Sunday, March 31, 2013

Author: Brent Hartinger Interview + Giveaway!

You've seen my reviews for the acclaimed Geography Club and newly released installment in its original Russel Middlebrook series, The Elephant of Surprise, and today, the wonderful author will be joining Books à la Mode for an exciting, revealing interview! Readrs, please help me welcome YA author, Brent Hartinger, to the blog today to celebrate his new book. Let's get this interview started, Brent!

Will you please share a brief bio with us?

Brent Hartinger is the author of a number of novels, mostly for and about teens, including Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003) and three sequels: The Order of the Poison Oak (HarperCollins, 2005); Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (2007); and The Elephant of Surprise (2013).

His other books include The Last Chance Texaco (HarperCollins, 2004); Grand & Humble (HarperCollins, 2006); Project Sweet Life (HarperCollins, 2008); and Shadow Walkers (Flux Books, 2011).

Mr. Hartinger’s many writing honors include being named the winner of the Lambda Literary Award, the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award, a GLAAD Media Award, the Screenwriting in the Sun Award, and a Book Sense Pick (four times).

A feature film version of his first novel, Geography Club, will be released in 2013, starring Scott Bakula (Star Trek: Enterprise) and Nikki Blonsky (Hairspray).

Hartinger is also the author of many award-winning screenplays and plays, including a stage adaptation of Geography Club, which has received regional productions in Tacoma, Salt Lake City, Edmonton, and elsewhere. A feature film version of his play The Starfish Scream, which has also received many regional productions (and was twice produced Off-Off Broadway in New York), is in active development for a possible 2014 release.

Hartinger is a sometime-member of the faculty at Vermont College in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and is also the co-founder of the entertainment website AfterElton.com, which was sold to MTV/Viacom in 2006.

He lives in Seattle with his partner, writer Michael Jensen.

What are Geography Club and The Elephant of Surprise about?

Russel Middlebrook is convinced he's the only gay kid at Goodkind High School.

Then his online gay chat buddy turns out to be none other than Kevin, the popular but closeted star of the school's baseball team. Soon Russel meets other gay students, too. There's his best friend Min, who reveals that she is bisexual, and her soccer-playing girlfriend Terese. Then there's Terese's politically active friend, Ike.

But how can kids this diverse get together without drawing attention to themselves?

"We just choose a club that's so boring, nobody in their right mind would ever in a million years join it. We could call it Geography Club!"

Brent Hartinger's debut novel is a fast-paced, funny, and trenchant portrait of contemporary teenagers who may not learn any actual geography in their latest club, but who learn plenty about the treacherous social terrain of high school and the even more dangerous landscape of the human heart.

Book 4 in the Lambda Award-winning Russel Middlebrook series!

People aren't always what they seem to be. Sometimes we even surprise ourselves.

In this latest book, Russel and his friends Min and Gunnar are laughing about something they call the Elephant of Surprise—the tendency for life to never turn out as expected. Sure enough, Russel soon happens upon a hot but mysterious homeless activist named Wade, even as he's drawn back to an old flame named Kevin. Meanwhile, Min is learning surprising things about her girlfriend Leah, and Gunnar just wants to be left alone to pursue his latest technology obsession.
But the elephant is definitely on the move in all three of their lives. Just who is Wade and what are he and his friends planning? What is Leah hiding? And why is Gunnar taking naked pictures of Kevin in the shower?

The Elephant of Surprise includes Hartinger's trademark combination of humor and romance, angst and optimism. Before the story is over, Russel and his friends will learn that the Elephant of Surprise really does appear when you least expect him—and that when he stomps on you, it really, really hurts.


How did you arrive at writing YA fiction? Are there any other genres you've tried or would like to try?

When I started (in the 90s), YA was just starting to get big. But I didn't read it—I barely knew it existed, and I definitely didn't think I was writing it. I thought I just happened to be writing stories with teenage characters. Then my agent said, "This is young adult." At first I was offended—"What?! A kids' book?!" But then I started reading YA and realized, "Ohhhh. This is a lot better than most of the 'adult' books I read. YA authors actually care about plot."

YA really exploded right after that, and I sort of rode the wave. I still love YA, but I confess my eyes glaze over a little now with all the dystopian books, fairy tale retellings, and paranormal romance.

