I am totally delighted to share this interview with my pal, Brent Hartinger, author of GEOGRAPHY CLUB and of the recently published fourth book in the Russel Middlebrook series, THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE.
1. GEOGRAPHY CLUB was your very first novel, and you’ve subsequently written 3 more novels in the Russel Middlebrook series, the most recent of which is THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE. What keeps you writing about these characters?
I’d like to say it’s just because I love them so much, especially the main trio of Russel, Min, and Gunnar — I think they’re really unique and different, not really like anything else in YA. But I feel that way about almost all my characters, so the truth is, I guess I keep writing these particular books because people keep wanting to read them.
One big writing truism among writers is that you’re supposed to write the book YOU like, the book YOU want to read. And I totally agree with that. But life sure is a hell of a lot nicer and easier when the book you want to write is also a book that lots of other people want to read too.
I’m just thrilled these books have found their following. I don’t have a massive fan base — but I knew that going in, because I choose to write characters who are weird and smart and dorky, oh yeah, and a couple of them are also gay and bisexual. That’s a super-niche audience, by absolute definition.
That said, I have an extremely loyal readership — enough to make it more than worth my while to keep writing these books — and it seems have slowly grown over the years. With the movie version of GEOGRAPHY CLUB coming out later this year, maybe even more people will discover me, but if not, that’s okay too.
Honestly, I have the best of all possible worlds: I get to write EXACTLY what makes me happiest, and people pay me to do it. What’s not to love?
2. Do you feel like you’ve changed how you write these characters from when you first created them 10 years ago? Have they (or you) been influenced by changes out in the real world?
Great question. The characters themselves have always been relatively easy to write, but I absolutely think the characters have gotten richer and more interesting as I get to know them better over the course of the books.
Have I been influenced by the outside world? Well, that’s the thing. The main character is gay, and I deal with some “gay” storylines, especially in the first book or two. And the world has changed MASSIVELY on gay issues in the last ten years. I mean, it’s been a REVOLUTION. That wouldn’t really matter, except for the fact that in the timeline of all four books, it all takes place over the course of a single year (so far).
For a while, this really drove me crazy. But then (a) I worked it out in my mind — the books are set around 2007-2008, and (b) I realized it doesn’t matter all that much anyway. Books are about emotional truth. And the core feelings haven’t changed all THAT much from 2003 to 2013.
But I’ll tell you what: I made two choices early on that I’m really glad I made.
First, very little angst. Sometimes the themes are serious, but I also wanted the books to be funny, not depressing. And second, I made most of the pop culture references really familiar ones, but ones that were set in the distant past — Mary Poppins, Gone with the Wind, The Goonies.
I’m really, really glad I did both those things, because I think they would have made the books seem incredibly dated right now otherwise.
This goes back to knowing my audience. 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. 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.” Hey, 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 would be something of a hard sell to the larger world. It’s not about a girl who turns out to be a princess, or a sparkly vampire. 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 I pulled it off — again, a lot of it goes back to 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.
4. What are some of your favorite YA novels (other than your own) and why are they your favorites?
Well, I’m a big fan of “plot.” There’s this idea that character and voice are hard, but plot is easy — something that can sort of be done as an afterthought. But I actually think plot is just as hard as character and voice — maybe even harder. That’s why you see so much horrible plotting! (Also, because a lot of writers, and some critics, don’t seem to care about plot AT ALL, but that’s a whole different rant.)
Anyway, I love Ken Oppel’s Airborn and Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein books; Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy; Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Sequence books; and, of course, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games books (although, oddly, I didn’t care for the third book in that series at all).
5. What advice do you have for other authors writing children’s literature?
These last few years, it seems like the YA genre has really collapsed into “trends,” with publishers desperately trying to exploit whatever the last big hit was. Everything is vampires, then paranormal romance, then dystopian. I don’t like this at all. It seems like Hollywood, with their obsession with sequels and remakes and reboots: a profitable business strategy, but a lack of creativity and exploration on a very fundamental level.
(I’m not pointing fingers at individual authors, because I know that in a lot of these cases, these “rip-off” books were written even before the popular book they’re supposed to be ripping off. And some of these later books are also very good.)
But I just can’t work this way. I think it’s really, really important for YA authors to be AWARE of trends. Because if you’re writing a dystopian vampire novel right now … well, good luck with that. But then you have to ignore the trends, no matter what the market is screaming at you.
If your goal is to get rich and famous, sure, ape the trends — but get in early. (On the other hand, if your goal is get rich and famous, boy, are YOU in the wrong line of work!)
But if you’re goal is to be creative and creatively satisfied, ignore the trends and go personal: write the book that DOESN’T exist, the book that only you can write. Come up with a genre that doesn’t even exist yet! (And then come up with a good lie for your agent so she has a way to pitch it to some publisher…)
Honestly, this might be a harder path, given the way the industry has become lately. But I think this is how you end up with (a) a more lasting career, (b) a more creatively satisfying one, and (c) very, very loyal fans.
Thanks for taking the time to blab with me, Brent! I can’t wait to see GEOGRAPHY CLUB on the big screen!