Many across Montana and the world were completely stunned and disoriented by the invisible monster named Covid-19 — but not Hank Green. The bestselling Missoula sci-fi author has been writing and making videos about preparing for the unfathomable for most of this century.
Green is also a world-renowned video blogger, internet producer, musician, entrepreneur, and CEO. He and his older brother John Green are known for producing the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, where they regularly upload videos, as well as for creating and hosting the educational YouTube channels “Crash Course” and “SciShow.” Hank also co-created VidCon, the world’s largest conference about online videos and created NerdCon: Stories, a conference focused on storytelling.
In Green’s crazy-science-teacher imagination, a mind-bending encounter formed the framework for his 2018 debut sci-fi novel “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.”
In the book, 23-year-old April May discovers gigantic armored robots, who become known as The Carls, while she’s strolling in pre-dawn New York City. Once her video goes global, the world looks to April to guide the hunt for the mysterious menace.
In his new sequel to the story, “A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor,” the stunned human race struggles with the motivation of The Carls and the even more challenging quest for truth on the internet.
If his fiction sounds both frightening and (now) strangely relevant, there’s very good reason.
Raised in Orlando, Florida, Hank and his brother John soaked in the passions of their father Mike, a documentary filmmaker and Florida state director of The Nature Conservancy, and their mother Sydney, a community organizer who worked with Disney, the Science Center of Orlando and the Junior League.
His love of both science fiction and science fact led Hank to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from Eckerd College and a science masters in environmental studies at UM. The title of his master’s thesis pretty accurately summarizes his life since then: “Of Both Worlds: How the Personal Computer and the Environmental Movement Change Everything.”
In 2006, he and brother John, who by then had published the first two of his successful YA novels (“Looking for Alaska,” and “An Abundance of Katherines”), combined their love of science teaching and videography by launching Vlogbrothers, an expansive world of eclectic videos that remain wildly popular, with their 15 million online subscribers, known as Nerdfighters.
Hank also dabbles in music, having recorded six albums, including Harry Potter tunes. He talks to Montana Press about the foundation of his experience in the videosphere, the publishing process and his concerns and hopes for the future of online education and influence.
MP: You went to college at UM. What was it like to move to Montana after spending your youth in Florida?
Hank Green: There were two big shifts to that. One was the weather; I don’t mind every day of the winter. I like it in January when it’s new and fresh and pretty, but I don’t like it in April when it’s been hovering between 28 and 35 (degrees) and everything has been melted and refrozen a thousand times. I don’t like that, but I do like seasons. I like to be able to feel the differences each year, and I like being not hot all the time. When I go back (to Florida) now, I’m like, how the fuck did I do this for 22 years?
The other difference was how people imagine each other. In Florida or in Orlando, you spend so much time on the road, with the main impediment between you and the thing that you want is interacting with the people in front of you. It’s like almost all of the interactions you have with other humans is abstract. They’re inside their cars and you’re inside of yours. It’s not a great way to have a society.
When I walked into the grocery store and bought my first set of groceries at the Albertson’s at Eastgate [in Missoula], I was checking out and the checkout person looked at me as she was swiping and said, “For tacos tonight?” And I was like, what?
She said, “Are you having tacos tonight?” And I was like, are we going to have a conversation right now?!
That had never happened to me, and I love that. I love making eye contact with people on the sidewalk, I love waving to people, I love talking to strangers. I didn’t love any of that when I first moved here. At first, it was uncomfortable, but it’s something that I really love about this place.
MP: When did you sense you had a science fiction book in you?
Green: That was a long, long process, my first book, and I initially wrote it as a comic; it was like a graphic novel. I love graphic novels. I think we all sort of look for the paths that other people have walked down. I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman (“American Gods”) and I kind of got into fiction largely through the world of graphic novels.
