Feb 6, 2013

TFiOS live: John and Hank Green at Cadogan Hall

Last Sunday evening Ana and I went to London to see John Green and his brother Hank at Cadogan Hall, in an event celebrating the UK publication of The Fault in Our Stars. If you happen to have watched the Carnegie Hall stream a few weeks ago, you’ll have a good idea of what the Green brothers’ live shows are like: there are readings, songs, questions and answers, special guests, plenty fun, and most of all large groups of very enthusiastic people unapologetically celebrating their own nerdiness.

Before I go on, a side note: remember how about a year and a half ago I posted about meeting Neil Gaiman? Back then I explained that the reason why the experience had mattered so much to me was that I felt that, in a strange and roundabout way, his blog had helped raise me. I was in my teens when I started reading it, and because my exposure to fantasy literature (among oh so many other things) had been very limited up until that point, I encountered many of my favourite things for the first time via his blog (and those things led to ideas, and you know how the rest goes). It seems funny now to think that there was once a time when I didn’t know Diana Wynne Jones or Ursula Le Guin – and yes, of course they’re household names that I’d have encountered sooner or later, but you do remain grateful to the person who first expands your world.

The reason why I’m talking about this is that it was very obvious that Cadogan Hall on Sunday was full of young people for whom John and Hank Green are what Neil Gaiman was to me.I became a Nerdfighter in mid-2008, and being in my twenties meant that my relationship with the community was different than it would have been if I’d been younger. Don’t get me wrong; the enjoyment I get out of what John and Hank do is in no way inferior because I’m an adult, but the whole experience is qualitatively different because things impact you differently at different stages of your life. Sometimes I wish I’d had access to something like the Nerdfighter community when I was growing up, but the main feeling I get when I think about its existence is not wistfulness because I missed out – it’s extreme gratitude that it exists today; that it creates a safe space for kids who need to escape the pressures of anti-intellectualism; that it helps thousands of people connect and feel less lonely and discover who they want to be. The Green brothers refuse to condescend to their audience because of their age and they treat teens like the thinking human beings that they are, and something like that can make such a huge difference in your life.

Anyway: John and Hank Green may not have introduced me to, say, environmentalism or The Catcher in the Rye, but that doesn’t mean the community they created hasn’t helped shape me as a person over the past five years. I’d say I look up to them, but that suggests a kind of hierarchical relationship that is the opposite of what they’ve been trying to build. I guess the main thing is that I’m extremely grateful for them, and I appreciate having had the opportunity to tell them so in person.

With that out of the way, let me tell you what the event was actually like. John Green started by talking about the experiences that inspired him to write The Fault in Our Stars. He first had the idea for the book when he was working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital in his early twenties, and he made several attempts to write about it then. But the story didn’t come together until he removed himself from it, which is something he was only able to do many years later. He said that at first he was trying to work out some of his own issues through fiction, and that made it impossible for the book to work as a story.

His friendship with Esther Earl, a nerdfighter he met through the Make a Wish foundation, allowed for a complete reimagining of the story he wanted to tell. (At this point he paused to explain what nerdfighters are: “a community that celebrates intellectualism and thoughtfulness and created spaces for engagement online”. The audience, mostly made out of nerdfighters, laughed at this, but John Green pointed out that there were probably people there who didn’t know. And I’m telling you this because it’s yet another example of the inclusion and accessibility they try to create, and I love them for it.)

Getting to know Esther allowed John Green to see that there was more to a life cut short by cancer than loss, horror, misery and despair, and that nihilism was not the only possible answer. Yes, illness and death suck, but people like Esther are alive before they die, and their early deaths don’t mean their lives weren’t worth living. We have trouble making sense of short lives, and as a result we tend to make the stories we tell about people who die young not really about the person who dies, but about their friends and loved ones – about how they learned a valuable lesson about loss and impermanence and making the most of every moment. This is an understandable human reaction, but it’s also incredibly dehumanising, because the sick person is never given a voice. After spending time with Esther, he wanted to write a story that broke that pattern – which, by the way, is one of my absolute favourite things about The Fault in Our Stars.

