Internet Star’s Novel Explores Online Fame—and Alien Robots

Existential questions about online stardom feature in Hank Green’s ‘An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,’ the 38-year-old writer’s debut novel out Sept. 25.
Existential questions about online stardom feature in Hank Green’s ‘An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,’ the 38-year-old writer’s debut novel out Sept. 25. Photo: Ashe Walker

At one point during his rise to internet fame, Hank Green tallied up every minute that every viewer had spent watching all the videos he’d ever made with his brother, and came up with a sum roughly equal to the average human lifespan. Now, he said, that collective viewing total amounts to at least 50 lifetimes.

“It makes you think, ‘Am I doing a human lifetime’s worth of good here?’” he said.

Existential questions born of online stardom figure prominently in Mr. Green’s debut novel, “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” The sci-fi thriller due out Tuesday tells the story of a 23-year-old woman who becomes instantly famous after being the first to video-blog her contact with a giant alien robot.

In Debut Novel, Internet Star Ponders Online Fame—and Alien Robots

With the book, Mr. Green enters a territory already familiar to his older brother and longtime video collaborator John Green, the author of blockbuster young-adult novels led by “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Expectations are high for Hank’s novel, which publisher Dutton acquired at auction in a two-book deal. “The reception by booksellers and reviewers has been rapturous,” said editor Maya Ziv.

The book targets a wide audience. It is being promoted as an adult novel but could double as young-adult fiction, with its absence of sex scenes and a trigger warning before its one violent passage.

“An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” opens with graphic designer April May discovering what first appears to be a large, armor-clad statue on a Manhattan sidewalk. She names it Carl. Soon, April learns that many Carls have popped up without explanation around the world, with the public divided over whether the enigmatic figures pose a threat. Internet sleuths, working together to solve the mystery, realize that clues to interpreting the Carls are hidden in a dream people share when they sleep. April, who uses the Carls to build her own social-media brand, becomes an instant celebrity whose powers to influence escalate with each post.

The perils of online stardom are personal for the Greens. For online content creators, Hank said, “growing an audience for the sake of growing an audience is almost inherently destructive for you.”

Hank is known independently as a host for the science channel SciShow and its spinoffs, along with the educational channel Crash Course. Yet even with Hank in the spotlight, it is hard to mention one Green without the other. In a video Hank posted earlier this year touting the book, he cheerfully thanks John for the agents and publishers who read it “because I’m John Green’s brother.”

“I could say the same thing about ‘The Fault in Our Stars’—it wouldn’t have reached nearly as many readers without Hank,” said John, who will appear with Hank at half the venues on a 12-city U.S. book tour to promote “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” “It’s hard for us to disentangle our work from each other. It’s one of the great joys of my life.”

John, at left, and Hank Green built an online empire beginning with Vlogbrothers, a YouTube channel they started in 2007.
John, at left, and Hank Green built an online empire beginning with Vlogbrothers, a YouTube channel they started in 2007. Photo: Maarten de Boer

Hank, who is 38 years old and lives with his wife, 2-year-old son and their ancient cat Cameo in Missoula, Mont., said it was “really scary” sharing the completed manuscript with John one night not long ago. His brother was also scared, though he stopped worrying after the first 10 pages. John, a 41-year-old Indianapolis author whose fiction, like Hank’s, is published by an imprint of Penguin Random House, soon lost himself in the book. Between the two of them, John said, Hank was better at writing plot.

With the book, Dutton capitalizes on the built-in audiences between the two brothers, much as the publisher did in releasing John’s best-selling “The Fault in Our Stars” in 2012, the film adaptation of which went on to rake in more than $307 million world-wide, according to Box Office Mojo. John has championed Hank’s debut novel to his 5.1 million followers on Twitter, an audience more than five times the size of Hank’s on that platform.

The online empire the Greens have built began with Vlogbrothers, a YouTube channel they started in 2007 for exchanging rapid-fire updates with one another about life in general and their lives in particular. Since then, videos the brothers have produced and posted on their many internet channels have been viewed some 2 billion times. And of those videos, the ones featuring appearances by the Greens themselves have notched more than 1 billion views.

