John Green e-interviewed by Kerrily Sapet (August, 2006)
John Green's An Abundance of Katherines is the story of boy genius Colin Singleton, who has just been dumped for the nineteenth time by a girlfriend named Katherine. When his friend Hassan tries to cheer him up with a roadtrip, the pair ends up in the town of Gutshot, Tennessee. Colin searches for a eureka moment to define his life, and predict love. Instead he travels a bit further down the path of love and friendship. Recently John Green was kind enough to grant us an e-interview to accompany the review of his latest novel.
Q: One of Colin Singleton's favorite pastimes is anagramming words. Is this something that has always been an interest of yours? Like Colin do you enjoy playing with words?
A: This is slightly off-topic but did you know that "anagramming words" anagrams to "A Madman Grins Wrong" and "Grandma Mows Grain," not to mention "Grandma's Roman Wig?*" Sorry. So yes, I like anagramming. Before I started writing Katherines, though, I was only an occasional anagrammer. But now I really enjoy it.
Q: You mention, as a consolation to your teenaged readers, that you were dumped fifty-three times before you were married. How did you come up with the concept of being dumped nineteen times - all by girls named Katherine?
A: Well, I should say in the interest of full disclosure that Colin Singleton and I both have a very narrow definition of what constitutes a "relationship" and what constitutes "getting dumped." But still, 53 times is a lot. And when you get dumped 53 times in a row, you start to think along the way about how statistically improbable it is**. And so that's where the idea came from. And also I wanted to write about someone who was doing the same thing over and over again in this amazingly improbable, but not at all impossible, way. I knew I wanted to write a book about a former child prodigy stuck in a rut, and it just struck me as an excellent rut.
Q: I love the small asides, humorous footnotes, and Hassan's comments when Colin launches into detailed intellectual explanations. With all of these tibits sprinkled throughout the book, did you do any research about child prodigies and geniuses in the process of telling Colin's story?
A: Since I was not a child prodigy and am not even all that smart, I thought I should probably familiarize myself with the world of prodigies, so yes, I read a lot of books about child prodigies before I started writing Katherines. That did help shape Colin's character in certain ways, I'm sure, but most of the tidbits sprinkled throughout the book come from my own passion for trivia.
Q: As Colin struggles to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, predicting relationships and avenging dumpees, you include lots of mathematical principles and concepts throughout (while in a completely non-threatening way for those of us with math phobias). Tell us a little about working with Daniel Biss, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and Research Fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute. How did you two meet and work together?
A: It was very important to me that Katherines be a book you could enjoy without knowing that 2+2=4, because when I was in high school I hated math with a white hot passion. But I also wanted it to be a book that showed some of the ways in which math can be a way of storytelling, at least to people so inclined. Daniel and I met about five years ago through a mutual friend, and we have been close ever since. In the summer of 2003, he came over to my apartment one day, and I told him about this book I was starting to work on, and how I wanted there to be this mathematical formula that could predict which of two people would end a romantic relationship. He liked the idea and ended up writing a formula based on variables we came up with together. I'm also very lucky that he agreed to write a hilarious and fascinating appendix to the book. It's always fun to collaborate with your friends, but it was especially meaningful to work with Daniel, because his area of expertise is so utterly foreign to me.
Q: To me, Colin's eureka moment was when he began to externalize, instead of always thinking about himself and his own insecurities. Do you think that everyone has a eureka moment at some point in life? If so, would you mind sharing one of yours with us?
A: I think most lives contain more than one eureka moment. But your mention of Colin's externalization made me think about a Eureka moment of my own: When I was about ten I was on top of the monkey bars at school, and I was looking out at the playground, and then at the neighborhood beyond the playground. All these people were walking around, going about their lives, and I realized all at once that all these people were as fully human as I was, and that their lives were as much lives as mine, and that they could only see from inside themselves just as I could only see from inside myself. And that was my first moment of pure externalization, I think. A eureka moment for sure.
Q: Your last book, Looking for Alaska, received many honors. It was listed as a Teens' Top Ten selection, a top book for young adults, and a quick pick for reluctant young adult readers. Were you a bit concerned that your next book wouldn't live up to the same success?
A: Yeah, I've worried about that, although relatively speaking, it's a good problem to have. I never want to disappoint anyone, certainly. But in the end it's always unwise to write for reviewers or for awards. The great responsibility I feel is to my readers, and my hope is that Katherines has the same kind of integrity and honesty to it that they found in Alaska.
Q: With the onslaught of young adult chick lit, do you see a dearth of books for teenaged boys and think this as a problem? At that age did you devour books like Colin Singleton?
A: I do think there are more books marketed to teenage girls than to teenage boys. But I'm not deeply concerned about it, for three reasons: First, I don't think it's particularly tragic that there's no guy equivalent of, say, The Gossip Girls, because frankly I don't think we need the Gossip Guys in order to thrive as a culture. Second, there are a lot of very good books out there for guys. From classics like The Catcher in the Rye to contemporary novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and King Dork by Frank Portman, I really believe that you could read a good book a week throughout your teenage years and never run out. And finally, I think that most of the great books are not gender-specific. One does not like or dislike The Great Gatsby based on whether you're a girl. I did devour books when I was a teenager, and I read authors like Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving and Walter Dean Myers and Michael Chabon, all of whom are still in print. So I'm not concerned, at least not yet. There are still plenty of good books for guys. The challenge is getting guys to read them, and to tell their friends about those good books.
** I mean, assuming that on average who dumps who should be about a coin flip, the chances of getting dumped 53 times in a row are about 1 in 90,000,000,000,000,000. That's approximately equal to the chance that you will in your lifetime be struck by lightning three times.Find out more about John Green, his background, his books, his blog, and his interest in anagrams at his website, SparksFlyUp.com.
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