John Green reading from my copy(!!11@) of The Fault in Our Stars.

John Green then read from the first chapter of the book, but because he’d forgotten to bring his own copy he asked the person sitting right in front of him on the front row to lend him theirs. That person just happened to be me, and once he was done reading he asked me my name and I got my own round of applause. This is the kind of experience that makes for a cool story, but that also makes you want to disappear into a hole when you’re an introvert whose reaction to 900 pairs of eyes suddenly on her is a very loud EEK. Still, I think I coped fairly well all things considered. And I realise this is a very long shot, but if anyone out there on the Intrawebs happens to have any photos or videos of the Sunday evening event that show John Green giving me back my book and/or talking to me, that would be a cool thing to have and I’d be incredibly grateful.


After the reading Hank came on stage, which meant it was time to hear 900 people joyfully sing along to nerdy songs about physics, Harry Potter, My Little Pony, nuclear energy and deep sea fishes. It was all wonderful, and my cheeks hurt from smiling by the time his set was done. Then there was a question and answers session with special guest Maureen Johnson (!). I did a lousy job of taking notes because I was too busy laughing and being way too excited, but here are a couple of highlights:

  • One of the reasons why John Green wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson was that he wanted to write a love story about best friends, as this kind of emotional tie is never really given as much importance as romantic love.

  • Someone handed in a question about the parallels between the water imagery in The Fault in Our Stars and in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. Before answering, John said he suspected that the question had been asked by a teenager, and that this was yet another example of why it’s ridiculous for adults to keep telling teens how smart they aren’t. He then said that the parallels are there because water is often a stand-in for how we think about transience. Temporary things like consciousness are what makes us interesting, and they make us alive in the sense we usually attribute to the term. The imagery of water as something that is life-giving but also has the potential to drown us is often used as a metaphor for this.

  • When asked about doing research for TFioS, he said that yes, he read about cancer and talked to people who’d experienced terminal illness first-hand, but there was also a lot of imagining involved in the process. He wanted the book to be an exercise in seeing the world through different eyes – an exercise in empathy. The fact that there are limits to our empathy is what makes us functional, as none of us could handle feeling every single human tragedy as keenly as we feel the ones that touch us or the people we love. But on the other hand, these limitations are also a barrier to connection, and books give us the opportunity to go beyond that. He also said that he was very conscious of the fact that he was telling a story that didn’t belong to him, but he thought it was worth telling anyway because he believes fictional stories are relevant and real in the context of our lives.

  • When asked if there’s anything he really hopes won’t be left out of the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars, he mentioned the immediate physical markers of the characters’ disabilities – in Hazel’s case, the oxygen tubes. They’re important because they deeply affect how people respond to her and are therefore a part of her everyday experiences. But he also said that the details of the plot matter less than the movie capturing the overall themes and tone of the book.

  • The last question (cunningly left for last by Maureen Johnson, so that John would go over his allotted time and get slapped by Hank) was about YA literature being used in the classroom. He said it’s not a matter of either/or – he thinks that reading classics in a classroom context that be an extremely enriching and rewarding experience, but at the same time, it’s important to teach teens that books aren’t just written by dead white guys, and that there’s a vibrant book culture alive in the world today.

    There was an extremely well-organised signing at the end of the event, but because this was the second event the Green brothers were doing that day, and also because they’d already signed/doodled on the copies of The Fault in Our Stars we all got as we were coming in, there was a limit to how many items we could get signed and a no dedications rule. To be honest, I’d be a jerk if I complained that the morning people got a better deal. I can barely imagine how exhausting it must have been to meet and greet 900 people twice in the space of less than 12 hours, and I really appreciate how generous they were with their time.

    Because I was sitting up front, I didn’t have very long to wait at all. I decided to get my e-reader signed in permanent marker, which is something I’d wanted to do since Edinburgh last year, only of course I only had the idea after meeting all the-e-reader-in-permanent-marker-worthy people. But if anyone’s worthy, it’s John and Hank Green. I got to thank them for being themselves and being as awesome as they are, and Hank made fun of my “giant blue pen”. Also, I squeed about the Lizzie Bennett Diaries. The whole thing was pretty quick as I’m sure you can imagine, but it was lovely to see that everyone left with a smile on their faces. I’ll leave you with a couple more pictures:

    Books! Beautiful books!

