Many people dream of the day they get “the call.” You answer the phone, and destiny is on the other line. Maybe your book hit a best-sellers list or Oprah wants you in her book club. One call can change your life. Or can it?
Despite his writing being categorized as Young Adult, best-selling author and YouTube star John Green enjoys an audience of readers that spans multiple generations.
After receiving a call that his first novel had won an award, John recognized an opportunity to pursue the quintessential author’s dream of writing full time. What he did instead, however, is fascinating. This week on The Portfolio Life, John and I talk about writing, the critical role mentors play in the creative process, and why he still has a day job.
It’s a good time. I hope you like it.
Listen to the podcast
To listen to the show, click the player below (If you’re reading this via email, please click here).
In this episode, we discuss:
- Why John appreciates his adult readers, but hates writing about grown-ups
- How experiencing two childhoods informs his creative muse
- Giving up text communication to cohost a daily video blog with nearly 3,000,000 subscribers
- Interning as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital
- What John thought writers and astronauts had in common
- How Looking for Alaska was written
- One of the most significant turning points in his life
- Which city dedicated an annual day to John Green
- Why just writing books isn’t fulfilling enough
- If John has read the 37,000+ Amazon reviews of The Fault in Our Stars
- The impact of depression and OCD on the creative life
Quotes and takeaways
- People have a deep connection with the creators they care about.
- New, innovative projects are easier when you take money out of the equation.
- “Do interesting work with people you really care about.” —John Green
- “You don’t have to live in New York to get a publishing deal.” —John Green
- “Publishing is this massive conversation featuring tens of thousands of voices and millions of readers.” —John Green
Publishing isn’t some way to ensure your immortality.
- John Green FAQ
- Looking for Alaska
- The Fault in Our Stars
- Paper Towns
- Don’t Forget to be Awesome
- Vlog Brothers
Would you keep your day job given the chance to write full-time? What non-writing creative project do you want to explore? Share in the comments
Click here to download a PDF of the full transcript or scroll down to read it below.
JG2: I don’t really care how many people watch or read something I make. I care how many people love it, how many people care about it, and I want to make stuff for people that they can really care about and be ironically enthusiastic about.
[0:00:25.8] AT: Welcome to The Portfolio Life podcast with Jeff Goins. I’m your host, Andy Traub. Jeff believes that every creative should live a Portfolio Life. A life full of pursuing work that matters. Making a difference with your art and discovering your true voice. Jeff’s committed to helping you find, develop, and then live out your unique worldview so that you too can live a Portfolio Life.
Today’s guest is the author of The Fault in our Stars, Looking for Alaska; he’s also a blogger and a podcaster. He is John Green. If you’ve ever wondered how John became as successful as he is, today you’ll learn. It was a mix of luck, hard work, deep depression, and knowing when to rest.
Here is Jeff Goins and John Green
[0:01:18.5] JG: John, here we are. Welcome to the show, thanks for being here.
[0:01:21.6] JG2: No, thanks so much for having me.
[0:01:23.2] JG: Well, it was a fun little adventure to get you here. I was tweeting out to my followers and saying, “Hey, who is like, a creative person that I should have on the podcast?”, because I want to feature more creative people. Somebody said, “John Green”, and immediately I was like — that will never happen. I just started kicking myself, because I was like — well this is the thing that I encourage other people to do, to try things that might not work, and do brave things, and not say no for other people, and here you are.
My question is, what got you here? Was it the guacamole? I think it was the guacamole.
[0:02:01.8] JG2: No, I mean, I saw the request on Twitter, and just looked through your bio and listened to one of the podcast and thought it would be really fun. It seemed like a good opportunity for me, but in general, I try to be open to opportunities like this because I find it really interesting to listen to other people talk about my work, or to hear it from other people’s perspective. No, it’s a really cool opportunity for me. I’m excited.
[0:02:27.0] JG: Well I’m super excited, I’ve wanted to ask you some of these questions for a long time. I am not a young adult, although my voice occasionally cracks and most people think I still look about 12 years old, even though I’m in my 30’s. I am, you know, one of your adult readers, and I’m sure there’s millions of us out there. You write young adult books or books about young adults, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who is not a teenager who is reading and appreciating your work. I just want to say thanks for all that you do.
[0:02:56.0] JG2: Yeah, thank you for reading my books. It’s been really strange over the last few years to transition from having almost exclusively young adult readership to now having mostly grownups read my books, but I feel really lucky. I like grownups. I don’t necessarily like writing about them very much, but I find them fascinating. I’m very grateful to have adult readers.
[0:03:18.1] JG: I was watching the film version of Paper Towns and I have to be honest, I’ve read and watched The Fault in our Stars and love that, and then when Paper Towns came out I was like, I don’t know. Then I was at Redbox one day, and my wife had just come home from having our second child, and I was like, okay yeah, I’m really to feel good. Let’s see what happens here. I loved it.
It struck me — and I wonder if we could start here. Because when I was watching Paper Towns which is — I think I was struck by how good the actors were. I think it’s hard to find really great young adult stars in films, and these people were great. But I was watching this film about these kids going on a road trip to track down this classmate that they’ve you know, that’s just kind of taken off, and it’s like this amazing adventure that they get to go on together.
I was struck with this weird sense of longing. High school was not great for me, it was kind of crappy, I was picked on a lot. I know you were bullied earlier, I believe you’ve talked about that before, and I realized, one of the things I love about your work is it’s not romantic in the sense that it’s unrealistic, but I love the picture that it paints of youth.
For me it’s like, I think what I was connecting with when I was watching that film was, these are things that I wish I could have done or would have had in my youth. These are the things that youth is supposed to be filled with. I’m wondering if we could just start there. What was childhood like for you? Not to get too psychotherapeutic here, but what was that like for you? I know you dealt with bullying at times in your life, and why do young adults or young adult stories rather fascinate you?
