In 2003 Brent Hartinger wrote a book called Geography Club about a kid named Russel Middlebrook who lives in a small town where he is sure there are no other gay teens like him. Turns out Russel had it wrong and that’s the start of a story that been a YA sensation for ten years and is soon going to be a movie. With the movie in production and his fourth Russel Middlebrook book, The Elephant of Surprise, out this year, Brent Hartinger is here at the blog today to answer some of my questions.
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
Brent Hartinger (BH): I was a dorky kid, always working on some creative project with my friends — making movies, putting on a haunted house. I loved it — I hated school, but I loved those projects. So when I graduated from college, I thought, “I want to do something that makes me feel like I felt when I was a kid!”
Easier said than done, right? It took me fifteen years before I made any money from my fiction. Then again, it took me (at least!) fifteen years to learn how to write well too.
MP: What was the inspiration for Geography Club?
BH: 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, a pick-up driving hick, a drag queen.
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.
MP: When it was first published Geography Club was a complete surprise jumping to a third printing by the end of its second week of publication. Now, ten years later, Geography Club is being made into a movie. Did you think your book would have this kind of staying power? What was it like when you first heard about the movie?
BH: The thing is, most of us only hear about books that are smash hits. We don’t hear about the flops. How would we? So, naturally, before you’re published, you assume your book will be a big hit too. But that’s not the way it works: the vast majority of books sell just okay, or are outright flops.
Even so, the success of Geography Club has pretty much exceeded my wildest imagination at the time. Who can explain it? I only wish all my books sold that well!
As for the movie, the rights were first optioned just months after it was published in 2003, and it went through lots of different producers – it almost got made a few times, but it always seemed to fall through. So when I learned in 2011 that it was finally really going to happen, I was, like, “Uh huh. Sure.” In fact, even on the plane down to Los Angeles to the set, I was thinking, “I bet this still isn’t going to happen.” And when I got home, after the wrap party and everything, I remember thinking, “Boy, I really hope they back up their files!”
At that point, I’d been around the block a few times. But it did happen, and I’m overjoyed.
MP: Were you involved in the movie adaptation? Have you gotten to see any of the film? Is there any scene you’re especially excited to see on the big screen?
BH: I wasn’t involved much, although they did ask my opinion from time-to-time. In a way, that’s okay with me. They’re much, much less pressure: I get credit if the movie’s well-received, but I don’t get blamed if it’s not.
It helps that I have another movie that I wrote that will hopefully film this spring. Being involved with two movies in the span of a year has been wonderful. I feel like I’ve made so many new friends.
As for Geography Club, I finally saw it two weeks ago (and as I said, I was also on the set for a while). I’m pretty confident it’ll be well-received, because it’s very good. A little different from the book, but good.
An interesting thing about the individual scenes. I was watching them film one scene that was right out of the book and that also basically happened to me as a teenager. And as I was watching, I sort of had this weird, out-of-body experience where reality all ran together, and I couldn’t quite remember which part happened to me, which I made up, and which I was seeing in front of my eyes.
Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQb2-a685sw
MP: One of my favorite things about Geography Club is that even when things get heavy, Russel maintains a sense of humor. Was it hard to balance a “funny” book with “serious” topics?
BH: Thank you. It was hard at first, but everything’s hard at first, when you’re trying to figure out a certain “tone” for your book and the “voice” on your character. But I knew from the very, very beginning that I wanted to write a gay teen book that wasn’t doom-and-gloom, where the main character was basically an optimistic guy.
This was partly because all the other gay stories at the time (in the 1990s), especially the teen ones, were all so angst-y and serious. But it also speaks to my general sensibility and my memories of my teen years. For a lot of people — for me anyway — the teen years were a time of extremes: high highs and low lows. Weirdly, I think a lot of adults remember the depression and angst, but they forget the fun. I’ve tried hard to include both in the whole series.
But like I said, ultimately Russel’s an optimist at heart. Basically, I am too.
MP: You’ve followed Russel and his friends over the course of three books with The Elephant of Surprise coming out this year. While the books are set in a relatively short span, the actual writing has spanned several years. What is it like to keep returning to these characters?
BH: Oh, I love these character, especially the central trio of Russel, Min, and Gunnar. I never get bored with them! I could write about them forever.
