Monday, July 30, 2012

Talking with Brent Hartinger, author of Geography Club

I’d like to welcome Brent Hartinger, author of Geography Club and more in the Russell Middlebook series.

Mr. Hartinger’s first book was published in 2003. Since then, he has gone on to publish many more “page turner” YA novels -- not to mention his ongoing work in play and screen writing, counseling and teaching.

I’ll steal a line directly from his website here:  Brent’s many writing honors include being named the winner of the Lambda Book Award, the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award, a GLAAD Media Award, the National Best Book Award, and a Book Sense Pick (four times).
Pretty amazing, right? I’m honored that Mr. Hartinger was able to take time to do the following interview for us all at Carpe Keyboard. Welcome, Brent!


Carpe Keyboard:  I read about Geography Club in a recent article on Huffington Post. The article wasn’t about the story – but about how you have sold the movie rights. Congratulations! What is it like to get a call like that? To know your novel is going to go to the big screen?

Well, it's incredibly validating. I mean, someone wants to spend millions of dollars making of a movie based on a story that you just invented out of thin air? How can that not be incredibly flattering? I was at the movie shoot the night they shot a scene in a stadium with a thousand extras. Looking at all the actors, and the cranes and cameras and all those extras, I thought, "I wonder if this is how the Pharaohs felt when they were watching them build the pyramids!"

But "the call" you're talking about isn't exactly what you think. It's been such a long, grueling process getting here, such an emotional roller-coaster. The rights to the book were first optioned right after the book came out in 2003. For the next ten years, producers came and went, directors came and went, financing came and went. Contracts were written and rewritten as options expired. Every possible scenario you can imagine, it happened. My hopes had risen and been dashed dozens of times. And I've gone through the movie thing on other projects too, other books and screenplays and plays.

So when another producer -- the fourth -- finally invoked their option and purchased the rights a year or so ago, I was still thinking, "Well, the money is nice, but the movie probably won't ever happen." Like I said, I've gone through this before, had many promises and assurances made to me, and it NEVER ended up happening.

Then it finally really did. Until the day the movie wrapped, I was thinking, "Something's going to go wrong!" Just last week, I thought to myself, "I hope the director and the editor are making copies of the footage in case their computers crash!"

But at this point, I think we're finally good. And I'm over the moon about it. Just couldn't be happier with the production or the script or the cast. And to top things off, they've treated me like royalty. For ten years, I was living every horrible Hollywood cliche, but with this movie, it's been the opposite, in a wonderful way, of what you always hear.

CP:  Russell and his friends' dialog and actions rang so true. Your characters never felt forced or fake – but like we were peeking into the lives of actual teenagers. Was that voice hard to come by? When did you realize you could write in the voice of a teenager?
It's an excellent question, but it's funny how I never thought like that before I had been published and reviewed. I never thought about it all. I just knew I'd worked with teenagers a lot, I knew I like teen books, and I knew I related to teenagers in a really basic way. Even today, whenever one of my adult friends complains about their teenager, I almost always secretly side with the teenager -- even without hearing his or her side of the story!

I do remember being frustrated by all the dour, depressed, and sarcastic teen voices in YA literature. To me, that's a cliche, that's how teens act on bad TV -- how adults THINK teens sound, because that's the teen they see. But that's only how teens act around adults. When they're around their good friends, most teens have a great time. Sure, it's hell sometimes, but I had some of the best times of my life as a teenager, even as a closeted gay teenager. Why don't more adults remember how incredibly fun and freeing the teen years can be?

Anyway, it was really, really important that my book include more than just teen angst. That's the key to the teen years, IMHO: the low-lows, but also the high-highs. It's the extremes, the worst of times, but also the best of times. That's why good teen stories are so appealing, those extremes, why they make such good, universal drama.

Now, of course, I'm much more conscious of whether my book teen voice sounds "authentic." I'm much more aware of craft in general. That's good in a way, because I think my voice really is better now, better crafted. But on the other hand, it was nice to be so innocent. In a way, I think that innocence contributed to the authenticity of my first few books.