Over the four years Hank spent working on “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,” he didn’t display the angst that marks the writing process of many other novelists. He worked on the book on planes, during free half-hours at night and on occasional mornings wherever he happened to be sitting.

“Hank is one of the least tortured people I know,” said John. “He is exceptionally sane.”

Still, John said he and his brother talk about how becoming public figures on the internet has the potential for “distorting ourselves or distorting our values, and how we can try to tack against that wind.”

In the novel, Hank compares fame to looking like a leathery old cowboy to one person and an 11-year-old girl to another: “You have no idea what each person sees when they look at you.”

Now the Greens run multiple ventures, including the educational video-production company Complexly, and they are co-founders of the VidCon conferences for the online video community. John said they haven’t gotten into a single fight since they started working together more than a decade ago. They came close once, over “some stupid work thing,” he said, before mutually backing down. “I think we were both tired.”

John said he doesn’t recall having many disagreements as children, either, because they didn’t know each other that well. For John, who left for boarding school when Hank was 11, working with Hank was a way to become closer as adults.

Hank said he doesn’t feel competitive with John about their careers. Their contests are more about one-upping each other while they try to “win the conversation” by making the funniest joke, he said.

In a recent video, John described buying ads for Hank’s book on multiple billboards in Orlando, Fla., where the brothers grew up. He bought sponsorships for small robotics, debate and sports teams. Hank’s novel, for instance, is the left-sleeve sponsor of the Dutch national Quidditch team.

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

More in Books

The Sleeper Hit That Makes the Most of Screen Time

Why has “Searching” become one of the breakout hits of the season, with a $45 million world-wide gross since its release over three weeks ago by Sony? Probably for the same reason director Aneesh Chaganty nearly turned it down: The on-screen action takes place entirely on screens.

“Searching” tells the story of a father, played by John Cho, who conducts a hunt for his missing teenage daughter across the many devices and platforms that play host to our digital lives: laptops, FaceTime, Facebook, Venmo and so on.

How a $450 Million da Vinci Was Lost in America—and Later Found

Leonardo da Vinci’s rediscovered painting of Christ as the world’s savior, “Salvator Mundi”—auctioned last year for a record-setting $450.3 million—has been owned by British kings and Russian oligarchs. But until now no one knew much about the nearly half-century it spent lost in obscurity in the U.S.

Fresh details have emerged about the da Vinci’s whereabouts and the unsuspecting Louisiana family who lived with the painting for decades before a pair of Old Master dealers bought it from their patriarch’s estate sale in New…

‘3-D Doings: The Imagist Object in Chicago Art, 1964-1980’ Review: A Celebration of the Weird

Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

‘Weird” is a word that’s lost a lot of currency over the past couple of decades. Things that used to mark a person as someone who played outside the lines—tattoos, facial piercings, and clothes that make wearers look as if they’d just escaped a burning building—now wax normal. Even the official slogan of the Independent Business Alliance of Texas’ capital city is “Keep Austin Weird.”

Back…

The New Status Symbol: Carpets In Unconventional Shapes

TRIUMPH OF THE BUMP In Madrid, designer Mike Alleg ran a Patricia Urquiola rug for GAN.
TRIUMPH OF THE BUMP In Madrid, designer Mike Alleg ran a Patricia Urquiola rug for GAN. Photo: Gan Rugs

IN HIS New York apartment, interior designer David Kaihoi had the living-room floors painstakingly painted with an intricate tumbling-block pattern. Unwilling to entirely mask the motif with the “stuffy” rectangle of a traditional area rug, he cut a Moroccan wool remnant into an 8-foot-wide Y shape, and positioned one end under the sofa with the others forking into the room. The effect, he said, “has the gravitas of an area rug but is just a little bit lighter.”

He has since teamed with venerable floorcovering brand Patterson Flynn Martin on a collection of conceptual carpets including the creatively contoured XY design below, no shears required. The motivation? A desire, he said, that seems to be gaining traction: to “explore ways of thinking about rugs that you don’t see every day.” For Spanish brand GAN, architect and interior/product designer Patricia Urquiola embraced out-of-the-box shapes, from jagged-edge geometrics to the more organic Mangas collection, including the luxuriously lumpy runner (below) that adds warmth and movement to the hallway of a Madrid apartment. “With GAN, we are trying to see the carpet in a different way, no longer like a static, flat piece,” said Ms. Urquiola, who’s known for innovating when it comes to shape and scale.