On the other hand, I also love (and write) mystery/thrillers, fantasy, and sci-fi, both YA or not. And I absolutely love writing screenplays of all genres. I didn't write the screenplay for Geography Club (the movie), but the first movie based on a screenplay of mine will hopefully be released next year.


Oh, I know what you mean! YA is getting so overhyped. It's a good genre, but not when all the plots and premises start to overlap. What was the inspiration for Geography Club? Tell us how the whole series began.


Well, it's very loosely based on my own experiences as a gay teenager, and also my experience founding one of the United States' first LGBT teen support groups (in 1990). I was really young, but it was my job to sort of "interview" the attendees before the first meeting, and they were all so incredibly diverse: a prom queen from the suburbs, a guy from a small town who wore a cowboy hat and drove a pick-up truck, a drag queen who'd been kicked out of the house by his parents and who lived on the streets.

Before the first meeting, I remember thinking, "This is crazy! None of these kids have anything in common! And I have to lead them in a support group?!"

But of course once we were all together and they started talking, I didn't have to say a word. The superficial differences immediately fell away. They all knew exactly what it felt like to be outsiders, to feel like frauds, to know what it felt like to hide the truth about themselves. It was magic.

That first meeting stuck with me for a long time—so much that it sort of became the centerpiece of Geography Club, when the kids all get together for the first time and realize that even though they seem different, they're really all alike.

After that, with every new book in the series, I've wanted my characters to have some interesting, but completely different experience.

In The Order of the Poison Oak, the second book in the series, they go to work at a summer camp for burn survivors. In Double Feature, the third book, they get jobs as zombie extras working on a horror film.

And in The Elephant of Surprise, this latest book, Russel gets involved with a group of "freegans"—people who give up all their possessions and live on the street. Just how much of an outsider is Russel really? The Elephant of Surprise forces him to decide.


Isn’t it rather risky to write teen novels that tackle gay issues, especially with all the controversy in the media today? I personally admire how you’ve been bold enough to use them as a basis for your books—we need more YA fiction like yours! But the question is: how have you overcome any consequent challenges of writing about a controversial topic for a younger audience?


When I was first trying to sell it, in the 90s, it was enormously controversial. I mean, just off the charts. My agent once told me the book was rejected by thirty-eight editors. A lot of them said they wanted to buy it, but they'd go to the accountants, and they'd always say the same thing: "There's no market for a book about gay teens."

Of course, once an editor at HarperCollins finally got it through the acquisitions department, the book was a big hit, right away—we went into a third printing at the end of the second week. So the conventional wisdom that there was no market for a book like this was just completely wrong. But at the same time, it was controversial. It was challenged and banned all across the United States.

So that part of the process was intensely frustrating. But the other part is that I immediately started receiving a flood of letters and emails from grateful teens and adults. I've talked to the authors of other LGBT teen books, and we all get these incredibly touching letters. I've written non-LGBT books too, and I have fan mail about them too, but it's not the same thing, not in the same category at all.

So whenever I depressed by the controversy, I remember the letters and emails. There is a huge audience for these books. But sometimes the controversy makes it difficult for readers to get them.


That definitely is a great reminder about all your hard work, and the huge impact it's made on teen LGBT fiction. How did you first get published? Tell us your call story.


Like I said, a number of editors had wanted to publish it, but they couldn't get their houses to agree. Steve Fraser, my editor at HarperCollins, was rejected by the accountants there too. But he simply wouldn't take no for an answer. Finally, they said, "We still think this is going to flop, but you're obviously passionate, so we'll give you a tiny bit of money."

He called my agent, and she called me. I was overjoyed, of course. But the frustrating thing was that it took almost two years before the book was finally released!


And we readers are SO grateful he gave the book a chance! I know the first three books in the series were published by HarperTempest, an imprint of HarperCollins, but am curious as to why you chose the indie route for re-release and for the fourth book. Also, since you've had a taste of both large-house and self-publishing, could you share some advantages and disadvantages to both?

My experience with HarperCollins was mixed. I had six different editors in six years. I had some good editors, but just the revolving door alone made it tough. And of course I had a few editors that I didn't always see eye-to-eye with, so that made it even tougher.

But when I left HarperCollins in 2008, I asked them if I could have the rights back to these books. They were generous enough to say yes, but only for the last two books. So a year or so later, around 2010, I created my own imprint and published those two myself. I wasn't particularly interested in going that route (I still work with traditional publishers on other projects), but I knew no other publisher would be interested in these books since HarperCollins had kept the rights to Geography Club.

