Several months ago, a friend suggested we read the books in Brent Hartinger‘s Russel Middlebrook series, starting with Geography Club, which has recently been made into a movie. As avid readers, we weren’t really sure what to think as we started, but literally within a few pages, we were hooked on the character Russel and the story that unfolded magically. We finished the entire series in just a few days and then listened to them on Audible, just as impressed with the actor chosen to fill the role of Russel Middlebrook. Here’s the thing about these books; other than being amazing stories, well written and centering on an easily likeable character, each book also stand alone as a well crafted, conceptual idea. Without giving away the secrets of the series, Brent Hartinger has woven together a main character, who just happens to be a gay teenager, with sub-themes of physical discrimination, loyalty and betrayal of friends, school sports and the pressure to “fit in”, a desire to be loved no matter who you are…and zombies. Yes, we did say zombies. If you haven’t read the books, you’ve have to find out for yourself. We were so intrigued by the magician who put these stories together and gave birth to Russel Middlebrook that we reached out to Brent and he was nice enough to give us an interview. Check out what he told us about his inspiration for the series, his daily life as a writer and whether or not there will be more books. And yeah…we adore this guy!
If your life was a title of a book, what would it be?
The Agony and the Ecstasy. Frankly, I think that’s the title of every writer’s life. The lows are very low, but the highs are so cool that they always make up for it.
How did you get the idea for your Russel Middlebrook/Geography Club series?
Partly my own life, partly my looking around at all the gay books that existed when I was writing it (in the 1990s) and thinking, “Why aren’t there more books like the kind I want to read?”
At the time, the trend in gay male books was for the main character to be a total jerk (proof that the author was being “truthful”), and for the emotion to be really angst-y and/or bitter. There was also a lot of pretentiousness (IMHO). Those characters and stories didn’t really speak to me, so I was trying to create a gay male character who was lonely but not suicidal, smart but not bitchy, generally optimistic, more than a little dorky, somewhat flawed but not an asshole, and (hopefully) very funny.
Mostly, I just wanted to create a gay book that was fun and funny, but with heart. Those gay stories and characters are more common now than they were back then (which means that I think I was onto something!).
Will there be more books in the series and where will Russel go next?
I’m working on it now. It’s the summer after graduation, and Gunnar has become a millionaire by inventing a popular iPhone app. His latest obsession is finding Bigfoot, so he invites Russel and the gang into the remote mountains on a Bigfoot expedition. Complications ensue, romantic and otherwise!
Have you thought about starting a new series and if so, what would it be about?
I have a very dark, warped gay teen thriller that my agent is shopping to publishers now. And I have a fantasy series in the works too (not gay though).
We’re also well into development on a couple of movies — one romantic comedy, and another gay teen drama that it probably the closest thing to my heart that I’ve ever written. Hopefully, it’ll be in theaters by 2016.
Geography Club was recently made into a movie, which in a lot of ways, was different than the book. How did you feel about the outcome?
I wasn’t involved creatively in any way (except for writing the book), so I have a few small quibbles. But mostly I just had a really positive, really interesting experience as an eyewitness to the creation of a film. They treated me like a king, and I also made a lot of very good friends.
And the fact is, it turned out to be a high quality production, so I’m proud to have my name associated with it.
Better still, I now have a number of other movie projects in the works –all of which I wrote. So it really opened a lot of doors for me. Sold a lot of books too, which sure doesn’t hurt!
Here’s a podcast I did where I talk more about the whole book to movie experience
Who are three of your favorite writers?
Three? Please. I like Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula le Guin, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tony Kushner, Robert Charles Wilson, Robert Sawyer, Libba Bray, Ken Oppel, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Jacqueline Carey, and many, many others.
Uh, can you tell I like fantasy?
What three books would you recommend to a friend?
I’d recommend books that people may have never read, like The Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald (the best kids’ books I ever read); the Magister Trilogy, a great series I’m reading right now by Celia S. Friedman; and this series of terrific gay fantasy books by Steven Harper called The Silent Empire.
What five things wouldn’t we know by looking at you?
(1) I am an extremely picky reader and movie-goer: I think 90% of everything is crap; (2) I have high cholesterol (it’s genetic! I’m actually pretty fit); (3) I used to be a master of Beatles trivia, and can still geek out on them pretty well; (4) four times a year I get together for the weekend with five straight guys, and we always have a blast; and (5) I can’t relate to any movie or TV show where couples are secretly disappointed in each other, because I think my partner of 20+ years (Michael Jensen) is the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. And the longer I know him, the more I think that!
God, I hope that doesn’t sound insufferable. It doesn’t, does it?
What are your writing rituals?
It’s really, really hard for me to get started, so I do the usual stuff like rewarding myself with snacks and candy, unplugging the internet, and on and on. But once I get started, I can get sort of manic (sometimes to the point where I write for days on end and make myself sick).
Basically, I’m a neurotic person who’s managed to sometimes channel my obsession into something good!
How do you start the writing process when you are starting a book?
