Brent Hartinger Interview

By Jeff Walsh

This week, the second sequel to Brent Hartinger's "Geography Club" will be released. "Split Screen" is actually two books in one. One book, told from Russel's point of view, is entitled "Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies." The other covers the same timeframe, but is told from Min's point of view, and is entitled "Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies." This time, Hartinger's cast of characters are spending time as extras on a horror movie being shot in their hometown.

Brent and I had a long chat that went into all different areas, but covered a lot about his view on writing sequels, a lot about writing in general (a LOT), our shared belief that there is no writer's block, and why he thinks the younger generation that is supportive of the GLBTQ youth movement are going to be the people who change the world for the better.

So, what's it like for you to go back and revisit these characters? When you did Geography Club, did you anticipate that would happen?

You know, I turned in the first book and I said to my editor, 'I'd really like to write a sequel now.' And he smiled and said, 'Well, let's wait and see how the book does before we think about a sequel.' The idea being: they only do sequels when the book does really, really well and we had no idea how the book was going to do. So, I guess at the time I remember thinking I was going to write a sequel, but it wasn't until the book came out and did OK that they were very excited for me to write it.

Whereas now, it's the best thing in the world. I love these characters. I love writing these books. And it's fantastic to write a book where people are actually eager for it, people are excited for it, you know? The selling of a book like this is very, very easy because there's an existing readership, and that's incredibly flattering and humbling. Maybe one day, I'll be like one of those authors who really resent that people want them to write more books in a series and they want to do something different, but I don't feel that way at all. I feel just the opposite. There's still so much more I can write, especially now.

I am of the opinion that sort of the next wave in these gay teen books, and pretty much gay stories across the board, is sort of moving away from the coming out story, which has been done to death and it's now more about other issues. When you look at gay books or gay movies that way, you could really write anything you want. The sky is totally the limit. I'm actually working on a gay science fiction right now, a science fiction story with a gay character, where being gay is relevant but it's not what the story is about. You'll probably not like it, since you don't like fantasy, but that's cool, too. So, I'm really excited about where things are going.

I seem to be in the minority, so you should be OK. (laughs) Even on Oasis, we have an author, Pat Nelson Childs, who just self-published his first book, Orphan's Quest, which is the first in a trilogy of sci-fi/fantasy books that has a whole gay theme to it.

There you go... it's funny, I write in several genres, none of which get any respect whatsoever. Young adult doesn't really get any respect. Fantasy doesn't get any respect. Science fiction doesn't get any respect. But these are also genres that are really, really hot and actual readers are eager to read, as opposed to some of the more literary fiction, which tends to win the awards but seems like not as many people are excited to read those books. And I love working in a genre and sort of having a readership where people are excited to read your books. The e-mail I get is so great. It's gratifying. People really take these stories to heart and, you know, young kids, older kids, it's great.

As far as genre, it's surprising to me how, even though you have the same characters, in every books you decided to go off into a whole different realm with it. Obviously, Geography Club was more traditional with the school setting; Order of the Poison Oak has the summer camp; now Split Screen takes places on the set of a horror movie. Is this your way to just do different things, or a good way for the readers to not feel like they're reading some GSA version of Harry Potter tracking them through seven years of school?

What I'm trying to do is something a bit different than what other writers have done. It's not a series, per se. Not a trilogy. Each book stands completely on its own. You don't necessarily need to read them in order. It's helpful, but it's not necessary. And it's for exactly what you just said. It's for two reasons, that I see no point in just regurgitating what I did before, recycling what I did before, rewriting a version of what I did before. It's much more interesting for me if every time, every book, I have some new concept that goes in a really different direction. And I think it's much more interesting for the readers... I mean, you know, I think it's something of a risk.

People generally, if they like something... you know, in a lot of ways books are like comfort food. I discovered that people often re-read their favorite books over and over and over again. And, you know, I decided long ago, when I first got the OK to write a sequel to Geography Club, I thought about what a sequel is and my philosophy of sequels. And I think most people, intellectually when they think of sequels, they think, 'I want to know what happens next in the story. I want to know what happens after "fade to black" at the end of the book.' But I don't think they really do want to know that, because if a story is well told, there is a resolution and an ending and it's over. They would inevitably be disappointed if Geography Club 2 picked up the day after that story and it was just: what happened next? what happened with Kevin? And they would be disappointed because all of those things were wrapped up.