Anyway, to my surprise, the titles sold really well. Obviously, the technology has changed a lot in recent years, and that's made it possible to get the books to the readers all over the world in a way that wasn't possible before. And the royalty rate is so much higher that I can sell fewer books, but make a lot more money.

When it became clear last year that the Geography Club movie was really happening, I decided to write a new original book for the series. I'd always wanted to sort of wrap the series up, and that gave me perfect opportunity. I hired my first editor from HarperCollins (who is now an agent), and also my first copy-editor; this became The Elephant of Surprise.

Truthfully? I think it takes a very, very specific kind of project to become a successful indie title. I was lucky because this series was already pretty well-known, and I also have the publicity of the upcoming movie. But just releasing yet another novel without any traditional support or an existing media "hook," I think it's almost impossible to get much traction for your book or land any real sales (and with all the self-published stuff out there now, I think it's getting harder by the day). Yes, there might be one or two exceptions to the rule, but seriously—those are exceptions.

Basically, if I were an aspiring writer, I would definitely try the traditional route first. And if I couldn't sell anything, or at least land an agent, I think I'd assume it's because I wasn't yet writing at a professional level, or I wasn't writing books that are marketable. I'd take a good hard look at the work itself.

For what it's worth, I think a lot of self-published writers really discount the importance of a good editor. And I mean an EDITOR, not just a copy-editor. My first drafts suck. Some of my second drafts do too, but I can't always see it, at least at first. That's what an editor is for: to help you tear everything apart and rebuild it, so you're sure when it's released, it's the best possible book you can put out into the world.

Fortunately, working with my old editor, I sort of have the best of both worlds.


That's incredibly insightful, and interesting how you got to re-publish those books, too! Indeed, you're lucky in already having had publicity from HarperCollins to make your self-published titles successful—but then again, I'm sure the quality of the books influenced that success, too! Are the characters from the Russel Middlebrook series based off anyone you know in real life?

Russel is certainly "inspired" by me, and his two best friends Min and Gunnar were "inspired" by two of my friends. All through my life, I've also always had a thing for friendship trios. Maybe this has something do my being a gay teenager—life was safer that way.

But it's interesting how quickly Russel, Min, and Gunnar became their own characters. In my mind, they now seem totally different from myself and my actual friends. Embarrassingly, I think of them as real people. Even now, when people ask me who they're based on, my first impulse is to think, "What do you mean 'based on'? They're real people!" Which I guess is the goal of writing fiction, right?


LOL! Nothing to be embarrassed about—it just shows how well you've crafted them... and trust me, everyone, they sure feel like real characters to me! How much else of your actual life gets written into your stories?

It's both "very little" and "quite a bit." Almost nothing is exactly what happened to me. But almost everything was "inspired" by something—like the night of that support group I mentioned earlier.

It's not that I need to know how something feels before I can write about it—writing is all about imagination. But isn't it interesting that if I have experienced the feelings of something, it's a lot more compelling to me?


Yes, yes, yes—I so agree. Fiction is definitely about creation, but it's so much more genuine if you can write it from the heart. How difficult was it finding Russel's narrative voice—writing from the perspective of an angsty, insecure, gay teenage boy?

It was hard to find the exact voice at first, but it's not anymore. I feel pretty close to Russel. I'm not claiming his mix of insecurity, angst, humor, and optimism is representative of ALL teenagers. But I was trying hard not to make him the "typical" movie or novel teen character. I often find those characters are either too blase and sophisticated or too angst-y and depressed, so neither of them quite ring true for me. Russel is sort of a mix between the two: hyper-aware in some respects, and totally clueless in others. Which happens to have been a lot like I was back then, I think!

What do you consider your biggest strengths and weaknesses as an author?

I try hard to write books that people like to read. I want to write books that are smart and hopefully thought-provoking, but also fun and entertaining: dessert, not broccoli. The most frequent comment I get from readers is that my books are “page-turners,” which makes me very happy, because that is exactly what I want them to be. If I had to describe my own books, I would say, “Strong central concept, strong plot, strong character and voice.” (I may not always succeed in creating these things, but they’re what I always strive for).

As for my own weaknesses, I probably don't have as thick a skin as I could. The job of a writer isn't to be adored. It's to be read. And reading fiction is all about an emotional response, some good, some bad. It's literally a writer's job to be analyzed and criticized.

