Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Author Interview - Brent Hartinger

at 7:00 AM

Is there anything in particular that you do to help the writing flow? Music? Acting out the scene? Long showers?

Oh, I get stuck all the time. So I go for a walk, or take a shower. Or I give up for the day, think about it before I got to sleep that night, and let my subconscious mind work it out. What do you know? Nine times out of ten, that works!

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I confess I’m a little envious of writers like Stephen King, who writes for exactly four hours every day (even Christmas), stopping at noon. And I feel bad that I don’t do what all the writing books say I should do: keep a journal, constantly observe the world, make notes on napkins.

But when I’m not writing, I’m so not writing. I’m reading or biking or cooking or playing video games or going to plays and movies — basically, enjoying life — but I am definitely not writing. I don’t think I’ve ever once had an inspiration for anything writing-related if I’m in one of my “non-writing” phases.

I can’t just turn my creativity on and off, and it’s definitely not always running in the background, like my computer’s anti-virus program.

For me, it’s all or nothing: all-consuming or completely checked out.

Are there any books you don’t enjoy?

I’m kind of fanatical about plot and action. I’m constantly trying to move the story forward, or looking for great places to create a cliffhanger for the end of a chapter. I actually get really frustrated with meandering, “slice of life” books, or books that are all about flowery language, or books that are only about atmosphere and world-building.

The way I see it, a book is a story, and a story should have momentum – a beginning, a middle, and a knock-your-socks-off ending. I’m one of those people who think that if something isn’t moving the story forward, if it’s not there for a good reason, it shouldn’t be there at all.

I sometimes teach writing, and I always say to my students, “Your story should be about the most interesting character you can imagine on the most interesting day or week or year of his or her life!” Now that doesn’t necessarily mean spaceships or meteors; sometimes the most interesting things are the most subtle. But it definitely means something fascinating happens!

What do you hope your obituary will say about you?

That it includes a correction that says, “Oops, we were wrong! He’s not really dead! Turns out he’s 125, and still going strong.”

What is hardest – getting published, writing, or marketing?

Writing is BY FAR the most “difficult.” I mean, it’s easy to “write” – it’s very, very difficult to write something worthwhile.

That said, writing is ultimately very, very satisfying. It makes me feel alive. Marketing, whether to readers or to editors, is much “easier,” but it’s not very rewarding. It feels like stuffing envelopes, because it is (metaphorically speaking).

So I’d much rather write, even though it’s a lot more difficult.

Is it risky to write teen novels that tackle gay issues?

When I was first trying to sell it, in the 90s, it was enormously controversial. I mean, just off the charts. A lot of editors said they wanted to buy it, but they’d go to the accountants, and they’d always say the same thing: “There’s no market for a book about gay teens.”

Of course, once an editor at HarperCollins finally got it through the acquisitions department, the book was a big hit, right away – we went into a third printing at the end of the second week. So the conventional wisdom that there was no market for a book like this was just completely wrong. But at the same time, it was controversial. It was challenged and banned all across the United States.

So that part of the process was intensely frustrating. But the other part is that I immediately started receiving a flood of letters and emails from grateful teens and adults. I’ve talked to the authors of other LGBT teen books, and we all get these incredibly touching letters. I’ve written non-LGBT books too, and I have fan mail about them too, but it’s not the same thing, not in the same category at all.

So whenever I depressed by the controversy, I remember the letters and emails. There is a huge audience for these books. But sometimes the controversy makes it difficult for readers to get them.

Do you think that LGBT YA is becoming more mainstream?

Oh, absolutely! Although sometimes I feel like we’ve gone from being a “controversial” topic to a “niche” one, which is a different problem, but still a problem. It’s really really hard to find gay books in book clubs, for example. And in the all the truly “mainstream” books, it seems like the gay characters are always the supporting players (if they exist at all).

How do you keep a gay book from becoming an “issue” book?

Oh, the dreaded “issue” book!

I actually understand why “issue” books exist, and why they’re always the first part of some any wave of understanding. Something has to BE an issue, before it can become a non-issue. The first books about any topic are usually more about that topic, because it’s such a novelty – because the audience isn’t yet able to see beyond the topic to just see the characters and the story.

The problem is that true “issue” projects don’t really stand the test of time. They break barriers, which is important, but they don’t last as art.

So yeah, I did try with the whole Russel Middlebrook Series to make it more about than just “the gay issue.” I’d like to think that’s why they’ve had the life they’ve had. Russel and his friends live in a world where gay people can be sometimes brave and even noble, but they can also be selfish jerks. And straight people can bigoted and intolerant, but they can also be wonderful and supportive.

Just like, you know, the real world.

How much of your actual life gets written into your novels?

It’s both “very little” and “quite a bit.” Almost nothing is exactly what happened to me. But almost everything was “inspired” by something.

It’s not that I need to know how something feels before I can write about it – writing is all about imagination. But isn’t it interesting that if I have experienced the feelings of something, it’s a lot more compelling to me?

What do you consider your biggest strength as an author?