That was really appealing to me. Basically, my graphic novel turned into just an amazing outline; what ended up happening was that I realized that if I wanted to write a graphic novel, I would have to collaborate with someone. Whereas if I wrote a novel, I could just do it by myself. It didn’t require any skills that I didn’t… (laughs) well, that’s not true, but it required fewer skills that I did not have.
MP: Was it comfortable, suddenly sitting at a keyboard alone?
Green: It felt comfortable to me in that I had spent a lot of time writing already. Now obviously writing a 100,000-word book is different than writing an 800-word op-ed, which is sort of what I would do with my videos, which are sort of constructed like an opinion piece, or like a humor essay.
The writing part wasn’t super-uncomfortable, but you’re right, the loneliness was very new and was very frustrating. I’m sitting through that right now, where even after you finish the book, there are months that go by when one can read it, and that’s really, really not what I am used to. Like when I make a video, I finish it at midnight and people are watching it six hours later.
MP: How did you and your brother invent The Vlogbrothers? Did you take the lead from your father?
Green: Yeah, that was definitely true in two different ways. I think we both saw that it was something that was possible. We’d seen Dad edit, and while we’d never done it ourselves, we’d seen it be done. Also, after college, I worked at a television station for a while, so I knew it in that context as well. But then there was the practical aspect of us being like, ‘Dad, how do we do this?’ and he was like, ‘Get this $200 camera.’ Dad knew what we needed to buy. Now there are basically kits and YouTube videos that tell you the equipment you need to make YouTube videos, whereas then, no one had a camera in their phone, especially not HD, 4K, 3D, 4 lenses like all the stuff we have now.
MP: Your brother wrote several books before you wrote “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” Did he offer you any advice and did you welcome it?
Green: Yeah. I didn’t want him to read it. He gave me advice about the publishing industry; “Here’s how this works, this is why they say this. Does that matter? Maybe, maybe not. Here are the things that you should really be focusing on.” And he helped me get an agent and that sort of thing. But in terms of craft and book stuff, he did not read it before it was done, and then he read it and had two suggestions for me, of which I took one. They were both good suggestions. I’m still ambivalent about the other thing he told me to do.
MP: How was the publishing experience for you? Did your publisher force you to make changes to your manuscript?
Green: Oh, I don’t ever think about it as anybody is forcing anybody to do anything in that relationship. You have to understand why everyone is saying the things they’re saying, and you have to weigh those things. Ultimately, they’re pretty good with me having control over the final manuscript but I am very receptive to criticism and very aware that my editor knows a lot more about editing than I do and that my publisher knows a lot more about publishing than I do. I listen very openly. I stand up for the things that matter the most, but there are lots of things that I don’t think matter the most.
MP: What’s next for you? Will there be a third book?
Green: There won’t be a third book in this universe. This was written as a two-book series, so that’s done with. I do want to write another novel someday; I’m working on a couple ideas right now. I’m also interested in nonfiction writing. And I’m also a business person, so I have a couple of ideas of things I’d like to do, and I’m kind of a strategist.
There’s also concern about education, with what does school look like if a lot of universities have a hard time getting through this pandemic and how do we preserve the best parts of education but make it more accessible?
I’m legit worried about that, both because I live in a college town where often my friends are employed by the university but also because education is the most important thing in society, what we build everything on top of. The way to make health care cheaper is to have more doctors, and the way to increase people’s livelihood and decrease inequality is to broaden access to education.
There’s a disconnect between people who have a certain kind of cushy education like the kind that I had, which I think is extremely valuable but also very cushy and expensive, and people who don’t have access to that kind of education [who] then sort of can’t figure out why they can’t get on the same page with each other… That’s a problem. If that really is a valuable thing but it’s only for people who have $150,000 in the bank, that’s pretty fucked up.
But right now, what I’m really struggling with is what social media is, actually – that’s a lot of what I write about in this second book – and the actual amount of power it has over us right now, and how that is tremendous but maybe pales in comparison to the amount of power it may have over us in the future.