The Fresh Printz | Under Cover

John Green talks about the thrill of winning an award for young adult literature

When you started writing your first novel, Looking for Alaska, did you know it was going to be for young adults?

I did want to write YA. Between graduating from college and moving to Chicago [and working as a production editor for Booklist magazine], I worked for six months as a student chaplain at a children's hospital. I knew from that experience, I probably didn't want to be a chaplain. Also, I knew that I wanted to write, and I wanted teenagers to be my audience.

At Booklist, one of my first jobs—actually when I was a [22-year-old] temp—was to retype all the Printz speeches from 2000, including Walter Dean Myers's and Laurie Halse Anderson's. It was a great year for the Printz. It was its first year. I retyped their speeches, and I remember thinking, “These guys are really smart and thoughtful and serious writers.” And then I started reading a lot of YA books.

What inspired you to write about a kid who attends boarding school and falls in with a wild crowd?

Part of it was inspired by my time in high school [in Alabama] and wanting to capture what I thought was a quirky high school experience—at a quirky boarding school in a quirky place—that's been lodged in my head ever since.

The questions in the book, the arc of the book, the thematic structure of it were really inspired by when I was at the hospital and the questions that I walked out of there with. It's a funny book, but it's also a book about the universality of suffering and grief and forgiveness and whether or not there's a reason for radical hope. Those are children's-hospital questions if ever there were any.

Miles “Pudge” Halter, the story's 16-year-old protagonist, loves to memorize famous peoples' last words. Do you share that obsession?

I tend to only give my characters quirks that I have. So yeah, I do. Hopefully, I'll be quirky enough for long enough to have that turn into a career.

What are your favorite last words?

My favorite last words aren't in the book, because there comes a point where no one will believe that a 16-year-old knows that many last words. But I knew more than Miles does when I was 16. My favorite for funny is Oscar Wilde's, and this is apparently completely true, although it seems impossible. He was dying in this garishly decorated hotel room and turned to his companion and said, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” And then my favorite for beautiful last words, which always make me think, are Emily Dickinson's: “I must go in, the fog is rising.”

What was your reaction when you found out that Looking for Alaska was the winner of this year's Printz Award?

I was stunned. I was completely, completely taken by surprise. When they called, there was a big hullabaloo because they couldn't get the speakerphone to work. So there were 45 seconds between when Michael Cart said, “This is Michael Cart from the Printz Award Committee” and when they actually started talking to me.

Where were you?

Just by happenstance, my parents were in New York that weekend. I was with my fiancée [Sarah] and my parents. We were walking down Sixth Avenue on our way to Macy's to register for my wedding, and I just stopped dead on the corner of 36th and Sixth. And I said, “To what do I owe the pleasure of your call, Michael.” Sarah had never heard me speak so formally on the telephone and immediately thought that something was up. And I said, “It's somebody from the Printz committee, but they're not on the line anymore.” Then my dad pulled out a camera, which was the best idea ever, because there are all these pictures of me right when I was hearing [the news]. I jumped up and down. For me, it was just a thrill.

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