By Sophie Schmidt
John Green is finally back in our lives with another book! Turtles All the Way Down has been one of our most anticipated reads of 2017 since the day it was announced, and we had the amazing opportunity to sit down with the VlogBrother recently while he was on tour.
Justine: Hi, John! To start things off, why don’t you tell us about a special talent you have.
John Green: You know, not only do I not have a hidden talent, I don’t even have a hidden hobby. The only thing I ever do is read, write and make YouTube videos. I hang out with my kids. I’m pretty good at building my kids Legos. When they get stuck, I can usually solve that problem. I feel bad, I know I should be a better-rounded person, but I’m not.
No worries! Writing is something that you have a special talent for. Moving to talk about Turtles, how did your personal struggle with OCD and anxiety influence the writing of this book?
I don’t think I could have written it if I didn’t have that stuff. I also couldn’t write it while I was really sick. There’s this super common idea in the public imagination about writers and mental illness, and that somehow writers write better when they’re not treating their health problems. I can’t speak to others’ experiences, but that’s not true to my experience at all. When I’m unwell I’m not able to write anything, or at least anything that makes any sense. I’m often not able to read either. I had to be able to be writing enough from inside my own experience that I felt confident in what I was writing about, but I also had to be treating it effectively enough and in a good enough period that I could be writing the book.
That makes a lot of sense! Given your experience, was it easier or harder to write this?
Hard. It was harder than any of my other books, I think. Although I probably think that every time, and then you look back and you’re like, “Well, that didn’t seem like it was that hard,” but, of course, it was 12 years ago. It was definitely harder. Writing is a great job, and I don’t want to complain about it, but it was definitely harder and it took a lot longer than previous books, partly due to how personal it was. I really wanted to put the reader into Aza’s experience. That was really challenging, and I’m not sure if I did it, but that was the goal.
Yes, for sure! I felt very inside her head, and even though I don’t personally deal with OCD and anxiety, I felt that I could truly understand her.
That was my hope. So often we can approach this through metaphor and by saying what it’s like. You always lose something in that process. You lose the immediacy of it, the true terror of it. If you can find a way to give it direct enough form people feel not what it’s like, but an idea of what it is, I think it helps people understand how scary and destabilizing it is.
How did you get into the headspace where you were able to write accurately?
It was not hard for me to write about Aza’s thought spirals. The hard part was balancing it well enough to figure out how to get the reader to go on that journey with me. I knew that it wasn’t always going to be a fun journey, but I wanted it to feel like a rewarding reading experience. I don’t like reading books when it feels like a chore, and I don’t want my books to feel like reading them is a chore.
Reading your books is a great experience every time, at least for me! How much of yourself do you see in Aza?
A lot. She and I have very different problems. I had to try to remain conscious of that while I was writing it – she and I are different in a lot of ways, but her thinking becomes a huge problem for her. I identify with that a lot, and when I was a teenager that was a huge, huge part of my life. My thinking problem disrupted essentially every day of my high school life.
Taking a step back from Aza, let’s talk about the Tuatara. It’s an integral part of the story; what made you want to include it?
There’s a lot that I like about the Tuatara. I like that they live for a very long time, so if you’re an asshole billionaire it’s the perfect animal to leave your estate to if you want to make sure that nobody in your life gets any of your money. I also like that they are far more successful than humans. They have been around for 150 million years; if we are going to be as successful as Tuatara we have to be in the first .1 percent of our species history, and that seems very unlikely to me. I liked that they are dead-eyed soulless. You look at that animal and you think, “Man, 150 million years ago life was different and less.” The thing that really gets me about Tuatara is that their body form hasn’t really changed at all in this 150-million-year period. That’s astonishing in and of itself, but also they have the fastest metabolic evolution rate of any animal that we know. On the inside, on a metabolic level, they’re experiencing DNA mutation faster than any other animal we know of. That’s amazing, and I thought that reflected something about Aza’s experience.
That truly is amazing. It’s fascinating to think about, and I love the inclusion and role it plays in the book. Another aspect in the book is Daisy’s Star Wars fanfic. Have you written any fic yourself?
I have written fan fiction before. I am not going to tell you anything about anything that would give it away in any way. Hard stop. I like fan fiction, I’m interested in it, and I think it’s cool. When people write fan fiction of my books it’s like the coolest thing in the world. It makes me so happy. It’s awesome.
How awesome! So, do you have any closing comments you’d like to make about your book or anything moving forward?
No, I have no plans moving forward. I’m going to get home from this tour and catalogue my home library. I finished about a third of it, and I’m going to go through it and put them in this database, arrange them by Library of Congress number and section, and then I will decide what I want to do with my life.
Yes, take a well-deserved break! Thank you for taking the time to sit with me today. I can’t wait to see what the future brings for you.