'Star'-Crossed: When Teens With Cancer Fall In Love
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Hazel and Augustus have what they call a cute meet in the movies, but improbable, ludicrous, and fateful, too. Hazel is 16, and has thyroid cancer, with what they call a satellite in the lungs that keeps filling her with sour stuff that makes her feel like she's drowning. Augustus, or Gus, is a little older, lithe and handsome. He's lost a quarter of a leg to cancer but tells people, I'm on a roller coaster that only goes up. They meet in a support group for young cancer patients that's held in a church basement; two smart, funny, doomed young people in Indianapolis who find support groups a pompous bore, but they're sure are glad to find each other.
"The Fault in Our Stars" is the title of John Green's new book for young adults. Mr. Green joins us from Albuquerque, member station KANW. Thanks so much for being with us.
JOHN GREEN: Oh, it's really a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: What first came to mind: the story, of what cancer patients, young cancer patients in particular go through, or the characters - these two kids?
GREEN: The characters came to me first. I worked as a student chaplain at a children's hospital about 12 years ago for five months. And during that time I wanted to, I started wanting to write about these kinds of young people and it just took a while.
SIMON: Let's get right to the reading and the way the book opens, which is in the support group.
GREEN: (Reading) Late in the winter of my 17th year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
(Reading) Whenever you read a cancer booklet or a website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. Cancer is also a side effect of dying, almost everything is really. But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my regular doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also that I should attend a weekly support group.
(Reading) This support group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven un-wellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.
SIMON: Boy, you put your finger on it. Doctors say you're depressed, we ought to do something about that. But the one thing cancer patients probably are not encouraged to say is yes, I'm depressed. Unlike you, I have cancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREEN: Right. Exactly. I mean it's, you know, it's one of those things that's easy for those of us who are well to say. I mean later in the book someone notes that Shakespeare quote that the title comes from, that Cassius saying to Brutus: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves - which is easy to say, you know, when you're Shakespeare.
SIMON: You introduced the reader to what the kids in the book called cancer perks.
GREEN: Yeah. You know, when you're a young person with cancer, you get things sometimes, you know, signed balls by your favorite basketball team, or in Gus' case, a driver's license, even though he's not a very good driver. And they're conscious of all the side effects of their disease and the weirdness of their lives. Because they're very conscious of the fact that other people look at them differently. Both Hazel and Gus are unusually empathetic for teenagers, and that was important to me. I wanted them to be aware of the world around them in a way that, you know, some teenagers aren't.
SIMON: Help us understand their sense of humor.
GREEN: Well, all of the people I've known who were sick - young or old - were still funny. It's important to note or remember that, you know, people who are sick and people who are dying aren't dead. They're still alive. And sometimes we forget that, and we treat the sick and the dying so gingerly and so carefully, when often what they most want is to be alive while they are alive. And so I've known a lot of young people who were very sick but also very, very funny, and often in dark, dark ways.
SIMON: You've got a wonderful phrase for it, when your character says you take your humor where you can get it.
SIMON: When the love story between Hazel and Gus begins, Hazel is worse off. And I don't want to violate any plot points, but at some point they switch places. Was it important for you for people to understand the kind of capriciousness of health?
GREEN: Yeah. I think cancer in many ways to those of us alive today is similar to what tuberculosis was like in the 19th century. It's so unfair. It takes the young, it takes the old. Sometimes you live, sometimes you die. And it's very difficult to make sense of the reasons why it may go one way or another. It's very, very difficult to imagine it as anything other than just cruel and cold and capricious. And that makes it difficult to imagine the universe as anything other than cold and capricious. And I wanted to be honest about that, because I wanted them to have to face, you know, in the most desperate way, that overwhelming question, as T.S. Eliot called it, of how we're going to organize our lives and what they're going to mean.
SIMON: Do your young readers, did they lack a depth of knowledge of what makes this story resonant that, you know, that actual parents might have?
GREEN: I do think that parents read the novel differently, inevitably, because they know that the secret to all relationships with your children is that as long as either of you is alive you will be that person's parent and that person will be your child.
SIMON: You've got a line in there that's a real, a real bolt to the heart, where you said there's only one thing worse than being a kid with cancer.
GREEN: Yeah. And that's having a kid with cancer. And that's something that a kid said to me when I worked at the hospital all those years ago that really stuck with me. It stuck with me partly because it's unusual that children are able to imagine their parents complexly enough to understand how difficult it is, and also because I knew how much neither the parent nor the child wanted that to be true, even though it was true.
SIMON: And I have to ask, you're in the middle of you publicity tour, right?
SIMON: Are there youngsters that are challenged the way your characters are that come up to you?
GREEN: There have been. Yeah. I mean I've been really lucky to meet and talk with young people who are dealing with cancer and living with cancer.
SIMON: Anything you can share?
GREEN: I'm worried I'll cry if I share anything.
GREEN: But I just talked yesterday to a young women who I've known for a long time who has muscular dystrophy and she told me that she'd highlighted passages that she identified with so that she could show her friends the book as a way of expressing to them things that she feels like she can't say out loud. And that was very important to me. That was very kind of her to say.
SIMON: Mr. Green, you're not distant from your readers at all, are you?
GREEN: No. I'm very fortunate, you know, I know them. And I like hearing from them. I feel fortunate to interact with them. I like reading their YouTube comments. I like reading their reviews on book review websites. And I like the engagement that we have with each other, because the truth is, the world extends outside the world of books. And, you know, I feel fortunate to be able to have a relationship with them outside of the book as well as inside of it.
SIMON: John Green. His new bestseller for young readers is, "The Fault in Our Stars." Thanks so much.
GREEN: Oh, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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