Brent Hartinger Interview

Was your background always as a writer, even before Geography Club?

I was a spectacularly failed writer in three mediums. I started out writing books, and I couldn't place one. So, I moved on to plays and had a lot of plays produced, but I couldn't really make the next jump up to the equity level, the professional level. So, I switched to screenplays, won a lot of contests, had a lot of scripts optioned, moved to Los Angeles, but really never got anything produced, or made the huge payday that I would have needed to survive. I alternated between the three mediums, and finally it sort of clicked writing books. And, ironically, because of that, I was able to write a stage version of Geography Club, and a movie version of Geography Club.

Yeah, I kind of did the wrong course along those lines... I did the 'I want to write novels, but I know I could pay the bills with journalism.' And I woke up in my 30s going, 'Why the hell am I doing journalism and marketing?'

Yeah, I did that, too. But I really do believe that writing is writing, and I think all those freelance article I did, and I wrote like 500 freelance articles to pay the bills. And all those plays I wrote, and all the stories I wrote helped me understand deadlines. It helped me understand producing words on the page, words on the screen. I could never afford writer's block. The whole idea is absurd to me. That's a luxury I could not afford. I needed to write to eat. I also think working in those other mediums helped me understand the fundamentals of story, so the work you've been doing has not been pointless. When you start writing prose, that will help, even if it's just a question of sentence structure, grammar, and all of that.

The plan is to finish up my novel before I move to New York City.

Is this an adult novel, or a teen novel?

Adult novel. It's about a guy who creates a national craze teaching people to use inner self-hatred as fitness motivation.

Good, it's funny. Great title. Good good good.

Dark comedy, Fight Club meets Weight Watchers.

I think if you write a book that people want to read, you'll be fine. The only problem is when you write a book that's too disturbing, too difficult, it may not matter how many prizes you win, people probably won't read it. It's the idea that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. If you write a product that people want, people will find out about it. I really believe that. And if you writ a book that people don't want, it doesn't matter how much advertising you have, or how many great reviews you get, people are not going to read it. And, actually, I think that's a good thing. I like how wonderfully organic publishing and bookselling still is, that it's still ultimately about word of mouth and whether or not people like the book. It's different from movies, because you can't artificially inflate your first weekend grosses with a lot of advertising. We don't have the money to do that in publishing. So, it is about the book.

I also think, as far as my book, I've always had extremely commercial taste.

That helps, too.

Whenever there's a movie praising a real interesting character study, I go and I'm just looking at my watch. I'm just like: Give me Stephen King, give me Chuck Palahniuk.

Yep, I'm with you.

I want to just tear through the pages, and there's still a journey, still payoffs. Literary fiction is where you'll get all the people fawning...

Oh, absolutely. And I don't think it's any less of an art or less of a craft. Like I said, I just got back from teaching creative writing, and people say 'popular fiction doesn't have character, it's all plot' and I would turn around and say a lot of literary fiction has no plot. It is just character. It seems to me to have one without the other, in any genre, is absurd. A story is character and plot together. I don't think popular fiction, or commercial fiction, is a bad word at all. For me, I've always viewed my books as dessert, not broccoli. I want people to want to read them, to enjoy reading them. When people say I've written a page-turner, that's what I most like to hear, because that's what I most want to write.

I think I read each book in Split Screen in a single sitting.

And that's great. That's what I love. I like even thinking of them as movies, where you sit down and have it from start to finish in one evening, or one four hour period, however long it takes you to read, and you get the whole arc. That's what I love about the young adult genre, or plays that you can read in an evening. I love that.

I was kind of surprised, because I hadn't been reading any of the young adult stuff up until the relaunch of Oasis. I had this image in my mind that it was going to be, like there's almost be a PFLAG-approved sticker on the front, and it was going to be all this happy, role-modely kind-of stuff. And then it's like, wait, these kids are getting laid and they curse and... this is great. The hardest thing has been that I find it hard to review, because I'm used to the denser adult stuff. You could fully encapsulate these books in a review in no time, just Thishappenedthishappenedthishappenedthishappened, you'll love it.

Yeah. (laughs) I always thought if we want kids to read, give them something they want to read. That does seem like rocket science. Don't just rail about how lazy, selfish, and amoral they are because they don't read books anymore. Give them books they'd be attracted to. Like you, I think I have a mainstream sensibility that's helped.