[0:05:03.0] JG2: Well, in a lot of ways I had two childhoods. I had a childhood growing up in Orlando, Florida, and in some ways it was great. I had really great friends in my neighborhood who are always very kind to me, but I was a nerdy kid. I was also someone who was easy to pick on. I was kind of an easy mark, I think, because I didn’t understand social queues very well, and I just wasn’t going to be one of those kids who was confident enough to be someone who is easy to be friends with.
I was picked on a lot, and you know, I don’t want to blame myself for that, because I think ultimately bullying is complicated. But I think that bullies have their own pain that they’re living with and dealing with, or else they wouldn’t respond that way. It was really hard for me, especially in middle school and in the beginning of high school. I felt very distant from my peers and very “other”. Then I went to boarding school when I was a sophomore in high school.
I went to a boarding school in Alabama, and I had a very different high school experience. I had really close friends, the kind of friends that you hold on to for a lifetime. I had some of those adventures that you think you’re supposed to have as a high school student, and in a lot of cases, they were sort of ant-climactic, or they weren’t the adventures that I thought that I was going to be going on, but I did get to have a really positive high school experience the last couple of years of high school.
When I’m writing, I try to write, I guess, with both of those me’s in mind. The me I was when I was surrounded by people who cared about me, and who are really supportive of me, and the me I was when I wasn’t. I guess the reason that I go back to that time in my writing, there’s a poem, I can’t remember the poem or who wrote it, so that’s unhelpful, but it talks about, I think, it’s a throwing a baseball.
There’s a moment when the ball is at the very peak of its arc, before it starts to go down, after it has stopped going up, that the ball is in this kind of in between space. That’s what I felt when I was in high school, and that in between space is really interesting to me. There are various ways in which I’m in in between spaces, whatever time period of my life I’m in, and adolescence is the one for me that is the most frought, and complicated, and exciting, so that’s the one that I keep turning back to in my stories.
[0:07:19.6] JG: I love that idea of an in between space. I think sometimes people call that, what, liminal space?
[0:07:25.2] JG2: Yeah. Of liminal spaces.
[0:07:27.1] JG: Yeah, it’s a neat idea. It’s the place of becoming, which is really uncomfortable, but you know, in a way a really good place to be.
[0:07:34.3] JG2: Yeah, the problem with not being in a liminal space is that you might be more comfortable, but that you’re not in that process of becoming as much and that’s a really important — for me, the pleasure of adulthood is that I have more security, more stability, more comfort. I know what the central relationships in my life are, I know those people care about me.
I have confidence in a lot of the work that I do and person I am, but I want to stay uncomfortable in the sense that I want to continue to push myself to do work that interests me so that I can stay in that place of always trying to become someone different.
[0:07:28.0] JG: Yeah, love that. I found out about you, I think I made this connection when the whole world was talking about The Fault in our Stars, before the movie came out. Maybe it was sort of leading up to that, I can’t recall. I was like, okay, every few years I get sucked into one of this young adult novels, like Twilight, or the Hunger Games, or whatever. Typically start out really excited, I go, “Wow, this is really good!”, and then frankly, sort of end the journey kind of disappointed.
Not to disparage that genre or anything, I just got, well, this is kind of a lot of hype, and we’re going to move on. When I read The Fault in our Stars, I felt like I was reading literature. Not to puff you up too much, but I mean, I was blown away by how smart it was. How good of a story it was, and just how interesting the characters were. It was different. Maybe because it was real life and I really got into it, and I really appreciated the writing itself. You’re a great writer. What struck me about that, and I think I made this connection where I was like, this is a great book.
Then I went and Googled you some more, and I saw these videos, and I was like, “I know that guy! This is the same guy! This is a writer who is all over YouTube!”. I was like, “This is the same person; this is really interesting.” One of the things we talk about on this show is the idea of a portfolio life, and how you’ve got more than one thing, and I was going back through your FAQ and I was like, how can I ask him questions that he didn’t already answer himself on his website, which we’ll link to, because I don’t want to ask a lot of those questions, because you’ve already anticipated many of them.
I remember — and I don’t know if this is still there and I just missed it when I was reviewing it for this interview — but I remember reading about like, the day you stopped blogging. You said, “I’m not going to write anymore, I’m not going to use text communication anymore, I’m going to go straight to video”, and then you and you brother started basically a series of video letters that you did for a year.
It turned into this amazing YouTube channel called Vlog Brothers, and several other projects that have come out of that. What led you to do that? I mean, as a writer, I found that fascinating.
[0:10:29.9] JG2: Well, my brother and I were close, but I left for boarding school when he was 11. So I never knew him as an adult. I never even really knew him that well as a teenager. He was a little kid when I left, and he sort of remained a little kid in my mind forever after. We were close in the sense that we talked a lot over instant messenger, this was back in the hay day of AOL instant messenger, early 2000’s.
I had a lot of affection for my brother. I thought he was really like intellectually interesting guy. We weren’t close in the sense of having a deep emotional connection as adults. I kind of feel like for a lot of siblings, it helps to have a shared project. Shared projects can kind of bring adults together in a way that might not happen naturally, and so I was partly thinking about that, thinking about how I wanted to get to know Hank better; and I was partly thinking about the fact that we never talked on the phone. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year, and that there was something safe about text.
There was something distant about it, so that we could have these intellectual conversations with each other, but never get deeper than that. Never get into the guts of ourselves or anything like that. Then at the same time, I was watching some really wonderful early online video projects like Girl Fifteen and the show Would Say Frank, and Hank and I started liking these shows together. Part of our relationship became talking about how much we like these shows and what we liked about them, and so one day I just proposed, “Well why don’t we do something like that? Why don’t we do a project where we talk back and forth to each other for a year on YouTube?” Upload the videos every day, and I didn’t own a video camera. I’d never edited a video, I had no idea how to make a video. I figured it would be quite easy, so we agreed to do this for a year.
I remember on the fourth day, January fourth, I think it was a Thursday. I just remember thinking, “My god, this is a disaster, this was a horrible mistake. I’m going to have to do this for the whole stupid year, and I’m never going to get anything done. I’m not going to get my new novel written.” You know, at the time, there was no way to make money form YouTube, there was no even thought of a way to make money from YouTube and though I immediately felt very overwhelmed by it.
Then, almost immediately, the community that sprung up around the videos was so strong that it made me want to continue. I was so interested in what Hank had to say every other day. I felt like I was learning so much from him, and even though we only had 300 or 400 viewers in the earliest days of the project for about the first hundred days — the first hundred videos — we had between 400 and 600 views on average. They were really committed viewers, and we were able to have really interesting conversations with them, and that was really exciting too.
At first I was a little overwhelmed by it, but almost immediately I settled into it, and frankly, I’ve now made a video every Tuesday for the last 400 Tuesdays, except for one week when I had meningitis. I really love it. Tuesday’s my favorite day of the week. I just love the process of making a video. I love the sense of completion that comes with it. Writing a novel takes a long time; the great thing about video is I wake up in the morning, I work on the video all day, by the end of the day, the video’s getting comments. That’s kind of miraculous.
[0:13:47.1] JG: I love that idea that if you want to be closer to somebody, do a shared project together.
[0:13:53.2] JG2: Yeah, I’ve really found it to be helpful in all forms of my life. Writers are pretty solitary people, and I definitely — I spent a lot of my days alone in the basement working, but the other great joy of my professional life is the CrashCourse videos that we make, our educational video series and with crash course, I get to work with a team of people I just like so much, and the main reason I like doing it is because I like spending time with those people.
[0:14:17.4] JG: Going back in time, I love hearing about how the video stuff got started, and you eventually built an entire community around that, and I think we’ll come back to that in a bit. But I want to go back in time. Kind of Back to the Future style, where they hop back and then they hop forward. We’re going to keep jumping around.
[0:14:34.2] JG2: Great.
Click here to download a PDF of the full transcript.
[0:14:34.7] JG: I read that you wanted to become a priest, and in fact I was a religion major in college, and I know you studied religious studies as well. I remember reading The Fault in our Stars going, “These people are talking about God a lot”, and then I started digging into your past and learning a little bit more about your faith, which you’ve talked about, and how more recently — how it influences things like refugees and the crisis happening in Syria. Talk to me about that.
You went from wanting to be a priest to becoming a writer, and I’m curious about how that transition came about, and even the motivation to become a priest in the first place.
[0:15:12:6] JG2: Well, to be clear, I was thinking of becoming an episcopal priest, who — they can get married and everything. Just a very different level of commitment from Catholic priests. I have a cousin who is a Catholic priest who I’m sure feels very strongly about me pointing that out!
I always wanted to be a writer, but I thought of being a writer as analogous to being an astronaut. It’s not a career you bank on. Maybe it’s a dream, maybe it’s an ambition, but it’s not really a realistic one. It turns out that I think I underestimated how many writers there are, at least compared to how many astronauts there are. As you talk about on your blog, there are a lot of different ways to write and make a living writing. There are a lot of people who write books, and there are also lots of other ways to write and reach an audience.
I always wanted to be a writer, and even when I was enrolled in divinity school and working as a student Chaplain at a children’s hospital, I wanted to write and I was writing. I just thought that I also wanted to be a minister. I spent about six months working at that children’s hospital as a volunteer student Chaplain, and at the end of that process, I had a pretty strong feeling that it wasn’t my calling to sort of work from inside my religious tradition. That I was going to be able to do what I wanted to do more and better outside the bounds of the church.
For a variety of reasons, but probably the biggest one being that I just didn’t feel like I was very good at it. It was hard. It was harder emotionally than what I kind of what I could stand, I guess.
[0:16:47.1] JG: Yeah, I mean, being a volunteer Chaplain at a children’s hospital like that, I imagine is incredibly challenging and traumatic. That sounds like baptism by fire, I think, in the ministry.
[0:17:01.4] JG2: There’s an element of hazing. That part of the ordination process, pretty much everybody — and at least everyone in the major protestant denominations — has to work as a student Chaplain for 400 hours. I think that weeds out a lot of would be candidates, including myself. I loved the work and I felt like it mattered, which is an incredible blessing to do work that you feel like matters. It’s a wonderful thing. It wasn’t sustainable for me, it was too emotionally difficult. I found it too difficult to leave it at the doors of the hospital. I took too much of a home with me.
From there, I found a job in publishing, or as close to the publishing as I could find it. I worked mostly doing data entry at a magazine called Booklist, which is a pre-publication review journal. Eventually I was able to start reviewing books, and then I became a production editor. I wrote my first novel at night and on the weekends, and because I worked at Booklist,I was able to build a network of contacts that were very helpful when it came time to first edit the book and revise it, and then try to find a publisher.
[0:18:00.2]JG: How important — you mentioned having contacts. How important do you think like the social side of writing and creativity as a vocation is? Because we hear this a lot. I think we hear about somebody working on their novel, or their record, or whatever, and then eventually they meet somebody who helps them make it all happen. I often hear people kind of push back and say, “I don’t know anybody like that” or “I don’t live in New York City” or wherever.
How important was the social aspect of just knowing the right people and connecting with them, how important was that to your career, and how comfortable were you with that, because you talked about back in high school, you didn’t pick up on social queues very much. I’m just wondering, was that something that came naturally to you? Connecting with the right people, and they help you out? Did that feel very organic, or was it calculated? Talk about that.