Lauren Geremia, a San Francisco designer, has installed Grain Design’s blobby Pool rug (below) when she needed a grounding element that’s “a little more feminine in nature,” as she put it. To serve its curves, she has paired the braided-wool amoeba with round-back rattan chairs and circular accent tables. In a Manhattan living room that features a gridded wall of windows and a fireplace with a sharp-lined metal facade, Joe Nahem, of Fox-Nahem Design, introduced a serpentine sofa and curvy midcentury club chairs, and a customized carpet with a slithering, meandering silhouette. “An amorphic shape breaks up the hard angles of the room’s architecture,” he said. “It contours around the furniture and makes the layout more interesting.”

In the sweeping living room in decorator Regina Moskow’s Manhattan apartment, a pair of wavy-edged rugs from Edward Fields delineate two seating areas, the white silk pile parting like the Red Sea to expose a path of bare hardwood floor leading to the room’s balcony.

Smaller irregularly shaped rugs freshen up layering. “If you need a room to have allover floor coverage but want something fun in front of your sofa or under a coffee table, one of these rugs works perfectly,” said New York designer Tamara Eaton. “It’s a bit more exciting than a square on top of a square.”

Though purposely misshapen rugs have few precedents, Mr. Kaihoi likens the current appetite for them to the geometric abstraction movement in art. “It’s the echo of an Ellsworth Kelly impulse: to break the shape of the canvas itself,” he said. Though woven patterns and pile cut in relief have been widely explored, many designers feel shape is the last frontier in creative rug design. “What are the obvious things that people haven’t tried or played with?” Mr. Kaihoi asked. “This is the big one. Shape is a different paradigm.”

SHAPED CRUSADERS / Defiantly Unconventional Area Rugs
The New Status Symbol: Rugs In Unconventional Shapes
Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Judith Trezza

Clockwise from left: Maisonette Rug, about 8 feet by 11.5 feet, $6,020, Roche Bobois , 212-889-0700; David Kaihoi XY Rug, about 8.5 feet by 8 feet, $8,835, pattersonflynnmartin.com; Mae Engelgeer Bliss Big Rug, about 5.5 feet by 10 feet, $8,150, cc-tapis.com; Pool Rug, about 8 feet by 10 feet, $4,645, graindesign.com George J. Snowden GJS1 Carpet by Post Design, about 5 feet by 8.5 feet, $5,550, artemest.com

More in Design & Decorating

Is Leopard Print Tacky or Classic? A Historical Debate

Is Leopard Print Tacky or Classic? A Historical Debate
Illustration: MATT CHASE

WANDERING THROUGH the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Fashioned From Nature” exhibition recently, I came upon a 1997 Jean Paul Gaultier gown. The big cat’s head formed the bodice, its body was draped over the spreading skirt, and its tail dangled, casually but suggestively, from the mannequin’s hand. It was, I realized, a textbook illustration of the deep-seated dislike many men have for leopard print—the fear that they, too, might be disemboweled and displayed by the woman in the glistening pelt.

“There’s an association with predatory women,” agreed Jo Weldon, the author of “Fierce: The History of Leopard Print.” “You don’t have to be a misogynist to think she might turn on you.”

Leopard print makes even the laziest outfit seem deliberate.

For women, as the title of Ms. Weldon’s book suggests, leopard print represents fearlessness (leopard, for the purposes of this column, being any of the spotted big cats). Name a woman who’s worn it—Jackie O., Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga—and one thinks instantly of strength. Among designers, for whom a strong, fashion-loving mother is a leitmotif, leopard print has been a constant for decades. This season, when the #MeToo movement and the record number of women running for office serve, among other things, as the background to the daily routine of deciding what to wear, leopard print is out in force. From Tom Ford and Michael Kors to Victoria Beckham and Diane Von Furstenberg, designers are showing their claws.

“I think every woman who is elegant, who is chichi, knows that wearing leopard makes her feel sexy and strong but still chic,” said Amanda Ross, a stylist and creator of e-commerce site A Ross Girl.

