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Hank Green explores Internet, fame, isolation in debut novel

Ashe Walker

Hank Green is no stranger to the Internet. He and his brother, YA novelist John Green, co-created the popular YouTube channels Vlogbrothers, Crash Course, and SciShow. The newly-minted author cites the “insular Internet culture” as the initial inspiration for “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,” which follows a young woman’s rise to fame after she creates a viral video. 

But Green says he was surprised by how relevant the story is now; his debut novel is slated for release Tuesday. “The way current events have caught up to the book is very weird,” he says. Hank and John will discuss the book Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Wilbur Theatre.

Q. Your book begins when the protagonist, April May, discovers a sculpture that has mysteriously popped up on a New York street and films it. Her video goes viral and sparks hysteria about what the work is and where it came from. How does fear play a role in the book, and what role do you see fear playing in the Internet and society at large?

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A. Fear is one of the defining human instincts, and how we react to it has a huge impact on who we become as individuals and also as a broader culture. I think that every story deals with fear in some way, but the way that the Internet allows for very rapid communication and connection and creation means that it is easier to stoke fear. 

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Because attention is the ultimate commodity, and fear gathers attention, or scary things gather attention, those things will find an audience and they will be created. In combination, fear and the Internet can be very isolating. And I think that ultimately, many of the difficulties that we’re having as a culture right now have to do with the isolation and loneliness that comes of believing that we can be part of society without actually interacting with another human because we think we are engaging by shouting at each other on the Internet. 

Q. April May becomes famous through her YouTube videos. It’s hard not to notice the similarity between her experience and your own. How much did your own experience influence the book?

A. I definitely was writing what I knew. I’ve always wanted to write a book and couldn’t figure out the thing that was going to drive me forward to do it until I realized I had this perspective that not a lot of people had, on something that was a big part of culture right now. And I don’t think people necessarily have a completely accurate picture of it because it’s all so new. A lot of this comes from personal experience, and a lot of it comes from watching my friends go through it, and seeing people’s identity get tied up in their creation, and in notoriety and attention.

Q. How has creating an Internet persona influenced your own identity and your relationships?

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A. I think the real conflict comes when you’re sort of being asked by someone in your life — whether that is a parent or a giant mass of people on the other side of a screen — to be something that you don’t identify with, and that you don’t feel good about anymore or don’t feel good about at all, or never have. I’ve definitely seen that happen to friends of mine. It has not really happened to me, luckily, and I think that’s partially because when [John and I] started out everything was so new. You could be exactly what you wanted, and people would still watch, because there wasn’t a lot of other stuff to watch.

The main thing to realize is how significant and real these relationships are both to the creator and their audience. But you have to be careful. In any career where society is prizing the work that you do so tremendously that you feel this huge obligation to grow it and do it well, you are going to weigh your career more heavily than your personal relationships, and that leads inevitably to isolation.

 

Q. Do you think the Internet can also make the world feel less isolating? 

A. The Internet definitely helps create connections between people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to create connections with each other. As a person who is in the public eye, I get to have relationships with people who I really respect a lot, and there are lots of good things that can go along with this. I’ve also seen lots of people who have created good and strong relationships on the Internet who are not in the public eye. They have shared experiences and made connections that would have been impossible otherwise, and those people would have been very isolated in the physical spaces where they are, so it’s good and bad. 

Interview was edited and condensed. Kaya Williams can be reached at kaya.williams@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kaya_Noelle