Looking for Alaska
Everybody has a talent. Miles Halter’s is knowing the last words of a lot of different people—people like the author Rabelais, whose enigmatic last words “I go to seek a Great Perhaps” inspire the sixteen year-old to leave his family home in Florida and enroll in Culver Creek, a co-ed boarding school in Alabama. There he makes a new circle of friends: his roommate Chip, a scholarship student whom everyone calls “The Colonel;” Takumi, a slyly funny Japanese-American rapper; and sweet-spirited, Romanian-born Lara, who has trouble pronouncing the letter “i.” But most importantly he meets Alaska, a beautiful girl who “had eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor.” Miles quickly falls in love with this reckless, quirky, endlessly intriguing girl. An omnivorous reader, Alaska introduces him to a new set of last words — those of South American liberator Simón Bolivar — that pose an intriguing question, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” It’s a question that takes on a deeper, more poignant resonance when an unthinkable tragedy invites Miles to examine the meanings of life . . . and death.
John Green is the author of Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. He lives in New York City.
Q. What’s the difference between writing fiction and lying?
A. To begin with, when you tell a lie, you generally do not admit upfront that it’s a lie. Like, if I am lying to you about who stole the cookie from the cookie jar, I am not going to preface it by saying, “While I am about to convince you that John Doe stole the cookie from the cookie jar, the cookie was actually stolen by me.” But when you write fiction, as with Looking for Alaska, it says “a novel” right on the cover. Before a reader has even opened the book, the writer has acknowledged that this is a story, and that the story does not faithfully recount events that actually occurred. The other big difference, I would argue, is that lies are attempts to hide the truth by willfully denying facts. Fiction, on the other hand, is an attempt to reveal the truth by ignoring facts. To paraphrase William Faulkner, I am much more interested in the truth than in the facts. One of the challenges in writing Alaska was learning not to overvalue facts. When I first started writing the book, I kept thinking I ought to include things that happened because they had happened. It took years before I was able to let go of the facts and focus on writing a true novel.
Q. In that vein, just how autobiographical is Looking for Alaska?
A. I have always danced around this question, and I think I’m going to continue dancing around it now. Like Miles, I grew up in Florida and attended a boarding school in Alabama. And the physical setting of Alaska is very, very similar to the physical place I attended boarding school. Generally, the book is probably more autobiographical than I usually acknowledge. But it is very much a work of fiction. The facts, I can assure you, were ignored.
Q. What was the catalyst for this novel? A. In the study of religion, there is this word theodicy, which refers to the question of why a God who is both loving and all powerful would allow there to be such unequal suffering in the world. In college, when I started to study religion, that was the question that interested me most. So in some ways, that was the catalyst for the novel. After I graduated from college, I worked for a while at a children’s hospital, where I encountered the same problem in stark, awful reality. It was in the hospital that I started to think about writing a story in which teenagers experience loss and a consuming guilt that cannot be easily assuaged. I started writing it just a few months after I left the hospital.
Q. Did you write it with a specific audience in mind?
A. Yes. From the very beginning, I wrote the book for high-school students.
Q. How did you come up with the book’s unusual structure?
A. I’d been working on the book with very limited success for about 18 months before September 11, 2001. And then in the days after 9/11, I was alone in my apartment in Chicago watching the commercial-free news 24 hours a day. On TV, people kept saying that this was a defining moment for my generation of Americans, that we would all remember the world in terms of before 9/11 and after it. And I thought about how time is usually measured that way: Christians date from before and after the birth of Christ. Muslims date from before and after the hijrah. We look back to the most important moment in our history, and that becomes the dividing line between what we were and what we are now. So I wanted to reflect on the way we measure and think of time. And also, for the characters in Alaska, there is a moment that changes their lives forever, and that redefines their understanding of the world. I wanted the importance of that moment to be central to the novel’s structure.
Q. Chip (i.e., the Colonel) says, “Everybody’s got a talent.” What’s yours?
A. I’m a pretty ordinary person in most respects, but I suppose I am good at finding and remembering trivia. I’m not sure whether that qualifies as a talent, but it’s the closest I’ve got.
