September 2006

Lost loves: It all adds up for teen author John Green

By John Green
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Unlike many of his fellow authors, John Green always intended to write books for young adults. " Most of the YA authors I know wrote a book and then were told it was YA, but I always wrote with that audience in mind," Green says. "I wanted to be a part of the process of broadening and deepening what it means to write for teenagers." If critical acclaim is any indication, he has certainly chosen the right career path. Green won the Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature for his first book, Looking for Alaska, a compelling portrait of the students at an Alabama boarding school. When he accepted the award at the American Library Association convention in June, Green says his parents brought along two books he wrote at the age of eight: It Just Isn't Fair, about a nerd who gets ridiculed, and Me and Mitch Learned a Lesson, an anti-bullying book.

Another bully appears in Green's new novel, An Abundance of Katherines, but he's a tiny part of a larger picture. The novel offers an offbeat, but ultimately wise, perspective on failed romance, even as it explores the challenges, hilarity and occasional moments of beauty on the path to adulthood. Green makes liberal use of footnotes and anagrams which, in the wrong hands, might be distracting. Not here; instead, his sly asides and wordplay-centric plot twists make the story even more fun, and the anagrammatic dedication to his wife, Sarah Urist Green, is an odd yet touching work of poetry. A snippet: Heart-reassuring/Signature Sharer/Easing rare hurts.

Though the couple lives in New York, the author spoke with BookPage from Chicago, where he and Sarah are spending a few months (she's working at the city's Museum of Contemporary Art). During an earlier stint in the Windy City, Green was on the staff of Booklist, an ALA publication, doing production and database management. "I was very fortunate that there was a great emphasis on everyone being book people, passionate readers," Green says of the experience. " I got the chance to review a lot of books, and it made a huge difference in my . . . writing life and reading life."

Green says he wrote An Abundance of Katherines while he was still working at Booklist, but adds, "it was really created after I left. The book took its form in revision." During that revision Green estimates 80 percent of the words changed over several additional drafts the novel assumed its final, unusual shape.

At the book's core is Colin, a recent high school graduate and former child prodigy who attempts to apply mathematical principles to his checkered romantic history. Colin is determined to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which will help him understand why he's been dumped by 19 girls named Katherine.

Colin's friend Hassan is a clever sort who gets impatient with Colin's mooning about, so the two teenagers set off in search of a little edification and a lot of adventure. They find it in Gutshot, Tennessee, where they befriend a girl named Lindsey and her mother, the local tampon-string factory owner who offers them a job and a place to stay for the summer. Two obvious questions might be: 1. Tampon-string factory? and 2. Does the theorem work? Green says he knew a girl in high school whose father owned just such a factory, and yes, it does.

Getting the theorem to make sense was a bit challenging, so he sought the help of his friend Daniel Biss, a 28-year-old Green describes as a genius, one of the best mathematicians in the world. (He's also an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute.) The two worked on the theorem together, starting with the idea that a relationship can be represented by a graph in which the x-axis represents time, and key events a date, a vacation, a breakup can be plotted track the relationship's highs and lows, beginning and end. Green and Biss tested the theorem with their own ex-girlfriends as well as famous celebrity couples such as Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson.

"It's right 100 percent of the time," Green says. He emphasizes, though, that " I wrote [the theorem] to be beautiful. It's meant to be something to look at, with gorgeous clean lines. It was important to me to write a book a math idiot like me could enjoy completely without ever stopping to look at the math." Green isn't selling short his YA audience, though. The author routinely hears from his teenaged readers, "who are an amazingly smart and interesting bunch of people. I've been really impressed by the quality of their thinking." It is for those readers as well as any mathematicians inclined to pick up Katherines that Green worked to ensure the book's math is correct. "I wanted people who have the inclination to be able to look more deeply and to show readers that math can become a language, and a graph can tell a story."

John Green rearranged the letters in Linda M. Castellitto's name, and came up with the anagrams A slim, not little, cad and Maniac dolt tells it, among others.

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An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines

By John Green
ISBN 9780525476887

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