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John Green's adds to his fan base with 'The Fault in Our Stars'

The award-winning author of young-adult novels has leveraged the Web to build his readership.

January 21, 2012|By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times
(Ton Koene / Penguin Young…)

While watching one of his recent YouTube videos, it's immediately clear that John Green isn't just an author. He's a multimedia darling playing to 1,000-seat auditoriums of screaming fans.

Some of the crowds showing up for his mostly sold-out, 17-city tour in support of his latest young-adult novel are subscribers to the Vlogbrothers, the video blog Green runs with his brother that draws seven million viewers per month. Others rank among his 1.17 million Twitter followers. Many have read his new bittersweet tragi-comedy, "The Fault in Our Stars," about two teenagers fighting cancer and falling in love. Since its release Jan. 10, the book has received 230 five-star reviews on Amazon.com and is about to debut at No. 1 on the New York Times chapter book bestseller list. (His L.A. stop on the tour at the Lincoln Middle School on Jan. 26 is sold out.)

Few authors have so vocal a following, but Green has a rare combination of talents. A gifted writer who, at age 34, has already won two Printz honors and an Edgar Award for his previous novels, Green has a down-to-earth yet goofy personality that he actively shares with fans in the interest of building community. What's notable about Green isn't the fact he's so effectively leveraged the Web to build his readership. It's how he's done it — with resonant authenticity.

"When you're writing a novel, you spend four years sitting in your basement and a year waiting for the book to come out and then you get the feedback," the Indianapolis-based author said during a phone interview conducted from a touring van, somewhere between Birmingham, Ala., and New Orleans. "When you do work online, the moment you're finished making it, people start responding to it which is really fun and allows for a kind of community development you just can't have in novels."

Not that you can tell from the Vlogbrothers' semi-weekly videos, which are extremely personable, rapid-fire rants on topics ranging from typos to religiosity and the occasional song about Angler fish, "I'm a very introverted person. Nothing that's happened has changed that," Green said, "but one of the reasons I write for teens is it's a real privilege to have a seat at the table in the lives of young people when they're figuring out what matters to them. To me, part of having that seat extends beyond the world of books because their lives extend beyond books. Teenage readers also have a different relationship with the authors whose work they value than adult readers do. I loved Toni Morrison, but I don't have any desire to follow her on Twitter. I just want to read her books."

That's far from the case with Green's fans, who've shown up on his current tour with cakes iced in "The Fault in Our Stars" frosting and tattoos quoting passages from his bestselling, Printz-winning, 2005 debut, "Looking for Alaska." Many of Green's fans are showing up with already-signed copies of the new book, 100,000+ were pre-sold, and individually autographed, before the book's release.

"Teenagers have more intense reading experiences because they've had fewer of them," said Green, adding that as a teenager he wanted to go to New Hampshire and find J.D. Salinger. "It's like the first time you fall in love. You have a connection to that first person you fell in love with because it was so intense and unprecedented."

Many of Green's novels are about that very subject. "Looking for Alaska" is about a boy who falls in love with a suicidal girl. His follow-ups, "An Abundance of Katherines" in 2006 and "Paper Towns" in 2008, are, likewise, about boys falling in love with other types of bewitching and spirited young women.

All of those early novels were failed attempts at writing "The Fault in Our Stars," said Green, who first started the story in 2000 but didn't make real headway until 2009, when he met and became close friends with a 16-year-old fan of his books and videos named Esther Earl, who had terminal cancer "and whose humor and empathy and charisma and intelligence was really important to me and found a way into the story."

Green is quick to point out that Earl, who has since died and to whom "The Fault in Our Stars" is dedicated, is not to be confused with the book's main character, Hazel, who suffers from thyroid cancer. "The Fault in Our Stars" is the rare young-adult novel in which friendships are forged in a hospital instead of a school, where the many "side effects of dying" are handled with heart and a healthy dose of gallows humor. Hazel notes early on: "When given a 20% chance of living five years ... you look around and think ... I gotta outlast four of these bastards." Like Hazel, who believes "the funny choice" is the way to tell sad stories, Green, too, decided to go with humor in telling what might otherwise be a story too depressing to read.

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