I always outline, although that really means I just spend a lot of time thinking about the story and making notes. I never stick that closely to my outlines, and sometimes I leave huge plot-gaps. But I never start writing until I have at least a vague idea what the story and character are about, and a pretty clear idea of how it’ll end.
George R.R. Martin says there are two kinds of writers — architects (who plan) and gardeners (who just let things grow). Every writer does some of both, but I lean toward architect. (And frankly, I think I save myself a lot of time, because I don’t have to write 200,000 words to “discover” my story. But all writers are biased toward their own processes. Whatever works for you is best!)
What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a published author?
Learn the craft — take classes, join a writers’ group, read a zillion books and study them all, good and bad. But then learn the BUSINESS of writing: work in a bookstore or a publishing house, talk to every person you can, soak up information like a sponge.
I made a zillion mistakes when I was starting out, mostly because I thought the rules didn’t apply to me, or maybe that it was all about “talent.” First, I wasn’t nearly as talented as I thought back then, and second, you absolutely need to know the rules of publishing — both the “written” rules and the unwritten ones. If you don’t, you’ll make your life much, much more difficult. And boy do I speak from experience!
You started and ran the website After Elton. How did the website start and what inspired you to sell it to MTV?
My good friend Sarah Warn started a website called AfterEllen.com (directed at lesbians). One night over dinner, she said, “I think we should do the same thing for gay men, and I think you [and my partner Michael] are the guys to run it!
Basically, we wanted a smart, thoughtful, non-bitchy, non-gossip website about pop culture from a gay and bi male perspective that did actual journalism (not just rip off other people’s reporting). There wasn’t anything else like that out there (and, frankly, still isn’t that much, although you guys give me hope!), so we did it ourselves.
Why did we sell to MTV? Basically, they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Truthfully, we weren’t making any money on our own.
Have you ever thought about starting a similar website and if so, what would you do differently?
Alas, I’m mostly down on content websites these days. You have to know what I’m talking about. To make any money, it’s become all about SEO, click-bait, carpet-bombing posts, and trolling for traffic. But I’m into quality, not quantity, which meant I was continually frustrated. I suspect you are too.
Nah. Except for my author site, think I’m done with content-based websites.
What question would you ask yourself in an interview and then answer the question?
What’s the best part of my job? And the answer is my fan mail, hands-down. Seriously, I have the best readers in the world. If I’m ever feeling blue, or depressed, I usually just to wait a bit, and someone will send me something that will totally make my day. I write for money because I need to eat. But it’s the connection with other people that really makes it worth doing.
My first book, Geography Club, was the story of a kid who feels alienated and alone. And the irony is that that book, and the others I’ve written, have made me more connected to people than I ever thought possible.
What is your current obsession?
With books, I’m going through a “horror” phase. With food, I’m always after the perfect Asian anything.
Briefly take us through a day in the life of Brent Hartinger.
I spend a lot of time on the phone, with movie producers, with editors, with agents, with journalists. And I know that sounds romantic, but it’s never as exciting as it sounds.
The rest of the time, I write. All day long sitting at a computer, trying to figure out my plot, or revising a screenplay, or pitching a story. And that is just as unexciting as it sounds!
At some point during the day, I go to the gym — four days a week anyway.
And then at the end of the day, my partner and I go for a walk about the lake next to our house (Green Lake in Seattle). It’s three miles, it takes about an hour, and it’s BEAUTIFUL.
In what ways are you like Russel Middlebrook?
Truthfully, we’re a lot alike. More than a little neurotic, generally optimistic, way too self-conscious, very dorky, and hopefully ultimately pretty decent.
If you could have any impact on your readers, what would it be?
Mostly, I just want to entertain people. I want to move them, or make them laugh or smile. I see the point of writing as communicating emotion. It’s great when people see a “message” in my work, but that’s really not the point. I just want them to feel something.
What’s next for Brent Hartinger?
I complain a lot about how hard I work (see all my previous answers!). But the fact is, I love what I do, and I spend a lot of time pinching myself that I get paid to do what I absolutely love. As Anne Hathaway annoying said when she won her Oscar, “It came true!”
Right now I’m actively working on those two different movie projects with some producers, and I’m also writing two more screenplays that I hope will sell soon. I just wrote a novel with my partner Michael, and I have those other two novels with my agent. And I’m working on that next Russel Middlebrook book too.
Oh, and I just finished something called The Real Story Safe Sex Project, which is basically me asking my writer friends to write about the subject of safe sex among gay and bi teens and twentysomethings. The stories are all free, including one staring Russel Middlebrook. Yup, I actually wrote about his sex life! Explicitly. Check it out HERE!
What are your three simple luxuries?
Lately I’m addicted to Trader’s Joe’s roasted hazelnuts. They’re AMAZING. I also love my morning smoothie: yogurt, soy milk, and frozen pineapple and berries. And every night, Michael and I make popcorn — the real kind, not the microwave stuff. That’s cheating!
And check out the new young adult book The Before Now and After Then coming 7/29 from author Peter Monn on Goodreads! “Must read summer romance of 2014!”
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*Images courtesy of Brent Hartinger/First Photo Credit Tim Cathersal