Thursday, 14 August 2014

Staring at stars.


I bravely advanced alone upon the coveted Young Adult Fiction corner in the Winchester Waterstones (there are two in this town, and I prefer the bigger one), knowing full well that I'd see infinite gems within my favourite genre; sure enough, somehow several titles I hadn't yet snatched up! David, Rainbow, Rachel... Not John, though. I have all the John I could possibly get, and he's always a prime candidate for a re-read. I have two copies of The Fault in Our Stars, hard and paperback, both of which I've bent the spine of, both of which John has signed and Hank has fished. Yet, I realise I don't have the copy with the film photo cover... And goodness, I could do with some Ansel on my bedroom desk. I pick up the book and flip the pages lovingly. This book changed me. It opened me up, and made me release so much that I'd kept inside. So many bad things. And tears. Lots and lots of tears. So holding a copy of the book brings back just a hint, a light hopeful touch, of that all-too-rare nirvana. I'm thumbing the pages and saying a mental thank you for each one. There are plenty of books out there that could probably lose a page or two here and there, and it wouldn't make much of a difference; either because the narrative was careless and long-winded, or because the over-arching message was so great that a few little words needn't be said. This book could never lose any pages, words or punctuation. This is one of the few books that, if anything was taken away in a cruel and random post-publishing edit, the world would feel it. Thousands of lost teenage girls, insecure pre-pubescent boys, contented older couples, middle-aged uncool parents... They'd all lose something. This book brings people together, reminds us what's important, and all the other clich├ęs but in the best way imaginable.
I stop flipping pages quite suddenly, and read the first line I see on the left hand side. 
'I lit up like a Christmas tree, Hazel Grace.'
What are the odds? I well up, close my eyes, and remember...

Approximately eighteen months ago, I was working on a play, a former favourite that I'd grown to despise, with people I'd become an ugly object to, in more ways than one. I had nobody who would listen, who would care; the girls giggled and gossiped, the directors lolled lazily, the main characters made eyes at each other. Evil exes, inexplicable enemies, even close friends turned vile betrayers - the people in this room are the last people I want to be near. They breed immature thoughts in their own heads and in mine - far too frequently I wonder how I would go about ending their affairs or ruining their reps, while also panicking about what they think of me, for some reason.
I needed a distraction. The noble duke, allegedly in nature as in name, sits offstage and reads when he's not needed to satisfy appetites or play puppeteer - so surely I can bring books to rehearsals, too. Surely everyone would be relieved that I wasn't awkwardly attempting conversation or simply pretending to be happy any longer. I found solace in the stars. I sat there hour after hour with my bright blue book balanced on my knees, immersing myself in the lives of my new friends, Hazel Grace ( the full name is better) and Augustus (not Gus, ever). 
One day, one of the worst days, I'm slumped in the corner reading furiously as the Fool and the other fool press one another up against the window and stare at each other with their lips bitten. TFiOS has the most uncanny power to take me away, and I'm eternally thankful. It's just when I'm fit to burst with love, utterly overwhelmed and wishing I could live in this world, this story, when my eyes fall upon that line. That one painfully short and by no means sweet line. Suddenly, I slam the book shut and shout incoherently, bring my fists to my eyes, trying fruitlessly and foolishly to cram the tears back in, back to their reserved time slot for that evening when I ponder my unloved existence. I jump up from the offstage bench and run for the studio door, being sure to ignore my fellow performers, none of whom have the space inside their heads or the room in their hearts for hurt like this. Or happiness. They run on just pure hatred. 
I'd just read the last thing I could ever have wanted to. Augustus lit up.

A matter of months later, I'm sitting in the living room of our snazzy modern Surfers' Paradise flat, happy in the midst of my eighth trip to Australia, family all around me and everything the way it should be. Tonight, we're getting a takeaway Chinese and watching 'The Voice AU', our new family obsession. I'm typing up a few ideas I've had over the past few days into a humble Word document, missing my beloved Blogger and longing for some sweet sweet wireless, when suddenly I hear a movement out on the balcony - a chair shifting, and a book being slapped shut. My mum slides back the glass door which joins the living room to the balcony, the door that shields me from the dizzying heights, and looks at me, holding up the book. She mouths something at me, something which happens to be a major event in the story and a big-time plot spoiler were I to repeat it on the internet right now, tears in her eyes. I nod, and we hug.

A couple more months plod by, and I'm on a train when I receive an email from my dad, which is not uncommon of course, but this email was not about birthday arrangements/presents for my sister or mum, nor was it about rent and bills in my student house, and it didn't contain links for a potential post-grad job or course I could look into. He'd apparently just finished reading this excellent book, and wanted to write down and share his thoughts about it before he forgot any feelings - bless Dad, he does tend to forget plots of films or muddle up books and TV shows. The upshot? He loved this story, and it was 'so important'. 