For others, it’s more complex, given that leopard has a bit of a vulgar reputation. “It’s like breaking the chic a bit,” suggested Morgane Sezalory of Sézane, the Paris purveyor of gamine-next door pieces like knitwear, floral dresses and, of course, leopard. But that déclassé factor only solidifies its appeal: Wearing leopard suggests a choice; it makes even the laziest outfit seem deliberate. Whether your ideal is Debbie Harry in a leopard catsuit or Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy in a leopard coat, there’s a sisterhood of so-bad-it’s-good images to choose from.

Richard Bienen, who relaunched his family’s Bienen-Davis handbag line last year—his mother worked for Halston and his father made the designer’s bags—said leopard is a perennial star performer, both in the 1970s and now: “It’s sexy and mischievous and there’s some attitude. I don’t get to wear it much. I wish I did. I’d feel like a badass.”

The power that we associate with leopard comes directly from that of the animal itself. Leopards are fast, powerful hunters, able to carry prey three times their weight. Originally, those who wore leopard, like the Egyptian pharaohs thousands of years B.C., donned the actual fur pelts. Leopard print as a fashion item dates to the 18th century, when it appeared as a pattern on French silks. Men wore leopard print, too: The late-18th-century British macaroni dandies, as in Yankee Doodle, were fond of it. Still, it didn’t really emerge as a strong trend until the 1920s, when a leopard fur coat was a sought-after luxury item for women. This remained true during the 1930s, when Elsa Schiaparelli, ever the iconoclast, made leopard booties. By the 1950s, leopard was part of the stylish woman’s wardrobe—the print and, if she could afford it, the fur—a dependable basic like the little black dress. It achieved that status thanks, in no small part, to Christian Dior.

The designer’s first collection, the landscape-altering New Look, is now remembered for the structured Bar jacket, resurrected by Raf Simons during his turn as Dior’s creative director. But that collection also included a belted leopard print dress; what’s more, a leopard paw featured in the advertising for Dior’s first perfume, Miss Dior. The women who inspired these gestures were, respectively, Mitzah Bricard, Monsieur Dior’s muse, a reputed demimondaine who loved leopard, and his sister Catherine, for whom the perfume was named, a resistance fighter who had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo. They were part of Dior’s inner circle and he equated them with grace and courage, qualities he expressed through leopard print, which remains a motif of the House of Dior.

The association of leopard with bad taste and the sexually available but perhaps not desirable woman took root in the ’60s. That’s when leopard became the uniform of the bad mom, said Ms. Weldon. “The mother in Lolita, Mrs. Robinson [in “The Graduate”], Ann-Margret in “Tommy,” and later Peg Bundy [in “Married with Children”]—I think that’s where so many men’s negative association of leopard comes from.”

Given this history, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that leopard print is experiencing a resurgence at the same time that the dynamics of sexual power are being loudly and publicly challenged.

THE CAT CAME BACK / The Most Intriguing Fall Pieces We Spotted
Is Leopard Print Tacky or Classic? A Historical Debate
Photo: F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Jill Telesnicki

Clockwise from top left: Dolce & Gabbana Dress, $4,195, bergdorfgoodman.com; Blazer, $3,090, Thom Browne 212-633-1197; Bag, $3,495, Roger Vivier, 212-861-5371; Skirt, $199, whistles.com; Sweater, $695, Max Mara, 212-879-6100; Boots, $1,450, Balenciaga, 212-226-0872

More in Style & Fashion

A Volkswagen Beetle’s Summer of ’69

Cherrill Meyer, 69, a retired corporate-communications director from Los Angeles, on her 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, as told to A.J. Baime.

My mother was British, and she drove ambulances during the Blitz in World War II. She taught me to drive stick shift on streets around our home in Westchester, Calif. When I was old enough and had saved enough money to buy my own car, Volkswagen Beetles were everywhere.

[Volkswagen…

HBO and Netflix Tie for Emmy Awards

Angela Sarafyan, one of the actors in ‘Westworld,’ arrives at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards on Monday. The HBO series is up for 21 Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Angela Sarafyan, one of the actors in ‘Westworld,’ arrives at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards on Monday. The HBO series is up for 21 Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series. Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press

HBO and Netflix tied for the most Emmy Awards with 23 each, highlighting the race for dominance in a television industry whose competitive landscape is rapidly shifting.

