"Life is warm, even when it's hard": Author John Green on challenging the OCD narrative

Green discusses the "Turtles All the Way Down" film adaptation, his own OCD & why he loves writing for young people

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published May 11, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

John Greene (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
John Greene (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

John Green has a burning question.

"How do you convince yourself that you're real?"

It's a spiny yet philosophically critical conundrum that the best-selling author of "Looking for Alaska" and "The Fault in Our Stars" has spent years thinking about. 

For Green, it's an especially relevant query — for most of his life, he's felt fictional. There's an element of irony braided into this observation, as his most commercially successful writing has been novels about the lives of imagined adolescent characters. More importantly, however, it's a sentiment suffused with intensely personal meaning. Having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Green is no stranger to the very thoughts and emotions that plague Aza Holmes, the teenage protagonist of his 2017 novel, "Turtles All the Way Down," which was adapted into a film for Max, streaming now.

In "Turtles," Aza's inner world crackles and spirals as a result of her mental illness, often sapping her confidence and ability to feel secure in relationships with others. "Maybe the reason I've been successful as a writer is because I don't really romanticize adolescence," Green told me recently on "Salon Talks." "It was a time of real instability and difficulty and profound loss and grief and all that stuff, so I wanted to capture that and kind of send a little time capsule back to 16-year-old me and say, 'You don't know the whole story yet.'"

But the story's not all that bleak — a pivotal prong of Green's message is that "there is hope."

"Even when your brain tells you that there is no hope, there is hope," the novelist shared. "I'm living evidence of that. I have a serious mental illness. I've had it most of my life. It's often been debilitating, and yet also I have a wonderful life, and that's something we really wanted to capture in 'Turtles All The Way Down.' It's a funny movie. It's a big-hearted movie, and that's because life is funny. Life is big-hearted. Life is warm, even when it's hard."

You can watch my full interview with Green here on YouTube, or read our conversation below.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How much of a role did you have in translating "Turtles All the Way Down" into a visual medium?

I got to really feel like I was a part of the movie from the beginning. Hannah Marks, the director, is such a welcoming, collaborative person and the producers were the same folks I've worked with for over 10 years. It was just a blast. It was really the joy of a lifetime. I was on set almost every day. We filmed in Cincinnati, which is not too far from my hometown of Indianapolis, which is why the book is set there. I love writing about Indianapolis. I love Indianapolis so much. We have our problems, but I still love it.

The film explores Aza Holmes' struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her anxiety is not explicitly labeled in the book. You have talked about coping with OCD throughout your life. What did you want to convey in the movie's portrayal of it?

Well, I think it's really hard. In the past, Hollywood has done a terrible job of portraying obsessive-compulsive disorder in particular, but mental health disorders in general. A lot of times OCD is played for laughs. Other times, it's romanticized as something that gives you superpowers or makes you a really good detective.

That is why I wanted this to be a detective story, but one where the plot keeps getting sidelined by this person's actual inability to be a detective because they're so consumed by their own obsessive thoughts.

Holmes is a nod to Sherlock Holmes, of course.

Yeah, it was a little nod to Sherlock Holmes there. But [Aza] can't be a good detective precisely because she's so sick, and that's my own experience with OCD. When I'm really sick I can't notice the end of my nose, let alone conclude what you do for a job by giving you the once over. I wanted to try to find some kind of form or language for the experience of obsessive fear and how disabling it can be. 

"All simple stories about the human experience are untrue. The truth is much more complex than mere despair."

The worry with the movie, for me, was always that it's so hard to translate a really interior experience into a film. Films are so much about the literal exterior of people, and so I was really worried about that. But once I met Hannah Marks, our director, when she came to pitch the movie, she actually had a two-minute video that she'd made that depicted what she thought these intrusive thoughts could look and sound like, and that it looked and sounded and felt so much like my own experience of OCD that from that moment on, I just wanted her to direct the movie. I felt like we would be fine as long as she did.

You really do see that come across on-screen with the visuals of the microbes and a staticky sound that Aza hears before she's about to have an intrusive thought. It is very visceral.

Yeah, it's quite visceral. There were definitely days when I was on set where I could only just bear it, where there were some really hard days where I wanted to even intervene and say, “We need to stop.” But Isabela [Merced] always assured me that she was OK, and this is her job and something that she enjoys doing, but she's so good at it that I had a hard time at least.

The roles of Aza, Daisy and Davis. Were the actors loosely what you were imagining for these characters, and did any of their performances surprise you?

Well, I don't have much of a visual imagination, so I don't see faces or anything. But when I went back and reread part of “Turtles All The Way Down” recently for an audio thing, I found myself picturing Davis as Felix and Aza as Bela and Daisy as Cree, and that was such an interesting experience for me because they'd become those characters so deeply for me that I was now seeing them — even though before I kind of saw no one. 

All three of them when they first auditioned, I felt like, gosh, these have to be the people. Bella especially seemed to understand the inside of obsessive thoughts so, so well and so viscerally.

