Prism Picks: Turtles All the Way Down

By: Katherine Jovanovic


John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, told an Orlando audience of about 1130 that his fear of eating certain foods once controlled his life.

John Green and his brother, Hank Green, spoke at Winter Park High School, Hank Green’s alma mater, on October 16 as part of John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down Book Tour, which provides avid readers and Crash Course fans the opportunity to hear the brothers speak in-person, especially regarding John Green’s new book Turtles All the Way Down.

John Green began the show by reading an excerpt from Turtles and talked about the 16-year-old protagonist Aza. Turtles is essentially a detective novel, but Aza’s obsessive compulsive disorder works against her sleuthing skills. Normally, detective skills are second nature to fictional detectives with enhanced intelligence, but Aza finds it challenging to pay attention to a conversation, let alone an entire investigation.

John Green decided to include OCD to highlight his childhood obsession—fearing some foods might kill him. Painting a picture of obsessive worry and dread pervading into his mind, John Green shared his dietary fears; he said he turned to eating certain foods at specific times and places.

Although he had a happy childhood, he said he was not always a happy child. He said he felt trapped in a prison cell, unable to explain the pain to anyone else.

“If I can’t stop thinking these thoughts that I don’t want to have, then whose thoughts are they exactly?” John Green said. “Who’s the captain of the ship I call myself? It’s clearly not myself. It’s the monster self.”

With this in mind, he explained that his character Aza must navigate who she is in order to escape the entrapped version of herself and imagine the lives of others with compassion.

After, John Green answered questions from the audience. When asked about advice for aspiring writers, he provided three points:

  1. Read, read! “Learn from all these people who have been dead for a long time but have left us these scratches on a page, and if you can kinda figure out how they were doing what they were doing, then you can just steal it, which is a lot of what writing is.”
  2. Keep writing, giving yourself permission to suck. “I have to give myself permission to be terrible, or else I will get really mad at myself and frustrated and not enjoy the process.” When elaborating on the struggle of writing drafts for Turtles, he joked how his wife and editor said, “I’m not sure that this book really needs a shootout at a Chuck E. Cheese.”
  3. You can be one of those people. “When I started working at this magazine Booklist as an assistant many years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that I had to enter a lot of ISBN numbers—that was my job, typing in these ten digit numbers into a database, and there were a ton of them. And that’s when I realized all those books were written by somebody, you know. Like every two weeks, Booklist reviews four hundred or five hundred new books—there’s no reason you can’t be one of those people.”

 

When asked how he writes differently now that he has kids, John Green responded that he’s more interested in exploring his parent characters, who he had ignored in his earlier books.

“Go to boarding school or get on a road trip; we’re just gonna make you extremely not important to the teenager’s life,” he said about his characters. “I genuinely grew up believing that I was a pleasure to parent. I was horrible.”

Green said the process of writing Turtles was a mix of catharsis and difficulty. He questioned his ability to write another book. Despite these fears, he remembered failing to write wouldn’t change his relationship with his spouse or kids, which facilitated perseverance when writing Turtles. Furthermore, Green discussed how people tend to stigmatize and romanticize mental illness in fields of creativity.

“If you google ‘All artists are,’ Google autofills ‘mad,’” he said.  “There is this tremendous connection in our cultural narrative between mental illness and creativity and making art and stuff, and it is true that people who work in creative fields have higher than average rates of mental illness.”

John Green discredited a popular perception that artists with untreated mental illnesses are more creative. He said almost all the writers he knows with mental illness write best when they treat their chronic health problems.

Hank Green joined his brother on stage to discuss a variety of topics ranging from wedding advice to alternate realities. Here are some quick highlights and memorable quotes:

  1. John Green was never a big Disney person. When visiting the park, he usually sat in the Hall of Presidents.
  2. When it comes to wedding advice, Hank Green suggests inviting your friends over to hang out and eat Publix subs in lieu of a huge ceremony.
  3. Although he thinks it’s too early to tell, Hank Green would sort his son Orin into Ravenclaw. John Green, a Hufflepuff, would sort his daughter Alice into Ravenclaw and his son Henry into Gryffindor. In fact, John Green is currently reading Harry Potter to his son.
  4. Hank Green wants to go to Mars.
  5. If the brothers hadn’t launched Vlogbrothers, their first YouTube channel, Hank Green claims they would be superheroes Batman and Robin, even though John Green thinks that announcing superherodom doesn’t make one a superhero.
  6. John Green considered titling his new novel Holmesy but chose Turtles All the Way Down at the last moment.

After Hank Green sang a few songs about the universe and human condition, John Green joined him on stage to wrap up the show.

The Green brothers brought up ‘Sweet Caroline’ due to its universal nature in prompting people to join in singing ‘bah bah bah.’

“The only true moment of togetherness that we can possibly have right now tonight in this room is not to ‘bah bah bah,’” John Green said.

When Hank Green played and sang the song, silence filled the auditorium during the ‘bah bah bah’ moments coupled with John Green jumping up and down with pure excitement for the success of their mini social experiment.

John Green wanted his audience to feel a sense of true togetherness.

“It was total silence, Hank. It was magical. Everybody felt it, they all know what happened.”

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Cut: John Green speaks to an audience of about 1130 as part of his tour Turtles All the Way Down with John and Hank Green. He addressed his new book, mental health, and career.

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John and Hank Green’s tour bus sits outside Winter Park High School. The brothers crossed off the locations of their previous tour destinations on the side of the bus.

 

Photographs Courtesy Digital Learning Twitter (@DigitalOCPS)

 

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