A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

Tackling gender bias through fiction, the superpower of empathy, and more

3 min
Melinda French Gates and John Green
Books written by John Green lay on a blue background
Photo courtesy of Penguin Books

Recently, I had the chance to pose a few questions about the power of storytelling to my friend John Green, one of my family’s favorite writers. Later this month, John will interview me about The Moment of Lift at my book tour stop in Philadelphia. But first, it’s my turn to interview him!

Melinda: My first question for you: You have a huge following, and many of your fans are teenage girls. (In fact, as you know, my daughter Phoebe is the one who first introduced me to your work!) What responsibility do you feel, if any, to write fiction that helps elevate the way the world sees—and treats—girls? What kind of impact do you think fiction can have in this arena?

John Green: I do feel a responsibility to write about girls in ways that acknowledge the reality of gender bias. In Paper Towns, I tried to write about the ways that boys' romanticization of girls can be destructive and hurtful, and more recently I've tried to write stories about girls who have their own lives, and whose selves are not contingent upon what boys think of them.

I've tried to write stories about girls who have their own lives, and whose selves are not contingent upon what boys think of them.
Melinda: Who are your favorite role models in fiction and why?

John: There's a moment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck is trying to decide whether to turn in his friend, Jim, who has bravely escaped slavery. Huck believes in the social norms he's been taught—that it's wrong to help Jim escape. In fact, Huck believes that he will be damned to hell for all eternity if he doesn't turn Jim in. And after struggling with his conscience, Huck says at last, "All right, then. I'll go to hell," and decides not to turn Jim in. By overcoming the warped conscience of his social order, Huck becomes a hero. I wish for the courage that both Jim and Huck show in that novel.

Melinda: You’ve spoken publicly about your struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. What books would you recommend for teens struggling with these or other mental illnesses—stories that might help them feel less alone?

John: On the nonfiction side, I love the book The Man Who Couldn't Stop, which is a very accessible introduction to OCD. There are many wonderful novels about young people living with mental illness. My favorites include Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Nina Lacour's Hold Still, E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List, and Neal Shusterman's Challenger Deep.

Melinda: When you interviewed Bill and me in 2016, you asked about the superpowers we wish we had. (Spoiler alert: I said “more time.”) That got me wondering, if John Green were a character in one of your books, what superpower would you give him?

For me, the weirdest thing about being a person is that I have just this one self. I'm stuck for my entire existence inside of one particular consciousness, looking at the world through only one set of eyes. I tend to imagine even the people who are closest to me in the context of myself—MY kids, MY spouse, and so on. We can work toward imagining other people with more clarity. We can learn to listen better. But if I could have a superpower, it would be to really know from the inside what it's like to have lives other than my own.

Melinda: What an amazing, big-hearted answer. I love that. As anyone who has read your writing knows, you clearly work hard at imagining the lives of your characters with not just clarity but detail and a tremendous amount of empathy. Last question: what gives you hope? What do you do to maintain your optimism?

I really believe that hope is the correct response to the miracle of human consciousness. There are so many encouraging trends in recent human history—absolute poverty and infant mortality are in decline. More kids are in school.
I really believe that hope is the correct response to the miracle of human consciousness
John Green
But none of that negates the many injustices of contemporary life. I often feel discouraged, and sometimes I feel despair. But for me at least, despair doesn't accomplish much. It leads me toward apathy rather than action. One of the reasons I loved your book was because you tell the stories of so many people who've held on to their optimism despite ample reason for despair, people who through their hope managed to bring positive change to the world.

Melinda: Thank you so much, John. The reason I wanted to write a book at all was that I’ve read so many good ones—including ones written by you—and know how impactful an important story well-told can be. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions!