For Novelist John Green, OCD Is Like An 'Invasive Weed' Inside His Mind

Oct 19, 2017
Originally published on October 24, 2017 12:11 pm

As someone who lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, novelist John Green sometimes feels like his mind is spiraling uncontrollably.

"It starts out with one little thought, and then slowly that becomes the only thought that you're able to have," Green says. "It's like there's an invasive weed that just spreads out of control."

Even the idea of having OCD becomes all consuming: "I get afraid of having an illness or having some kind of contamination inside of my body," Green says, "and then I become unable to stop thinking about that."

His 2012 novel, The Fault in Our Stars, was a best seller that led to a popular film about a relationship between two teenagers with cancer. After that book came out, he fell into a period of poor mental health that affected his writing. His new novel, Turtles All The Way Down, is about a 16-year-old girl named Aza who has OCD.

Green says he didn't intend to create a character with OCD, but he also felt he had little choice in the matter: "I couldn't write about anything else. ... I have OCD and it is a really important part of my life, and at times it is a disabling part of my life. But I also have a really wonderful, fulfilling life."


Interview Highlights

On why his character Aza has an obsessive fear of the bacterium Clostridium difficile

Partly because I can relate to it. I needed a place where I could make a connection with Aza in order to write about her, I think, and I've long had a fear of contamination from microorganisms. That's long been one of the kind of focuses of my particular version of obsessive compulsive disorder, and so I think that was partly it. But also it's something that we live with all the time. It's something that surrounds us. In a way, bacteria are overwhelming us. We are the dominant species on the planet — until and unless you start to consider bacteria.

On thought spirals

Well, the thing about a spiral is that if you follow it inward, it just keeps going forever. It just gets tighter and tighter and it never actually ends, and that's kind of how Aza experiences her thoughts when she gets stuck into this kind of looping ... series of thoughts about how she's definitely going to get C. diff and she's definitely going to die. ...

And that's part of what makes it so frightening to her, is that once she's in it, it doesn't feel like a thought spiral — it just feels like thought. It just feels like the way of the world. ... It's really terrifying. It's also really isolating for her because she struggles to be able to describe it with language. She struggles for the words that would help other people understand what she's going through.

On his own OCD

I guess the sort of dominant form it has taken in my life is that I get worried ... of having an illness or having some kind of contamination inside of my body — and then I become unable to stop thinking about that, and the worry begins to consume me. And in the face of that you develop, or I developed, compulsive behaviors to try to manage that and deal with that.

But for me there's a reason the "O" comes first in OCD. In the popular imagination we always see people doing their compulsive behaviors — because they're so visual and they're often so strange and eccentric. For me it's the problem of my thoughts — that is the problem. The compulsive behaviors are a way of trying to manage the overwhelming fear that the obsessiveness causes me.

On how Aza's OCD makes her self-absorbed and how he can relate

It has definitely affected my real life relationships over the years in profound ways. I also wanted Aza to struggle with her ability to observe the world outside of herself. Because I think that is true to my experience, and it is not true to the kind of narrative of the obsessive detective that we have in the popular imagination.

Obsessiveness is often linked to this genius of observation that just is not my experience at all. I find that my OCD makes me a terrible detective ... because I can't notice the world outside of myself in a way that I want to, because I'm so deeply and irrationally focused on stuff that's happening within me.

On how teenagers think about death

One of the things I like about teen characters is that they're grappling with the questions around death, and the problems that death creates for the first time that's sort of separate from their parents. And so they're asking, "Is there an afterlife? And what are the implications for what we think of the afterlife?" And they're asking like, "Is meaning in human life changed by the fact of death?" I'm still really interested in those questions and I like the way they approach them, like there's a lack of irony and a passion for those questions that I found really appealing when I was a teenager and I still find really appealing.

On his friend, 16-year-old Esther Earl, who died of cancer and influenced The Fault in Our Stars

Esther was just uncommonly empathetic. I don't know that that was because she was sick. I think it was partly because ... some people are just extraordinary. She was incredibly — in the same way that Aza can't pay attention to the world outside of herself — Esther was extremely tuned in to the world outside of herself.