The film shows how layered and complex anxiety is, especially how it can impact our relationships with those close to us. In fact, Daisy tells Aza that she's pathologically uncurious about other people's lives because so much of our lived experience is internal. How important was it to you to really show both sides of the coin of an anxiety disorder?

It's really hard because this is something that affects caregivers as well and affects your loved ones. I was talking to an expert in OCD recently who said OCD is a family disease, and it really can – and in my life it's certainly affected not just me, but also people who are close to me. But at the same time, that doesn't mean that that's something I'm doing. That's something that's happening as a result of me being sick. And I don't want to be sick and they don't want me to be sick, and we're all just trying to figure out the best way forward together, and that can be really hard. 

That's hard with any chronic illness, I think. I wanted to try to acknowledge that, but especially when you're 16 and you're trying to be a good best friend, that's pretty hard in the best of circumstances. Sixteen-year-olds' best friendships are super fraught and complicated, and I wanted to try to capture the truth of that.

Definitely. We see Aza speak with Professor Abbott, played by J. Smith Cameron, when she visits Northwestern with Davis. She tells her that she doesn't feel real, that her thoughts and behaviors are not her own, effectively, which prompts Professor Abbott to share the story behind the expression and title “Turtles All The Way Down.” This scene seems to illuminate the crux of Aza's fear, which isn't necessarily the possibility of contracting C. diff, but perhaps of not being in control of her mind and body. In effect, she is this fictional character having the story of her life told to her by someone else. Would you agree with that assessment?

Yeah, you're my dream reader. That's exactly right. And of course, she is fictional. In real life she is a fictional character in a novel, and I wanted to play with that a little, but mostly I think that this is something I've struggled with. Half the cells in my body aren't mine, and those cells do some of my thinking for me. The bacteria in my body, they can affect whether I feel happy, whether I feel sad, they can affect what I'm hungry for, they can affect when I feel certain things. That's real. That's not an obsessive thought or fear. That's a real thing, and we kind of whisper ourselves into being as an individual, but everything about us is so contingent, not just upon the bacteria that live inside of us, but upon everything, upon our friendships and our relationships and where we live and how we grow up.

"I want to be public about living with mental illness, even though it's uncomfortable for me to be honest."

We are a product of circumstance to such a degree that can you really say that there's a you independent of that circumstance? That's a question that Aza really struggles with, and certainly when I was writing the book, I was coming out of a period where I intensely struggled with that question and I felt like I felt fictional. If you can't choose your thoughts, if you can't choose what's happening to you, to what extent are you real? That's something I would always ask my people in my life to try to get. I was always looking for comfort. 

When you have OCD, you're always looking to close the loop on the thought and find a way that you can just shut down the worry. And I would always ask people, including strangers, how do you convince yourself that you're real? And I don't have a great answer for that even now.

Yeah, neither did my philosophy lectures in college.

The more philosophy you read, the worse it gets, unfortunately.

What is it that draws you to want to write about young people in your books so often?

Well, I've liked writing about young people for a lot of reasons. I think one of the things from a creative perspective is that they're doing so much for the first time. They’re approaching questions not just around romantic love (but that's exciting to have happen for the first time) but also the big philosophical questions — questions around grief and suffering and what we owe each other and what we owe ourselves. They're asking those questions without any irony, which I love. They're so earnest in that exploration. They're so honest about it. They understand that this has real-life consequences. 

You get older and you start to think of that stuff as almost like to the side of the real world. And the real world is paying your mortgage and paying off your car, and that's truth. All that is super important. But I like the purity with which they approach those questions. 

And then as readers, they're just the best. They're so generous, they're so open-minded, and the books that I read when I was 16 mean so much to me even now. And if I can have that be the case for some young readers today, that's just amazing.

Even if you don't know what it's like to have OCD, “Turtles All The Way Down” has entry points for everyone. Anxiety, love, grief – these are all real things that people grapple with. What can you offer to adolescents who might be struggling with some of the same issues Aza is, OCD or otherwise?

Well, the brain, especially when it's unwell, it tells an incredibly compelling and simple and straightforward story, which is that despair is the correct response to consciousness, that we should be merely hopeless. That nothing matters, that everything is stupid and meaningless and painful, and that's such a compelling story when you're not well. It just happens to be untrue. All simple stories about the human experience are untrue. The truth is much more complex than mere despair. And I guess what I would say to young people who are going through a hard time is first, there is help available.

There is hope. Even when your brain tells you that there is no hope, there is hope. I'm living evidence of that. I have a serious mental illness. I've had it most of my life. It's often been debilitating, and yet also I have a wonderful life, and that's something we really wanted to capture in “Turtles All The Way Down.” It's a funny movie. It's a big-hearted movie, and that's because life is funny. Life is big-hearted. Life is warm, even when it's hard. Those things don't negate each other. We have to find a way to live in a world where all of this stuff is true at the same time.

Clearly, you identify with some of the same issues that Aza has. Did you write her with yourself in mind? Which of her traits do you feel you most identify with?

