John Green: 'I kept telling myself things would get easier... they did'
Writer John Green tells Tanya Sweeney how being bullied as a teenager helped him connect to his younger fans in his new movie Paper Towns
John Green doesn't look like anyone's idea of a literary rockstar. With his slim frame, sensible hair, Oxford shirt and nondescript glasses, he barely looks like he could pass as a rockstar in the double-glazing world.
But the 37-year-old author boasts 4.52m followers on Twitter and causes as much teen hysteria wherever he goes. Included in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world last year, his books have landed him a multi million-dollar yearly paycheque.
His moving novel, The Fault In Our Stars, later made into a box-office triumph, was one of the bestselling books of 2014, shifting more than 11 million copies to date. Paper Towns is the latest of his books to be adapted for the big screen. Despite this, Green does a neat line in self-deprecation. Paper Towns is spirited, earning Green comparisons to that other teen kingpin, film director John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink). Green shakes his head at the mere sniff of such high praise.
"I love John Hughes movies, and I think it's a ridiculous comparison because John Hughes was one of the most important filmmakers about teenagers for a generation," he explains.
"I'm not saying this out of modesty; he is a lot more important than I am. That comparison makes me nervous because I look so poor in it."
Not many are in agreement with him.
"John Green's books simply captured a moment in time when teens' concerns, moods and reading habits were moving from paranormal romances and dystopian futures towards a more realistic world of growing up, friendship, loss, and coming of age," says David O'Callaghan, children's book buyer at Eason.
"It was the release of The Fault In Our Stars which catapulted him from quite successful author to voice of a generation. His books never speak down to teenagers, but speak directly to them."
Green's self-deprecating shtick might be rehearsed, but then again few authors get to have the press day for their film adaptations in Claridge's of Mayfair. Arnie Schwarzenegger is downstairs holding court ahead of the release of the new Terminator film. Still, there are plenty of young journalists, tapping furiously on laptops, in a suite dedicated to Paper Towns' junket.
Round-table interviews are never a journalist's idea of fun, but given that everyone in the world wants to talk to John Green, they're a necessary evil. It's not likely I will get to the nub of what makes him tick in a 15-minute interview with a dozen others.
"I haven't left this hotel in 36 hours," says Green as he walks into the suite. He is clearly frazzled, but spirits between he and Nat Wolff, the film's lead, are still high. Cara Delevingne, the film's female lead, is also on the campaign trail.
Paper Towns concerns itself with the friendship of quiet teen Quentin (Wolff) and the mysterious Margo (Delevingne). Pals as youngsters, things get more complex as the pair end up in different subsets in high school. Quentin is obsessed with Margo and, after a night of hijinks, reignites their friendship and sets off on a road trip to find her when she disappears into thin air.
Green may have a wonderfully charmed life, but it hasn't always been this way. He moved around a lot as a child and was always socially on the backfoot. He has spoken out time and time again about being bullied as a teenager. It was hardly fun, but the experience formed the backbone of his writing and made his grasp of the brink of adulthood so compelling.
"Those were the hardest years of my life," he reflects. "I felt unqualified to be an adult in any way, and I felt I hadn't learnt the skills I needed to navigate adulthood.
"I spent a lot of time at the Laundromat and brought a notebook and tried to write stories. But I ended up writing notes of encouragement to myself - 'Things get easier'. You know what? They do."
Amid the instability of adolescence, it stands to reason that intense friendships are forged: this is the essence of Paper Towns. The filming experience, under director Jake Schreier, turned out to be fun for all. Green and the cast have become close pals; in particular, he and Wolff. "At a lunch, Cara bought the entire cast and crew tickets for a nearby water park," recalls Wolff.
Green adds: "I was lucky to be on the set for almost all of the shoot. One of my favourite scenes was the road trip scene when we all stayed up one night in one car, shivering. It was really magical."
What follows in the 15-minute round table interview is a lot of pointless banter, inane questions and even a quick game of Rock Paper Scissors. There is just about time for the most important question, however: since it's been three years since his last novel, when can Green's army of fans expect a new one?
"I genuinely don't know," he shrugs, as his publicists wrap up the interview. "Hopefully soon. I've started and deleted a lot. So we'll see."
With or without the world at their feet, even rockstars suffer crises of confidence.
Paper Towns is in cinemas from today