The other question, I guess, that emerged for me in the wake of Esther's death was whether a short life can still be a good and a fulfilling life. And I needed to feel like it could be. I needed to feel like Esther had had a good life. And I wrote the book in some ways I think in that hope, almost like a prayer, that a short life can still be a good life. ... I don't know that writing the book convinced me, but I do believe that.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, John Green, has a huge following, mostly among teenagers who are fans of his young adult novels like "The Fault In Our Stars," which sold over 23 million copies, was on the best-seller list for 24 weeks and was adapted into a film. Green and his brother Hank also have a popular video blog called "Vlogbrothers." His young adult novels wrestle with the kind of issues you'd expect from someone like Green, who had considered joining the seminary and worked as a student chaplain at a children's hospital.

"The Fault In Our Stars" is about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. His new novel, "Turtles All The Way Down," is about a 16-year-old girl named Aza who's grieving the death of her father while also dealing with OCD - obsessive compulsive disorder - which leads to intrusive thoughts that get in the way of her day-to-day life, interfere with her relationship with her best friend and with her ability to have a boyfriend. Her obsession is with all the microorganisms that live on and in her body and her fear that she will become infected with a deadly bacteria. John Green drew on his own experiences with OCD, which he's dealt with since childhood.

John Green, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to start by reading from your new book. But first, since her obsession is fear of getting C. difficile aka C-diff, why don't you describe what this really horrendous disease is?

JOHN GREEN: Sure. C-Diff is a disease that usually is associated with antibiotic use in hospitals. And it basically - there's this bacteria in your gut. And if it grows out of control, you can become very, very sick. And this is something that Aza worries about all the time. And she uses kind of compulsive behaviors, including checking the Internet to - for symptoms to try to manage this worry that she has.

GROSS: And just to get a little bit more graphic, I mean, C-diff leads to really extreme diarrhea. And in some people, particularly in elderly people, you can die if it's not treated. So it's a very serious and very problematic infection. And you're also going to refer in the reading I'm about to ask you to do to the microbiome, which is the collection of, you know, bacteria and microorganisms in the gut. And so the goal is to always have a healthy microbiome.

GREEN: Yeah. I mean, one of the really weird things about being a person is that about half of the cells inside of your body are not yours, they're microbes. And that's also something that is of some concern to Aza, and for that matter to me, to me.

GROSS: Oh, I know. It's a remarkable thing when you think about how your whole body, your skin, your gut, everything is just like populated with these microorganisms which is scientifically fascinating, but the more you think about it, the kind of creepier it is. And for her, it's more than creepy, it's disturbing. It's very deeply disturbing. So I want you to do a reading. And this is from like a little more than midway through the book. And she has been friends with and is kind of starting to become girlfriend-boyfriend with a teenage boy. They're starting to kiss a little bit.

And because of this whole microbiomes thing, it's making her really uncomfortable. And some of what we're going to be hearing is her intrusive OCD, her obsessive compulsive thoughts interfering with the rest of her thoughts. So some of what you're saying is written in italics. And all the italicized parts are those intrusive thoughts interfering in her mind. OK. Would you do the reading?

GREEN: (Reading) I told myself to be in this moment, to let myself feel his warmth on my skin. But now, his tongue was on my neck, wet and alive and microbial. And his hand was sneaking under my jacket, his cold fingers against my bare skin. It's fine. You're fine. Just kiss him. You need to check something. It's fine. Just be normal. Check to see if his microbes stay in you. Billions of people kiss and don't die. Just make sure his microbes aren't going to permanently colonize you. Come on. Please, stop this. He could have campylobacter. He could have non symptomatic E. coli that you could get. And then you'll need antibiotics. And then you'll get C-diff, and boom, dead in four days. Please, just stop. Just check. Make sure.

I pulled away. You OK, he asked? I nodded. I just need a little air. I sat up, turned away from him, pulled out my phone and searched, do bacteria of people you kiss stay inside your body, and quickly scrolled through a couple pseudo-science results before getting to the one actual study done on the subject. "Around 80 million microbes are exchanged on average per kiss," endquote. After 6-month follow-up, human gut microbiomes appear to be modestly but consistently altered.

His bacteria would be in me forever, 80 million of them breeding and growing and joining my bacteria and producing God knows what. I felt his hand on my shoulder. I spun around and squirmed away from him, my breath running away from me, dots in my vision. You're fine. He's not even the first boy you've kissed. Eighty-million organisms in you forever. Calm down. Permanently altering the microbiomes. This is not rational. You need to do something. Please. There is a fix. Please get to a bathroom.