And it's been interesting to see the diversity of the genre. Alex has a lot of Latin characters. You're writing whole books as bisexual Chinese females.

When my first book came out, somebody said, 'Oh, he's trying to be politically correct by including all of the different races, a diverse group.' And I wanted to say, have you ever actually been on a high school campus these days? I mean, that was the gimmick of the book, that they had come from different lands, and I tried to play that up as much as possible, make the characters as different as possible. But I don't include deaf characters or bi characters or racial minorities or any of the other things that are in my books out of political correctness. I do it because these were my friends when I was a kid, and these are the kids that I know, or teach when I teach in schools, or see when I go into a school visit. I'm reflecting my reality. And I wonder about the reality of people who see the world in terms of political correctness. If you think it's a question of affirmative action or political correctness, you need to get out more. You need to meet more people. If all your people look and sound like you, you need to get out more. That's not where the world is.

Is the obvious correlation with the books that you are Russel?

Let's just say I understand Russel. Russel is a bit my alter ego. He's certainly got my sensibility of life and my sense of humor, but he's always seemed to be outside of me. When the first book came out, I got a review and they said... they liked the book, it was a good review, but they said, 'Russel didn't sound like a 16-year-old' and they quoted one line and said, 'A sixteen-year-old would not say this.' And I read that line and I thought, 'What did they mean? Russel did say that.' Because, in my own mind, he's like a real person, like he really exists. And then it was like, 'Oh right, I made him up. That's right. I created him.' I tell my writing students if you don't believe your characters are real, nobody else will either. I'm ordinarily down to earth in most respects, but you create these characters and they become real people, like people that exist and you just haven't seen them lately. They are as real to me as other people I see in person.

So, between books, you think, 'That would be an interesting situation for this character...'

Yeah, frequently, frequently I do. And I'll make a little note. When I was writing Order of the Poison Oak, I heard a guy on NPR talking about being a burn survivor and I thought, 'Well, that would be really interesting if Russel became a burn survivor.' Because what the guy on the radio was saying sounded a lot like a gay teenager, how he felt judged, and he felt different, and nobody understood, and he didn't fit in, and I was really struck by how much I identified with him and how much he was describing my own teen years, and then my partner Michael said, 'You are not making Russel a burn survivor! You're just not going to do that. That would be too serious.' And then I thought, well, what if Russel goes to a camp for burn survivors, and Michael OK'd that, so that's how it actually ended up. And then I was at a conference last year, sitting next to another writer who'd been invited to the conference too, and he'd written a book called The Burn Journals. His name is Brent Runyon. He set himself on fire when he was a teenager, and he wrote a book about it, and he said he originally got the idea for the book because he did something for NPR and then he was contacted by an editor, who asked him to write a book. And it occurred to me that, 'Yeah, you were the guy I heard all those years ago.' And it was him! It was cool.

I think the more you tap into it, the universe does a lot of stuff like that, to keep you on path.

Yeah, I'm constantly rejecting things. I'm always going, 'That's good, but it's not great.' But when you get the right idea, you sort of know it. It sort of hits you with a lightning bolt.

And how does your writing process work? Do you have a book that's already in the writing phase now? It is written? Do you take time between them?

I am working on a couple of different projects that are not part of this series. I'm working on the science fiction book that may or may not be a gay character. And when that is done, next up on my schedule is the next book in this series for fall of 2008, which means I'll have to be done by fall of this year. I hope I can do that. So, right now, I'm in the 'rejecting ideas' phase. I'm thinking, 'Yeah, we could do that, but I don't think so.' So, I don't know what it's going to be. I don't know if it will be from Kevin's point of view, or Min's point of view, or Russel's point of view. I do have a sense it's going to be more about Russel and Kevin. I want to deal with that, but I'm not sure how exactly. The great idea has not yet hit me.

It will.

Yeah, it will.

I love reading on Oasis when people talk about having writer's block for two weeks. I'm always thinking, "You just haven't written for two weeks."

Yeah, right.

When I had what I used to think of as writer's block, I got over it by just writing about the writer's block, and that became so fucking boring, I ended up writing what I should have been writing in the first place.

For me, writer's block is just laziness. I need to put my butt in the chair and start writing. Once I do, something will come out.

Wasn't it Woody Allen who said, "90 percent of success is showing up"?

(laughs) That's so great.

