John Green on Lonelygirl15, Rushmore, and 10 Other Things That Influenced His Work

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John Green isn’t the kind of author you only glimpse on the back of a book jacket. Since The Fault in Our Stars was successfully adapted from his best-known novel, the 37-year-old Green has seen his profile skyrocket. He has one of the most devoted fan bases in YA literature, plus a millions-strong YouTube following, and today’s release of Paper Towns (adapted from his 2008 book) represents Hollywood’s latest attempt to court Green’s coveted audience. Since Green’s own cultural impact is fast on the rise, we decided to ask about the movies, books, and other pop-cultural totems that influenced him on his way up.

Probably the movie that I’ve watched the most times is Grease 2, because when I was a child it was the only movie that we had on VHS. I watched it weekly for years and years and years, although I’d like to think it had no influence on me whatsoever. The movie I’ve watched the most in adulthood is Rushmore, which has been tremendously influential in the way that I think about adolescence and school. It’s a movie I love that’s also very personally important to me — my wife and I went to a boarding school and met there, and we watched that movie on our first date.

Toni Morrison
I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to seriously read for fun. I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison for school, and then on my own I read Sula, and I really love that book. It was incredibly exciting to me that a writer like Toni Morrison was alive and writing while I was also alive, you know? Until then, it seemed to me that books were kind of cold and distant and written by people who were far away, and Sula and The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon all felt to me like great works of genius being written by an American writer in my time. I remember I was a junior in high school when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize, and I screamed for joy when I found out. An English teacher came into our teacher’s room and said, “Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize,” and I was like, “YES!!!”

I never would have started video-blogging if I hadn’t become absolutely obsessed with the story of lonelygirl15, this weird and beautiful video series from 2006 that was on YouTube. There were a couple hundred people in a forum who were trying to figure out what was happening, both in terms of the plot of the story and whether it was a fictional production. As things got more and more Aleister Crowley–ish, it became obvious that this wasn’t about a real person — but we still wanted to understand what it was and where it was going. I was an incredible disservice to everyone involved, because every idea I had was wrong and every lead I forced people to follow would take them in the wrong direction. But a lot of the people who were in that community became the earliest fans of the video blog I made with my brother. Many of them are still very important in shaping the direction of our work together.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
Anybody who writes about teenagers does so in the shadow of Salinger.

The Mountain Goats
If I listen to music as I’m writing, it’s always the Mountain Goats. My relationship with the Mountain Goats is so long-lasting and important to me that it’s almost difficult to describe. For me they’re a band that makes me feel understood and less alone in the world, and that’s one of the great things that music can do. In Paper Towns Q and his friends listen to them, and the Mountain Goats even gave the novel its epigraph: “People say friends don’t destroy one another / What do they know about friends?” The nice thing is that they’ve recorded, like, 600 songs, so you can get all of your major emotions from one Mountain Goats song or another.

Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
I read it when I was in high school, and it really shook me up in a big way. It introduced me to all kinds of worlds that I didn’t know about, or didn’t feel comfortable imagining. It talked to me about my sexuality and my overall feeling of outsiderness and awkwardness, and all kinds of different stuff that was sort of, at the time, almost startling. It was a tremendously important book to me, and a book that I still treasure.

The Americans
I tend to be pretty obsessive in my consumption of pop culture, and I become a really hard-core fan of stuff. Over the last couple weeks my wife Sarah and I have been pretty obsessed with the TV show The Americans, and it’s definitely one of those shows that has us searching for real-life analogues and what spycraft was like in the ‘80s as the relationship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. began to change so dramatically. But, frankly, I’m an obsessive person, and I don’t like things only a little bit: I tend to not find them interesting or like them a lot.

Jennifer Connelly
You know that movie where they’re trapped in a Target overnight? Career Opportunities? I’m astonished to learn that the girl in that went on to become Jennifer Connelly. She was my first celebrity crush.

This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own
So many books that I reviewed have stuck with me. I somehow became a reviewer of boxing books, and the one that really stuck with me was called This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own, which is one of the greatest titles in the history of literature. The book is awfully good, too, written by Jonathan Rendall. One of the things that was interesting about being a book critic is that you see so many good ones come and go, and for me it created a more realistic understanding of how publishing works. I stopped seeing publishing as a way to try to achieve some sort of immortality and started to see it as a way to be one voice among many in a big conversation about art and meaning. That was really important for my writing.

Reza Aslan
I’ve read a lot of books about Islamic history, which is what I studied in school, and a book I go back to a lot is Reza Aslan’s No god but God, which is a really wonderful introduction to Islamic thought and practice. I still use it a lot and share it with a lot of people.

Oprah Winfrey
I’m pretty fond of Oprah. She’s done everything, and she’s done it all her way. I’m not Oprah, and I don’t labor under the delusion that I could ever be Oprah, but that’s someone whose career and approach I admire greatly. She’s been able to control what she makes and help a lot of people.

I’m going to butcher this line, just to prepare you, but there’s this line in an old Jimmy Stewart movie called Harvey that I love very, very, very much. It was a hugely important moment in my life when I watched Harvey, and it gave me what was really the only epiphany from art that I still feel has lasted, in a way where my life since I watched Harvey has never been as bad as before I watched Harvey. Anyway, the main character’s name is Ellwood P. Dowd, and he says, “My mother always told me, ‘Ellwood, in this world, you must be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.’ For years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” I try very hard to make that my worldview.

John Green on 12 of His Biggest Influences