will inevitably lead you astray.”  You do have to make some choices besides following the light.

On melancholy:  Melancholy is an appropriate response to the world in which we find ourselves. 

He described Vonnegut’s world, the darkness of his novels, and the stupidity of violence and war.   He said it is hard to talk about this pain, the pain that he feels in the center of himself, and can only approach it by analogy.  When he was young, he had bad ear infections, and constantly tugged on his left ear.  His mom asked him if that made him feel better, and she said “well, quit pulling on it.”  But he couldn’t.  His melancholy is like that – he can’t not touch it.

On his own social order: 

He gave a great description of his social order, and how it was similar to Vonnegut’s.  I missed all but this one part:

He described his social order as setting some people up as gods and dehumanizing them, while setting other people up as “other” and dehumanizing them as trash, unworthy of notice.

On reading:  He loves Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie.  When he was young, Robert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men was really important to him.  Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon feels so read inside of its world.  He also noted Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, as books that shaped him as a young man.  Other authors he mentioned were Jane Austen, and ????

Today, he reads everything.  He loved the Babysitters Club, and said he had just finished rereading Claudia’s Sad Good-bye about the death of her grandmother.  He said it was great description of grief, and, besides, it was only 60 pages.  He also reads romance novels, especially Edwardian romance novels.

For aspiring writers:  Read stuff that you like, read stuff that you hate.  It’s helpful to read bad novels so you can see how they pull the strings.

Reading allows you to discover the inner workings of writing, and is “the only way a writer can apprentice.” 

On his own writing:  Asked to choose the favorite novel he had written, he said he love Fault in Our Stars, but Looking for Alaska was his first novel.  He said he was “deeply emotionally engaged in the story” because it is autobiographical.  The characters attend a boarding school in Alabama, as did he and his wife – that’s where they met. 

Another question was about where he got his ideas for novels.  He said they begin with little ideas that get stitched together as he thinks about them.  For example, Paper Towns started when he began to think about how guys (it’s usually guys who do this, he said) hold the girl they like up on a pedestal.  This isn’t fair to the girl who has to try to live up to the guy’s expectations, and isn’t fair to the buy because he will inevitably be disappointed.  “We need to just treat each other as people,” he said.

If anyone likes any of my books, I’m delighted, and if one is a favorite, I know that means you read more than one!

In answer to a question from a Decatur Central High School student about how he begins writing when he gets an idea for a novel, he replied “I have no idea.  Thanks for reminding me that I haven’t written one in three and a half years.”

As a footnote, John posted the following on his FaceBook page the morning he spoke:

Hi! So I am going on a social media hiatus beginning today while I work on a new story. I’ll return when I’ve made substantive progress. There are several reasons for the hiatus, I guess, but the biggest one is that I need to get some writing done….

I’ll miss you! Be kind to each other.

On growing up:  He quoted F.Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Tom Buchanan as “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax.”  He advised the high school students in the audience not to worry if they haven’t accomplished anything by the age of 21, and suggested that was a good thing.  He warned them “Don’t peak too early!”

On Chipotle:  He loves Chipotle, and loves how their menu makes you feel as though everything on it is really healthy.  Since he is now an adult, though, he usually orders a burrito bowl with the cilantro sauce and lots of extra lettuce, some black beans and rice – “nothing too fancy.”

On memory:  We don’t store facts; we store memories.  We use words to describe what we remember, and those words have connotations. We can’t fully describe our experiences because words aren’t experiential.

On becoming a parent:  He remembers looking at his first child, his son, when he was first born, and expecting to see some miraculous combination of the two people he loved most, his wife and himself.  Instead, the baby didn’t look like anyone he recognized, he was a stranger.  John realized the separateness of parents and children.  We know even infants dream, but parents will never know what about.  One of his jobs before he began writing was as a hospital chaplain. He remembered having to sit in a room with woman whose two children had just been killed in a car accident, and she sobbed that she was no longer a mom.  He said it was the hardest thing he has ever experienced.  Looking into his new son’s eyes, he knew that what she had said wasn’t true.  He knew that as long as one of them was alive, he and his son would always have a relationship, one that would survive even death. 

He said that becoming a parent taught him that there is hope for us, and that “the only way forward for us is together.”

Students, teachers and library staff from Cathedral High School, Christel House Academy South, Cardinal Ritter High School, Decatur Central High School, and Lawrence North High school were in the audience.  Library staff and faculty from Brebeuf, Central Catholic, Covenant High School, Heritage Christian High School, Nativity, Our Lady of Lourdes, Providence Cristo Rey, St. Barnabas and St. Joan of Arc were also there.  Other guests included Library Foundation board members and donors, Herron High School students, and IndyPL staff.

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