You dedicate the book to Esther Earl. Would you tell us about her, please?
Sure, Esther was a fan of my books and the videos I make with my brother. I met her in 2009, when she was fourteen. We soon became friends. I loved talking to Esther because in many ways she was my ideal reader: whip-smart, sarcastic, funny and uncommonly thoughtful. When Esther died from complications of cancer in 2010, I was heartbroken and very angry. I’d been working on a story set in a children’s hospital by that point for almost ten years, but after Esther’s death it changed course. While Hazel is very different from Esther, I could never have written The Fault in Our Stars without knowing and loving and missing Esther. I felt an overwhelming need to prove to myself that a short life could also be a good and full and important life, and much of the book arose from that.
How did you make Hazel and Gus so witty and erudite despite their youth and extreme circumstances?
In this respect, I am further indebted to Esther and to many other readers of my books, who have been showing me for almost a decade now just how clever and intellectually engaged teenagers can be. I am unflaggingly optimistic about the teenagers of today and not least because recent studies have shown that those under thirty are more likely to read for pleasure than those of us over thirty. I do think that because they are in unusual circumstances Hazel and Gus feel a bit more urgency when grappling with the big questions of human existence. But I think teenagers everywhere are asking the same questions about meaning and hope and what constitutes a good life. And they’re asking them in direct ways, without all the baggage and ironic distance that adults bring to such conversations, which is one of the reasons I really love writing about young people.
Gus and Hazel’s parents are marvellous at maintaining normality in the face of events. How do you think that is possible?
For several months in 2000, I worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital in the US, and I saw again and again parents heroically build normal lives for their children even in the most difficult moments. Most parents want above all to protect their children and to keep them safe, but sometimes disease makes this impossible. Still, families go on working to make the best possible lives for their kids, because, while caregivers may get exhausted, you never run out of love. I wanted to reflect some of the quiet heroism I saw when working at the hospital in Gus and Hazel’s parents.
You mention your brother in your dedications as your best friend and closest collaborator. Did he collaborate with you on this book?
Well, I have to say no, because otherwise he’ll start asking me for royalties. But the truth is he did help a lot: Hank’s thinking shapes my own in uncountable ways. We like to imagine that books are written by just one person, but the truth is much more complicated: I couldn’t have written this book without Esther, or my brother, or my wife, or my son, or the kids I knew when I worked at the hospital, or my publisher, or Swedish hip-hop music . . . The list goes on and on. So many people contributed to The Fault in Our Stars that I sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud claiming to be the author. I did write it, I suppose, but nothing worthwhile is truly made alone.