A few years ago, when freshly minted college grad John Green was contemplating his future, he probably didn't count on being linked in the public imagination with the use of a toothpaste tube to demonstrate the mechanics of a particular type of oral sex.
After all, the original plan was to become an Episcopal priest.
But Green's first novel, Looking for Alaska (Dutton), includes one of the most-talked about scenes of the season, in which the title character, a doomed blonde babe named Alaska, gives the woefully naive 17-year-old narrator Miles "Pudge" Halter and his date some basic instruction in partner pleasuring. Alaska is sure to become one of those books teens eagerly pass around—with certain pages dog-eared.
Hopefully, they'll read the whole thing because, despite Miles's abundant self-deprecating humor, Alaska is also a profound book about wasted life—a topic Green found himself thinking about a lot after college, while working as a student chaplain in a children's hospital. "Watching children die," as he puts it, "for a living." Theological themes, the PW review noted, add an "introspective gloss" to Green's tale.
Now 27, Green, like Miles, grew up in Florida and left home as a teenager for boarding school in Alabama. Miles, looking for excitement, gets more than he bargained for, and a boatload of guilt and regret to process, when Alaska's self-destructive bad habits spiral downward.
The author's introspective nature was honed at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he double-majored in English and religious studies. After his stint as a chaplain, he planned to enroll in divinity school at the University of Chicago, but put school aside for a job as a production editor at Booklist. The editors there made quick use of his knowledge of world religions by giving him books about Islam to review. Children's book editor Ilene Cooper thought enough of his writing to take him to lunch to talk about his future.
"I told her I really wanted to write this book," Green said of Alaska. "And she gave me a deadline, which I failed to meet. Then she gave me another deadline, which I failed to meet. And then September 11th happened and I was very depressed and suddenly single [his girlfriend broke up with him on Sept. 13], and I just sat down and wrote the book."
Cooper sent it to Donna Brooks, then at Dutton, who had edited Jack, her biography of John F. Kennedy's youth. After Brooks left, the manuscript was passed along to editor Julie Strauss-Gabel, who Green called "an old-school type who pushed me on everything."
"I'd say 80 percent of the words in the original manuscript were changed," he said. "The real challenge was not selling it but writing it."
Still, Green calls himself "ridiculously lucky," and says it's a thrill to think that "someone who isn't in my family is reading my book." He gives all credit to Cooper, who he says acted as his agent, mentor, editor, goad and pal, rolled into one. "She's entirely responsible for my career."
He's leaving her anyway, however—heading to New York City on the arm of his fiancé, who plans to study art history at Columbia University beginning this fall. Green will be writing, or as he puts it, "finding ways to avoid writing." He is under contract with Dutton for his next two novels, the first of which is titled An Abundance of Katherines, about a washed-up child prodigy who has dated 19 girls, all named Katherine, each of whom dumped him.
Green describes it as "funny," but it will also deal with the nature of love and the power of grief, because those are the topics that engage him.
"Writing a novel is hard. You need something to sustain you," Green said. "I don't think I could do it if I wasn't writing about big issues."