I think what people want, even though they don't know it, is they want to feel the way the first book made them feel. They want to feel all those same things. And so, with each sequel, I've tried to recapture the feeling. But, of course, in order to recapture the feeling, you need a completely new story with new challenges and some new characters. Ironically, by doing something new and different, you create that familiar feeling. I'm not saying I did this, but that is what makes a successful sequel. The sequels of other books that are disappointing, that's why they're disappointing. They just continued the story rather than rethinking the fundamental parameters of it all. That's what I came up with.

The idea being 'I want to spend more time with Russel, Gunnar and Min,' not that I necessarily need to be back in school with them.

Absolutely! Absolutely... I got a review last week that said I'd like to see a whole book from Min's point of view, a whole book from Kevin's point of view, from Gunnar's point of view, and I'd love to write those. That all sounds really interesting to me. It's a question of, 'Am I going to get the inspiration for that.' And I have to sort of be convinced those books will have enough readers, just from my informal survey. Would there be enough people who would be interested in that? So, it's just sort of a democratic process in that way, interacting with people and the e-mail I get.

And in Split Screen, you not only switched genre again, but you have the whole Rashomon kind-of thing going on where it's a flipping book with two perspectives and how the stories interlock in ways that you don't know when you're reading the first... half, I guess, we'd call it?

The first book.

How did it come about that you decided not only set during the filming of a zombie movie, but let's tell two different, interlocking stories?

Well, every book I consider writing... I don't start writing until I get really excited about writing something, an idea I think is really cool. Something that hasn't been done before, or that would be a challenge to me. This particular book was a real challenge, because just when you think you have it all right, you change something, which doesn't just change something in that book, but changes everything in the other book, so technically, it was insane. But it was also really, really fun. I had pitched the idea to my publisher as two independent books, complete books, published simultaneously with similar covers. Exactly the way they did it, but it would be two complete books. The idea being I would get to fulfill two books of my contract. Basically, I get paid twice. They really liked the idea, but they said, 'Why don't we publish them as one book that you flip?' and I thought that was even a better idea and, obviously, a better value.

Because of that, the books ended up being a little shorter than they would have been, but more than anything, so much of success in life, it's all about the gimmick? And people talk about gimmicks like they're bad things, but I feel that gimmicks can be really, really good things. A gimmick doesn't guarantee that whatever it is is going to be a good book or a good movie or whatever, but a good gimmick is an indication of something, intelligence or humor, something on the part of the creator. There's just so much in the world. There's so much out there. So many books and movies and TV shows, you sort of need something high profile to break through all the clutter and say, 'Well, take a look at this,' so that was my strategy. We'll see... I hope it works (laughs).

And you got paid twice?

Eh? Sadly no, well I did sort of. They threw in some extra money, which was nice, and they upped the cover price by a buck, so I'll get an extra dime per copy that I sell, but honestly, if they had published it how I originally intended, a lot of people would have read Russel's book and they would have thought, 'Well, that's kind of disappointing,' and they wouldn't have understood that you have to read both books together for the story to make sense. So, the way this worked out is actually better.

A lot of what I was thinking about when I was reading your books was the E. Lynn Harris books, where there are a lot of recurring characters. But E. Lynn just constantly switches first-person narratives per chapter, without even saying who's speaking. He just gets it up high so that you know who you're reading at that point?

So, you don't mind that?

No, I didn't mind that, either. It just seems he gets to do the same thing with that approach, where you get to rewind a bit and see the same scene from the perspective of one of the other characters. I'm not saying that's a better way, but it reminded me of that similar terrain.

I just got back... I teach creative writing at the M.F.A. for writing for children at Vermont College, and we had a really interesting debate just like four days ago about whether or not you can successfully employ alternating first-person, and I think it's tough to do it chapter by chapter. It's really tough. Alex Sanchez did it really well in So Hard To Say. He did a really good job, but it's hard to pull that off. I don't know that I would ever do that. When I alternate point of view, I usually do it in third person and, with this book, it was important that they be two different books, so that you're getting two points of view from first person, but otherwise I think it's hard. I think you have to have indelibly clear, very very different voices, and I think that's hard for writers to pull off.