Hank Green is well known as a beloved science vlogger. In An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, he makes his debut as a novelist. The novel follows the story of April May, a twenty-something New Yorker who makes a what you might call an absolutely remarkable discovery one night and captures it on film, changing the trajectory of her life forever. Meanwhile, the world struggles to make sense of what April has found while April grapples with the implications of her newfound fame. Here, Green chats with Bookish about fame, aliens, and grape jelly.
Bookish: In An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, April struggles with distinguishing between her true self and her brand. Is this an experience that you’ve had, or an experience that you think is increasingly common in the age of social media?
Hank Green: I think it’s something people have always struggled with: Who is the you that you show people, and how is that different from who you actually are? And I think we’ve all experienced that malleability of self, where we realize that we’ve been pretending so long that we aren’t pretending anymore… we have become the image we are projecting. Is it increasing in a world where we share a significant portion of our lives through a curated feed delivered to whoever wants to look at it? Yes I think it’s more common.
Bookish: You could argue that in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, the true villain is fear. What do you think makes fear so destructive?
HG: Being afraid sucks, especially when you can’t control the source of the fear. Like, fear can be fun if you can decide when you want to turn the movie off, but when you can’t control the source of your anxiety, that’s a loss of freedom. The bigger question is why we seek out fear that we can’t control. Why do we find news stories or pundits telling us why we should be afraid so compelling? I think a lot of it is wanting to feel some semblance of control. We seek out more information about the scary thing so that we can act as if we are exercising some control. But that actually only makes us more afraid, especially when the fear isn’t rational. We end up building up our fear because we’re trying to control it, but we’re actually just getting more scared and angry.
Bookish: At one point in the book, you explicitly give readers the option to skip over some graphic violence and read a summary of the events in the following chapter. What led you to the decision to structure your book this way?
HG: Honestly, it wasn’t my decision, it was April’s. So the real question is why did April decide to structure it that way? I think it’s because she knows that what’s coming would be really unpleasant for some people to read and wants to give them the choice.
Bookish: Grape jelly plays a rather sinister (if baffling) role in this novel. What do you have against grape jelly? Will you ever be able to eat it again?
HG: Oh, I will always love grape jelly.
Bookish: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is, in a lot of ways, a book about power. What made you want to explore this theme in novel form?
HG: I think it’s the most important conversation we’re having in America right now. What are the responsibilities of the powerful? Can we expect them to act differently than people with less power? Can we ask them to make sacrifices for the greater good? How do we even recognize when someone has power, especially if that someone is ourselves? I’m fascinated by that conversation, and I’ve realized that it’s a lot of what the very very hot conversation around social justice boils down to.
Bookish: To what extent were you able to draw on your experiences as a vlogger in writing about April’s vlogging?
HG: I mean, a lot. Any amount of April’s career as a vlogger that wasn’t informed by my experience was informed by the experiences of my friends.
Bookish: How did you choose Queen as the band that aliens would use to communicate with humans?
HG: I’m so glad you asked! Some scientists did an actual study on a bunch of happy songs from the last fifty years and found that “Don’t Stop Me Now,” on average, made people the happiest. There are some other reasons, but that’s where I started.
Bookish: Do you dream of a day that aliens will make contact with Earth? Are you more afraid of that possibility, or more excited?
HG: I think about it all the time, but mostly as a way of thinking about who we are as humans. I don’t hope for it or fear it. I think if it happened, we would know whether it was going to be a positive thing or an “our species is about to go extinct” thing within a few hours of “meeting” them.
Bookish: Are you writing a sequel? Can you tell us anything about it?
HG: I am! What can I tell you? I dunno! I guess I can tell you that it is from a more varied perspective than this book, which is only from the perspective of April.
Hank Green started making YouTube videos in 2007 with his brother, John. They thought it was a dumb idea, but it turned out well. He is now the CEO of Complexly, which produces SciShow, Crash Course and nearly a dozen other educational YouTube channels, prompting The Washington Post to name him “one of America’s most popular science teachers.” Green co-founded a number of other businesses, including DFTBA.com, which helps online creators make money by selling cool stuff to their communities; and VidCon, the world’s largest conference for the online video community. Hank and John, also started the Project for Awesome, which raised more than two million dollars for charities last year. He has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, Scientific American, and Mental Floss Magazine prior to his first published novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, due out on Sept 25, 2018.