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John Green on Mental Illness and Writing a Book That Mirrors His Own Life


Turtles All the Way Down is the first novel from YA fan-favorite John Green since the release of his 2012 phenomenon The Fault in Our Stars. The book tells the story of Aza Holmes, a 16-year-old girl living in Indianapolis who attempts to solve the mystery of a fugitive billionaire while grappling with severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

TIME recently spoke with Green about the novel and how it explores the way mental illness can affect daily life. The 40-year-old author has previously laid bare his own struggles with mental health, a topic that he thinks should be discussed openly.

TIME: How did you want to depict Indianapolis, where you were born and now live?

John Green: My wife Sarah and I have lived there for 10 years now and I love it. I wanted to write about it the way that I think most teenagers relate to their hometowns — they have a certain fondness for the place they’re from, but they see with great clarity what’s wrong with the place that they’re from too.

Where did this story come from? How did you come up with the idea to have a fugitive billionaire propel the action?

I wanted to write a detective story about a detective whose brain disorder is unhelpful. Because there’s so many detective stories about obsessive people who are brilliant detectives because of their obsessiveness and my experience with obsessiveness has been more or less the complete opposite. I wanted to write a detective story where the plot keeps getting interrupted by this person’s inability to live in the world in the way that she wants to. And then I needed some big, somewhat fantastical mystery. I also wanted to write about the ways that different kinds of privilege intersect in people’s lives and the ways that they blind you.

You’ve been extremely open about talking about your own struggles with mental illness. What was it like to write about the specific type of OCD and anxiety you’ve suffered from?

I had to write with enough distance from myself to make it OK, to make it feel safe. And so Aza has somewhat different focai of her obsessive concerns and the behaviors she uses to manage them. I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions. The word triggering has become so broadly used in popular culture, but anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack knows how badly they want to avoid it. It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life. But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression I could look at it and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it. And one of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.

You emphasize the idea that there’s no magical cure for mental illness throughout the book. Why was it important to you to convey that message?

We really like stories that involve conquering obstacles and involve victory over adversity. And I love those stories too. It’s just that hasn’t been my story with mental illness and I didn’t really want it to be Aza’s. For me, it’s not something I expect to defeat in my life. It’s not like a battle I expect to win. It’s something I expect to live with and still have a fulfilling life.

What inspired you to use the turtles all the way down story — an anecdote that illustrates the problem with infinite regression — as a metaphor for Aza’s struggle?

I love that story. When I first heard it I was a college student. I thought that it was about how stupid superstition is and how science is right and everyone else is wrong. And now I realize — or I think now — that that’s not the point of the story at all. The point of the story is that the scientist is right but the old woman saying that the world rests on a turtles all the way down situation, she’s also right. They’re both right because obviously the world is a sphere — I’m not like a flat-Earther or anything —but the world is also the stories we tell about it. The stories we tell about it matter. They shape the actual world and they shape our actual lives. So that is very helpful to me in thinking about why I like writing and reading. But it also is very helpful to me in reminding me that I do have some say in framing my own experience. Even though I may go for long periods of time where I don’t have control over my thoughts and that is scary and destabilizing for my sense of self, I do have some say in the story of my life.

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