What's wrong, he asked. Nothing, I said. I just need to use the restroom. I pulled my phone back out to reread the study but resisted the urge, clicked it shut and slid it back into my pocket. But no, I had to check to see if it had said modestly altered or moderately altered. I pulled out my phone again and brought up the study - modestly. OK. Modestly is better than moderately. But consistently? I felt nauseated and disgusting but also pathetic. I knew how I looked to him. I knew that my crazy was no longer a quirk. Now it was an irritation, like it was to anyone who got close to me.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. That's John Green reading from his new novel, which is called "Turtles All The Way Down." So of all the obsessive compulsive thoughts you could have given your main character, Aza, why did you give her this obsession with C-diff?

GREEN: Well, partly because I can relate to it. I mean, I needed a place where I could make a connection with Aza in order to write about her, I think. And I've long how to fear of contamination from microorganisms. That's long been one of the kind of focuses of my particular version of obsessive compulsive disorder. And so I think that was partly it. But also, it's something that we live with all the time. It's something that surrounds us, you know. Like, in a way, bacteria are overwhelming us. We are the dominant species on the planet until and unless you start considering bacteria.

GROSS: So one of the things that she has are these thought spirals. I'm going to ask you to describe a thought spiral.

GREEN: Well, the thing about a spiral is that if you follow it inward, it just keeps going forever. It just gets tighter and tighter. And it never actually ends. And that's kind of how Aza experiences her thoughts when she gets stuck into this kind of looping, turning, twisting series of thoughts about how she's definitely going to get C-diff and she's definitely going to die. And then she has to use these behaviors that she's developed to try to manage that fear. And there really is no way for her to pull out of the thought spiral.

And that's part of what makes it so frightening to her is that once she's in it, it doesn't feel like a thought spiral. It just feels like thought. It just feels like the way of the world. It feels like she's not wrong when she's afraid of this infection or the other things that she fears. And that's really terrifying. It's also really isolating for her because she struggles to be able to describe it with language. She struggles for the words that would help other people understand what she's going through.

GROSS: She uses the word invasives (ph) to describe the kind of thoughts that you can't control and that take over. Is that your word, or did you get that from therapy?

GREEN: I think it's my word. When I was first told about OCD, I was told that these thoughts are called intrusives. But I actually heard the word invasives for some reason. And that is what it's like for me. It's like there's an invasive weed that just spreads out of control. You know, it starts out with one little thought and then slowly that becomes the only thought that you're able to have, the thought that you're constantly either forced to have or trying desperately to distract yourself from.

GROSS: You sprinkle quotes from great writers throughout the book. And the opening quote is from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. And the quote is, "man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills." Why has that such resonance for you?

GREEN: I mean, that's my experience of being a person. Like, it's not so much the problem of free will, it's the problem of not being able to define my will. I mean, one of the things that Aza finds so scary in the book and one of the things that I also have struggled with is if these thoughts feel like they're coming from outside of me and I'm forced to have them and I can't choose my thoughts, then who exactly am I, you know? Like, who's running the ship here? Am I really the captain of my consciousness, or is there some outside force that's shaping this for me? And so I'm not that interested in the question of free will, but I'm really, really interested in the question of how I experience some level of sovereignty over myself, I guess.

GROSS: So at what point did you decide that you would write a novel with a main character who has, as you do, obsessive-compulsive disorder?

GREEN: In some ways the choice was made for me because I couldn't write about anything else. I tried to write a few other novels after "The Fault In Our Stars" came out, and I ended up having to abandon them. And then eventually, I got really sick, and coming out of that period of being really unwell...

GROSS: OCD sick?

GREEN: Yeah, yeah. I just had a really poor period of mental health where for a few months I wasn't able to feel like I was in any control over what I was thinking about. And coming out of that period, this was kind of the only thing that I felt like I could write about. And so that became the story that I ended up writing.

GROSS: So you've said that you have OCD. Tell us more about what form it has taken in your life.

GREEN: Well, I guess the sort of dominant form that it's taken in my life is that I get worried, I get afraid of having an illness or having some kind of contamination inside of my body, and then I become unable to stop thinking about that. And the worry begins to consume me. And you know, in the face of that, you develop - or I have developed compulsive behaviors to try to manage that and deal with that. But for me, it starts - there's a reason the O comes first in OCD.

