Celebrate my 44th at Noah Grant’s with my best friend and listen to John Green speak all within a 24-hour window? It was a no-brainer. As soon as Andi mentioned the possibility, we loaded the three youngest kids in the car — Mary Claire and George bursting with the anticipation of meeting their literary and online idol — and road-tripped to Indy. Sam stayed behind to attend a Childish Gambino concert with his buddies. He is, as Chris often reminds me, nearly 18. And when we were 17, we drove all over the Universe attending Foreigner, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, ZZ Top, and Whitney Houston concerts. It took a little red wine to quell the anxiety of letting my oldest drive to Detroit… and listen to questionable music.
Sunday morning dawned extra early after a night of celebration with my nearest and dearest, but we eagerly made our way to Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle for our date with guest speaker and all around rock star, John Green.
Let me just sidebar for a moment and mention how very much I miss my beloved Indy. Walking on the circle past the Columbia Club (where I had my bridesmaids luncheon) and the Hilbert Circle Theatre took my breath away. Dorothy agrees there’s no place like home… or Au Bon Pain.
The Christ Church service was, as expected, a bit more crowded than usual with one of Indy’s most celebrated authors at the pulpit. John’s beautiful and talented wife, Sarah, slid quietly into the pew next to George as the service began, and I was certain Mary Claire was going to hyperventilate.
John spoke eloquently of the woman at the well. He returned again to the line, “You have no bucket, and the well is deep,” drawing lovely parallels between looking into the abyss and recognizing our universal need to be loved, to feel lovable. Even my traditionally unchurched children listened intently to the story and its resonant message. And, well, it was John Green making the delivery. So there’s that.
After the service, we gathered downstairs for an informal Q&A with coffee and bagels and sickeningly sweet strawberry wafer cookies (much to Gus’s delight). Mary Claire took her stack of books to her idol and blurted, “I love you so much!” He kindly replied, “Well, thank you. Would you like me to sign those?”
The Q&A was fun and engaging and informative. The teens and tweens in the audience asked questions, such as:
Q: What size shoe do you wear?
A: 11 and 1/2
Q: What crazy things did you do in high school?
A: Well, you know I’m not going to tell you, right?
Q: What happens to the rest of the characters in “The Fault in Our Stars?”
A: I wrote this book for you, and now it’s in your hands. I can’t answer that because the book — and whatever else happens with it — is yours.
Q: What’s your favorite roller coaster?
A: None times 1,000,000. I get that the roller coaster experience is about feeling the ensuing panic and fear of going up and the exhilaration of the descent. But when you live with anxiety issues every day, you don’t need to ride a roller coaster to get those same feelings.
Q: Will you take a selfie with me? (This one from my brave, spunky girl.)
A: Yes. (See photo above.)
He spoke of serving as a chaplain in a children’s hospital and how that shaped his life and his writing. He was going to be an Episcopalian priest, he explained, but he could not reconcile within himself the suffering he witnessed while serving sick children and their families. He described that feeling as “anger,” and anyone with eyes and a heart could see as he spoke that he is still haunted by those memories and the loss of his young friend, Esther Earl.
As a self-professed nerd who is fearful of speaking in front of large groups and anxious about meeting those he admires, John provided a heartfelt connection to his young readers (and their parents).
“When we dismiss our youth, we create a great disservice,” he explained. “It’s insulting to say, ‘I’m going to learn their vernacular so I can speak to them on their level.’ If you want to talk to kids about building sewers in developing countries, talk to them about building sewers in developing countries. They’re interested, they’re engaged. They have a lot of great ideas to add to the conversation.”
When asked how being a parent has affected his writing, he said, “In my early novels, I tried to get the parents out of the picture as quickly as possible. There was a boarding school, a road trip… Then I became a parent and realized how fascinating parents are!” He also assured his readers that choosing his favorite book was akin to a parent choosing a favorite child. “All parents have a favorite,” he laughed. “We just don’t tell you which one.”
And I loved his advice about pursuing a career in words… “I don’t think writing and having a ‘practical’ career are mutually exclusive,” he said. “I’ll always have a day job. I have friends who write full-time, and I always say to them, ‘But what if something happens? It’s beneficial, I think, to have a broad range of experiences. And to become a writer, you also need to read often and broadly. Books are every writer’s best apprenticeship.”
He also spoke with unabashed honesty of continuing to write in the shadow of “The Fault in Our Stars.” Yes, there is another book in him. Yes, it is challenging to put it to paper when he is living in the wake of such a commercial success. Yes, it is humbling and wonderful and frightening all at once.
There is always a bit of trepidation for me in meeting a literary idol. If he turns out to be a pompous ass, I tend to lose interest in what he has to say in person and on paper. Some idols should remain idols. But John Green? He’s an awesome human being first and everything else next. His dedication to and love for his readers is evident, his self-deprecating style is endearing. (“There is no one-star review that can state anything I haven’t already thoroughly contemplated myself.”) He is kind, authentic, awkwardly adorable. His Vlogbrothers videos (recorded in conjunction with his equally adorable brother, Hank) and “Crash Course” lessons are both entertaining and educational. His wife, Sarah, is a gifted artist and entrepreneur (See “The Art Assignment“). And their give-back is phenomenal. Check out The Foundation to Decrease World Suck.
And while you’re at it, DFTBA.
Thanks, John Green, for being a guiding light for my kids, for the worlds’ kids, and for the adults who love them… and you. It was a pleasure sharing my coffee with you Sunday morning. Let’s do it again soon.