[0:18:55.7] JG2: Well, I don’t think it was calculated, although it’s hard to know. I was very lucky. First off, I was very lucky to get the job at Booklist, to get a temp position there and then eventually to work my way in to having a full-time job there. Secondly, I was very lucky to have amazing mentors there. The two most — there were a lot of them, but the two most important people, the publisher of Booklist at the time, Bill Ought. I had a pretty severe depressive episode that resulted in me having to take several weeks off work, and I tried to quit my job back in — I’d only been there for about a year and a half.
He encouraged me instead to take a leave of absence, and that was a critical moment in my life, because when I got better, I had a job to come back to, which was tremendous thing in my life. If I look back at my life, that’s one of the most important events, one of the big turning points. Then Eileen Cooper, who edited a lot of my reviews at Booklist, and who is herself a very accomplished children’s book author. When I was writing Looking for Alaska, Eileen read drafts and drafts of it, and helped me to really turn it from a story that existed inside of my head to a novel that existed on a page.
The truth is that I don’t think that I would have the career that I have now without having had Eileen and Bill in my life. That’s an uncomfortable truth in a lot of ways, because it means admitting that I’m A, the benefit of some incredible privileges, and B, that a lot of the success that I’ve had is owed to circumstance, and not to talent, or to hard work or anything. I do think that I work hard, but so do lots of other people.
I think, however, that it’s really important to try to remember that — because if you become successful and you think that you deserve it, you become unbearable. At least in my experience.
[0:20:45.1] JG: Sure.
[0:20:46.4] JG2: I think deserving is just kind of the wrong way to think about it. Instead, you have to think about it as a blessing, think about it as an opportunity, think about it as a responsibility, or at least that’s what I find helpful. But no, I don’t think that you have to live in New York to get a publishing deal. For the record, I was living in Chicago at the time. I do think that it’s helpful to find people who are smart and good at what you want to do, and to learn from them.
I think you do need mentors. The great thing about the internet is that it opens up a world of mentorship to people no matter where they live. The challenging thing is that it’s obviously really hard to find good mentors, and in that respect, I was incredibly lucky.
[0:21:24.9] JG: Yeah, do you think about what you do now, going back to the ministry track? Do you think about what you do now as a calling? I mean, does this feel like the thing that you’re meant to do? Where does your sense of faith, and I don’t know, your perspective lie these days on that. How do you think about the work that you do now? I’m sure you’re having fun, but I just wonder. You were going down the path of ministry, you became a writer, and I hear you talk so empathetically about the people that you know, or get to spend time with, or create projects with, and I just wonder what that feels like to you. Does it feel like ministry?
[0:21:57.4] JG2: Yeah, it does in a lot of ways. I think it feels like ministry freed from the things that felt very constraining to me about the ministry. I still go to church and it’s tremendously important part of my life, in our family’s life. I do try to take the platform that I’ve been given seriously and to use it wisely. Mark Twain once was asked why another famous late 19th century humorist sort of fell out of fashion while he was able to kind of remain relevant and he said, “Well, that guy was kidding. I’ve been preaching.”
I do think that on some level, I am trying to preach. I’m trying to do it in a very secular way, in a way that’s very inclusive, but I definitely take a lot of what I find in the gospel or what I find in my religious tradition or other people’s religious traditions, try to bring that to my work, bring those values to my work.
[0:22:54.9] JG: I like your preaching.
[0:22:56.8] JG2: Thanks.
[0:22:58.7] JG: You got to be careful with Mark Twain. I once met this woman, in fact it was the day we were signing the mortgage for our new home. I don’t know why that’s relevant, but this lady was in the office, and she had moved here to Nashville from San Francisco and like Mark Twain quotes are great, right? Yeah, you just pull them out of your pocket and people are like, that’s so witty. So this lady, she’s like, “I’m from San Francisco and it’s taken a lot to adjust the weather here.”, and I was like, “Yeah, Mark Twain said the coldest winter he ever saw was the summer in San Francisco.”
[0:23:30.5] JG2: That’s a great line.
[0:23:31.2] JG: Isn’t it great? She just looked at me. She’s like, “No, it’s pretty warm there. It rains a little bit, but it’s pretty warm. I was like, “Okay. I’m going to go back to buying a house.” Anyway, be careful.
[0:23:44.2] JG2: Yeah, my number one thing about Mark Twain quotes is that he didn’t say half the things he’s been said to have said.
[0:23:48.5] JG: That’s right.
[0:23:49.3] JG2: I’m pretty sure he did say that, although that said, I’ve looked for attribution a few times over the years and I haven’t found it, so I might have made that quote up.
[0:23:56.8] JG: He just seems like a fun hang. I like that he’s like written into his will that he just wants to screw with people, basically, where he’s releasing his biography in segments so that nobody’s going to be around that ever knew him when he was alive can contest it.
[0:24:13.0] JG2: Yeah, unfortunately, that autobiography that we were all waiting a hundred years for turns out to be pretty terrible.
[0:24:18.0] JG: Really?
[0:24:18.7] JG2: Yeah, along the way though, he certainly wrote some great books though.
[0:24:21.7] JG: Yeah, he did. July 14th, depending on who you ask, July 14th or July 18th in the state of Indiana, in the Metropolis of Indianapolis is — I read this, it’s John Green day.
[0:24:33.8] JG2: Yeah.
[0:24:34.4] JG: How do you feel about that?
[0:24:35.8] JG2: It’s incredibly awkward. For many years, my wife would always make fun of me by saying that I got recognized everywhere we went except when we were home, and there was something magical about Indianapolis being the only town in the US that seemed not to be familiar with my work at all, but I love this place. We moved to Indianapolis in 2007 because of Sarah’s job, and we certainly never thought that we’d be here longer than two years. We never thought that we’d have kids here, raise a family here; but I love it here. I love this town and I’m so proud to live here.
