Hamline News

June 23, 2014

The Katrina Vandenberg / John Green Connection

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Countless students and writers have been influenced by Hamline CWP professor and poet Katrina Vandenberg. Among those inspired by her writing is young adult writer John Green who has reached new heights of popularity due to the success of the movie based on his book The Fault in Our Stars.

 In 2007 Vandenberg received an email from Green requesting the use of the last lines of her poem “Jack O’Lantern” from her first book Atlas (Milkweed Editions, 2004), for his young adult novel, Paper Towns.

"And after, when 
we went outside to look at the finished lantern 
from the road, I said I liked the way her light
shone through the face that flickered in the dark."  

Vandenberg explains, “He originally had asked to quote the lines from another poem in the text of the manuscript for Paper Towns when we got back in touch, but when I opened my copy of Paper Towns, I discovered he'd selected the last stanza of "Jack O'Lantern" as the epigraph to the book.”

[ see John Green reading "Jack O'Lantern" ] 

Vandenberg and Green first met in 2006 at the Oxford Conference for the Book at the University of Mississippi, where they both read from their first books, Atlas and Looking for Alaska, respectively. There, the two became friends, with one ultimately playing a role in the other’s marriage proposal.

“At the conference, a bunch of us helped John ask his now-wife Sarah to marry him by writing various inscriptions in the books of ours that he bought at the conference,” Vandenberg recalls, adding that her book had a congratulatory inscription for the post-proposal, assuming Sarah would say yes.

Green had served as a hospital chaplain after graduating from Kenyon College and had gotten to know the many dying children he worked with and many of Vandenberg’s poems of family, love, and loss seemed to resonate with him when he heard Katrina read at the conference. 

Another of her poems from Atlas, “Tulipomania,” influenced Green’s subplot and setting for The Fault in Our Stars. The main metaphor of Vandenberg’s poem is that terminally ill people (like those with hemophilia and HIV) are the coveted broken tulips of 17th century Amsterdam—fragile, unable to breed, but extraordinarily beautiful. It was the theme of death that brought Green back to Atlas for inspiration when writing this novel.

[ see Green quoting from "Tulipomania" and talking about its connection to TFIOS ]

The connection between the two writers has inspired Vandenberg as well, in ways that extend beyond the written word.

“Obviously, The Fault in Our Stars is nothing like “Tulipomania.” I could never have written his novel, and he never could have written my poem,” Vandenberg says. “But I feel his work has since influenced mine in ways I wouldn’t have expected.”

She explains that the biggest way Green has influenced her own writing has nothing to do with theme, but rather with the way Green goes about living his writerly life.

“He is unashamed and unabashed about what he loves,” she says. “He is not afraid of himself and clearly follows what is right for him, taking the right risks.” A model for the way we should all live our lives.

[ story by Stephanie Schultz ] 

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