Like in a popular imagination, we always see people doing their compulsive behaviors because they're so visual, and they're so - often so strange and eccentric. But for me, it's the problem of my thoughts that is the problem. The compulsive behaviors are a way of trying to manage the kind of overwhelming fear that the obsessiveness causes me.

GROSS: So what are the things you're most afraid of contaminating you?

GREEN: I mean there's a - yeah, I'm being super intentional about not saying that (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, OK, OK.

GREEN: So yeah, that's the...

GROSS: That's fine. I don't want to...

GREEN: Yeah. That's the only thing that I can't. If I talk - I can't talk directly about it because I get squirmy.

GROSS: You get what, squirmy?

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Would it be awkward, too, for us all to know? Like, say we met you in person sometime. Would it be awkward for you to have everybody know what that most vulnerable point was?

GREEN: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah, understandable...

GREEN: Yeah, that's why.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Green. He writes novels for young adults and his most famous one is "The Fault In Our Stars," which was adapted into a movie. Now he has a new young adult novel called "Turtles All The Way Down." And I should mention, I think a lot of adults read your books, too. So we'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is John Green. He writes incredibly popular novels for young adults. His most famous one is "The Fault In Our Stars" about a teenage girl and her teenage boyfriend who both have cancer. And the new book is called "Turtles All The Way Down," and the main character in this is a teenage girl who has OCD. And so does the author, John Green.

So in the novel, there's a physical manifestation as well as obsessive-compulsive thoughts. The physical manifestation has to deal with digging the fingernail of one finger into the finger pad of another. Would you describe that physical manifestation of OCD?

GREEN: Yeah, so one of the way - she's been doing this since she was a little kid, and she just digs her thumbnail into her finger pad. Initially it was a way - she would ask her mom, why do I know that I'm real? How do I know that I'm really real? And her mom would say, well, if you pinch yourself, you know it's not a dream. And so it began as that. It began as a way of feeling real.

But over the years, it became kind of a locus of her obsession as well. And so this callus has developed on her finger pad. And now it's really easy for her to open up - to crack open that callus. And she gets worried that there's an infection underneath that callus. She covers it up with a Band-Aid because she's very embarrassed about it. But she often has to kind of open that up and try to drain the wound because she's worried that there's an infection there.

GROSS: Of course the more she does, the more she risks infection.

GREEN: Of course, yeah. I mean, this is not uncommon that - these are not rational behaviors. So you know, I find that, like, trying to apply logic - at least in my own life, like, trying to apply logic to it is fairly ineffective.

GROSS: So have you had a physical manifestation like that, too?

GREEN: Yeah. Not exactly that, but I count on my fingers as a way of calming myself. And so I think that's probably why I started thinking about it, and then I liked the idea that, you know, it's literally affecting her fingerprint. You know, it's affecting who she is in a pretty profound way.

GROSS: For Aza, your main character, the OCD leads to a form of self obsession which makes her self-absorbed and not tuned in to other people. And her best friend calls her out for it. Her best friend basically says, you probably don't even - you know, she lists things that she assumes Aza doesn't even know about her because she is so absorbed with herself. Was there a point in your life where you felt that your OCD was actually making you self-absorbed in a way that you didn't want to be, that you were neglecting other people, that you were losing a sense of empathy because you were looking within so much?

GREEN: It has definitely affected my real-life relationships over the years in profound ways. I also wanted Aza to struggle with her ability to observe the world outside of herself because I think that is true to my experience, and it is not true to the kind of narrative of the obsessive detective that we have in the popular imagination. Obsessiveness is often linked to this, like, genius of observation that just is not my experience at all. Like, I find that my OCD makes me a terrible detective.

GROSS: Because you're focused on the wrong thing obsessively.

GREEN: Yeah because I can't notice the world outside of myself in the way that I want to because I'm so deeply and irrationally focused on stuff that's happening kind of within me.

GROSS: So the characters in your new book are also dealing with the deaths of parents. And in "The Fault In Our Stars" the two main characters are dealing with cancer that is likely to be terminal. So you know, death plays, like, a major role in your books, and I'd be interested in hearing why.

GREEN: Well, I think it's a big problem. It's a big question.