There are things about it that are infuriating, like any place, but I love our friends here and so I’m happy to be a civic booster for the city. Very proud of it.
[0:25:15.3]JG: It’s a cool town. I mean, I don’t think — it’s kind of like Nashville. More people are like “yeah, what’s the deal with it”, and then you go there and you go, this is a really neat place. I remember visiting Indy in college over a decade ago and going, “Eh, this is okay”, and then we have some friends who live there, and we have been back several times in the past several years, and every time we go back there, it just gets cooler and cooler. The restaurants, the local culture and scene, it’s a really neat city. I think it’s underappreciated in terms of national recognition
[0:25:47.7] JG2: Yeah it is. It’s a very American city, which is one of the things I like about it. It’s American, and in good ways in that it’s innovative and there’s lots of hustle here. Also in terrible ways. It’s sprawling, there’s a lot of chain restaurants, but I don’t know, I find it very anthropologically interesting, I guess. I’m definitely not a native, but it’s become home to us.
[0:26:06.7] JG: Yeah, you know, Indiana is one of those interesting states. I think Ohio too, and even Illinois, where I am from. To a lesser extent, where depending on where you go in this state, you can kind of feel like you’re in the south, or in Yankee country. It’s a really interesting state.
[0:26:22.9] JG2: Yeah, Indianapolis is definitely that way. It’s very American. I like it.
[0:26:28.9] JG: I feel like this is going to turn into like a Sheldon Cooper “Fun with Flags” episode, which I’m okay with. I had a real question about the John Green day thing, which was like was there a point — I know everybody says like you never make it — was there a point where you realized “I’ve made it”, or “I have surpassed anything that I thought this would become” in terms of your writing career?
[0:26:53.4] JG2: Yeah, I mean, because I worked at Booklist so long, every two weeks we would review 300 or 400 books, and I would see a lot of worthy books come and go. I understood when I published the first book that publishing isn’t some way to ensure your immortality, or to try to like join some literary canon or whatever. Instead it’s this massive conversation featuring tens of thousands of voices, and millions of readers, and that you’re just a small part of that.
I think I had pretty realistic expectations for Looking for Alaska, and it exceeded them dramatically. The moment I knew that I was going to be able to write for a living — for at least a few years — was when Looking for Alaska won the Michael L Printz award, which is an award given out for young adult literature every year.
I was walking down the street with my wife — well, she was my fiancée at the time. We were on our way to register for wine glasses at Crate and Barrel, and I got this call. It really — there are very few occasions in your life when things change all at once for the better. A lot of times things change all at once for the worse, but it’s very rare to get a phone call and your life has suddenly and dramatically changed. That was in 2006, and after that I knew I would have at least two or three years to write books, which at the time just seemed like an incredible thing.
[0:28:21.3] JG: At the time that you won that award, you knew that you were going to have some headway with the career because the award paid money? Or it just brought a certain amount of attention to Looking for Alaska?
[0:28:33.4] JG2: At that point the book had sold, I don’t know, 3,000 or 4,000 copies, probably. I knew it was going to sell that overnight, and that also that I’d get a book deal for a couple of more books. There was no money attached to it, it was just the sense that I knew that it came with enough prestige that the book would be in print for a while and I would have a new audience for it. It was just kind of a boost that the book needed.
I’ve never really had writing as my full-time job. The moment it kind of could have become my full-time job back in 2006, I was immediately scheming to start Brotherhood 2.0 and our online video work. I obviously don’t want to have it as my full-time job, I obviously want to have a day job, and I feel very lucky to have kind of a day job that I find so fulfilling, and to have an office here where I can come and work on stuff that I find really interesting with people I really care about.
Writing is my passion. Writing is the thing I love most in the world, the thing that makes me and keeps me sane, and so I remember that moment because it was the moment where I felt for the first time real outside validation for my writing work.
[0:29:37.3] JG: Yeah, talk about that a little bit more, because I remember reading — you talk about that at some point, where you said, “I guess I could sit and write books all the time, but I don’t do that. I take writing seriously, but I’ve got other things going on.” You mentioned a day job, and I know that you and your brother Hank are involved in several projects together. I think you’ve got the video thing, but then you guys also have a conference, and like a record label, right?
[0:30:03.5] JG2: Yeah, it’s half record label, half merch company. We do sell music, but we also sell posters, and coffee mugs, and T-shirts for people who built audiences online. That’s actually a really important business for us, because Hank and I both feel that there aren’t enough ways for an audience to directly support creators, especially niche creators who may not have millions of views per video, or millions of YouTube subscribers, but do have really committed passionate audiences.
A lot of times those projects end up falling by the wayside, because people have to go do something else to make a living, and that’s really unfortunate. Hank and I are big believers in niche communities, and so for us, DFTBA.com is always trying to find ways to support — more ways to directly support creators who may not have massive audiences, but have very passionate ones. We do have a bunch of different companies that we work together on.
[0:30:57.9] JG: DFTBA stands for what?
[0:31:01.1] JG2: Stands for Don’t Forget To Be Awesome. When I was in Chicago in 2007, my friend Katie had a to-do list written on her hand. It was like, number one, go get the laundry, number two, go to the grocery store, number three, DFTBA. I said, “What does DFTBA stand for?” She said, “Don’t forget to be awesome.” I happened to be videotaping that moment, and it sort of became the catch phrase of our community.
[0:31:24.9] JG: That’s cool. Let’s talk about the Nerd Fighters, because this is a community — these are the people that you affectionately call out as your audience when you and your brother are talking back and forth through these video letters to each other. My understanding is this community has become a really important support group for your work, and I think your work has also been a great source of inspiration for that community.