But there was one part that was difficult. As you say, the books are set over the course of a year, but the writing took place over thirteen years. And in those thirteen years, things have changed a lot.
For example, when I wrote Geography Club in 2000, it was unusual for a school to have a gay-straight alliance, especially outside of the big cities. That’s a lot less true today. Technology has changed a lot too: teenagers didn’t all have cell-phones back then.
In the end, I decided for myself that the books take place around 2007-2008. But that’s just a technical issue for me, the writer. If I did my job right, the reader won’t even notice.
MP: Speaking of characters, a lot of the peripheral characters in this series are entertaining, unique individuals. Did you have any character in Geography Club (or any of the other books) that was more fun to write than others? Was any character harder to write?
BH: The central trio, Russel, Min, and Gunnar are always pure joy. They’re all so different. I also love writing about their friendship — how they affect each other, how they joke around.
Difficult characters? It’s always hard to write a romantic love object: it’s soooo easy to spill over into stereotype or cliche. But of course, you do that and the character becomes boring, and you lose what makes a romance interesting.
Kevin, the major love interest, appears in the first, third, and fourth books in the series. I’m not sure I had a handle on him in Geography Club. But in Double Feature (book #3), I think I really got his essence — especially if you read both halves of that book (we see the same period of time from two different perspectives, and suffice to say: perspective is EVERYTHING when it comes to Kevin).
Wade, the romantic interest in this latest book, The Elephant of Surprise, was also difficult because he has a very big secret. When you have a character with a secret, it’s hard because you want to give clues so the twist at the end makes sense, but at the same time, you don’t want to give it away.
MP: The Elephant of Surprise, the fourth book in the Russel Middlebrook series comes out on March 30 (the ten year anniversary of Geography Club’s publication!). Can you tell readers what to expect from book four? Will we be seeing more of Russel in the future?
BH: Well, my theory on sequels is that people THINK they want to know what happens “next” in a story — they think they want a continuation of the last book. But that’s not really what they want, because if a story is told well, it’s resolved. It’s over.
No, what readers want is a sequel that makes them FEEL the way that first book made them feel. To do that, you need to give your characters a whole new story: new challenges, new themes, new secondary characters, new twists, new resolutions.
In The Order of the Poison Oak (the second book in the series), the three main characters go to work at a summer camp for burn survivors — and Russel learns about sex and betrayal. In Double Feature, they get jobs as zombie extras working on a horror film — and Russel has to deal with his parents, and also a long-distance relationship.
And in The Elephant of Surprise, this latest book, Russel gets involved with a mysterious (and handsome) guy who’s a member of a group called “freegans.”
Freegans are actually a real-life group of environmentalists who give up all their possessions and live on the streets, foraging for food and other necessities. I remember reading about them years ago. And the more I researched them for this book, the more interesting they became. It’s a totally different kind of life – and as Russel learns in the book, it’s a pretty fascinating one, and in some ways, even a very romantic one.
And dramatically speaking, there’s nothing like a character who makes your main character question everything about his life. That’s the function Wade (the freegan) has with Russel in The Elephant of Surprise.
And, of course, it’s worth mentioning that I finally wrap up the Russel/Kevin storyline once and for all!
As for another book, it’s very, very possible. It depends on how well this one sells. But if I do it, I’ll jump five years into the future, with Russel in college.
And if Geography Club, the movie, is a hit, there’s already talk of doing the next book as a movie too.
MP: What’s one thing you hope readers will take away from reading Geography Club or the rest of the series?
BH: This sounds hokey, but it’s not really about a message or a point. I just want them to enjoy themselves, to be entertained. I’m a storyteller, after all. So I want them to have gotten lost in the story, to have been unable to put the book down.
But in a “macro” sense, I’m never sad when people gain a new perspective on teenagers, or gay folks, or burn survivors, or freegans, or human beings!
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
BH: Well, all the usual advice applies: read everything; learn the craft (and the business!) of writing; network like hell; don’t read reviews and certainly don’t respond to bad ones; never be a jerk or a diva; get an agent to make sure you’re not being screwed, and never sign the first contract; be open to criticism even as you hold fast to your vision.
But there’s one piece of advice that I don’t read that often.
When I was younger, I was under the impression that most 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 that I’ve been published, 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 (not necessarily with every good book, but definitely with every good writer). 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 damn book you’d love to read.