Author John Green’s book tour coming to fairgrounds
By Lou Fancher
New York Times bestselling author John Green proves there’s upsweep in following turtles all the way down.
The writer’s long-awaited seventh young adult novel, “Turtles All the Way Down,” tells the story of Aza Homes (“Holmesy”), a particularly intense teenager afflicted with anxiety and caught in the downward mental gyre of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Perhaps because he in real life shares the condition and writes about OCD with accuracy, empathy and remarkable humor, Green’s new book is likely to follow the trajectory of its literary predecessor.
“The Fault in Our Stars,” Green’s 2012 young adult novel about two teenagers with cancer, has sold more than 24 million copies and been adapted into an award-winning film. Green has 5 million Twitter followers and recognition as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people. A videoblog launched in 2007 with his guitar-wielding brother, Hank Green, continues to churn out two videos a week and wow 600 million viewers on YouTube channel vlogbrothers. Another initiative, Crash Course, offers a series of educational video courses in world history, literature, economics, science, government and more.
Pleasanton’s Towne Center Books will host Green and his brother Nov. 1 at Alameda County Fairgrounds. Bookstore owner Judy Wheeler said ticket sales were brisk — at 925 on Oct. 18 — and that location was key to landing a big fish like Green.
“We had to commit, guarantee lots of Green readers, offer a large, 2,000-seat venue. The fact that people can arrive from all directions and use BART was important in convincing the publisher that our bookstore could handle a big-name author,” says Wheeler.
Green, 40, in a phone interview, describes the upcoming appearance as a variety show. “I read from books and talk. My brother, who’s kind of a nerd, gives a talk on monotypic taxa. (In “Turtles,” Holmesy is obsessed with the bacteria Clostridium difficile, or C. diff.) We do a live version of our podcast; my brother sings, and I do backup, but I’m a pretty poor singer.”
Green grew up in “a talky household,” in which few subjects were taboo. But at school, he struggled to communicate. “I spent a lot of time off to the side, imagining conversations with people. I think that was the beginning of my writing life.”
He admires, among other writers, Jacqueline Woodson for marvelous use of language; Toni Morrison for sentences that are like brushstrokes in masterful paintings; David Foster Wallace for capturing with precision the internal, abstract aspects of pain; and Michael Connelly for writing mysteries with tremendous structure and plot.
While working on “Turtle,” Green says he struggled most with structure. “I wanted the plot to get interrupted by (Holmesy’s) offensive thought patterns. I wanted technology to shape the experience (and) reflect the way that people use it both for good and for ill to find a way to be intimate.”
Green decided that the story’s drama, the real tension, should come from inside Holmesy’s brain. One scene late in the novel has her spiraling into panic, the OCD accelerating her thoughts and leaving her scooping toxic, bacteria-killing hand sanitizer into her mouth as if it was whipped cream.
“This book has more of me than most of my previous books,” he says.
Although every action depicted in the novel isn’t drawn directly from his life, he shares with his teenage characters basic questions about love, identity, control and the meaning and purpose of life.
“I can definitely relate to waking up every day and asking what am I going to do with my life. I don’t expect to ever get over that. After “Stars,” there was a long time when I felt like a failure for not writing. It was only after I stopped feeling that way that I started writing again.”
Writing dialogue is fun, like listening to “moments where little things click together,” he says. Chasing answers that continue to circle in his consciousness without the first-time perspective of a teen has him fascinated with adolescent quasi-innocence.
“It’s intense and immediate in a way it’s not the second time. There’s a lack of irony that’s appealing. That’s why I’ll always go back (to writing young adult novels). Also, I like that YA is shelved with science fiction, fantasy and books that don’t have preconceived genre.”
Asked if writing about mental health and illness altered his views on the topics, Green says it has.
“I often get frustrated with myself and get angry that I don’t get better, the ways I’m not able to be present. While writing the story, I felt really bad for Aza. I saw it more from outside, and that was helpful. I could see she was trying in a way that I can’t see in myself. I could be generous toward her in a way I can’t with myself. There’s actually a lot of remove from my experience. It isn’t so close to me that it feels scary or undoing.”
The literary challenge ahead, he says, is the same as it has always been; to write about terminal or chronic illness when readers want those narratives to be about recovery; to lift up language as worthy of worship, regardless of writer’s bias and the imperfection of words used to give meaning to abstract expression. Mostly, the struggle will be to find that bottom turtle.
“In my life,” he says, “I’m stuck in a loop, looking for that place where rock-solid exists. So much of identity is a turtles-all-the-way-down situation. The really real is literally impossible to find: There’s no adequate reassurance.” Ultimately, Green says, “I still love language, and I’m grateful for it.”
A gathering Nov. 6 at the Pleasanton bookstore will offers people an opportunity — regardless of whether or not they attend the event — to continue the conversation about mental health and the books of John Green.