John Green has been conducting a book blog tour over the past week or so and he joins me today to talk about Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines as well as reading YA books as an adult, being a genre writer and whether or not it matters if Frankenstein is considered a Sci Fi title. (Plus Toni Morrison kicks Laurie Halse Anderson's ass in a literary metaphorical "we like all of their books but had to declare a winner" kind of way.) There's also some talk of sex, but it's not nearly as exciting as we might all wish it could be. (Trying to be professional here folks; bear with me.....)
CM: I just read your Printz acceptance speech and so I can see why you chose the YA genre initially. I am surprised that you jumped on it only after reading a few books though - were you unsure who your audience was for the unwritten Alaska until you decided to read the Printz winners or did you already think that teens might like it more than adults but just hadn't made the leap towards writing it strictly for the YA audience? Also, were you always sure that it would deal primarily with teen characters - not include adults to make it more marketable, perhaps, to adults?
JG: Well, the way my Printz acceptance speech condenses time, it does sound like I started writing YA having only read a few books. But in point of fact, by the time I started seriously working on Looking for Alaska (just after September 11th), I'd read hundreds of YA books and reviewed a lot of them for Booklist. So I had some familiarity with the genre.
But I think a lot of what I knew about coming-of-age novels came from "adult" books, like for instance The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I always thought that I wanted to write for teenagers, but until recently, that meant publishing for adults. From Catcher in the Rye to The Virgin Suicides to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, good books starring teenagers always seemed to end up in the adult shelves. It wasn't until I became familiar with contemporary YA books that I began to think that publishing for teens might be a better way to reach that audience today. I'm somewhat on the fence as to whether that's actually true, however, for the following reasons:.
1. A lot of good high-school readers buy their books out of the adult fiction section of the bookstore, and I don't really blame them for not wanting to look through the YA section, because it contains a lot of books written for and targeted to middle schoolers, and it also contains a fair bit of crap.
2. It's an unfortunate reality of the current market that if your book contains a lot of sex, it has a limited audience as a YA novel. I've been very fortunate that Alaska has overcome that hurdle, partly because of the awards it won, and partly because my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, worked extremely hard to get Alaska excellent placement in bookstores.
That said, I'm glad I published YA and think it's a remarkably rich genre. I also believe it will continue to grow to better accomodate high-school and college students.
As for writing about grown-ups: I never thought about including adult characters in Looking for Alaska, even in its earliest stages. I'm very flattered that Alaska has an adult audience, and that adults have admired it, but I never thought for one second about creating a story that would appeal to older people at all. Also, I think good books can trump genre. The Book Thief has a huge adult audience; just like a lot of people who don't usually shop for mysteries read, say, Henning Mankell.
CM: In terms of Alaska, did you realize while writing that book or afterwards that the YA genre was the area in which you wanted to continue writing - in other words, when did you shift from thinking of Alaska as "your YA novel" to "all of my novels will be YA novels"?
JG: Even before I started writing Alaska, I knew that I wanted the focus of my writing life to be books with a high-school and college audience. I guess that's a little unusual--American literature is riddled with writers who wrote a coming-of-age story and then went on to write adult novels. That was never my intention.
I should say that even after I sold Alaska, I didn't know whether I'd ever be able to publish another book. My intention then was only to get another book contract, and I might have taken a contract at an adult publisher had Penguin not offered me one. That said, the text of Katherines would not have changed whether it was an adult book or YA. Assuming I was working with the same editor, I think the book would have been identical regardless of the publisher.
CM: The recent dust-up over at The Elegant Variation had a lot of opinions on young adult vs adult or "literary" books (we even got into "is Frankenstein sci fi or not" insanity) and right there, again, was the attitude that YA authors and readers are not quite up to par when compared to the adult literary genre. I'm sure you must have run into this as well along the way - have you ever felt like you had to defend your choice to write young adult books and how do you deal with the attitude when it shows up?
JG: Oh, of course. It's hard for me not to be defensive about it, because there's a kernel of truth to the stereotype. I mean, to be blunt, I prefer acclaimed literary fiction to acclaimed YA fiction. For instance, I think Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak is a great novel, but I think Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon is better. And I think that generally, teenagers don't read like adults do. Very few teenagers are going to read Ulysses and understand Joyce's references to Irish nationalist leaders, because very few teenagers know much about 19th century Irish history.
But so what? In the long run, the whole genre debate doesn't matter. Your books will stay around or they won't. For instance, I think the question of whether Frankenstein is sci-fi is, as the Buddhists would say, a question wrongly put. There are very few books that will last, say, 75 years. And as far as I'm concerned, all the books that last 75 years are in the same genre: Classics. Are people running around worrying that maybe Huck Finn is not actually very good because it was originally published for kids? Of course not.
At any rate, I feel that I'm in excellent company as a YA writer, and if I'm not as good a writer as Philip Roth and Toni Morrison? Well, I can live with that.
CM: Do you think some adults will just never "get it" when it comes to how difficult it is to write successful honest YA novels and also, why it is so important that good authors do so?