Well, I try hard to write books that people like to read. I want to write books that are smart and hopefully thought-provoking, but also fun and entertaining: dessert, not broccoli. The most frequent comment I get from readers is that my books are “page-turners,” which makes me very happy, because that is exactly what I want them to be. If I had to describe my own books, I would say, “Strong central concept, strong plot, strong character and voice.” (I may not always succeed in creating these things, but they’re what I always strive for.)

Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you had known before getting published.

On some level, I think I was under the impression that 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, of course, 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, 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 book you would love to read.

Now give us your best personal advice—something you wish you had known when you were younger and would offer to your own kids.

The more you give, the more you get. If you’re a bitchy, selfish, or entitled jerk, you will attract people just like that into your life, and you’ll end up bitter, lonely, and miserable. But if you’re cool to others, you’ll attract cool people as your friends. Sometimes it takes a while for this dynamic to play out, but this is always how it ends up in the end.

Oh, and whether you’re popular or not in high school is completely irrelevant to the rest of your life. It seems so important at the time, but it just isn’t, not at all.

What would you say are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

Persistence, a really thick skin, and an ability to be open to criticism but also stick to your vision.

But while sanity is certainly the goal of being a writer, I’m not sure any writer is completely sane. We do this incredibly personal thing, sharing our most intimate feelings and selves. But then we’re not supposed to take it personally when people reject and criticize us. Is that really even possible?

What’s the most interesting comment you have ever received about your books?

Sometimes close friends read my books and say, “Wow, this book is really, really you!” I don’t really think about my books like that when I’m writing them – I try to keep some professional difference.

But when all is said and done, I think they’re right: certain books of mine, definitely all of the books in the Russel Middlebrook Series, couldn’t have been written by anyone else, not at all. They’re completely, uniquely “me.” And that makes me very happy. Talk about self-expression!

What is the message in your new book that you want readers to grasp?

No “message” exactly. The book has a theme or two, for sure, but mostly I just want my readers to be entertained – to laugh and cry and relate and be surprised.

If there’s any point to all my YA books, it’s that teenagers are smarter and more sensitive than most adults realize, and their lives are more complicated. The one thing that every adult has in common is that we were all once teenagers. So why don’t more adults remember better what it was really like? I don’t get it.

Tell us a bit about the GEOGRAPHY CLUB movie! The movie deal, the filming process, everything you’ve picked up along the way.

There are really only two ways movies get made: (1) everyone thinks the project will make a lot of money, or (2) a handful of people feel so passionately about the project that they move heaven and earth to get it made, even if people DON’T necessarily think it will make a lot of money.

Geography Club (the movie) was definitely number two – a passion project. Once the book was published, we had movie interest right away. And over the next ten years, it was optioned and developed by a series of different producers. But everyone kept coming to dead end. The money people always said, “There’s no market for a movie about gay teens. It won’t make any money!”

But these latest producers refused to take no for an answer. They moved heaven and earth, and they got it done. It’s a little different from the book, but it’s a really good movie. And they’ve treated me like a king. Everyone who worked on the movie, cast and crew, was asked to read the book – and almost all of them did. I’ve been involved with movie projects before, and the kind of respect for the source material almost never happens.

What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?

I used to dream that I’d be a famous actor, and a pop music star, and a screenwriter, and a movie director. But now that I’m older, I realize that you can work your whole life at just one of those things and still only just begin to understand the craft. That’s the way I feel about writing: it takes at least ten years to be any good at all, to have any idea what you’re doing.

I love writing so much, I’m so satisfied with what I do, that now I don’t really have any desire to do anything else. So I guess, when it comes right down to it, my life “dream” has been realized, even if it’s not quite the dream I had when I started out.

Every writer has their own idea of what a successful career in writing is, what does success in writing look like to you?

It’s always been about supporting myself as a writer of fiction. If I’m able to sell enough copies that I’m able to keep doing my chosen profession, I’ve “succeeded.”

The awards, the positive reviews, those can be nice, but those are ultimately just a means to an end. The end is keeping my readers happy enough to support me.

How did you arrive at writing YA fiction? Are there any other genres you’d like to tackle in the future, or any you want to stay away from?

When I started (in the 90s), YA was just starting to get big. But I didn’t read it – I barely knew it existed, and I definitely didn’t think I was writing it. I thought I just happened to be writing stories with teenage characters. Then my agent said, “This is young adult.” At first I was offended – “What?! A kids’ book?!” But then I started reading YA and realized, “Ohhhh. This is a lot better than most of the ‘adult’ books I read. YA authors actually care about plot.”

YA really exploded right after that, and I sort of rode the wave. I still love YA, but I confess my eyes glaze over a little now with all the dystopian books, fairy tale retellings, and paranormal romance.

On the other hand, I also love (and write) mystery/thrillers, fantasy, and sci-fi, both YA or not. And I absolutely love writing screenplays of all genres. I didn’t write the screenplay for Geography Club (the movie), but the first movie based on a screenplay of mine will hopefully be released next year.

The Elephant of Surprise

Buy Now @ Amazon & @ Smashwords

Genre - Young Adult/Gay Lit

Rating – PG13

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