Can you talk just a little bit about how important building community for you as an author has been, and you know, using — I just think it’s fascinating that you used YouTube of all places. There’s so many writers out there blogging and writing their little hearts out, myself included, and here you are — I looked at your blog recently and the last blog post was from like a year ago, and you’re doing it on YouTube. Can you talk a little bit about community, John, and what role it’s played in your career?
[0:32:21.1] JG2: Yeah, I think the reason we were attracted to YouTube in the first place is that we saw that there were online video projects that had really fascinating communities. They were relatively small compared to where blogs were at in 2006 and 2007, but they were really passionate, engaged communities. That’s always been what interested me, and definitely what interests Hank.
I don’t really care how many people watch or read something I make. I care how many people love it, how many people care about it, and I want to make stuff for people that they can really care about and be unironically enthusiastic about. I think in some ways in the long run, that probably dooms you to being a niche creator, but having seen briefly life at the center of American pop culture, I am very grateful to be a niche creator. If that’s what my career is, I’ll be extremely happy, because I’ve glimpsed the other side and I don’t think it’s what I want.
In answering that question, I completely lost your question. Right, about community. Yeah, it’s always been what drove us. Hank and I were never that interested in how many views we were getting, we were always interested in how engaged people were, and finding sort of weird different measures of engagement other than just like, how many people like something or watch it or comment on it.
YouTube seemed to place to me where people were having really deep connections with the creators they care about. It seemed natural to us in 2007, as much as I’m sure it seemed weird to the broader world.
[0:33:51.8] JG: Yeah, it makes sense. I have a friend who says, if you want to reach a bunch of people, go find some channel that nobody’s using and just use it like crazy. Figure it out, and it sounds like in some ways, whether intentionally or not, that’s what YouTube was to you guys back in 2007/2008?
[0:34:10.8] JG2: Yeah, I definitely think, not a lot of people were using it the way we wanted to use it.
[0:34:15.1] JG: Yeah.
[0:34:15.1] JG2: Which gave us a big advantage. Now it’s a much more crowded space, but back then it was really relatively flat and relatively open. A couple of guys with $100 camcorders and iMovie ‘06 had a shot.
[0:34:30.5] JG: I love how you thought that video editing couldn’t be that hard.
[0:34:32.9] JG2: I do. I had never edited a video until I edited my first video on January 2nd 2007. As I was doing it, I was just like, this is excruciating. It’s just such boring work. I’ve come to really also value that — it’s monotonous and repetitive, but I’ve come to find a lot of joy and fulfillment in the little business of jump cuts.
[0:34:56.1] JG: Yeah, I love the jump cuts. A couple of things that I wanted to comment on, one, you talked about the pop culture side of things, and I was curious about this bio on your Twitter page, which is I am an author, a vlog brother, and a person who does not cast movies.
[0:35:11.8] JG2: Yeah.
[0:35:13.3] JG: Where does that come from? Are you getting asked a lot about the movies into which your books have been made?
[0:35:18.2] JG2: Yeah, well mostly my first novel. Looking for Alaska has never been made into a movie, and I would say for a long time about 40% of my Twitter replies were asking me to cast one person or another in the movie adaptation of Looking for Alaska, which of course I can’t do because I’m not a casting director. I can’t even get them to make a movie, let alone choose who is in it. I wanted to establish that at the very beginning.
[0:35:45.6] JG: Got it, that’s fine. I don’t know if this is a comfortable question for you to answer or not, but it’s interesting to me. Did you write books and then, frankly, become famous for writing those books, and then people wanted to go watch you on YouTube? Or did you start this YouTube channel, and I know these products were kind of happening concurrently, and then that thing blew up and sold more books? Was it a mix of both? Are they completely separate audiences?
I just think it’s interesting the mixed media career that you’ve had, and I wonder, does one affect the other?
[0:36:21.0] JG2: Yeah, they definitely both affect each other, and I don’t think either would be where they are today without the other, if that makes sense. I don’t think we’d have the online video audience that we have, and I certainly don’t think that my books would have sold as well. The Fault in our Stars is really my first book to have a big life outside of the relatively small community that we had in online video.
My previous novels in 2008 and 2010 both did well, and they both made the New York Times Bestseller list for a couple of weeks, but it was in both cases because the Nerd Fighters were so organized in making sure that they bought it in the first week because they wanted it to be a New York Times Bestseller, rather than because there was a lot of sort of organic excitement about my books.
I definitely don’t think that my books would have the reach that they have without that community, but I also think that community would be different. The success of the book says — I think maybe it just gives people a different window into me, or it changes the relationship somehow. I’m not sure I quite have it figured out, but it definitely I think makes our viewers think of me differently after they know that I am that guy who wrote that book.
[0:37:28.4] JG: Right. What I find so interesting — and for folks listening to this who aren’t familiar with your YouTube channel or your books is that they’re very different. There’s crossover. Your books have — Fault in our Stars at least, has a good degree of philosophy and science and you know, some interesting heady kind of nerdy stuff, and then when you go to the YouTube channel, you got — okay yeah, I get this.
Because you talk about a lot of that stuff, things that I assume fascinate you. On the surface, you go, okay, the dude writes young adult fiction, and like here he is talking about like 16th century history, or global warming, or whatever.
[0:38:09.4] JG2: Why am I watching this video about the influence of Islam?
[0:38:13.0] JG: I think it would be really easy for you to just have a YouTube channel about how to be a writer, and I imagine that probably would be interesting for you.
[0:38:20.3] JG2: Yeah, I don’t’ think that would be of much interest to me. For one thing, I have absolutely no idea how to be a writer. Whenever I’m in an NFMA class. I’m always just blown away by other people’s understanding of what they’re doing. It’s quite embarrassing to me, really, how poorly I understand the act or the process of writing a novel. I think I kind of make it up from scratch each time I do it, which is maybe why it takes so long…
I’ve always just wanted to make stuff online about what I care about or what I find fascinating, in the hopes that other people will share that fascination and it will lead to a bigger conversation. To me — in fact I remember my publisher asking me to put my books in the background of the videos, or could you at least talk about the fact that you write books in some of these videos.