CP: In my own writing life, I’ve read lots about the character’s arc or the character’s journey. Russell takes quite a journey of his own in this book – of self-discovery, crushes, difficult decisions (and a few bad ones). Did you map out a character arc for him either before or during writing? Or do you use a more organic method?
I'm an outliner. My books usually end up being pretty different from my outlines, but I always know how the story is going to end before I write a word.

When I first started writing, I really resisted the whole idea of outlines and structure. I used to say I thought it was too confining, but I think I was really just lazy. I wanted to get to the fun and easy part, which is writing those first three chapters, before you have to deal with the dreaded second act, what the book is ABOUT.

Then I started writing plays and screenplays, and I realized that structure is essential, just ESSENTIAL, for what I consider to be compelling storyline. I know some people can do structure intuitively, but I still think most people can't. Alas, I think a lot of people, even some readers, just don't care that much about plot or structure. But it's so important to me, and it's, frankly, annoying that more critics don't seem to respect the beauty of truly well-crafted plot. Language, they appreciate, and character and voice. But plot? It's like they couldn't care less. Oh, it's nice if the ending is inevitable, yet completely unexpected -- the hallmark of a good ending -- but it's certainly not required or anything.

For me, it IS required. It's one of the essential elements of storytelling. For me, a book with a thin plot is like a book with cardboard or cliched characters. Character and plot are BOTH essential. Maybe it goes back to my thinking like a teenage boy, but I am IMMEDIATELY bored with meandering, sloppy, or non-existence plots, even if they're beautifully written.

Now I know everyone sees the world differently, and viva la difference! But this is one of those differences that I truly have a hard time understanding, because it's so far from my experience. I'll read a plot-less book or see a plot-less movie, and I think, "Why isn't the whole world as bored as I am with this thing?"

But for the record? My fascination with plot? I totally think that's part of the reason why my books have attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. Movies are ALL about plot. So it's nice to know there's one place where being a "plot" guy really, really helps. 

Basically, plot won't win you any awards, but it sure helps pay the bills. And it gets you lots of appreciative readers. 

CP:  Geography Club tackles some sensitive topics… did you see reservation from the young adult publishing community about representing a novel about gay teens and their stories?
Ha! Boy, did I ever! I wrote the first draft of the book in 1990, and I spent the next eleven years trying to sell it. I heard from so many editors how much they loved it -- three even took it to acquisitions. But they, and I, were always told: "It's too controversial. A book about gay teens won't sell. Libraries won't buy it, and bookstores won't stock it."

And the thing is, they may have been right at the time. It was a VERY different world back in the 1990s. There was a few other gay teen novels, and a couple, like Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, were even really good. But I think if my book had sold, it would have come out, sold a few thousand copies, and disappeared into the ether.

So it's probably a good thing that it wasn't until 2001 that an editor at HarperCollins, Stephen Fraser, bought it. He had to fight tooth-and-nail, and the advance was almost nothing. But when the book came out in early 2003, the world was ready. By the end of the first week, we'd gone into a third printing.

CP:  When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Well, I am so not one of those writers who writes every day. I wish I was, and I respect that, because I think writing is ALL about dedication and discipline. But I hate writing. It destroys me, just consumes me. I love having written -- I feel an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment. But while I'm in the middle of it, I become obsessed. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't think of anything else. I have this weird quirk where once I start something, I have to finish it.

It sounds nuts, doesn't it? It IS nuts. I might even be a little manic in that respect -- although, thank God, I never get depressed. But I'm glad I am the way I am, because it's served me very, very well. When I'm working, I am incredibly productive. But when I'm not working, which happens from time to time, I am soooo not working. I'm busy reading and playing video games and watching movies and going on hikes and bike rides. I don't even think about my books. Never. I don't get ideas, I don't keep a notebook. I totally have to turn it on. Everyone has their own process. By this point, I'm very familiar and very happy with mine.

CP:  How about your editing process? Can you tell us how you go about moving from a first draft into editing? And how do you know when you are ready to share a manuscript with the outside world?
It's an excellent question. I think the biggest mistake new writers make is not structure or outlining their stories. But the second biggest mistake is not revising, not knowing what to do with a first draft.

My first drafts suck. They really, really do! Even working from an outline, there's always some massive contrivance, and some huge plot revelation that isn't working at all, character arcs that aren't developed, writing that's sloppy.

