Brent Hartinger Interview

Since this book is about to come out... obviously you have to have a level of excitement about the material when you're writing it, but what's it like now, when you know you have an audience and you're about to give them another dose of this? Is there another wave of excitement when it's about to be published?

On one hand, it's really, really cool and really, really exciting. I mean, I've always been a very responsive author. I always write back. I have relationships with a lot of readers. I have a blog. I meet a lot of people at in-person events, and I really like that. I like the feedback. But at the same time, you're thinking, I don't want to disappoint people. People have really invested a lot in these characters, in these books, and they mean a lot. And I know what it's like to read a sequel and be disappointed by whatever the characters do, whatever happens. It sort of spoils the experience of the first book, so it's a bit of a risk but I'm hoping... so far, people have been really willing to go where I want to go. They've really been willing to put up with my shaking things up. Not just these books, but when I write other books, like a non-gay book. People have been willing to go with me, which I really appreciate. I think it's so great that people give me a chance. But sometimes it's a little nerve-wracking. I feel like I've sort of been privileged with the ability to write these particular books, and I don't want to blow it.

And are you still doing your policy whereby if someone goes to one of your events, and they don't like it, you'll give them a dollar?

Yeah, if they tell me to my face that I'm boring, I'll give them a dollar. But, I hasten to add that's never actually happened. A couple people come up to me and say, 'I was going to say to your face that you were boring, but..."

So, you're not allowed to dance around it. You have to come right up and call you boring to your face...

Yeah! And people say, 'In all good conscience, I can't say you were boring. You were funny.' So, I haven't actually had to shell out. But I would even shell out if they were smiling at the time. There are no rules. I will happily pay up. I actually am serious. There's a serious point to it. I give a lot of thought to my books, and I want people to be happy. I want people to be satisfied. It's not just me ramming my vision down the throats of readers. I want people to have a positive experience. And I feel that way about my bookstore presentations or events. If people are going to take all the time to come from wherever they are to see me and hear me talk, I want to make sure that I'm not boring, that I've prepared something that will hopefully be entertaining. I've heard some writers talk where they feel like they're doing the world a favor by writing these books? I don't feel that way. I feel the world is doing me a big, big, big, big favor by buying my books and making it such that I can support myself, and taking the time to come and see me. I just think that's an honor and a privilege.

I know I've suffered through a lot of authors at bookstore events who don't seem like they want to be there.

Yeah, exactly! I see that a lot, too. And it's like, if you don't want to be here, why am I here? Why did you book this event if you're so bored or unhappy or nervous? Nobody's forcing you to do these events. Books already have such a bad rap, especially among teenagers. So, partly, I feel like I'm sort of an emissary to the greater world to talk about how books can be interesting and can more than hold their own against other media. There's a place for books, and I love books. You know, not every book is for every person, but there is a book for every person? Books can be interesting and exciting and they don't have to be boring and serious and not any fun. I've said in other interviews I think of my books as dessert, not broccoli. They're not something you do that's good for you. They're something you do because you enjoy it, and hopefully maybe they're good for you too. Unfortunately, books as an entertainment medium, they have this reputation as being really sort of serious and artsy and not for the common mortal person. So, I see it as my mission in life to shake that up a bit. That's why I'm writing about zombies...

Geography Club was your first published book. Was that a story you had wanted to tell for a long time?

Partly. I helped found one of the first support groups for gay young people back in 1990 in my hometown. At the time, we didn't realize that people were doing the same thing all over the country and it was the beginning of a real movement. We didn't know that, we just sort of did it on our own and didn't connect it until a few years later that a movement was being born, the whole GLBTQ youth movement was happening, and it was cool. I think it was a great story. You have an underdog who is facing enormous obstacles that other people don't understand, and it's not fair that they're in the position that they are. Those are all the elements of a really good protagonist. So, I wrote an early draft of the book, sent it out, and a lot of people liked it. It won some awards for unpublished writers, but all the publishers sort of unanimously said, 'We can't make any money. There's no market. Nobody will read this. Libraries won't buy it. The media won't cover it.'

So, I kept plugging away, agent after agent, and finally I rewrote it in 1999 so it was the story that it is now. I got a new agent and she just tried everybody in the world and, again, it was sort of a thing like the gay youth group. There were other writers like Alex Sanchez who were doing the same thing at the same time, and a couple different editors took some chances and really had to sell the publisher. Of course, the conventional wisdom was completely wrong. There was a huge market for these books. People didn't know it, because they hadn't really been published before.

By that I mean, there had been gay books, but there had never been any proudly gay teen books. Very very few that were not depressing, sort of light books, popular fiction. The argument can be made that if the book had been published in 1990, the world wasn't ready. It would have been ignored, the time wasn't right, and that may be true. But definitely Alex and I caught a real wave, and it's great. The genre is really rich and diverse and everybody's got a different take. Some are funny, some are serious. Some are about guys, some about girls. There are transgender books coming out. I think it's just all really, really, really cool.

I remember when I started Oasis in 1995, you sort of hope its own obsolescence is its goal. But the longer it's been going, I realized that's never going to happen. At first, everyone was accepting themselves sooner, coming out earlier, starting the GSAs, and I figured it was coming to an end. And now we are getting posts like 'I think I'm questioning,' and I'm like, what the hell? You think you're questioning? That is by its very definition questioning.

But isn't it cool to see? So many things in life, so many issues that you've worked on. I mean, I've worked in foster care, on environmental issues... so many things, you work on these issues and you make a personal difference and maybe you change things. I did a salmon restoration project and we recreated a salmon run and now they come back every year, so OK, we made a difference. But unlike that, working on the whole GLBTQ youth movement, it's like, you do a little bit and you become aware that all these other people are working on it, too, at the same time. And there's all these massive changes that are happening day by day by day by day. And you realize it's so empowering, because the world is changing and you feel like you're part of it. And you're actually making a difference. That's been really, really great. And I don't think that's every going to happen on any other issue in my whole life. I don't think I'm going to have the same empowering, optimistic, hopeful feeling that... you know, there is no stopping this train. It is definitely arriving.

Every day I log onto the site, to hear all of these stories coming in from all over the world...

And they're younger and younger.

And it's certainly changed. When I started it was a hand-coded monthly thing, and now I can barely keep up with it.

So, in 1995, you were online then?

Yeah.

Wow...

It's only been online.

You really were ahead of your time. You were way ahead of your time.

That was the same year Amazon came online.

That's fantastic. Ironically, the group here in Tacoma was called Oasis, too.

But, yeah, right from the get-go, it was just immediate. I was getting 14-year-old kids to meet deadline?!

(laughs) But people are so motivated. People are so inspired by all of this.