John Green: Most of The Fault in Our Stars was written in furious grief

"Esther helped me see that people living with illness or who are severely disabled – Esther was both – have as rich an emotional life as anyone else: the same desires, the same frustrations"

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John Green: Most of The Fault in Our Stars was written in furious grief
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It’s the teenagers who knock on the door of his Indianapolis home that, understandably, freak out bestselling author John Green.

“I have to be pretty firm,” he explains. “I say to them, ‘I’m sure you didn’t mean this as an intrusion, but it’s not appropriate to come to someone’s house when you don’t know them. It makes me uncomfortable, and, while you’re very nice, it’s a reminder that someone not as nice as you could come here.’” What do the invasive teens say to that? “They feel awful. I don’t want them to feel awful. I just don’t want them to do it.”

In the hotel lounge overlooking New York’s Central Park, shimmering in the steamy noon haze 40 floors below, Green is considering the success that brings total strangers to his doorstep. In April, the 36-year-old was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2014. Just shy of 11 million copies of his book, The Fault in Our Stars, have been sold worldwide. It has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 130 consecutive weeks. Green has 2.4 million Twitter followers and 8.6 million subscribers on his various YouTube channels. And the trailer for the much-anticipated film adaptation of Fault is the most liked in YouTube’s history, with more than 20 million views to date.

All these numbers will increase exponentially when the film is released here on Friday 20 June. It stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as Hazel and Gus, a pair of teenagers both suffering from terminal cancer who fall in love. The modest movie – no vampires, no special effects, just straight storytelling – will make you weep throughout. Yet it is not a conventional weepie: it asks, intelligently, big questions about the meaning of life and identity, alongside smaller questions about intimacy and mortality. In the best way, it plays against convention – and the result is overwhelming.

Green is no stranger to fame, or of addressing teenagers: his face is familiar to millions thanks to VlogBrothers, an online channel he created with his brother Hank in 2007, where he uploads a new video weekly and whose devoted fans are known as “Nerdfighters”. Among their other online ventures, the brothers also oversee the charitable scheme Project for Awesome and the educational channel Crash Course.

He balances this prodigious online life with writing young adult novels: Looking for Alaska (2005), An Abundance of Katherines (2006), Paper Towns (2008) and The Fault in Our Stars (2012). But what links all the strands of his working life, he says, is “trying to talk about what people care about”. 

Green is extremely boyish, slight, and is dressed in a sober navy suit. When he sits down he is nervy, halting in his speech, squirming this way and that. The fact he lives his life so publicly seems surprising. “I’m a very anxious person, and obsessive,” he says. Does he have OCD? “Yeah, but in a long-term, well-managed way. I take medication, not hardcore anti-panic stuff – except when I have an actual panic attack, which is rare.

“I also value thinking in obsessive spirals. It’s helpful for a writer to cycle through their thoughts. The problem with anxiety is it turns you in on yourself.” He finds that exercise helps, as does writing: “Losing yourself in a fictional world isn’t as nihilistic and destructive as being lost inside of oneself.” Yes, he admits he shares a lot of himself with a lot of people online, but his “extremely introverted” production activities are performed at home.

As a boy growing up in Florida and Alabama, Green had an early experience of cancer. His father survived bladder cancer twice: once when he was six, and again at eight. “It’s one of my first memories. I knew dad was seriously ill but I was told it wasn’t life-threatening. Later, I looked up survival rates for stage one bladder cancer, and it was in fact life-threatening. But my parents did a nice job of not making me think so.”

Green was “nerdy, a little bit socially isolated” as a child. He had friends, but in middle school he was bullied. He asked to go to boarding school, where he felt safer. “Maybe it was late to read Chaucer, but I did. Suddenly it was cool to be intellectually engaged, instead of the ironic detachment I associated with coolness.”

Writing was a way to imagine lives other than his own, to escape “the prison of consciousness”. Reading was a way into other people’s minds: “I felt I could be Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.” He wanted to be a writer “in the way people dream of being an astronaut”.

After graduating from college, Green enrolled at divinity school and spent five months working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital, thinking he might become a priest. “I didn’t grow up religious. I’m an Episcopalian,” he says. The hospital work acted as “a hazing” and made him realise the priesthood was not for him. “I had all these fancy ideas about suffering... odyssey... the problem with evil... but how could that explain the seemingly intractable injustice inherent to human existence?” In hospital, no theological theory mattered. “Faced with the reality of kids dying, it felt really cold to me.”

Hazel, the strong and challenging focus of The Fault in Our Stars, was inspired by Esther Earl, a 16-year-old Nerdfighter who died of cancer in 2010. Earl was “very funny, at times pissed off, sentimental – she desired to be in love,” says Green. “She told me once, ‘I may be dying and everything, but the biggest problem in my life is a boy.’ She helped me see that people living with illness or who are severely disabled – Esther was both – have as rich an emotional life as anyone else: the same desires, the same frustrations. When Esther died, I was very mad. Most of the book was written in furious grief after her death.” 

The day the film started shooting was the third anniversary of Earl's death. Green took lead actress Woodley aside to tell her she looked like Earl and how he wished she could have known her. She told him – here his voice breaks – that she had watched all of Earl’s YouTube videos.

Green hopes the film offers “moments of awareness and connection”, as he has had in his own life. His four-year-old son Henry (he and his wife Sarah also have a daughter, Alice, born last June) recently asked him to look at a pine cone. “To me it looked like every pine cone I’ve ever seen, but then I saw it with Henry’s eyes. It was amazing, a work of symmetry and beauty, the result of millions of years of forces, the molecules that led this tree to this pine cone, and ... woooooh! Henry was right, it was wondrous. You should stare in awe at every pine cone.”

Every attempt to write The Fault in Our Stars before Henry was born was “total crap”, the author recalls. He perceived the world “nihilistically, angrily, hopelessly; the world was awful and irredeemable. Henry taught me death was not the end. There is an actual unconditionality to love between a parent and child that can survive that.”

Green likes writing about teenagers, distilling “the intensity of falling in love for the first time, and the intensity of asking questions of meaning and suffering as a ‘sovereign being’ separated from your parents.” Teenagers are not ironic, he says. “They have conversations about the meaning of life as if it’s not a ridiculous thing to do. They ask, ‘What can we do about suffering, poverty, hunger?’ They’re really engaged with those questions. That’s great; it gives me energy. They don’t draw a bright line between high and low culture. There shouldn’t be anything weird about saying your favourite stories are Hamlet and The Fault in Our Stars.” 

ask if he has spent his presumed-fortune on any extravagances, to which he laughs. He has bought a Chevy Volt hybrid electric car as well as increasing his sponsorship of British football club AFC Wimbledon – the team founded, owned and maintained by former Wimbledon fans after the old Wimbledon FC relocated to Milton Keynes.

“I love the club,” says Green. “I’m a huge soccer fan. I’ve been a Liverpool supporter since forever. When I was a kid it was John Barnes and everybody.” He watches games live on American television: “I haven’t missed a match this season.”

“The success of the book can be overwhelming at times. It’s not something you can internalise,” he contemplates. “You have to let it go. I am not defined by how the book is doing, just as my life is not entirely defined by any other facet of what I’m doing.”

Green may believe in boundlessness within the universe, but in his daily life boundaries maintain his equilibrium. By the end of our time together, he is no longer squirming, but relaxed, nervousness quelled, trumped by the wonder of pine cones. 

The Fault in Our Stars is in UK cinemas from today