    A theatre full of excited nerdfighters.

    MY BOOK. (Okay, I'll shut up now.)

    Since there would be no time to pose for pictures during the signing, they posed on stage and left room in the middle for people to photoshop themselves in.


    The signing begins.

    There were lots of people getting their shoes signed :D

    Everyone waiting very patiently for their turn to queue up.

    My turn approaches.

    Precious :D

    1. Too cool, Ana. Way too cool! Sounds like a fabulous night.

    2. What a fantastic event! I think part of the reason he's so popular with teens and young adults is because he recognizes and respects their intelligence.

    3. How fun! Love the signed Kindle! :)

    4. This sounds like so much fun. I love these guys and all they do.

      I have been afraid to read The Fault in Our Stars, because (a) Sad!! and (b) I was afraid I'd be disappointed in John Greene's treatment of such a hard topic. After reading what he said about his experiences that led up to writing the book, I think I might be ready to give it a try.

    5. Ana, my dear, you have THE. MOST. AMAZING. EXPERIENCES. Thank you for being so generous in sharing them--you probably have no idea how awesome it is to get to relive them through you. No, I take that back--I suspect you do get it and that's why you're so generous in sharing. :)

    6. THAT'S YOUR BOOK!! So cool. Very few people can say that the author of a book actually touched and READ OUT OF their copy.

      It sounds like a wonderful evening all around. Just thinking of going the Tour de Nerdfighting last year still gives me the happys.

    7. Melissa: It really was :)

      Kathi: I think you're absolutely right. Of course young people are going to respond to that, especially when they're immersed in a culture that patronises them so often.

      Mari: It looks awesome, doesn't it? :D

      Ali: I understand being wary, but I really don't think you'll be disappointed. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you decide to pick it up. Also, although the book IS sad, it's also far from bleak and it's full of genuinely warm and hilarious moments.

      Debi: I do enjoy sharing them, but my motivation is also pretty selfish. I guess writing about these experiences helps me make sense of them, and after a few months or years I enjoy remembering all the little details I might have forgotten otherwise. In fact, book event and travel posts are among the very few I can bring myself to reread without cringing horribly.

    8. Alita: I KNOW, RIGHT? :D Thanks for making me feel less silly for being so excited about it. He also commented on it being the American edition, which made me want to yell "Well, OF COURSE. I wasn't going to wait A WHOLE YEAR to read your book" :P Anyway, I imagine that thinking about this is going to give me the happys for a very long time :D

    9. Sounds like a great event, and it's wonderful you got to go! i should start reading some of Green's books... :D

    10. The event sounds amazing! I'm so jealous that you can just go to London like that, I'm that little bit too far away. I'm interested in this Nerdfighter community, sounds like something I needed when I was a teen!

    11. Wow! It kind of reminds me of the Bruce Springsteen video for Dancing in the Dark when he pulls Courtney Cox out from the audience! :--)

    12. Bina: Yep, they're awesome :D But to be honest something like this wouldn't have meant nearly as much to me if it weren't for all the other stuff he does online.

      Joanna: I don't think I'll ever get over living less than one hour away from London. I had to work until 4 that day and still arrived with half an hour to spare. It's like magic :P

      Jill: I already knew Maureen Johnson would be there because of Twitter, but still :P I'd have completely freaked out if I were at Carnegie Hall when they pulled Neil Gaiman out of a hat, though.

    13. When my 16-year-old son comes out of his room, it's often to tell me what he's learned from nerdfighters. They are so important to so many kids, as you note.
      Last time John Green was on campus (I work at his alma mater), I so wanted to get Walker over to the bookstore to see him, but Walker was sick with a fever and then I heard that John was so "pathologically shy" that he was avoiding people, anyway.
      Which makes his public appearances and all the signing even more special. He is not energized by being in public, but he does it for his fans.
      What a nice guy. And he held your book and read out of it! WOW!