I just never wanted to. I do tell people when I have a book coming out, of course, but I’ve never wanted to make it the center of my work. I’ve always liked — I like the fact that it’s separate. For me, that’s part of the value of it is that it’s a different job. A different part of my brain, kind of a different life from my writing life.
[0:39:30.9] JG: Let’s talk a little bit more about that, because this is the thing that I initially just found so interesting about you is the fact that you are not just a writer. I assume, financially, you could now just be a writer, after having sold millions upon millions of books, and yet you’ve got these other things going on. You run businesses, you do multimedia projects, you continue to create things online, run events, that sort of thing.
A lot of people that I know, a lot of creative people would say, “Well John, why don’t you just write books? Why don’t you just do your passion, your art?” And here you are saying, “Well, I’ve got to have day job, and these are things that I do on the side.” Why organize your life like that?
[0:40:10.9] JG2: Well, I’m not happy when I don’t, that’s the sort of the completely non-introspective answer.
[0:40:17.9] JG: Like when you don’t have that diversity of things going on?
[0:40:20.5] JG2: Exactly, yeah. If I’m just writing, it puts a lot of pressure on writing, and days when writing might not go well become very bad days, when they don’t’ really need to be bad days. I guess, the slightly more introspective answer is that to be honest, rather than seeing the success of Fault in our Stars as an opportunity to just write, or even an opportunity to stop working, I saw it as my gosh, this is so great. Now, we can make Crash Course, and Blog Brothers, and our other online video projects, and money doesn’t matter.
It makes all of those projects way easier when you take money out of the equation. For instance, we can save a lot of money on Crash Course if I don’t get paid to host it. We can save a lot — you know, now with Blog Brothers, the ad revenue goes, gets put between our foundation and chances to sponsor educational video projects from creators who don’t yet have an audience to sustain their work.
I saw it as an opportunity to do something other than writing, I think precisely because there was so much attention focused on my writing. I didn’t handle that particularly well. It’s funny, because I was living my dream. The thing that I had always wanted most was to have my books reach a really wide audience, and then it happened very relatively suddenly. Pretty much like The Fault in our Stars came out, and it just never stopped selling until recently.
It took like, years, and I can see how one might think the reaction to that would be like, “wow, now I need to write more books”, but for me, the reaction was to kind of move away from publishing for a while. It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve really turned my attention again to writing, because I think it was just too much.
[0:42:12.4] JG: The pressure?
[0:42:14.1] JG2: The pressure, and just the awareness. I mean, it’s always uncomfortable to write feeling like someone’s looking over your shoulder. I had felt that for the previous couple of books a little bit. I felt that a little bit when I was writing The Fault in our Stars, but nothing like what came after. I think the pressure, and then the other thing is that it wasn’t all positive reactions. There were lots of people who had negative reactions to my work.
Especially as it moved closer and closer to pop culture, and in my experience at least, the positive stuff does not penetrate nearly as effectively as the negative stuff does.
[0:42:49.6] JG: No, not at all. You forget it.
[0:42:52.2] JG2: Yeah, I mean, for me, the negative stuff penetrates, because there’s always a part of me that thinks, well they must secretly be right. That might secretly be true, and so in a way, I associated writing with a kind of — with sort of the pain of readership, which I realize is like the highest-class first-world problem in the world, but to be honest, like I think that’s the other reason that I probably shied away from publishing for a while.
[0:43:17.4] JG: Have you read all 37,000 or whatever reviews? I can’t believe that. I was looking at it the other day, and I knew the book had sold well, but I was like — that is a lot of reviews.
[0:43:28.9] JG2: A lot of them are like “five stars, book arrived on time and has no marks”.
[0:43:34.1] JG: Low expectations. That’s the secret.
[0:43:37.6] JG2: I know I have not read all of the reviews. For a while, I did. I’m not one of these people who has the ability to turn away from reviews. I wish I were, but I’m not. I haven’t read all of them. I look at the metadata. I looked at the overall percentage of people who liked it. If I get lost in the weeds too much of what they actually thought, it puts too many voices in my head I think.
[0:43:58.4] JG: I love that idea that your book went big and you said, now I can afford to use this money to do cool projects. That’s a cool idea.
[0:44:06.3] JG2: Yeah, I mean, for me it was really the — that was really the gift of it. It kind of let me live a bunch of different dreams. Yeah, the other gift of it is the readership, it’s incredible to have so many people write to you, and so kindly, and large, and that means the world to me.
[0:44:25.5] JG: How do you manage all that? I might add, your FAQ on your website does a good job of that, but how do you manage all of those people reaching out to you, emailing you, writing you letters, et cetera?
[0:44:36.7] JG2: I think you have to set reasonable expectations. You have to tell people what you can do and what you can’t do, and other than that I have a really great assistant who is also my production partner, who helps me keep my life organized. I’m not a very organized person, and for many years it was just a disaster. Everything would slip through the cracks, and I would feel kind of like constant gnaw and guilt about this, that, or the other that I failed to do, and various ways in which I failed readers who had been very kind to me. But thanks to the support of Rosianna, I think this days I’m able to manage it much better.
It isn’t possible to reply to every email, and I have to be realistic about that and ask my readers to be realistic about it too.
[0:45:21.5] JG: Rosianna, what a great name.
[0:45:23.2] JG2: I know, yeah. She’s from the United Kingdom, although she now lives in Indianapolis, but Mexican heritage, so she has a beautiful name. Rosianna Halse Rojas.
