April 26, 2013

Interview with Brent Hartinger

Brent with actress Nikki Blonsky (Hairspray)
Today I have a special treat for you guys!  An interview with Brent Hartinger, the author of THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE, which I reviewed earlier today.  I previously reviewed his novel PROJECT SWEET LIFE.  Brent is most well known for writing GEOGRAPHY CLUB about a group of kids who start a club for LGBTQ teens under a boring name to keep people away.  (And this interview will have pictures once I convince Blogger it doesn't hate me.)


1.  LGBTQ-themed YA novels have come a long way since GEOGRAPHY CLUB's publication ten years ago.  Where do you hope the genre will be ten years from now?
This is a great question! The fact is, the genre has changed sooooo much from ten years ago that's it's probably impossible to answer what it'll be like in ten years.

But I know what I *hope* it will be: I hope gay characters and LGBT themes will be a complete non-issue. They'll be lots of different LGBT characters -- especially different races, different classes, and different cultures. They'll be leading LGBT characters in not just literary fiction, but also humor books and genre stuff and popular fiction -- true bestsellers, I mean, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter or Twilight.

Oh, and when I say "LGBT," I definitely mean "lesbian" and "bisexual" too. Those two groups especially are still way under-represented in YA, relative to their numbers. I hope people will look back and say, "Gay characters used to be controversial? Why?!"

All this said, I hope LGBT surprises me in some way too. I hope some of the books takes some incredible turn that no one, including me, ever expected.
2.  Was it hard to write in Russel's voice again after several years?

The Elephant of SurpriseHonestly, Russel came back to me pretty quickly. That was the least difficult part of THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE.

The hard part was probably the subject matter. The story in a nutshell?  Russel is bored and wants more adventure in his life. So he begins a wildly passionate romance with a mysterious guy he first meets scrounging food in a Dumpster. The guy's a "freegan," someone who's voluntarily choosing to be homeless. He and his friends eat roadkill and squat in houses and explore abandoned buildings. He's got this whole, fantastic philosophy worked out. Okay, so "romance" and "Dumpster diving" are not themes you usually see associated together, right? And that was exactly the point! I wanted to do something really unusual and attention-getting and *different* -- not like a thousand other YA books you've read before.

But I knew two things from the very beginning: First, that my readers would "get it." I think they know that when you read a "Brent Hartinger" book, things won't necessarily be "normal." Russel's last big romance was with a burn survivor who has a huge scar covering half of his face. And my readers totally love Otto (I do too). But with this new book, I also knew it might be something of a hard sell to the larger world. It's not about a girl who turns out to be a princess. I would have to work hard to make the case that a guy who eats out of Dumpsters and breaks into abandoned buildings can be a figure of great mystery and romance.

I think/hope I pulled it off -- I tried to do it with humor. You can get away with a lot if your main character is funny. But I had to give this all a lot of thought, to figure out how to get the casual reader to come along on this journey with me.

Brent with Cameron Deane Stewart in character as Russel
3.  GEOGRAPHY CLUB has been made into a movie, coming out soon.  Once you knew it was really going to happen, what was your greatest fear about your work being adapted?  Your greatest hope?
I never worried too much about whether or not it was faithful to the book (and the resulting movie is in some ways, and it also isn't at all in others). I've been in this business for a long time, and I know how movie adaptations work. I was just thrilled it finally happened, because it took a long time -- it was once almost a big-budget movie, then a micro-budget indie movie, then a TV series. In the end, it's a modestly budgeted indie film, which is probably what it should have been all along.

Anyway, I wanted it to at least be "good," and I wanted it to be a success, because the more of a success the movie is, the more interest there is in my books (which don't change whether the movie is faithful or not). I already know the movie's good -- I saw it a couple of weeks ago -- but I still don't know how successful it will be.

4.  You self-published THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE along with reprints of the second two Russel Middlebrook novels, originally published by an imprint of HarperCollins. What are some of the challenges of self-publishing?
You know, I didn't really want to self-publish. But I'd been frustrated with HarperCollins -- I'd had six different editors in six years. So I left. But I kept getting all these emails from people who wanted the books available (two were out-of-print). But I knew no other publisher would be interested, since HarperCollins still had the rights to the first book.

So I self-published new ebook and paperback editions of those two books. I didn't get rich, but they did surprisingly well. That's when I decided to do a fourth book as a self-published original. I hired my first editor and my first copy-editor. So the process wasn't *that* different than being traditionally published ... except I didn't get paid in advance, and I did a lot more of the work myself.

First of all, there are all the technical challenges, which are legion. You have to learn typesetting, coding, graphic design, copy-editing, proof-reading, book promotion, and on and on. But probably the biggest challenge is just getting attention for your book. People mock traditional publishing, but they act as "quality control." There are now hundreds of thousands of self-published titles out there, and let's face it: a lot of them are very bad. Traditional publishers tell bookstores and the media: "we think this book is so good we were willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars publishing it!" And the media listen.

So I don't know if I would have done this if I didn't have something of a name and a following, and if one of the books in the series wasn't being turned into a movie. I think that made it a little easier to get the word out. But it was still a lot harder than when HarperCollins was doing it.

The good news is that I paid for my production costs (which were $3000) a week before the book's official release date, just in advance orders. So now I think I'll probably make at least as much off THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE than I did from most of those books published by HarperCollins. I hope so, because I killed myself putting this thing together.

5.  Do you have any other books coming out soon? 

A few years back, I co-founded a website (AfterElton.com, now called TheBacklot.com). My partners and I sold the website to MTV a few years later, and then I worked there until about 2010. Which was great for me financially. But unfortunately, it really got in the way of my writing.

But I've been really productive since then. I have a movie that I wrote that (I think) will go into production this spring -- that should be out in 2014. I have a sci-fi book that I'm about half finished with and that I'm hoping to place with Kindle Serials. And I have a fantasy series that just went out to publishers from my agent. Plus, I have a couple of other screenplays that I've been actively pitching.

The fact is, there is *nothing* I'd rather be doing than writing books and screenplays.


  1. Great interview! It's always interesting to hear how people are getting their work published these days. I do hope the movie is a success and it helps Brent's books! Always a plus. :)

    1. I hope it's a success too! I also hope that it shows near me.

  2. Love this interview! Especially this: "I hope people will look back and say, "Gay characters used to be controversial? Why?!"

    Totally agree! I'll have to read Geography Club, it sounds really interesting, and I can't believe I've never heard of it until now. That's so cool that there's going to be a movie!

    1. Thanks! I'm glad I could bring Geography Club to your attention!

  3. Great interview! Just infuriating that non-mainstream books have to get self-published to get anywhere! But hopefully as it becomes more common, they will get more "respect" or less avoidance from readers. (And personally I've always thought romance and dumpster diving go together! LOL)

    1. I think Brent Hartinger has plenty of respect, but he was traditionally published first.


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