    14. Ana,
      I didn't mean about Maureen Johnson, I meant about YOU and how he reached into the audience and pulled up YOUR book! LOL

    15. What an amazing evening, Ana. Your description brought it to life for me, and your words made it clear what Nerdfighters means (and is) for so many people.
      Why did John choose your book? Your bright spirit and blogging karma, of course!

    16. Reposting Melissa's comment, which got eaten (sorry Melissa): "
      I’ve had a similar experience to your’s with the nerdfighter community. Being in my 20s, many of the things they talk about aren’t new to me, but I enjoy them just as much. I have so much respect for the level of intelligence they encourage others to attain. In a world where we are dumbing down so many things for our youth, they are doing the opposite.

      I can’t believe you were in the front row and he ended up reading from your book!!! I would treasure that thing forever! Also, I love that you got your kindle signed! That’s a brilliant idea.

      p.s. Thank you so much for writing such great and detailed posts about your bookish adventures. I always feel like I’m right there with you."

    17. Wonderful post! I love what you said about what Neil Gaiman's blog meant to you, growing up, and about John Green's work. I loved TFiOS and I completely agree that it's refreshing to see a story about the teenager facing death rather than about how it affects people around her. I also loved the way the characters made meaning of their situation in a secular context.

      So how do you become a nerdfighter? Join the ning site?

    18. I have utterly missed the Nerdfighter train, I have to say, but I'm delighted that there is a community taking teens seriously intellectually, because that's what you need to grow. Man. AND EEK THAT'S YOUR BOOK THAT'S AWESOME!

    19. Sounds like another amazing experience.

    20. Jeanne: "He is not energized by being in public, but he does it for his fans." Yep, and the fact that it was draining for him really showed in his demeanour. I mean, he was absolutely lovely to everyone, but you could tell it took effort to be there, whereas someone like Neil Gaiman seems much more at ease. Like you said, it makes me admire his generosity all the more.

      Jill: Oh! Sorry, I totally misread that :P

      Gavin: That's very sweet of you to say, but I think it was more my front row centre seat :P I'll absolutely take credit for my ninja ticket buying skills, though ;)

      Melissa: Thank you so much! Like I was telling Debi before my motivation to write such detailed posts is partially selfish, but it still makes me really happy to know people enjoy them.

      Quirky BookandFilmBuff: As John and Hank always say, if you want to become a nerdfighter you already ARE a nerdfighter. Back in 2008 I joined the Ning, but to be honest I haven't been there in years and many people seem to have moved away from it. The community is flexible enough that people can determine their level of involvement. These days I mostly follow the tag on tumblr and do the Project for Awesome (a charity fund drive they have every December), whereas other people comment on YouTube videos and whatnot. There's no wrong way to do it, so whatever works!

      Clare. Yes - I'm so glad they've created a space where teens can have that experience. AND YES I KNOW; STILL NOT OVER IT :D

      Trisha: It was :D I feel pretty lucky.

    21. Sounds fun!
      I didn't realise the book bloggers and Nerdfighters overlapped... I probably wouldn't class myself as a Nerdfighter, and I've only watched a dozen or so vlogbrothers videos, but I watch a lot of the peripheral people (Charlie etc.)

      Have you watched any of the Becoming Youtube videos? I'm sure you've seen the one on Nerdfighters, and the half hour interview with John Green!

    22. Aw, I'm so glad you got to go to this and that it was so much fun! I've seen John Green a couple of times and felt very refreshed and energized by both experiences, so I know it was a special time.

    23. You got a Hankler fish! Squee!!

      OMG I am so completely jealous of you. What a great event! And hey, thanks YOUR book! :D

    24. Or, rather, THAT'S your book. Don't know where THANKs came from. lol

    25. Just saw this --wow!!! Fantastic experience...YOUR BOOK! :) I'd have loved to see them, and I am much older than you are LOL. I watched the live stream from Carnegie Hall and enjoyed that, but to be there in person, in the front row... wow.


    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.