We recently spoke to author John Green—who you may know better as the brain behind mega-blockbuster The Fault in Our Stars—about his bestselling novel Paper Towns (now adapted for the big screen), one of his most memorable vacations, and his complicated relationship to the idea of “place.”
First things first: Where are you now?
I’m in beautiful Indianapolis. You?
But really, we aren’t in either of these places, are we? We’re in this mutually negotiated third place, which I find completely fascinating. Like a third space that did not exist for 99.9996% of human history or whatever.
You know, that’s kind of a nice segue into the concept of paper towns. Can you explain just what those are?
A paper town is a town that exists on a map but not in real life.
Can you, um, elaborate, please?
So, in order to protect their intellectual property, cartographers often insert fictitious locations into their maps. Sometimes these take the form of streets or little ponds, but sometimes, depending on the scale of the map, they can be full towns. They do this because if they see the fictional entry on someone else’s map, then they can prove copyright infringement.
Has anyone ever won a case that way?
Well, there’s a really interesting example of a paper town—Agloe, New York. It was this paper town created by the General Drafting Company in the early 20th century at the intersection of two dirt roads in the middle of nowhere in the Catskills in New York. Forty years after they made their map, Rand McNally made a map with Agloe, New York in it, so General Drafting called Rand McNally and said, like—hey, you guys are so sued.
And so they won a shit-load of money?
Well, so, no. General Drafting was like—we’re going to sue your pants off, and Rand McNally was like—no, that place is real.
How did they prove that?
Because people kept going to that intersection expecting there to be a place called Agloe, someone actually built a place called Agloe. It wasn’t much. A gas station, a general store, and a bar. Not a great metropolis, but it existed. What had been an imagination became physically real.
This is getting very meta.
Well, yeah, there’s a David Foster Wallace quality to it, which is why I wrote a book about this town, Agloe. One of the weirdest things is that it’s become a very minor tourist destination since the book was published. Someone created a historical marker at the site of this place. It’s a fake historical marker insofar as it was created by a person and put on a telephone pole, but it looks like a real historical marker and it is kind of real, because it is accurately marking history. There’s a waxing and waning existence of this town.
It reminds me a bit of the way neighborhoods grow. What once could just be called Brooklyn, then must be called Williamsburg. And then must be called East Williamsburg. And so on. We require more specificity to identify where we are in space. Language plays a part in that.
I’ve never thought about that but that’s really interesting. As communities grow, our language has to grow. The language isn’t merely descriptive, right? So there’s a weird collaboration between language and space when it comes to how we inhabit space. For instance, where I live, we have a neighborhood called Broad Ripple that’s quite fashionable, but the neighborhood south of Broad Ripple isn’t at all fashionable. People who live there, though, started to call it South Broad Ripple—sort of like gentrification through language.
So how did you come upon the phenomenon of a paper town? It’s like a Jeopardy-for-$1,000 fact.
I was actually on a road-trip with my college girlfriend. We embarked on this very cute and eccentric and doomed journey to visit various “World’s Largest” balls—the “World’s Largest ball of paint,” the “World’s largest ball of popcorn,” the “World’s largest ball of stamps,” etc. We were 23 and had access to a car and two weeks of vacation, so this was how we chose to spend it. We were driving through America—this was also the other thing, we didn’t take any interstates, to make it as eccentric as possible, I guess—and we saw this town called Holen, South Dakota marked on the map. I thought that was kind of funny, like “Hole in South Dakota.” We figured we could get gas there but there was nothing. No town. Zip. We ended up stopping and asking someone. She said, Oh yeah, that’s happened before. I’ve heard that it’s on a map but those of us who live here have never heard of the place. When I got home from the trip I got online and started researching it. There was a good Straight Dope article that Cecil Adams wrote, and that was sort of my initial entrée into paper towns. I just fell all the way down the rabbit hole.
Roughly how many paper towns could you find in the U.S.?
Ah, it’s so hard to know. Holen is actually a good example. I have never seen a reference to it online. I started to believe that I had fictionalized this entire story somehow. Then, one day, I came across Agloe, New York and I invented some backstory that didn’t exist for my book. I spoke to the very same college girlfriend like two or three years ago. She was like, I read your book and I immediately remembered that place in South Dakota. I got to the Afterword, you mentioned me, and I really appreciate that. We had a terrible breakup but now we are old and happily married and have many children. It was 15 years ago; we are at different places.
If the Largest Balls/Hole in South Dakota road trip has got you eager to hit the road yourself, check out the AFAR staff’s favorite U.S. road trips.