After his 2012 novel—the hugely popular, critically acclaimed YA hit The Fault in Our Stars—grew into a global phenomenon, Green discovered that returning to writing was not an easy task. But with Turtles All the Way Down, he found a subject very close to his heart—and brain.
The Fault in Our Stars sold 45 million copies worldwide, was translated into 50-plus languages and was made into a movie. In 2014, the year the movie debuted, Green was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world by Time magazine. Thrilling stuff—but not surprisingly, it became a hard act for Green to follow.
“For a long time after The Fault in Our Stars came out, I wasn’t able to find pleasure in writing, to find an escape from my brain,” Green says in a call to his Indianapolis home, where he lives with his wife and two children. “When I was writing . . . it was hard not to feel the audience looking over my shoulder.”
But Green kept creating and communicating with fans (affectionately called nerdfighters) in other ways, like the two popular video blog series (“VlogBrothers” and “Crash Course”) he hosts with his brother, Hank, and VidCon, a conference for online video creators and aficionados.
And eventually, writing “did start to feel like the release it had always been,” and soon he was crafting what would become Turtles All the Way Down. “When I started working on the book intensely, it was almost impossible for me to write about anything else,” Green says.
Perhaps most importantly, Green felt like he “didn’t have a choice” in the subject matter. The main character, 16-year-old Aza Holmes, struggles daily with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)—which has affected Green’s life since childhood.
“As Aza says in the book, illness is supposed to be story told in past tense—you’re supposed to share your story of how you conquered your demons. That’s not my story,” Green says. “It’s more something I’ve lived with for a long time. It can be so hard to reconcile that, in part because there are such strong cultural voices saying [that] any kind of chronic illness is a weakness, a failure. And that’s just not true.”
It absolutely isn’t, but it’s something Aza contends with, despite having a caring mom and best friend, Daisy. Aza usually tries to handle everything by herself, so it’s hard to pull herself out of spirals of intrusive thoughts—which cause her to turn her focus inward and to feel anxious, which leads to feeling bad about herself. It’s exhausting and seemingly endless.
The spiral motif that’s central to Aza’s story is first referenced in the book’s title, which refers to the philosophical paradox that the Earth is flat and balanced on the back of a giant turtle, which is atop another turtle, and so on and so on. That notion of a never-ending stack of turtles provides an artful, memorable way to envision a line of reasoning that goes on and on without end, spiraling down with no relief or escape—and nicely parallels Aza’s OCD-induced thought spirals that make her feel powerless, out of control and disconnected from her own sense of self.
“You’re supposed to share your story of how you conquered your demons. That’s not my story.”
“OCD can be super isolating, in part because it’s happening within you, so it’s almost impossible to express it in a way to help other people understand,” Green says. “[OCD] can be so consuming that it’s really difficult to even understand there’s a world outside of yourself.”
And sometimes, finding the right treatment can feel impossible, especially if there’s shame and secretiveness involved. “I always felt tremendously embarrassed about my obsessive thought spirals,” Green says. “It’s really difficult to feel something weird about [yourself] that’s sort of disgusting or reprehensible, that you can’t shake.” He adds, “Aza hates being like this, and for much of the book, she really cannot see that she’s not alone.”
In Turtles All the Way Down, Green comes as close as anyone to capturing the thought-spiral experience for readers. Masterfully crafted, skillfully paced, sometimes heartbreaking streams of consciousness draw readers into Aza’s relentless brain and whisk them along as the story ebbs and flows and grows. Will Aza realize that sharing with others what it’s like to be her can help? Or will she retreat from that possibility and return to more familiar territory, courtesy of a mind that seems determined to play the trickster?
That’s not all Turtles All the Way Down has to offer. At the heart of Aza’s story is a weird, entertaining tale of what appears to be your typical find-the-missing-billionaire-and-get-the-$100,000-reward treasure hunt. But the adventure unspools in delightfully unexpected ways, with revelations funny and romantic and bizarre, plus a dose of practicality when it comes to the notion that mental illness is a huge boon to an investigator.
Green has a bone to pick with that. “That’s one thing I’ve always found so strange about the narrative of the obsessive detective,” Green says, referring to a popular trope in literature, film and TV. “In my experience, OCD comes with no superpowers and has made me a terrible detective! When I’m sick, I have no awareness of the world outside myself at all. How could I possibly look at someone’s shirt and figure out what they do for a living? I know that’s not everyone’s experience, but it doesn’t make sense to me at all. I’m just not a very good detective.”
Is Aza? We won’t spoil it, but Green definitely has great fun with the sleuthing aspects of his story. In his trademark style, he also includes lots of fascinating things readers will be inspired to learn more about—from facts about the tuatara (a New Zealand reptile) to hilariously deep dives into Star Wars lore.
There’s also plenty of poetry to learn about and enjoy. Green has always had a knack for crafting phrases that inspire and beg to be shared. Here, he goes a step further, with characters who write poetry and share their favorite poems.
Green says that in writing about OCD, “I really wanted to try to give form or structure to this thing I have trouble accessing via my senses, and one of my favorite ways writers have done this over the centuries is [through] poetry. It’s a way of sense-ifying the ineffable.”
But Green acknowledges that this is only one experience and only one way of representing mental illness. “I don’t want to project Aza’s or my experience on everyone,” Green says. “When you talk about mental health problems, there’s a huge diversity of experiences. . . . I do know the vast majority is treatable, and that there’s real, legitimate cause for hope—that despair is a lie your brain is telling you.” Of course, he adds, “Not any one treatment works for everyone.”
This push and pull, this engaging with the outside world while trying to manage the tempest within—it’s all part of living with OCD. But in that outside world, Green says, there are people who want to understand, learn and help. This is one of the main points he wanted to make with Aza’s story: that she doesn’t have to shoulder this burden in isolation. The effects of OCD touch all of Aza’s relationships, and with the release of Turtles All the Way Down, Green’s relationship with his audience will shift and change anew.
“For the last several years, the book’s been only in my mind, to a large degree, and [now] it isn’t,” Green says. “There’s a bit of a sense of loss in that, and also excitement and nervousness now that it belongs to its readers.”
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
(Author photo by Marina Waters.)