Well, I have a different form of OCD than her, but I still have pretty severe OCD. That's one thing. She lives in Indianapolis. I live in Indianapolis. She loves an Applebee's. I'm open-minded to an Applebee's, but I think the biggest thing is that I wanted to find some way of talking back to the person I was then. 

I don't know what it's like to be 16. I don't know what it's like to be a girl. I didn't even know what it was like to be 16 when I was 16. I felt like I was like an anthropologist studying 16 rather than someone experiencing it. But I wanted to write a letter back to that kid who was in the hopes that maybe the kids who are today going through similar stuff might find some solace or some consolation in it, because it was a really hard time of my life. 

"Life is warm, even when it's hard. We have to find a way to live in a world where all of this stuff is true."

Maybe the reason I've been successful as a writer is because I don't really romanticize adolescence. It sucked. I hated it. People who say it's the best years of your life. I don't know what went wrong with their lives, but for me, it was simply not the best years of my life. It was a time of real instability and difficulty and profound loss and grief and all that stuff. So I wanted to capture that and kind of send a little time capsule back to 16-year-old me and say, "You don't know the whole story yet.”

The role of the novelist today is an interesting and often challenging question. You faced long-standing backlash for your debut novel, “Looking For Alaska,” specifically in your Florida and Indiana. It's frequently been listed on the American Library Association's banned novels list. What does it mean to you to be a storyteller today, especially in an era of censorship and radicalism surrounding literature?

Well, it's really weird. I mean, it's quite unpleasant to be called a pornographer. I don't think I am or to be called the other terrible things that people say. But I also think it's important to note that novelists are not the main character of that story. The main characters are the librarians and teachers who are prevented from doing their jobs by these radical school boards, and that's the hardest. Those are the people who are really at the front lines of this. And then secondarily, the readers who are being denied opportunities to read books. 

I don't want other people's parents, other parents deciding what my kids read, and I don't want other kids' parents deciding what's available in public libraries. And so I think that the vast majority of people are on the same page about this, but the people who would restrict access to information, restrict intellectual freedom in the United States are very well organized, and it does seem like they're a growing force in American political life and that scares the crap out of me.

Having your novels adapted, is that a creative process that you ever imagined as someone who studied writing? 

When I'm writing books, I never think that they're going to be movies. This book, in particular, I kind of partly wrote it because it couldn't be made into a movie. It was impossible to imagine this book that takes place entirely inside of someone's head being a film. I don't really think about movies in the context of writing. I don't understand the movie business very well. I can't write a screenplay or anything like that. I'm just along for the ride, and it's been a fun ride.

As a writer I'm really always fascinated by other writers' creative processes. Where and when do you feel like you are the most creative?

It varies a lot. I mean, it varies by book too. So when I was writing “The Fault in Our Stars,” I wanted to be in a place with people, I wanted to be . . . So I was at the Starbucks at 86th and Ditch Street in Indianapolis. I know we could name Ditch anything, but we call it Ditch. We could name that Madam CJ Walker Way, but we call it Ditch. So I wrote that book at a Starbucks, and it felt good to be around people. It felt good to be seated. 

“Turtles All The Way Down” was so interior that I wrote most of it in bed or in my chair alone in my room or in the basement just trying to really minimize the amount of stimulus that I was experiencing so that I could focus internally and focus on the way down deep stuff that's hard to find language for.

Earlier you said watching some of those scenes were slightly triggering for you. Was writing some of that also difficult for you from time to time?

Yeah, it was a hard book to write, but also I want to be cautious not to complain too much about writing, which is a pretty good job in the scheme of things. Whenever I complain to my dad about writing, he always says, "Well, it ain't roofing.”

Culturally, we are in the midst of a teen mental health crisis. Studies trace this to smartphones and social media, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. How much, if at all, was this crisis a consideration in the production of “Turtles”?

It was something we talked and thought about a lot because this is a very strange moment in history where mental health in young people is clearly getting worse. I don't think we know all the reasons why, although I think that you've nailed a couple of them, but it really worries me. When I was a kid, I was one of the only kids in my school who took psychotropic medication who was in therapy, and now there were probably other kids who needed to be in therapy and needed to have access to medication. But I just worry that we don't have nearly the infrastructure right now to support the amount of mental health care needed. 

We're in this situation where it's really difficult to access care and especially for young people. And that is really frustrating for me. And so I hope that people understand that there is hope and there is help, but right now it can be difficult to access it. That’s just not acceptable. We need a better healthcare system when it comes – I mean, obviously we need a better healthcare system overall – but we need to be taking mental health issues much more seriously. 

Part of that for me is also trying to destigmatize them. OCD is still stigmatized. Major depression is still stigmatized, but especially schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder are hugely stigmatized in our culture and finding ways to talk about that stuff. That's one of the reasons I want to be public about living with mental illness, even though it's uncomfortable for me to be honest, is because I don't think there's anything shameful or embarrassing about this. It's just a reality for a lot of people.

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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Books John Green Max Movies Ocd Salon Talks Turtles All The Way Down