I agree that it's important. The amount of times I've seen younger readers hesitantly picking up a copy of TFiOS (or any John Green novel, for that matter) in a book shop only to dither and then slowly put it down - then I've marched over, picked the book back up, stared them right in the eyes and said 'Read this, it's important'... It would be embarrassing how many times I've done that, but seriously. For this book, I'd do a whole lot. I love the idea that someday it could be a mandatory read in schools or colleges, even universities; students would be sent home with the instruction to read it and write a two thousand-word essay about it, to do two-hour exams with a copy of it on their desks. I like to think that the coursework and turned in papers would all be A's, and the students themselves would be grateful they'd taken that module. They'd run home from school, get a fast bus from college, or jump on a train back from uni to see their families and tell them they love them. Or maybe to see a significant other and hug them so tightly, never wanting to let go. Or even to hang out with friends and just enjoy the time spent doing barely anything, just sitting playing games or watching films.

One day I'm back home, sitting in a swivel chair and getting my hair cut fairly averagely and coloured dysfunctionally, for an extortionate price. I'm inhaling incense and talking boys with my hairdresser - sorry, stylist - when I look over and see a young guy sitting on the sofa in the waiting area wrapped up in a duffel coat and reading a paperback copy of TFiOS. I squeak excitedly, and he looks over. I point at the book and say in a voice shaky with delight 'That book is so good. Like, amazing. You'll see!' He then smiles, shakes his head and says 'This is my third time reading it.'

So, my Australian nana and auntie also read this book. My auntie bought hers, and I actually lent my signed (and Hanklerfished) copy to my nana, because that's how badly I wanted her to read it. Pretty soon my sister was shut up in her bedroom reading it, too. Needless to say, all cried and all loved.
For months I was seeing filtered Instagram photos displaying the bright blue wonder, tweets expressing joy and pain starting and finishing the book, and of course endless Tumblr posts being reblogged within an inch of their lives containing quotes, alternate endings and fan art. Everyone was sharing my deepest feelings, or such cray-cray feels, if you will. It was wonderful.


I am one of those people who always dreads film adaptations of books. I feel that directors and cast members of these films just don't understand the messages in the books, don't portray the true motivations and darkest secrets their characters have, or deliberately ignore the details the author deliberately put into the book (need I mention Harry Potter's eyes?). Every now and again though, there's a pleasant surprise.I watched and re-watched every Vlogbrothers video that involved John Green on set with the cast of the TFiOS movie. I hoped and prayed that these kids would do it justice. It was only the fifth or sixth time John mentioned crying on set while watching them do scenes that I believed it might just be the perfect faithful film. Magazine articles came out online claiming that every piece of dialogue in the film was taken straight from the book, no embellishments. Shailene Woodley talked about how much she cared about this book, Ansel explained that Shailene had forced him to read it and now he was obsessed, Nat Wolff even talked about how his character goes blind, and he is actually blind in those scenes - also, the whole cast talked to real-life teen cancer patients to gain insight, and ended up chatting to them about TV shows and films; 'They're just normal kids, they're just going through a really lame situation', said Nat. 
I watched the trailer, then watched it another ten times, and I shared it online frantically telling everyone to watch it. Despite a few differences that were surfacing and some unpleasantness attacking, I even ran into my housemate's room and urged her to find it on YouTube - 'Whatever you're doing, why are you not watching the TFiOS trailer?'
After an eternity of waiting, of watching videos online and reading red carpet interviews, the film finally came out in the UK. I went to see it with my family, just a couple of weeks after my brain operation - and trust me, I would have seen it the day of my operation if I'd had the chance. It actually came out in the US on the day of my op (6th June), and I took that as a sign that I was going to be okay. Okay?
The film is two hours and ten minutes long. It felt like I cried for two hours and eight minutes of it. Not just crying like one often does at a film, gentle polite sniffles and a couple of tear tracks, no. There was a point in the film when it fell quiet onscreen and all around me I could hear sniffs, sobs, ragged breaths and heartbroken whispers. When the lights came up as the credits rolled, I was still sat unmoving as strangers gathered their belongings and dabbed their streaked faces, sobbing over and over again and squealing while waving my hands. There had been a point in the film when I'd just recovered from my second or third bout of the tears, then there was the briefest scene showing Hazel Grace being put into an MRI machine and her voice over saying one must always stay still when being scanned - my family all looked at me and I lost it again. I joined all the women in the toilets afterwards wiping the mascara off our chins and cheeks, and talked about every minute of the film the whole car journey home. The only thing I didn't like about the TFiOS movie? They left out my favourite line. But then again, when Augustus said he lit up, I went all the way back to that rehearsal room and cried endlessly. 

John Green's writing is branded YA, but honestly anyone and everyone could and should read it. Each and every novel. Looking For Alaska taught me the importance of making the most, Paper Towns showed me how love can be an adventure, An Abundance of Katherines reminded me how unpredictable and nonsensical relationships can be, and also how appalling I am at maths and science. Will Grayson, Will Grayson introduced me to David Levithan, which I will be eternally grateful for, and also graced my life with the wonderful phrase 'it hurts because it matters'. I also picked up Let It Snow, and was stunned that three of my favourite authors could create such a seamless tale made up of the most tender and familiar little stories, all of which brought out new characters that I could love.
That's what John does. He creates love - he tries it, teases it, tests it, tears it, but ultimately makes it. John, thank you.
John sure is good at putting words together. He's also damn good at the advice stuff.

Also, my boyfriend assured me that I didn't need a third copy of TFiOS, sorry.
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