GROSS: (Laughter) It's big - yes.

GREEN: And I think - and one of the things I like about teenagers is that they're looking - yeah, I mean, it's a big theme. But I think one of the...

GROSS: (Laughter) It's a - it's a problem.

GREEN: Right, yeah, I mean, I'm concerned about it. That's probably one of the reasons. But also, one of the things I like about teen characters is that they're grappling with the kind of questions around death and the problems that death creates for the first time sort of separate from their parents. And so they're asking, you know, is there an afterlife? And what are the implications for what we think about the afterlife?

And they're asking like, is meaning in human life changed by the fact of death? And I'm still really interested in those questions, and I like the way they approach them. Like, there's a lack of irony and a passion for those questions that I found really appealing when I was a teenager and that I still find really appealing.

GROSS: When was the first time you dealt with the death of somebody who you knew?

GREEN: When I was in high school, a classmate of mine died. And it was - we - I went to a very small school, and it was devastating to the whole school.

GROSS: How did the classmate die?

GREEN: She was in a car accident.

GROSS: What was your way of talking to your friends about it in order to get through it? Like, how did you - do you remember any of those conversations, the - in which you tried to talk through not only the loss that you were experiencing, but also, like, why do these things happen?

GREEN: Yeah, I mean, I think when you're in that position, those questions about meaning in life and what meaning you're going to find in life, they stop being rhetorical questions, and they become matters of life and death. They become the questions that you need answers to if you're going to figure out how to go on. And so we had a lot of those conversations.

You know, we had a lot of conversations where we were looking for meaning in life that could hold up against reality, as we found it. And I've never found a lot of comfort in the straightforward answers to those questions, though, like everything happens for a reason or that sort of answer. And I think that did start in high school, and it did start with those conversations with my friends.

GROSS: Was there any kind of, like, religious service that provided answers that you either found comforting or, you know, just, like, bromides that were not helpful?

GREEN: There were a lot of bromides that weren't helpful. I mean, I'm Episcopalian, and I worked briefly as a student chaplain at a children's hospital. You know, I thought about going to divinity school. Religion has been part of my life for a long time. But at the same time, I don't find the answers to those questions in my religious tradition, to be honest with you - or, at least, not answers that satisfy me.

I don't find a satisfactory answer for, you know, the problem of the odyssey, as they call it in the world of religious studies - like, the problem of evil in the world. I don't have a good answer for why there is so much deep, profound injustice in the world and why, you know, the world behaves as if it were random. So if it isn't random, it's behaving as if it were.

GROSS: Are you still Episcopalian, and if so, what do you find in your spiritual tradition?

GREEN: I like going to church on - I don't know that much about why, but yeah, I'm still Episcopalian, and I do find I - and I like the outward focus of it. I like turning outward for an hour each week. And I like the focus on service and, you know, the activism. Those parts of my church are really important to me.

GROSS: My guest is John Green, author of the young adult novel "The Fault In Our Stars" and the new novel "Turtles All The Way Down." After we take a short break, we'll talk about working as a student chaplain at a children's hospital and why he couldn't continue with that work.

And TV critic David Bianculli will review a new documentary about "The Dana Carvey Show," a sketch-comedy series from 21 years ago that flopped in spite of the involvement of the young Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Louis C.K. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Green, who's famous for his young adult novels, including "The Fault In Our Stars," which is about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. His new novel, "Novel Turtles All The Way Down," is about a 16-year-old girl who's still recovering from the death of her father and is afraid to have a relationship with a boy because of her OCD. Her obsession is with her microbiome - all the bacteria and other microorganisms on and in her body. She lives in fear that she will get the intestinal infection C-diff, which can be life-threatening.

You know, as I mentioned, in your last two novels, teenagers are dealing with death - death of their parents or the possibility of their own death because they have cancer. So you spent some time working as - what? - an assistant chaplain at a children's hospital. Is that what you said?

GREEN: Yeah, a student chaplain, I think, is the technical term, but yeah, either way.

GROSS: So what were you exposed to there?

GREEN: You know, you're with people on the worst day of their lives. And people who work in children's hospitals for longer than the few months that I was there are real heroes to me because you see the worst things that can happen to people every day. And it's - it was really difficult for me. I was not you know, I couldn't do that work. I couldn't let it go. I still can't let it go 15 years later. And it was very hard...

