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Love, Death, and a Terrible Blow Job

Former chaplain John Green tackles the big themes in his debut young-adult novel.

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It was the boozing and the smoking that John Green thought he'd get in trouble for. Touring the country in March to promote his new young-adult novel, Looking for Alaska, he expected booksellers to complain about the rampant substance abuse--buying cigarettes by the carton, swilling vodka and cheap wine--practiced by the teenagers in the book. But no one seemed to mind those things. The paragraph that bothered people was the one about the blow job. He clarifies: "One aborted blow job."

Several booksellers told Green they'd feel uncomfortable recommending Looking for Alaska to parents without a caveat about the content. One accused him of "glorifying oral sex," a charge that rankles him. "It's not like it's a good, sexy blow job," he says. "It's a disastrous, thwarted blow job where no one has an orgasm. . . . To me, smoking is a much bigger problem than oral sex in this country."

Looking for Alaska, set outside Birmingham, Alabama, is narrated by Miles Halter, a 16-year-old misfit and junior transfer to Culver Creek Preparatory School who's obsessed with historical figures' final words. He eventually finds his footing and a new crew of friends at Culver; by the middle of the book, exams and a desperate crush on a girl are the greatest sources of tension in Miles's life. Then the death of a classmate--some of her friends call it a suicide--throws everything off kilter, and Miles and his companions spend the second half of the novel wading through various stages of grief. "It's about the importance of forgiveness," says Green. "It's about how we tease meaning out of suffering."

Green took one creative writing class at Kenyon College, but he's been calling himself a writer since the age of eight, when he won a contest at his elementary school for a story about "a kid named John Green who's a big dork" (that is, until he gets the right pair of Jams and a Swatch). But after getting his degree in English and religious studies in 1999, Green thought he'd become a minister--"novelist" didn't seem like a viable career option. He applied to one divinity school--at the University of Chicago--and got in. "It was sort of an all-or-nothing proposition," he says.

The winter before he started div school, Green got a job as a student chaplain at a children's hospital in Columbus, Ohio, counseling the families of sick and dying kids. That's where he came up with the idea for Looking for Alaska. "I ended up seeing a number of kids who died because of careless, stupid mistakes," he says. "The kinds of mistakes that we all make all the time, except sometimes your kid dies. Like someone is smoking a cigarette and the house catches on fire, and then the kid dies. So I was thinking a lot about how do you get over something like that? How do you deal with it? Is there a way to come to terms with it?"

That summer, Green moved into a crappy garden apartment in Wicker Park with some college buddies. School started in September, but he never showed up. "By the time I was done being a chaplain, I think I knew subconsciously that I wasn't gonna go," he says. "On some level I'm just not religious enough to be a minister. I don't have the kind of secure, airtight theology that you would need. I don't think I would have been ordained. I think they would have stopped me at some point. They would have been like, 'Have you noticed you don't really like going to church? That's going to be a problem!'"

Green was close to tucking tail and heading back to Orlando, his hometown, when Lakeshore Staffing, a temp agency he'd signed up with, called to ask if he'd like to take a position at the American Library Association, doing data entry for Booklist, the ALA's book-review magazine.

Two months later he was given a permanent position as publishing assistant. (He's since been promoted to production editor; he also writes reviews of young-adult novels, kids' books, and adult titles "about Islam, boxing, and conjoined twins," he says. "You'd be surprised how many books there are about conjoined twins. People love that stuff.") At Booklist he made friends with Ilene Cooper, who edits the children's book reviews, and told her about his idea for a YA novel. She began reading his drafts and encouraging him, becoming his editor, champion, and "quasi-agent." (Cooper sent his manuscript to Dutton but, Green says, "she didn't help negotiate my contract or anything, and I didn't pay her a commission, so hence the 'quasi.'") Around the same time, he fielded an e-mail from writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal requesting Booklist's submission guidelines. Green had been a fan of Rosenthal's Might magazine contributions, and he struck up a correspondence with her. Rosenthal asked if he might like to contribute something short and funny to her "Writer's Block Party" segment of WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight, and Green came up with "Nine Girls I've Kissed and What I Learned About Them From Google," which aired in March 2002. From there he moved on to doing regular commentaries for Eight Forty-Eight and NPR's All Things Considered. Green figures he owes his current writing career--plus his full-time job--to Lakeshore Staffing. If it weren't for them, he says, "I might still be a writer, but I can't imagine how." (His next YA novel, An Abundance of Katherines, will come out next year.)

Some booksellers are shelving Looking for Alaska in both YA and adult sections, Green says, and his e-mails have come from a 60/40 mix of teens and adults, respectively. The book's been chosen for the "Discover Great New Writers" program at Barnes & Noble and is only the second YA title they've selected. Still, Green says, he has experienced the second-class-citizen treatment that occasionally comes with the YA territory--and he likes it. "It keeps my head small. It would be really easy for me to feel like a fancy-pants writer.

"I felt like there was a place for me writing stories about teens," he says. "Writing for kids in high school allows you to lay bare your hope and try to be helpful. . . . There are really good books for teenagers that are unabashedly hopeful. There are not all that many for adults. They're hopeful, but there's this ironic distance to disguise the hopefulness. But I like being hopeful, and I don't like creating ironic distance between me and my hope."

Looking for Alaska

John Green

Dutton

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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