[0:45:32.3] JG: Well done. Okay, this is where I want to wrap up, but this is important; I wanted to mention this. You mentioned depression, and you’ve talked before about mental illness. I remember watching a number of your videos and you talked about your OCD, and I thought, he’s like — that’s tongue and cheek or whatever. He is like talking about it the way people say like “I’m bipolar about this” when they don’t’ really mean that they’re bipolar. What I understand is…
[0:45:57.0] JG2: Yeah, I wish people would stop talking about it that way.
[0:45:58.2] JG: You really have a — yeah, you really have obsessive compulsive disorder, and I wonder if you might talk about that a little bit. I know you don’t shy away from talking about this. There’s so much — I don’t know, I would call it misunderstanding, but these beliefs about mental illness, and creativity, and addiction, even. Do these things make you more creative, that sort of thing. As somebody who dealt with depression, deals with OCD, can you talk a little bit about mental illness and how it affects your work? Good or bad?
[0:46:29.8] JG2: Yeah, I mean, I don’t buy into the notion that depression or addiction is somehow good for your writing. In my experience, depression is a disaster for my writing, because I don’t write — I think there’s also — there’s a lot of misinformation around OCD. I remember when I was diagnosed with OCD, even saying to my psychiatrist, “You don’t understand, I’m quite a messy person.”
[0:46:51.9] JG: Right.
[0:46:53.4] JG2: Yes, I have these obsessive thought spirals that I deal with through these compulsive behaviors, but I almost never wash my hands. I think part of that is the way that we talk about mental illness. I think part of it is that there’s still a stigma associated with mental health problems. I obviously can’t speak for every person who is mentally ill. I don’t have some kind of universal experience; I have this very particular experience, but my experience has been that you know, in the periods of my life where I more or less have not felt like I’m in control of my thoughts or my feelings, when I haven’t felt like I’m sort of driving the bus of my own consciousness. Those are not productive periods.
I don’t think that romanticizing does anyone any good, because what needs to be happening when you’re in a period like that is you need to be getting help. You need to be — the great thing about — obviously, there’s still a lot of blunt instruments when it comes to treating mental health problems, but we do have much better treatments than we did 30 years ago, and the vast majority of mental illnesses are treatable now.
People recover — many people recover and never have mental health problems again. My mental health situation, I think, is a lot more chronic, and it’s just something that I live with and try to treat like I would any other chronic disease. There are definitely times when I get frustrated, when I wish that I didn’t have this, but I don’t know, my best friend has a blood clotting disorder. He has to take a medication every day, and complains about it constantly, and to me it’s similar in a lot of ways.
I don’t think that it has made me a better writer, except in so far as maybe it has made me a little more empathetic, because I’ve had these sort of long periods in my life, medium range periods in my life, where I felt real despair. I felt real — this sort of like, terror of not feeling like you’re in control of yourself, or like you are the author of your own self. I think has given me a certain empathy, but I also think there might have been an easier, cheaper way to come by it.
I’m not one of those people who is like “I’m very grateful for my mental illness, because the accidents give me why”. I struggle to be grateful for it, but I do accept it as part of my life, and I feel really lucky that I have a really high standard of care, because unfortunately many people don’t and it becomes two problems.
First off, it’s an incredible challenge just to seek out help. It can be very difficult, because your brain is telling you that you don’t need to a lot of times. Secondly, unfortunately help is hard to get in too many cases, especially in the US’s healthcare system. I feel very lucky in that respect, and I feel very lucky that it’s something that I’m able to live with, but yeah, I don’t like to hide it or deny it, because I do think that it’s important to acknowledge that lots and lots of people live with chronic mental health problems, and they do so successfully and happily.
I have a lot of joy in my life and I love my children. I feel like I’m able to be a good father and a good husband in spite of those problems.
[0:50:03.6] JG: Well, thanks for sharing about that. It is interesting to me, the whole stigma. I remember mentioning in passing on a podcast or webinar, talking to my counselor. A while ago, I started seeing a counselor because I was like, I’ve got stuff, I think everybody’s got stuff, I want to deal with some of my stuff, and it’s amazing to me. Every time I mention that — like us doing this episode. We will hear from people saying, “Thank you so much for doing that”, or I’ll hear the opposite, which is like, “Really? You? You see a counselor?” I’m like — it’s weird, you don’t’ talk about, “You, John? You go to the dentist once a year?” You get your teeth cleaned?
[0:50:41.6] JG2: One of the reasons I feel a little bit uncomfortable talking about it is because of that. Because every single time, people are always like, I didn’t know. In a very sweet, kind, generous way, they worry about me, right? I don’t want to make people worry about me. I think that’s one of the reasons that a lot of time people struggle to acknowledge it, but you know, it’s an important part of my life, and it’s frankly a daily part of my life.
To be honest, my brother has ulcerative colitis, which is a very stigmatized disease involving the colon, and lots of shame around it and everything. He’s always been so great at talking about ulcerative colitis. He’s always been so thoughtful, and kind, and open in a way that he talks about it. That’s what really inspired me to try to talk about it more often.
[0:51:36.3] JG: Well, thanks for sharing that. Thanks for this conversation. Man, it was a treat. It was a privilege, an honor, thanks so much for your time, John.
[0:51:43.8] JG2: It’s been so fun to talk to you, and I’m, again, a really big fan of the podcast. Good luck with it.
[0:51:48.0] JG: Thanks so much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:51:55.9] AT: After hearing about John’s story, have you ever considered a mixed media platform strategy? If so, what platforms would you consider posting on? Let us know by going to goinswriter.com/132. Or, you can drop a message to Jeff on Twitter @jeffgoins. We appreciate the time you take to listen to our show. I’m Andy Traub, and on behalf of Jeff Goins, thanks for spending some time with us.
Now, go build your portfolio.
JG2: “ I want to stay uncomfortable in the sense that I want to continue to push myself to do work that interests me so that I can stay, you know, in that place of always trying to become someone different.”