For me, the book hasn't been a long process. The long process has been learning how to write a book. Just a lot of glorious missteps that are resulting in a better book, like, in my book, the character writes a non-fiction book... which I've written.

Really?

I could have probably avoided that.

Nobody can tell you how to write a book, because partly it's a question of finding your own process, finding out what kind of book you want to write, and what your own sensibility is, so you have to fight your way through it. But I think writing a novel is such a statement of faith in the future and yourself, because it's not something you can do in a day, or even a week or a month. So, you start that first page, and you have faith that you will finish it. You have faith that you will be alive to finish it, and you will have the determination and creativity to finish it. It's one of those things you do day by day by day, and you just have faith you'll get through it. And if you have faith, you will. I find the whole process to be great. I have the best job in the world. I literally get paid to do what I love, what I would do for free. It took me a while to get here, but now that I'm here, I just hope I can make it last.

Reading Oasis, I think the next generation will be in their twenties cranking out the same stuff that's taking me into my 30s. I think the latency between coming out and being able to channel all of that and being creative, they're going to reduce the time on that, too.

I agree. I do think it takes a while to learn how to write a book well. Often times, people will get frustrated that their first book doesn't sell or even a first draft of their first book, and I'll just say, 'You know, you wouldn't expect a brain surgeon to take two months of classes and be able to operate. It takes a while to develop the skill. Just because you're not writing at a professional level that doesn't mean you can't have fun at sort of the local level, the amateur level. And eventually, you'll work your way up. But you don't start out competing at the Olympics or playing in a professional league. You have to work your way up to it, and that's okay.'

I think I've used drafts of my first book as ways to exorcise things that would have sucked had it gotten published.

Well, what you said before, all the work you've done on the site, all the freelance work you've done, that's part of the education process. You're collecting all this information, learning about yourself, how you work and, eventually, you exhaust your own stories. Things that happened to you personally, but the life of a writer is ... I'm not exactly Sinbad. I spent most of my time home writing, and then I go out on book tour, or go do school visits or conferences. It's not like I have these larger than life adventures. So you have to be open to people telling you their stories and meeting other people is always an adventure in itself. But you have to get out into the world. That's why I like to go out on the road and meet people, because that's where I get so much of my ideas, both from the people and interacting with the people. Books are all about how people interact.

And I don't know if it would be apropos considering what we've been saying, but whether you have any words of advice for gay youth. It seems like they're doing pretty well on their own...

(laughs)

But I've been asking that question since 1995, so I feel like James Lipton at this point. I can't not do an interview without tagging that on it.

I'm working right now on a project with Alex and David Levithan on a project called The Real Story (therealstory.org), which is a safer sex website using the characters from my books, and Alex's books, and David's books, and how they learn about and negotiate safer sex. I think it's really, really important that young people understand, unlike every other community in the world, for a gay guy, you can make a lot of really stupid mistakes that you will pay for the rest of your life, in terms of HIV, meth, and drugs. And you don't have to make those mistakes. The information is out there. You can have a great time, but also protect yourself and stay healthy. I kind of feel like, I know that message kind of gets lost. We've forgotten about it and moved on, and well, we've got all the antivirals and all that. But, first of all, you better have damned good health insurance and, second of all, that's not a cure. I sort of made it my mission in recent years and, hopefully when this project finally debuts, it can help people understand that this is still a real issue. And it is unique to being a gay guy. Lesbians don't have to deal with it. Straight people don't have to deal with it so much, they have their own issues, pregnancy and all that. Of course, they can get HIV, too, but 20 to 30 percent of us have HIV, and 11 percent of people under the age of 23 have HIV, and most young people who have HIV don't know they have it. And that's when they're most infectious. Right after you are infected, you are most infectious. All that other stuff is great, but we need to encourage each other, help each other to be safe, and be thoughtful, and not do things that we're later really going to regret and pay for.

We'll obviously help promote that project when the time comes.

That'd be great.

I know when I talked with Alex, he mentioned talking with you as well. Is there ever going to be a sort of 'The Flintstones meets the Jetsons' kind of thing?

(laughs) You know? We've never talked about that.

Would that be jumping the shark too much?

Well, he's wrapped up his trilogy, but that would be really fun. I don't know if that would be a good book project, but it would be a fun online project. Hmm, that would be a hoot. I have to run that by him.

Cool. I'll take credit for it if you do it.

(laughs)