That said, I stay as far away from criticism as I can. I write the book, and my job is pretty much done. While I'm writing the book, I listen to criticism from my editors and early readers. But once I'm done writing it, that means I'm satisfied. It also means it's out of my hands—it can't be changed. I let other people have their own reactions, and I don't want to intrude. I also don't want it to bum me out! It can be such an emotional roller-coaster if you let it, because obviously everyone reacts to a book differently. Again, that's the whole point. But I don't want to be there to watch. I'd never get out of bed if I did.


Gah, I can only imagine. Criticism—especially from unnecessarily brutal reviewers who pick at books just for the sake of it—can be really tough. It's great that you don't let all that get to you and just do what you're supposed to do: write. Name the top five novels that have made the biggest impact on your life or on your writing.

When I was a small kid, The Chronicles of Narnia taught me that books could be fun. When I was an older teenager, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant taught me that big books weren't necessarily boring. And The Outsiders taught me that even realistic books could be relevant and interesting.

And lately, honestly, The Hunger Games has taught me that you can take a pretty hackneyed concept and, if you're talented enough, give it a wonderful, fresh new spin. Katniss is just one of the greatest characters ever written (at least until the third book, which didn't really work for me).


All those are some of my childhood classics too! With the exception of The Hunger Games, which I have, but STILL have yet to read (I'm ridiculous, I know!) Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you had known before getting published.

On some level, I think I was under the impression that everyone shared my taste in books. I'd read some critical darling or a bestseller, and I'd hate it, see all these flaws, and I'd think, "Well, if people like this book, they're going to love mine!"

Now, of course, I understand that's not how it works: everyone sees every book differently—REALLY differently! Those books that I hate—that seem so obviously flawed to me? Other people really do love them! It's not just that they haven't read the right books: they'd probably read the books I love and hate them just as much as I hate the books they love.

I won't say that awards and reviews sometimes seem completely random to me—I still believe that cream usually rises to the top, and that the audience is usually right (although some successes still do completely baffle me).

But the point is, you just can't control how people respond to your book. I mean, I always knew it was out of the writer's control, but it's REALLY out of your control.

But in a way, once you really internalize that, it's kind of liberating. Because then you can stop worrying about how others will react to your book and just write the book you would love to read.


Excellent, excellent advice. You can't really anticipate anything from readers, because everyone has their own preferences, but you shouldn't let that get to you because that's not what penning a novel is about. Now give us your best personal advice—something you wish you had known when you were younger and would offer to your own kids.

The more you give, the more you get. If you're a bitchy, selfish, or entitled jerk, you will attract people just like that into your life, and you'll end up bitter, lonely, and miserable. But if you're cool to others, you'll attract cool people as your friends. Sometimes it takes a while for this dynamic to play out, but this is always how it ends up in the end.

Oh, and whether you're popular or not in high school is completely irrelevant to the rest of your life. It seems so important at the time, but it just isn't, not at all.


Your words really resonate with me, because I think that's something teenagers—and even some adults—don't realize until they've been burned and it's already too late. So, thank you for that! What would you say are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

Persistence, a really thick skin, and an ability to be open to criticism but also stick to your vision.

But while sanity is certainly the goal of being a writer, I'm not sure any writer is completely sane. We do this incredibly personal thing, sharing our most intimate feelings and selves. But then we're not supposed to take it personally when people reject and criticize us. Is that really even possible?


Ahaha you're right—in and of itself, writers are automatically a bit crazy. But that's what he love about them! What’s the most interesting comment you have ever received about your books? 



Sometimes close friends read my books and say, "Wow, this book is really, really you!" I don’t really think about my books like that when I'm writing them—I try to keep some professional difference.

But when all is said and done, I think they're right: certain books of mine, definitely all of the books in the Russel Middlebrook series, couldn't have been written by anyone else, not at all. They're completely, uniquely "me." And that makes me very happy. Talk about self-expression!


I think that's an enormous achievement, to really put such a large portion into yourself into a novel. Books, like people, need to be unique—need to be personal and individual and real—in order to really connect. And your books do that perfectly. What is the message in your series that you want readers to grasp?

No "message" exactly. The book has a theme or two, for sure, but mostly I just want my readers to be entertained: to laugh and cry and relate and be surprised.