GROSS: Were you mostly...

GREEN: ...To see that.

GROSS: Were you mostly talking with the parents or the children?

GREEN: Mostly with the parents, but I did hang out a lot with some teenagers who were sort of there long-term for various chronic health problems, mostly playing video games, to be honest, (laughter). I was 22 at the time.

GROSS: That was probably really helpful.

GREEN: (Laughter), Yeah. And so if somebody had an X-box, I would play video games with them.

GROSS: Did it feel awkward to be 22 and trying to help parents through a period when their child was, you know, dying or possibly dying? Did you feel like, who am I to help them? I'm 22.

GREEN: Yeah, of course. I did. Yeah. I felt unqualified in every possible way. But, you know, interestingly, I'm now 40, and I think I would still feel unqualified in every possible way. And, if anything, I might be worse at the job now. I think I was a pretty poor chaplain all those years ago, but I think I would be much worse at it now because now that I have - I just think that I would identify more and it would be even more difficult for me to, you know, to be there for people in the way that they need when they're in that situation.

GROSS: Because you're a father now?

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Are you surprised that so many teenagers want to read stories about teenagers who have the kind of problems that make you feel different from everyone else, like OCD, or like having lost a parent who died or like like having cancer and maybe dying yourself? I mean, so many teenagers are just absorbed with, you know, school, finding a new boyfriend or girlfriend, just, like, having friends, figuring out how to make your way without being bullied or hated by other kids. (Laughter). But, I mean, you're dealing with really major problems in your book, not to make light of those other problems 'cause when you're a teenager those other problems are really big.

GREEN: Right. No, I think that's actually the answer, though, is that when you're a teenager, no matter what your experience is, the problems are big and they're in many cases new. In many cases, it's the first time you've had this problem. So you know, when I fell in love with my wife - you know, we have a great, awesome marriage, but I was also, like, this is, like, the other times I fell in love. Like, I understood what was happening to me. When I fell in love for the first time, I was like, what is this completely unprecedented thing that has never existed in human history before? And so I think there's - you know, that intensity to the first-ness of all these experiences that teenagers are going through, I think, is part of what makes them connect to people who feel - who are going through really unusual experiences.

GROSS: Do you remember your first girlfriend, your first crush, and can you tell us about it? Or would you rather not?

GREEN: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREEN: I mean, my first crush was in third grade. And I wore, like, matching O.P., like, shorts and a shirt to ask her to go with me, which was the parlance of the day. And I remember, like, you know, just feeling so incredibly nervous as if the stakes were actually high and I wasn't 9 years old and asking her to go with me. And she said yes. And I was, like, this is, like, this is incredible. But then I had no idea, like, what the next step was. You know? Like, I had no idea. Like, how do we proceed from here? So we eventually exchanged phone numbers and had a few phone conversations over the next few weeks, and then I don't think there was ever an official breakup. I think it just was sort of understood that this wasn't going to end in marriage.

GROSS: (Laughter). Did you tell your parents?

GREEN: Yeah. Yeah, I definitely told my parents. I was like, I have a girlfriend. And they were like, why?

GROSS: Did you kiss?

GREEN: No. No. No, I don't even think we held hands, actually.

GROSS: (Laughter). So what did it mean to have a girlfriend?

GREEN: Nothing. I mean...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREEN: Yeah, I think it must have been born from the stories I was reading. Like, I was really into, like, series books like "Sweet Valley High" and "The Babysitters Club," and so it must have come from those stories that, like, this is what you do. And I was, like, all right. I'll give it a try.

GROSS: Do you remember the first time you fell in love for real?

GREEN: Yeah. Yeah, that was in college.

GROSS: Did the OCD get in the way of that?

GREEN: It got in the way of it in the sense that it's really difficult, I think, for anyone who is close to someone who's in terrible psychic pain to be near that pain. For a lot of reasons. One, you want to take it away. Two, it's just difficult. And so it was a problem, especially - we dated for a few years, and I think it was a problem especially at the end of our relationship because I would lose a lot of myself, my ability to pay attention to the world outside of myself to these, you know, thought spirals. And I wouldn't be able to pull myself out of it enough to be a good partner or to be a good friend, even. And that was definitely a problem.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Green. He writes novels for young adults. The new one is called, "Turtles All The Way Down," and it's about a girl with obsessive compulsive disorder. His previous book is the best-seller, "The Fault In Our Stars," which was adapted into a film. We're going to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is John Green. He writes novels for young adults. He's best known for "The Fault In Our "Stars," which was adapted into a film. His new novel is called "Turtles All The Way Down," and it's about a teenage girl with OCD. "The Fault In Our "Stars," the one where it's written from the point of view of a teenage girl who has - is it stage 4, I think, cancer?