Q. Miles’ teacher Dr. Hyde tells him to “be present.” What does that mean to you?
A. It means listening. Listening is a very rare skill, and in these noisy times, it is more and more valuable.
Q. Did you have a teacher like Dr. Hyde?
A. You’re finding a different way to ask the autobiography question! I feel like I should reward your perseverance with a fuller answer. I had several teachers who inspired me the way Dr. Hyde inspires Miles. But as a character, he is based on three particular teachers. In high school, I had a history teacher named Dr. Cooper. He lectured a lot and scared the hell out of his students and kicked you out of class if you didn’t listen—but also cared deeply about us. And then in college, my religion professor Donald Rogan and my writing professor P. F. Kluge both had a lot of Dr. Hyde in them. I stole lines from all three teachers, but particularly from Rogan.
Q. Miles learns to take religion seriously. Did you? And, if so, do you still take it seriously?
A. I did learn to take religion seriously, and in much the same way that Miles does: Donald Rogan was an excellent teacher. He was obviously smarter than me, and he found religion interesting, so I came to find it interesting also. Religion concerns itself with the same existential questions that I find interesting and important. I think I probably prefer the study of religion to the practice of it, though. That said, I do consider myself religious now. In high school, I had a classmate who attended a Southern Baptist church, and he was a nice guy, but he would always ask me questions about religion that I felt invaded my privacy. One time, he asked me, “How is your relationship with God, John?” I thought about it for a while, and then finally I said, “Complicated.” It was complicated then, and after studying religion in college and working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital and seriously considering a career as a minister, it remains complicated. I’m not embarrassed by my faith, and I’m also not embarrassed by my doubt.
Q. How did your time as a chaplain at a children’s hospital influence your development as a writer?
A. All the fiction I’ve written since working at that hospital has in some way echoed some feeling or experience or question that arose while I was at the hospital. In many ways, it was a before-and-after moment in my own life.
Q. The character of Alaska tells Miles, “The only real geniuses are artists.” Do you agree? And who are some people whom you regard as geniuses?
A. There’s a lot of my high-school self in the character Alaska, and I suspect I would have agreed with that statement as a teenager. But I think there are mathematical and scientific geniuses, too. I think genius is rare, but I don’t think it discriminates. I’m also not convinced that a person just is or is not a genius. I think that genius can come and go. Mark Twain wrote my favorite American novel, but he also wrote the awful Joan of Arc. Georg Cantor invented set theory and revolutionized our understanding of infinity, but he also thought Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a nebulous thing, genius. Unless you are Shakespeare.
Q. Miles writes, “Teenagers think they are invincible.” Did you when you were a teen? Do you, now, as an adult?
A. I was aware as a teenager of the fact that I might die, and it scared me a little. But I never felt like dying would affect my overall invincibility, if that makes sense. It’s a little like what Muhammad Ali said after his third fight with Joe Frazier. After the fight, which Ali won, Ali said that he thought at times that Frazier might kill him. “If he had killed me,” Ali said, “I would have gotten back up and won the fight. I would have been the first dead heavyweight champion of the world.” I felt like that as a teenager. I feel a little more fragile now. I still think people are invincible, but I’d rather not find out for sure.
Q. Because “booze and mischief” play significant parts in Looking for Alaska, the book has been challenged. Were you ever tempted to censor yourself when you were writing the novel?
A. No. It never even occurred to me that it might be a problem while I was writing it. I got nervous when the book came closer to publication, though. I have to give full credit to my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel. She was absolutely steadfast about refusing to censor the novel, even when I wasn’t. My friend David Levithan once said of gay writers, “We are political novelists who do not wish to be political.” I feel a bit of that when it comes to banning books from classrooms and libraries. I don’t want to have to fight that fight, but I won’t shirk the responsibility I feel to my books and my readers. Teachers have been trained to teach, and they know how to teach, and we need to fight to let them teach—whether it’s Catcher in the Rye (or Alaska, for that matter) in an English class or evolution in a Biology class.
Q. And finally: In the “Some Last Words on Last Words” section at the end of Looking for Alaska, you write, “I was born into Bolivar’s labyrinth, and so I must believe in the hope of Rabelais’ Great Perhaps.” Would you expand on this? And are there ever any truly last words?
A. The Dutch title of Alaska is Het Grote Misschien, which means The Great Perhaps. But if you type it into Babel Fish, it translates Het Grote Misschien as “The Big Maybe.” I’m undecided as to whether there are ever any truly last words. That’s the big maybe. As for the quote cited above, I mean that I believe in hope, in what is sometimes called “radical hope.” I believe there is hope for us all, even amid the suffering-and maybe even inside the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction, probably. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope, to build a fire in the darkness.