John Green on bullying: 'I kept telling myself things would get easier'
Ahead of the release of his new movie, bestselling writer John Green tells Tanya Sweeney how he used his experience of being bullied as a teenager to connect to his young fans
John Green doesn't look like anyone's idea of a literary rockstar. All told, with his slim frame, sensible haircut, Oxford shirt and non-descript glasses, he barely looks like he could pass as a rockstar in the double-glazing world.
But the 37-year-old author boasts a whopping 4.52m followers on Twitter, and causes as much teenage hysteria wherever he goes as any young boybander. It's not just on social media that Green has made an impact: included in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world last year, his books have landed him a $9m yearly paycheck.
His moving novel The Fault In Our Stars, later made into a box-office triumph, was one of the bestselling books of 2014, shifting over 11 million copies to date.
At a recent screening of Paper Towns, the latest of his books to be adapted for the big screen, the cinema's young audience was bordering on jittery in their seats, chuckling at various Green-isms and insider jokes.
But John Green is a secret no more. The rest of the world has finally caught up, the line between the young adult fiction market and mainstream publishing more blurred than ever. Despite these glittering figures, Green does a very neat line in self-deprecation. Paper Towns is spirited, fresh and vital, earning Green yet more comparisons to that other teen kingpin, film director John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink). Green shakes his head at the mere sniff of such high praise.
"I love John Hughes movies, and I think it's a ridiculous comparison because John Hughes was one of the most important filmmakers about teenagers for a generation," he explains.
"I'm not saying this out of modesty; he is a lot more important than I am. That comparison makes me nervous because I look so poor in it."
Not many are in agreement. Much like John Hughes did, Green has managed to mainline not only into a market niche, but the very mindset of his readers.
"John Green's books simply captured a moment in time when teens' concerns, moods and reading habits were moving from paranormal romances and dystopian futures towards a more realistic world of growing up, friendship, loss, and coming of age, all set in a modern, real world," says David O'Callaghan, children's book buyer at Eason.
"It was the release of The Fault In Our Stars which catapulted him from quite successful author to voice of a generation. His books never speak down to teenagers, but speak directly to them."
Green's self-deprecating shtick might be well rehearsed, but then again few authors get to have the press day for their film adaptations in Claridge's of Mayfair, where the walls creak with haughty grandeur. Arnie Schwarzenegger is downstairs holding court ahead of the release of the new Terminator film. Still, there are plenty of young journalists milling about, tapping furiously on laptops, in a suite dedicated to Paper Towns' junket. Think that infamous scene in Notting Hill; every bit as officious, only with more hipster haircuts.
Round-table interviews are never a journalist's idea of fun, but given that everyone in the world wants to talk to John Green these days, they're a necessary evil today. It's not likely I will get to the nub of what makes John Green tick in a 15-minute interview with a dozen others.
The promotional lag for this movie in particular has been merciless, with Green and actor Nat Wolff, the star of the film, zipping across Europe on a furious trail of interviews and screenings.
"I haven't left this hotel in 36 hours," says John Green as he walks into the suite. He is clearly frazzled, but spirits between he and Wolff are still high. Cara Delevingne, the film's female lead, is also on the campaign trail elsewhere in the UK, drumming up interest in the film. But as it happens, interest in the film has been piqued for quite some time, with or without the help of press promotion.
The Fault In Our Stars, also adapted from a John Green novel, took well over $300m at the US box office last year; a true boon given its $16m budget. Besides, Paper Towns stars Delevigne - already a catwalk fixture and gossip column regular - in her first major feature film role.
Paper Towns concerns itself with the friendship of quiet, thoughtful teen Quentin (Wolff) and the mysterious Margo (Delevingne). Firm pals as youngsters, things get more complex as the pair end up in different subsets in high school. Quentin is obsessed with Margo, and after a night of hi-jinks reignites their friendship, he sets off on a road trip to find her when she disappears into thin air.
Green may have a wonderfully charmed life now, but it hasn't necessarily always been this way. Born in Indianapolis, he moved around a lot as a child and was always socially on the backfoot. He has spoken out time and time again about being ostracised and bullied as a teenager. It was hardly fun at the time, but the experience of displacement has managed to form the backbone of his writing, and make his grasp on the brink of adulthood so furiously compelling.
"Those were the hardest years of my life," he reflects. "I felt unqualified to be an adult in any way, and I felt I hadn't learnt the skills I needed to navigate adulthood.
"I spent a lot of time at the Laundromat and brought a longhand notebook and tried to write stories. But I ended up writing notes of encouragement to myself. 'You'll be okay', 'things get easier'… and you know what? They do."
Amid the terrifying instability of youthhood, it stands to reason that intense friendships and relationships are forged: this is the very essence of Paper Towns. The filming experience, under the helm of director Jake Schreier, turned out to be fun for all involved. Green and the cast have become close pals; in particular, he and Wolff.
"At lunch one day, Cara bought the entire cast and crew tickets for a nearby water park," recalls Wolff.
Adds Green: "I was lucky to be on the set for almost all of the shoot. One of my favourite scenes was the road trip scene when we all stayed up one night in one car, shivering together. It was a really magical night, and I hadn't been awake at 5am without a screaming child in 15 years."
What follows in the 15-minute round table interview is a lot of pointless, not-fit-for-print banter, inane questions and even a quick game of Rock Paper Scissors (the kids may be alright; the future of journalism, not so much).
There is just about time for the most important question, however: since it's been three years since his last novel, when can Green's army of fans expect a new one?
"I genuinely don't know," Green shrugs, as his publicists wrap up the interview and start to usher he and Wolff out of the room to their next engagements.
"Hopefully soon. I've started and deleted a lot. So we'll see."
Seems that with or without the world at their feet, even literary rockstars can suffer crises of confidence from time to time.
'Paper Towns' is in cinemas from August 17.