As long-time readers of this blog know, I've been a fan of John Green's work since Looking for Alaska, which was one of the first novels I read that featured hyper-smart, sarcastic southern teenagers like the ones I grew up around. (And they even drank the same syrupy sweet Boone's Farm we sometimes snuck – don't tell my parents. Kidding! I think they caught us and there was an epic grounding.) Anyway, John and I have known each other online for years, share a whole bunch of friends in common, but had never actually gotten a chance to chat.
So of course I said yes when I was asked recently if I'd interview him for the LA Times, in honor of winning the Innovator's Award, which will be presented at the Festival of Books. We had a nice long talk (aside: it's strange to talk to someone for the first time whose voice is so familiar), but the newspaper space, it can only accomodate so much. One of the tough things about interviews is that sometimes you have to pick out little bits and pieces, and the rest disappears forever. And of course we went down some nerdy paths that don't really fit in a piece for a general audience, many of who may not be regular YA readers.
You should all go read the interview at the LA Times, in which John says smart things about teenagers and the future of publishing and activism and misconceptions about YA…
…and then come back and read these further smart thing rescues from the cutting room floor. Basically, I feel like I have a moral imperative to post these, because a) I have them transcribed already and b) John had a cold and still did not balk when I said things like, "Elaborate on business models!" Plus, as an amateur contemporary art geek, I am super-excited about "The Art Assignment" (PBS Digital series created and hosted by Sarah Urist Green) and wanted to talk lots about that.
On the vlogbrothers: When we started, we really liked YouTube and we liked the idea that online video could be a portal for communication and collaboration. In my wildest imagination it never occurred to me that we would still be making videos seven and a half years later, let alone that we would have such a broad audience. We never imagined the reach that YouTube would eventually have or the role that we would get to play on that platform.
I guess the first time it ever occurred to me that we could do this as a job was in 2008, about a year and a half after we started making videos, when YouTube introduced advertising. We made something like 225 videos before YouTube had ads. It still seems weird to me that it’s a job. I’m a very old-fashioned YouTube user and so I romanticize the non-monetized days.
On books and publishing: I think the book is an underappreciated technology, and I think that the novel is an underappreciated form of storytelling. One of the reason that books are proving somewhat more robust than CDs or DVDs did is that books are really good technology. They’re extremely functional, and they deliver 99 percent of the experience someone wants when they’re reading a book.
My big concern is not the overall health of book publishing or the overall health of reading. My big concern is that publishing is going to become so blockbuster driven that we’ll lose some of the depth that makes us special and unique in contemporary artistic discourse. Because right now Hollywood makes what – 150 or 200 movies a year, and we publish 10,000 books a year? That’s a huge advantage. We have much more diversity. There’s much more room in publishing for books that may have a smaller built-in audience, and that’s really important.
On experiments with narrative: When I was trying to think of why I might have won this award – which I’m very grateful for, but I don’t feel like my publishing life has been tremendously innovative – the only thing I’ve ever made that was truly innovative was Tom (This Is Not Tom). Which was read in total by perhaps 1200 people because you had to solve such complicated riddles in order to read the story. The story was really an afterthought. People enjoyed solving the riddles, but then they’d be like, ‘Oh, right, I’ve got to read this thing again.’
I’m interested in trying to find non-traditional ways to share text stories, or even multimedia stories that involve a lot of text. But I don’t think that it’s ultimately going to be me who makes a lot of progress on that front. It’s going to be some person who’s younger and more talented than I am and has a deeper understanding of the internet and the way that young people share and experience story today. And I’ve accepted that.
On being an introvert: People think, ‘Oh, you make YouTube videos, so that means you’re outgoing,’ but actually the problem is that you make YouTube videos alone in your basement, talking into a camera and then spending four or five hours alone in your basement doing this very meticulous, repetitive work of editing a video. And writing is kind of the same. It’s very isolated and introverted and I love that. It gives me tremendous pleasure. So as long as I’m making videos by myself or writing by myself, they feel like complementary activities to me. But when I have to go out and do other stuff and talk to people, that’s a whole different ball of wax.
On “The Art Assignment” (This is where I was all, business models and PBS, talk about that): Hank and I are not that interested in making stuff for the most possible people. We’re interested in making stuff that people will feel really passionate about or that people will feel like is important to them. So, PBS – even though everyone sees it as this ultimate legacy media company – in truth, for a long time now, they’ve been very innovative in this sense. Not many people watched Bob Ross teach them how to paint. That was never one of the most successful shows on television. Except that it was one of the most successful shows on television. Even though only 50,000 people were watching it, all of them were being transformed by it. They were forming a relationship with painting and art that they didn’t have before they watched the show. And that’s so much cooler than having 10 million people watch something that you made and not really care about it.
It’s astonishing to me that almost everyone in America can name a living writer or a living musician and very few people – including me before I met my wife – can name a living artist. And so I think what inspired us on “The Art Assignment” was thinking about that and also thinking about the old days of YouTube back in 2007 and 2008, when it was a very collaborative environment and where projects were shared together. Instead of videos being something that existed because you watched, videos were more project-oriented.
And that's a wrap!
Another aside, this time about Bob Ross: My grandfather, when he was dying of cancer, got really into watching Bob Ross, and even got a paint set.
And now you should all go watch the latest episode of "The Art Assignment":