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” won Outstanding Drama Series, beating last year’s winner, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” about a Manhattan woman who starts moonlighting as a stand-up comedian in the 1950s, won Outstanding Comedy Series.

Rachel Brosnahan, who plays the title character in “Mrs. Maisel,” won for lead actress in a comedy. “It’s about a woman finding her voice anew,” Ms. Brosnahan said of the series in her acceptance speech, using it as an opportunity to urge people to vote in the coming U.S. elections.

Her co-star, Alex Borstein, won the supporting actress category, and series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino made two trips to the stage to collect writing and directing trophies.

Among Netflix’s wins, Claire Foy landed the award for lead actress in a drama series for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in “The Crown,” which is continuing with a new actress in the starring role as the Netflix series movies into the monarch’s later years. Regina King won for lead actress in a limited series for her role in “Seven Seconds,” which was canceled after its first season.

Producer Ryan Murphy and FX, seasoned winners in the limited series category, won the top prize for the latest iteration of their anthology series “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” Other winners from the series included lead actor Darren Criss and Mr. Murphy himself, who won a trophy for directing.

Merritt Wever and Jeff Daniels won for their supporting roles in the western “Godless” (and Mr. Daniels thanked his horse, Apollo). The winning writers for “Black Mirror,” William Bridges and Charlie Booker, thanked some of the series that influenced them, including “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone.”

In addition to HBO’s win for “Game of Thrones,” “Barry,” about a hit man attempting a career change, picked up several awards. “Barry” star Bill Hader won lead actor in a comedy, while industry veteran Henry Winkler received his first-ever Emmy for his supporting role in the series as an acting guru.

The comedy series award went from one of the most predictable Emmys—dominated by “Modern Family” from 2010 through 2014, and “Veep” from 2015 through 2017—to one of the most competitive, as new, edgy series have emerged.

Along with “Mrs. Maisel,” which went in with 14 total nominations, other favorites included Donald Glover’s often surreal “Atlanta” (16 nominations), “Barry” (13 nominations) and the 1980s ladies’ wrestling dramedy “GLOW” (10 nominations). Rounding out the field were veteran series “black-ish,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Silicon Valley” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Unlike most entertainment awards shows that honor a crop of new releases, the Emmys represent a mix of debut shows, long-running series, one-off specials and programs that have taken their final bows.

For example, the heavily decorated “Game of Thrones” stormed back into the Emmys this year with 22 nominations, after sitting out the competition in 2017 because of eligibility reasons.

FX’s “The Americans,” about a family of undercover Soviet spies, was largely ignored by Television Academy voters through much of its six-season run. But it received a final dose of Emmy glory when Matthew Rhys earned a trophy for lead actor, and producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg won for their writing.

“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is nominated for Outstanding Variety Talk Series, at the 70th Emmy Awards on Sept. 17. WSJ spent a day with the South African-born standup in June 2017 to find out how his comedic mind works.

The show opened with a mock self-congratulatory song about Hollywood ending racism, featuring the chorus “We solved it.” Co-hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost joked about the entertainment industry’s problems with sexual misconduct and diversity.

But there were also targets looming within the TV industry itself. Last year’s Emmy show aired shortly before a sexual-abuse scandal felled Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and ignited the #MeToo movement. This year’s show arrived about a week after one of the most powerful figures in media, CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, stepped down amid allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

Perhaps the most heartwarming moment of the night happened when Glenn Weiss, who won for directing this year’s Oscars telecast, used his acceptance speech to make an apparently surprise marriage proposal to his girlfriend, Jan Svendsen, then slid a ring on her finger on stage.

2018 Emmy Winners Highlights

  • Lead Actor in a Limited Series: Darren Criss (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”)
  • Lead Actress in a Limited Series: Regina King (“Seven Seconds”)
  • Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Bill Hader (“Barry”)
  • Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”)

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

Appeared in the September 18, 2018, print edition as ‘Networks, Streamers Vie for Emmys.’