October 10, 2017 at 08:00 AM EDT

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Today’s the day John Green fans have been waiting for — the publication of his new novel, Turtles All the Way Down.

Like his other novels, Turtles is funny, clever, and populated with endearing characters. It’s also suffused with a dark sadness that’s very different from the tissue-soaking melancholy of his previous best-seller, The Fault in Our Stars. That’s because the book’s main character, Aza, struggles with a mental illness that Green understands all too well. The author, 40, has been open with his fans — a fiercely loyal crew who call themselves the Nerdfighters and number in the millions — about what it’s like to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. (You can watch him describe it in his own words here.)

Green sat down with EW and opened up about his illness and his writing—and how the two are intertwined.

What made you decide to write such an intensely personal novel?
I didn’t start out thinking I was even writing a book. I started by thinking, I need to try and find expression for this way-down terror that controls so much of my daily life.  Part of what’s terrifying about pain is that it’s difficult to access or describe via sentences. It’s what’s so frustrating for me and what’s scary about my own mental health problems. I wanted to be able to show people what it is really like. I wrote the book in the hopes that people who go through this would feel less alone and also in the hopes that people who don’t go through it can maybe glimpse something about it.

Has writing always been a way for you to cope?
Yes. It’s a way to not be me for a while. To not feel the stress of being stuck inside this slowly decaying and deeply contaminated meat locker that is myself. It’s been a way to imagine what it was like to be someone else for a while and be free from that. But that [relief] went away after The Fault in Our Stars. It stopped working. I had a pretty bad…somewhat bad…let’s say, medium-bad-level mental-health crisis in 2015. That was the worst it’s ever been, and it was very scary for a few months. Coming out of the months of long misery, I felt like if I looked more directly at it that I could find some comfort in writing again. I started with an email and I thought, “Oh, this is fun. This is great.”

During this period, did you ever worry you wouldn’t write another novel?
I didn’t panic. I have a great family and great friends and work I find incredibly fulfilling in educational online video. Sometimes people stop writing, and there’s all kinds of reasons for it. But I did love when it started to become fun again. This was a hard book to write, but as much as it was painful and I cried a lot, I loved feeling like I was with these kids.

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