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: So my understanding is that's based in part on one of your fans who actually was dying of cancer.

GREEN: Yeah. My friend, Esther Earl - she died of cancer in 2010 when she was 16. And she was a really involved member of the community that grew up around the videos that my brother and I made and was really involved in our charity projects and became a friend of mine. And yeah, and she died in 2010. And I kind of wrote "The Fault In Our Stars" mostly in the two years after her death.

GROSS: What were some of the things you took away from her life and death that you put in the book?

GREEN: Esther was just uncommonly empathetic. I don't know that that was because she was sick. I think it was partly because she was - you know, some people are just extraordinary. She was incredibly - in the same way that Aza can't pay attention to the world outside of herself, Esther was extremely tuned into the world outside of herself.

You know, the other question I guess that emerged for me in the wake of Esther's death was whether a short life can still be a good and a fulfilling life. And I needed to feel like it could be, you know? I needed to feel like Esther had had a good life. And I wrote the book in some ways I think in that hope, almost like a prayer that a short life can still be a good life.

GROSS: Did writing the book convince you?

GREEN: (Laughter) That's a good question. Yeah, I mean, I don't know that writing the book convinced me, but I do believe that.

GROSS: You have two children. Is your point of view in your writing shifting a little bit from the teenager to the parent?

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, the parent in the new novel is very - I find her a very sympathetic character. I mean, she clearly, like, loves her daughter so much and is trying so hard not to be the intrusive parent, you know, to have the right amount of connection and distance. But you know, it's always so hard to find. And as Aza says to her at one point - Aza says to her mother, I'm doing my best, but I can't stay sane for you.

GREEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think as parents, we desperately want to take pain away from our kids, and we want to - I want to save my kids from all the hurt that the world has in it. And you can't. And there's so - that's so difficult. It's so hard to reconcile yourself to that. I do think that I have become much more interested in parents as characters since I became a parent. Like, I used to shuffle all the adults out of my books as quickly as possible. And now I'm like, hold on a second. Let's listen to your mother first. Your mother might have a point here.

(LAUGHTER)

GREEN: And I do think that is probably a result of this change in my life that has caused me to suddenly be tremendously sympathetic to the parental point of view.

GROSS: And your kids aren't even teenagers yet.

GREEN: No, God, no. They're 7 and 4, so I have a long, long way to go.

GROSS: I kept thinking about the parents in the book because Aza's father died years ago. And so Aza's mother is a widow, and now she's worried she's going to lose her daughter to mental illness or lose her to other problems. I'm trying not to give too much away here (laughter).

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: So - and I really just kind of sympathized with her and admired how hard she was trying to have the right amount of connection with her daughter without being too pushy or smothering her or being overprotective.

GREEN: Yeah, it's really hard. I think it's so - you know, parenting a teenager - I can only imagine how hard it is. The great thing about having little kids is that at least you can solve their problems, you know? At least you know how to change a diaper. It's really, really hard, and in many cases, you can't solve the problems of your teenage kids. And that's something that I think Aza's mom is having to learn and accept. But it's so difficult 'cause, you know - also I think her daughter is in terrible pain. And you know, when you see someone you love in pain, you feel it too.

GROSS: I want to quote something that Aza, your teenage character, says in the book or thinks in the book. (Reading) I hated my body. It disgusted me - its hair, its pinpricks of sweat, its scrawniness, skin pulled over a skeleton, an animated corpse. I wanted out, out of my body, out of my thoughts, out. But I was stuck inside of this thing like all the bacteria colonizing me.

Is this a feeling you understand of, like, hating your body and feeling kind of disgusted by it?

GREEN: Yeah, definitely. I mean, for much of my life, I felt like I had to carry around the skin-encased bacterial colony in order to have a mind and a consciousness, you know? And also, I've often felt like my body is trying to control my consciousness or dictating what I can think about or what I can feel. And that feels really frustrating.

