NEW YORK -- It’s not often that a literary event ends with 19 people – including the author’s mother and the English writer Neil Gaiman – dancing to a live band on the stage at Carnegie Hall while the audience claps and screams in a way that suggests Justin Bieber may be nearby.
But as his legions of fans, called Nerdfighters, already know, John Green is no ordinary literary figure. The author, who has written such young adult books as “Looking for Alaska,” “An Abundance of Katherines,” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” has developed a devoted following over his blog and the YouTube channel he runs with his brother, Hank, the Vlog Brothers. He is known by some devoted fans more for being a Web figure who rails against pennies than as a best-selling author with prizes under his belt, including the Michael L. Printz Award.
That may be why the Carnegie Hall event, “John and Hank Green: An Evening of Awesome,” which was ostensibly to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the publication of Green’s latest book, “The Fault in Our Stars,” was a mash-up rock concert, quiz show, pep talk and literary advice event.
It featured live music from Green’s favorite band, The Mountain Goats, original music from his quirky brother Hank, who sings about quarks, Harry Potter and Helen Hunt, and the wildly popular author Neil Gaiman reading lines from Green’s book, including the memorable phrase “the world’s largest collection of black Santas.”
But for all his vlogging and blogging and “fighting evil in the world,” Green is a writer at heart, and it showed on stage, as he opened up to talk about what drew him to writing and what he hopes to accomplish in his young adult books.
Growing up, “I always wondered if there was a purpose to the universe, if there was a plan, if there was some sort of organizing factor, hopefully that I played a role in,” he said.
He and a friend – who ended up on stage at one point during the night, would drive around in high school, looking at the stars, wondering about their purpose in life. Green often felt then that he was in some dark abyss, not knowing where he fit into the world, and books helped him through that time, he said, explaining that “books weren’t ladders out of the abyss but they were companions.”
Green has made his way out of that nihilism as he aged, and writing has helped, he said. So has the birth of his son, Henry, who helped him determine that “love is literally stronger than death.”
Part of what makes Green so successful – both in publishing and online – is the collaboration that he’s able to inspire from his followers. They create fan fiction, respond in videos and in comments. The livestream of the event on YouTube already had 35,000 views and 18,000 comments by the next morning.
That’s also true in writing, he explained.
“I know that books seem like the ultimate thing that’s made by one person, but that’s not true,” Green said. “Every reading of a book is a collaboration between the reader and the writer who are making the story up together.”
He had dozens of collaborators in "The Fault in Our Stars," a smart, funny tearjerker about the love between two quirky teens fighting cancer. They included the patients of a children’s hospital ward where he worked for six months as a chaplain in his early 20s, and a real-life cancer patient and vlogger named Esther, who collaborated with Green on the book and, as he puts it, changed his outlook on life.
“From where I was standing, the true story is that Esther jumped into the abyss with me because I was the one who was angry and hopeless and saw no meaning in life as it truly exists and Esther came to me and said, ‘You know, I’m not psyched about having cancer and I don’t like being in pain all the time and this is not by any stretch of the imagination an easy life and I don’t want to pretend that I’m excited about this BUT I like being alive. I am grateful to have loved and to have been loved. I have had a good life,’” he said.
The narrator in "The Fault In Our Stars" has to come to similar revelations as she battles her disease.
“The real hero’s journey is from strength to weakness,” he explained, referring to Gus, a character in “The Fault in Our Stars,” and to Hazel, the main character.
Green fans were also able to glean some writing from the author in a portion of the show featuring a onstage quiz. He brought out surprise guest Gaiman to help ask the questions, eliciting another Bieber-like roar from the audience – one of dozens throughout the night.
Green’s advice to aspiring young authors? Read as much as possible, and telling stories to friends, noting when they got bored.
Green pried some advice out of Gaiman, too.
“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish,” Gaiman said. “You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”
After the show, an excited crowd of young adults and adults milled around in T-shirts from the website featuring Green’s face and the word "pizza," and the phrase “Don’t forget to be awesome,” seemingly in awe of the show.
“It was awesome. It was the best ever. Neil Gaiman was there!” said Anne Shalamoff, 15, who came into New York from New Jersey to see the show.
She loves Green’s books, and owns all of them, she said, but the online community was what really drew her in.
“There are all those awesome people on there,” she said. “And they share the same feelings as you do.”