So I show my partner, and he tries to help me see all the flaws I'm usually very resistant to see or even admit. It can get snippy and nasty. But I eventually see the light. Then I rewrite. Then he sees the book again, and I rewrite again. Then it goes out to a handful of readers, and I initially resist but ultimately accept their feedback too, and then I rewrite again.

Then it finally goes to my editor (if it's under contract) or my agent (if it's a spec book that we're trying to sell). But that, of course, is just the beginning of the "actual" editing process. I'll usually do at least one more draft with the editor. But I have been told by quite a few editors that my submissions are pretty "clean." I think that's because I've already rewritten the book four times before he or she even saw it!

Here's the thing: we're all terrible judges of our own work. We all think we're geniuses. We're not, but we just can't see it. We know what we're trying to say, but it's not necessarily reflected in our words. On one hand, I'm excited by the rise of indie e-publishing. But on the other hand, I'm frustrated, because I'm seeing all these people publishing the first or second drafts of their books. The books could have been good if they'd finished the writing process, but they didn't. They got impatient.

Writing is rewriting. I'm not the first one to say it, but it's true. It's literally the difference between an amateur and professional. Every professional writer I know knows that the first draft is just the start of a long, complicated, difficult, horrible process.

Oh, are we done already? Thanks! Loved the craft questions. I wish more people would ask me about that!

And feel free to have your readers check out my website or follow me on Twitter or Facebook

Mr. Hartinger has generously offered up a book – your choice of any of his published novels! – as a giveaway for Carpe Keyboard readers. So… you know the rules. Leave a comment below, contribute to the discussion of Mr. Hartinger’s work and his interview. I’ll put your name in the proverbial (and in this case, literal) hat for the drawing!
I’ll draw a winner on Monday, August 6 and announce it here on CP.


  1. wow fantastic interview! I didn't know about these novels but am intrigued!!! (and heartened by his comment "my first drafts suck" because mine do too!) I'd love to read any of these books!

  2. I love this part: "Writing is rewriting. I'm not the first one to say it, but it's true. It's literally the difference between an amateur and professional. Every professional writer I know knows that the first draft is just the start of a long, complicated, difficult, horrible process."
    Gives me hope!!

  3. I am also happy to hear that a writer as good as Brent struggles with first drafts that have those "massive contrivances" or other huge problems. I thought the third Russel Middlebrook book was one of the most new and original things I've read. I read it years ago and still think about the "reveals" in the respective storylines from time to time.

    1. Ben -- I haven't read the third one yet, but am looking forward to it. Thanks for visiting CP! --Karen

    2. Ah, thank you, Ben! I'm proud of that third Russel Middlebrook book (and the twist you have to read both stories to understand). But it was HELL to write -- two completely different takes on the same basic events. :-)

    3. Yo. Ben. You won, dude! I can't find a way to contact you other than to reply to your comment I hope you see this! Please email me (see "winner" post from Monday) to select one of Brent's books... I'd hate for you to miss out!!

  4. Great interview!

    I really appreciated Brent's comment: "Why don't more adults remember how incredibly fun and freeing the teen years can be?" It really amazes me how adults seem to completely forget their teen years. For a high school reunion, we were asked to fill out on-line surveys. One question was along the lines of: "Are teenagers different now than when we were in high school?" I was so stunned when I saw how many of my classmates said that teens are different now. My comment on my survey was that there are differences--technology is MUCH different now. But certain things have NOT changed. A classmate who is now a high school teacher told me how right I was. Other classmates probably thought I was nuts...but many thought that years ago in high school, anyway. But that's another topic...

    1. Good point, John... I often find myself wondering how a conversation with my teenage self (or my friends as teenagers) would go today. You know? Do I really remember what it was like -- or would I be surprised by the outlook, joys, fears, etc. if I could talk to my old self and my friends at that age...

    2. Isn't it funny, John? I totally agree that teenagers are basically the same now, hairstyles and technological differences aside.

  5. And the winner of one of Brent's novels is... Ben Kinney! Congratulations, Ben! Send me your mailing address and the title of the book you wish to receive and I'll take care of the rest.