I have to say that in the last few years, I've come around to the body a little bit partly through exercise, partly through cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. And I don't see my body anymore as the opposite of me. But I do still feel at times frustrated by the fact that I'm stuck inside of just this one vessel, you know? So I don't know. I'm grateful - I'm very grateful for my body now. But at the same time, I do rather wish that, you know, like, it could go on forever and never hurt.

GROSS: True in those times you probably want to trade in your brain also, right?

GREEN: Absolutely, yeah. No, I mean, there's probably more...

GROSS: (Laughter) Clean out the obsessive thoughts, yeah.

GREEN: ...Times when I want to trade in my brain, yeah. To be completely honest, like, it'd be great to be able to, like, turn my brain into the mechanic and have them just, like, fix some stuff up and then give it back to me.

GROSS: Yeah.

GREEN: That would be great.

GROSS: (Laughter) So I read that you said you were bullied when you were in - I don't know - junior high or high school - anything in particular you were bullied for, you know, that you were mocked for?

GREEN: I mean, I don't really know. They don't seem to need a great reason.

GROSS: (Laughter) They don't tell you as they're reading you up.

GREEN: Right, yeah. It wasn't - that would have been nice, though, if they could have, like, sent a note that just explained, like, here are the three things you're being bullied for. And if you could work on these three things, then we'll stop. I think I was different. I was very nerdy. I struggled socially partly because I was really stuck inside of myself. And I think I was at times kind of an annoying kid because I was, you know, a little obsessive and perpetually nervous. But none of that justifies the bullying that happened. It - yeah, it was difficult, and the middle school years especially were extremely difficult for me. And I did have friends, and I was very grateful for those friends. But the bullying was scary and difficult.

GROSS: Did you fight back?

GREEN: No. This is going to surprise you, Terry, but I'm not really super able to fight back.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I never would have expected that.

GREEN: Yeah. I'm not a boxer.

GROSS: And when did you realize you wanted to write?

GREEN: Well, I always liked writing but I thought of it like being an astronaut or being a professional athlete or something. I never thought of it as a realistic career goal. And in some ways, I still have a day job. And I like having a day job. I like going into the office in the afternoon and working on the online video stuff that we make. But after I decided not to go to divinity school, I started working at this magazine called Booklist. I was an assistant there mostly doing data entry. But it - Booklist reviews like 400 books every two weeks. And, you know, all those books were written by somebody. So that's when I started to feel..

GROSS: (Laughter) But were they read by anybody is the question.

GREEN: Yeah. Not all of them, certainly. But that's when I started to feel like, OK, well, being - it's not quite like being a professional athlete or being an astronaut. Like, this is something that regular people do. Lots of people write books. And that's when I started to feel like maybe I could write a book. And at the same time, I started reading a lot of young adult books, and I really loved them. And I thought, well, that would be a great place. Like, that would be such a cool place to publish. And so when I was writing my first novel, I was kind of hoping that that's where it would end up and it did.

GROSS: Why were you starting to read a lot of young-adult books then?

GREEN: I think partly because I was the youngest person at Booklist, so I was the closest thing they had to a young adult.

GROSS: Oh, they asked you to read the young-adult books?

GREEN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, oh.

GREEN: But I also think...

GROSS: So you were reviewing young-adult fiction and then decided you wanted to write it too?

GREEN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: It makes sense. Why did that seem like a good fit?

GREEN: Well, I mean, there are a bunch of reasons, I think. I like the way that young-adult books are published. I like that science fiction and mystery and romance all live on the shelf together, you know, that they're - the genre separations that you see in books for grown-ups aren't there in the same way. Also why books tend to hang around because of support from librarians and teachers, and that was really appealing to me.

But in terms of character and readers, it's just, you know, it's a privilege to have a seat at the table in somebody's life when they're forming their values. And that's, for me, what my experience was as a teen reader. And, you know, I hope that my books can be part of that conversation for teen readers today.

GROSS: John Green, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

GREEN: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: John Green's new young adult novel is called "Turtles All The Way Down." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review a new documentary about the 1996 sketch-comedy series "The Dana Carvey Show," which had an incredible group of writers and performers and still lasted only seven weeks. This is FRESH AIR.

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