Brent Hartinger on Brent Hartinger: “In addition to the books in the Geography Club series (HarperCollins, 2003-), Brent Hartinger is the author of the teen novels The Last Chance Texaco (HarperCollins, 2004) and Grand & Humble (HarperCollins, 2006). His May 2007 release, Dreamquest (Starscape), is the first in a middle grade fantasy series entitled Tales of Slumberia. Also a playwright and a screenwriter, Mr. Hartinger has both a stage and screen adaptation of Geography Club in active development. He lives in Tacoma, Washington, but would much rather you visit him online at www.brenthartinger.com.”
We first spoke in 2003 about the pubication of your debut novel, Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003) and then again in 2005 on the banning of that same title. Could you briefly catch us up on your books published since?
Yes, you’ve been so supportive, Cyn, right from the beginning! Incidentally, do you do windows?
Let’s see. I wrote The Last Chance Texaco, a teen novel about kids in a group home, and Grand &; Humble, a thriller with a “twist” ending that’s hopefully a real mind-bender. And I wrote two sequels to Geography Club: The Order of the Poison Oak, which came out in 2005, and Split Screen, which is just out now.
But to tell the truth? I’ve always been a productive writer. I think that’s because I’ve supported myself from my writing since 1989 and if I don’t write, I don’t eat. So when I talk to writers who tell me it takes them three years to write a book, I think, “Really? Um…why?” I mean, maybe if you’re talking War and Peace, but a 250-page teen novel? What exactly do these folks do all day? They always make me feel so guilty, like I’m doing something terribly wrong.
Congratulations on the publication of Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
Thanks! When I wrote Geography Club, I always envisioned that it would be the first in a series. The day I turned the first book in, I naively said to my editor, “I think I’d like to write a sequel!” He sort of laughed and said, “Why don’t we wait and see how the first book does, okay?” I guess I didn’t understand that they only publish sequels to successful books. Ha!
But the first book did very well, so I did eventually get to write The Order of the Poison Oak, when Russel and his friends go to summer camp. And that book did well too. So I ended up in that incredibly rare situation where I really enjoy writing books that a lot of people seem to really enjoy reading.
With each book, I’ve tried to do something completely different, really shake things up, and also make the books pretty much stand-alone. This is definitely not just a trilogy. Split Screen, for example, is two complete books in one, published together and back-to-back. They’re the story of when Russel and his friends get jobs working as extras in a horror movie being filmed locally. The first “book,” Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, is the story from Russel’s POV. The second “book,” Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, is the same period of time from Min’s POV.
But even though the books cover roughly the same events, they’re completely different stories: in Russel’s story, he finally comes out as gay to his parents (and they end up being not unlike the soul-sucking zombies in the movie he’s working on!), and in Min’s story, she starts a romance with a new girlfriend (whose status-conscious friends are soul-sucking zombies of a different sort). I could call the project Rashomon for teens, except I’m not sure most teens would actually get the reference.
I guess the initial initial inspirtation was back when I was working as an extra in movies myself. In fact, I just Tivoed one of the movies I was in, “Come See the Paradise,” starring Dennis Quaid. I remember I was personally yelled at by Alan Parker, the director. On the first day, I didn’t know the difference between “rolling” and “action,” so I screwed up a whole shot. I actually think that comes into Split Screen. Anyway, if you freeze-frame your way through Come See the Paradise, you’ll see my blurry, partially obscured face at least twice!
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
This one took a while. Almost a year, I think, which is a really long time for me. It was by far the most complicated project I’ve ever worked on, since it was two complete books that interact with each other. Writers always say that if you change one thing in a book, it’s like pulling a thread in a tapestry that affects everything else in that tapestry. But in this case, pulling that thread also affected everything in the tapestry next door! Needless to say, there were plenty of times when I wanted to shoot myself. Thank God for copy-editors.
What were the specific challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? You did such a particularly great job with Min’s voice. I’d espcially love to hear about that writing process?
You know, I never imagined that I would write a book from Min’s POV until I had the actual idea for these new books. I always assumed I’d write a book from Kevin’s POV (and I am writing that book right now, for fall 2008).
But Min has a very passionate fan base. I think it’s because there are so few characters like her in gay teen lit: bisexual and Asian. And because she’s a person of such clear principles, I think that speaks to a lot of readers too.
Many, many people have written to me and said, “I want to know Min’s story!” So I told it—or at least one part of it. And for the record, I’m planning on writing a full book from her POV too, but not for another year or so.
I did do research, talking to some Asian American teens. But the biggest challenge was getting the two voices as distinct as possible. I teach writing, and I always caution my students that it almost never works to have one book from two first-person POVs. Granted, this is two books, but the principle is the same. So I created these charts that spelled out exactly how Russel talks (lots of parentheses, a meandering conversational style, lots of starting sentences with “And” and “But,” etc.) and how Min talks (no parentheses ever, a more straightforward, linear style, no beginning with “And” or “But,” a sprinkling of pretentious words). And I had to decide what expressions each one uses, but the other wouldn’t use. I also tried to vary their senses of humor, but I think that might be impossible, since an author really only has one sense of humor.