If there's any point to all my YA books, it's that teenagers are smarter and more sensitive than most adults realize, and their lives are more complicated. The one thing that every adult has in common is that we were all once teenagers. So why don't more adults remember better what it was really like? I don't get it.


You're spot on! It's hard being a teenager—not only emotionally, but in not knowing who you are yet—and adults usually dismiss that as immaturity or hormone-induced histrionics. But that's so not true; young adults experience the same troubles and feelings that adults do, with the pressure of high school, parents, first times (in everything!), academics, and identity. What are your goals as a writer?

My personal goal has always been to be read at least enough to make a living doing what I love (and it's worked out so far at least!). My creative goal is always to be entertaining and compelling, while also being honest and authentic. Whether I've succeeded at that, that's for the reader to decide.


Switching gears now, tell us a bit about the Geography Club film! Congrats on the movie deal, by the way—I can't wait to watch it!!! Here's the official trailer, courtesy of Shoreline Entertainment:

There are really only two ways movies get made: (1) everyone thinks the project will make a lot of money, or (2) a handful of people feel so passionately about the project that they move heaven and earth to get it made, even if people DON'T necessarily think it will make a lot of money.

The movie was definitely number two—a passion project. Once the book was published, we had movie interest right away. And over the next ten years, it was optioned and developed by a series of different producers. But everyone kept coming to dead end. The money people always said, "There's no market for a movie about gay teens. It won't make any money!"

But these latest producers refused to take no for an answer. They moved heaven and earth, and they got it done. It's a little different from the book, but it's a really good movie. And they've treated me like a king. Everyone who worked on the movie, cast and crew, was asked to read the book—and almost all of them did. I've been involved with movie projects before, and the kind of respect for the source material almost never happens.


Wow, that's amazing of them. Both the you and the actors are so lucky to have gotten this experience! The trailer made my spine tingle... now I REALLY need to watch it! Here are a few pictures from on set Brent has shared with us. Look at all these wonderful, beautiful people!

Before we conclude this interview, Brent, share with us what dreams have been realized as a result of your writing.

I used to dream that I'd be a famous actor, and a pop music star, and a screenwriter, and a movie director. But now that I'm older, I realize that you can work your whole life at just one of those things and still only just begin to understand the craft. That's the way I feel about writing: it takes at least ten years to be any good at all, to have any idea what you're doing.

I love writing so much, I'm so satisfied with what I do, that now I don't really have any desire to do anything else. So I guess, when it comes right down to it, my life "dream" has been realized, even if it's not quite the dream I had when I started out 
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That's more than enough if you think about what you've accomplished. Where can you be found on the web?


It was an absolute treat having you over at the blog today, Brent! Thank you so much for joining us, and for sharing your insightful, moving personal experiences and thoughts.


Giveaway!


Brent has been generous enough to offer a copy of the newest book in the Russel Middlebrook series, The Elephant of Surprise to one lucky commenter at Books à la Mode! To enter, tell me something relevant to the interview or LGBT fiction. Here are some pointers:

What do you think about young adult LGBT fiction? Do you think it's inappropriate for adolescent readers, or do you want to see more of it? Are there any titles in particular that stand out to you? Share with us!
Please make it MEANINGFUL—comments only consisting of "I think it's alright" or "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry!!!!

You might have guessed from my glowing reviews for Brent's books, but I LOVE it and think we need to see more of it. Since Geography Club was written, in the past ten years, it's really evolved in the YA genre, which is amazing. I think gay fiction makes for incredible coming-of-age stories, and who says it should be excluded in times like ours? We should see an equal amount of it in teen novels, because there are teenagers today—both homo- and heterosexual—who need the insight, the encouragement, the escape. Some of my favorite LGBT books are Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (or anything he writes, really!) and Kissing Kate by Lauren Myracle. I read them way way back and they were the first books I read with gay protagonists, which was not only a fresh, but also underrated perspective.

After commenting, please fill out this Rafflecopter form to keep track of all your entries. You can enter even without commenting if you follow Brent or me somehow. You know the drill:
Rules and Disclosure:
Giveaway ends 15 April 2013 at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open internationally! Woohooo! However, only US residents will be eligible for the print copy. Readers outside the country will receive an eBook copy in their format of choice.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their prizes will be forfeited.
Although I do select winners via Rafflecopter (Random.org), I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤ Plus you get extra entries ;)
Good luck!