JG: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let me separate those questions. Yes, there are adults who don't get how hard it is to write a good YA novel. All I can say to them is: Do it. If it's easy as you think it is to write a standout YA novel, you can make a fast buck. Unfortunately, it isn't easy, which is why some YA novels are better than others, and why many aspiring YA novels (including, for a while, me) find it hard to get published, even in an acquisitive market like this one.
Second, I think there are a lot of people--including people who are very knowledgeable about books--who think that YA novels aren't important. Some might argue that they're even a crutch for a dumbed-down reading public. (I, obviously, disagree.)
CM: Any ideas on how to change some of these lingering negative opinions about the genre among adults? (It's not all "Gossip Girls" in other words.)
JG: Well, it would be helpful if publishers would do the ethical thing and publish less crap, but publishers are in the business of making money, so that's an unrealistic expectation.
I think it mostly takes time. A lot of adults liked Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. A lot of adults liked The Book Thief. And so did a lot of teens who usually read adult books. As more books cross over to those audiences, more readers will be open to the idea of reading a YA novel. We have to remember that young adult novels, as they exist today, haven't even been around for ten years.
Personally, I think the first thing we need to do is really convert teenagers. I want the kids who are reading Vonnegut and Salinger and Plath to look at YA. And then, as they get older, they'll stay open to the idea that "young adult" and "good" are not mutually exclusive.
CM: You mentioned reviewing for Booklist - did you ask to review YA books or were they just luckily assigned to you at some point? And did you "research" the books as you read them? Meaning - did you read the books with an eye towards how they were written so you could get some insights into writing your own novel? Were there any books or authors that stood out as YA authors you hoped to emulate a bit? (I'm all about Bradbury mostly but I also adore the YA short stories and novels that fantasy author Charles de Lint has written.)
JG: When I started working at Booklist, I was 22, and I think the people in the Books for Youth department thought, "Hey, this guy is basically a YA himself," which led to them encourage me to read (and eventually review) YA books. I didn't really use any of the books I reviewed as research, or as guides in how to write a YA novel, although I did want to emulate the feel of some of the books I read, like Janet Tashjian's The Gospel according to Larry, for instance. I'm rarely aware of emulating anyone, but I'm sure I do it all the time.
CM: I was also really interested by the early comment you made about some teens getting their books from the adult section and then later you mentioned "I want the kids who are reading Vonnegut and Salinger and Plath to look at YA. And then, as they get older, they'll stay open to the idea that 'young adul' and 'good' are not mutually exclusive." I do remember going to the adult section - mostly for mysteries - when I was in high school but back then (the mid 80s) YA fiction was really really young. These "old beyond their years" teen readers - how do you reach them? Are they looking for reviews on the internet or in Teen Vogue or is there some word of mouth or what? Do you need to use unconventional marketing methods to reach unconventional teen readers and are these new (and more mature) teen books starting to make a dent in the group's reading habits?
JG: Well, first I think you reach them by writing good books that they will find engaging, because it's still true that the primary way to sell a book is by word-of-mouth. It's not like there are ads in Teen Vogue for Catcher in the Rye, for instance, but it continues to do pretty well. But the truth is, I don't want smart teens to stop reading adult books. I want them to read All the King's Men and Catch-22 and Portrait of the Artist... But I also want them to include the YA shelves as they browse bookstores.
CM: And finally, the sex thing. It is banned books week after all and sex in books is a very hot topic for a lot of parent groups intent on keeping sex out of their children's heads (don't even get me started on the insanity of it all). Clearly you feel that your readers - teen readers - are capable of handling sexual content in their fiction choices. So here's the tricky question - where do you, as an adult writer, find the line of what should and should not be included in a YA book when it comes to sexual content? Do you just write what you remember being common knowledge when you were in school and how would you feel if someone tried to ban one of your current or future books based on what you think teens know more than enough about?
JG: I've gotten thousands of emails from teenagers. Not a single one has ever mentioned any kind of discomfort with what is called "the sex scene" in Looking for Alaska. (It is not a sex scene, because A. no one has sex, and B. it is probably the least erotic thing that has ever happened to anyone ever.) I think that high-school students know what sex is, and if they don't, they should. It's not healthy to be 16 years old and have no idea how babies are produced. That's creepy. I would never censor myself regarding sex just because I'm writing for teens. Never. They may experience sexuality differently than adults do, but they sure as hell know what it is.
Also, we as a country have to stop thinking that the only kind of ethics that matter are sexual ethics. (None of the 'controversy' surrounding Alaska has come up in the 12 other countries where it has been published.) I just don't think that sexuality is the most important issue facing contemporary teenagers. When you're a teen, you're deciding what really matters to you; you're trying to understand what your responsibilities are to your family and your friends; you're deciding what you want the meanings of your life to be. Sex has some bearing on those questions, but it isn't at the center of any of them. I'm old fashioned in the sense that I do think that writers--whether for adults or for children--have a responsibility to their readers. But our responsibility is about those larger questions, not mere sex.
And that's the end of my big fun conversation with John Green. Of course now I can think of a dozen other questions I should have asked as well, but then - well, we would have gone on for days and he is doing 19 of these suckers, so it was probably for the best that I didn't go off on any tangents. (I will admit right now though that I have never been able to read any Joyce, not as a teen nor as an adult. Maybe John can give me some pointers on how to get through his work without losing my mind....)