It was also important that the two characaters not just sound as different as possible, but that they notice and experience different things. Partly this was the gimmick of the book, but I also figured it would be really boring to the reader to just see the same scenes twice. There are a few of the same events, but they’re completely different stories. I was always thinking, “Contrast! Where’s the contrast?” So while Russel is having difficulties with his parents, I figured it would work better if Min has a close relationship with her parents. And while Russel is interested in all the hot guys on the set, Min, being more cerebral and competitive, is more interested in figuring out the actual plot of the movie.
Basically, I wouldn’t recommend any writer ever doing anything like this ever again!
This a flip book! Tell us about that. How did it evolve? What is the appeal of this format to teen readers?
I actually pitched it to my publisher as two complete, separate books published simultaneously. Partly, I really, really liked the idea, but partly I was thinking I could fulfill two books off my contract and get paid twice! Alas, my editors quickly saw through my ploy and suggested instead publishing the two books as a flip book. I reluctantly agreed, even as I admitted to myself that their suggestion actually made the idea stronger. Made it a good bargain for readers too.
Can I confess something? Truthfully, I just love a good gimmick. A great high concept definitely doesn’t mean the book or movie will be any good. But I do think it’s an indication of something, some creativity on the part of the creator. I’m in awe of the truly great gimmick, the Jurrassic Park gimmick–Jurrassic Park being probably the highest concept, and best high concept, of all time. Frankly, there are so many books and movies and TV shows out there these days that I’m now on the look-out for stories that seem fresh and different and new–something I haven’t read before. Not just the 13,000th story of some oh-so-sensitive kid dealing with some angsty problem and learning a nice little lesson.
Given your book Tantalize, I think you must agree, at least in part!
I’m a great fan of AS IF! Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom. Now, that it has been up and running for a while, what have you learned from your involvement? What is your feeling about the current state of intellectual freedom with regard to youth literature?
How much time do you have? AS IF! is a group of teen book authors like ourselves who fight censorship, and actually, it’s been fascinating, seeing what books get challenged, and why, and what strategies work in getting those challenges rejected.
Here’s what I’ve learned: most people are opposed to the banning of books. They see it as fundamentally un-American, which it is. When you get to the point where libraries are picking and choosing who can read what books, you’ve altered the definition of library so it’s not a library anymore. And while the question of “age-appropriate” is a real one, you deal with such questions with openness and dialogue and active parenting. You don’t deal with it by banning books.
The one thing I want to say to librarians and teachers is that public exposure is not your enemy (except maybe in some parts of the the South, or so I hear). On the contrary, in the vast majority of cases, what’s really going on is a small, vocal, and very activated group of people who are insisting on imposing their world-view on everyone else. Sure, they’ll try to quote a scene out-of-context, or obsess about a dirty word. But when people can be made to understand that these same folks also want to ban the novel that changed their life–To Kill a Mockingbird, or 1984, or Forever, or The Handmaid’s Tale–they start to see these people for who they really are. And my take is that most people are getting really, really, really sick of these moral scolds and self-appointed censors who seem to think that the only way to be moral, or to be an American, is to be exactly like they are.
You’ve recently joined the faculty of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. What do you like about teaching and being part of the VC community?
Oh, I’ve learned so much from my students and the other faculty! Now I cringe even more than I used to when I look at my old books. It’s such a supportive, talented community. I can honestly say that anyone interested in writing for children or teens should check it out. You might learn a thing or two from us faculty–including you, Cyn, who also teaches there! But you’ll learn just as much from your fellow students, and you’ll end up with a great support system of people out there making their way in the world of children’s lit. This is absolutely invaluable.
Speaking of my Vermont students, and going back to your question about specific challenges? I’m always blathering on to my students about plot and dramatic structure, which I think is missing from waaaaaay too many books. Well, writing students take note! Split Screen has three complete dramatic structures: one each for the two “books,” but also a separate three-act structure, a separate emotional “arc,” for both books when read together. Kevin is the main character of that story, but you have to sort of read between the lines to sort it all out.
Are you totally impressed yet?
What can your fans look forward to next?
In May, Tor Books is releasing the first in a fantasy series called Tales of Slumberia. It’s called Dreamquest, and it’s about a girl plagued by nightmares who wakes up in “Slumberia,” which is the place inside her own brain where they “film” her dreams. Complications ensue.
There are a number of productions of Geography Club, the play, in the works, including a possible production in New York. Oh, and work on the Geography Club movie is proceeding nicely, but, alas, I’m not supposed to talk about it.
Finally, I’m writing a sequel to Dreamquest (called Brainstorm), another contemporary fantasy for teens (about astral projection!), and those two other books in the Geography Club series, one from Kevin’s POV and another one from Min’s.
Like I said, I’m, uh, kind of prolific. But hey, I gotta eat.
It’s all at my website, www.brenthartinger.com, which also has my email address. I’m a pretty accessible writer, so if people have questions, ask away!