By Jamie Rhein
Brent Hartinger is a lesson in perseverance. A longtime writer, He plugged away at his craft through 15 years of rejection slips. 'I was typing my fingers to the bone, but barely breaking even,' he says. (He once lived on $2,000 for nine months.) Then in 2001, he sold his first novel; The Geography Club, a story with a gay high-school age protagonist, was published in 2003 to critical acclaim. Then, in 2004, when Hartinger's second novel, The Last Chance Texaco, became a teen favorite, his place as a young adult novelist was secured. In March, the sequel to The Geography Club, The Order of the Poison Oak, hits bookstores, and several more novels are under contract. Hartinger, who lives south of Seattle with his long-time partner, novelist Michael Jensen, recently spoke about writing and social change.
How did you come to write teen books?
I was put in the genre by my first agent. I had written a book with a teenage main character, but I didn't think of it as a 'teen' book. So I was appalled and offended when he said he was going to pitch it as a teen novel. I thought that somehow that meant the book was lesser and not 'legitimate.' I guess I was a real horse's ass when I was a young, unpublished writer, huh? Anyway, I love the genre now. I think so many of the books are top-notch. And if readers like a book, they really like it. And unlike us way-too-serious adults, they aren't afraid to say so.
But you have a lot of adult readers, too, no?
Interesting how that worked out, isn't it? I finally accepted that I was writing for teens, and now it turns out I get a lot of adult fans anyway. A lot of adult readers say they like my books because they give them a chance to relive their own teen years. That's part of the reason why I wrote Geography Club'to sort of rewrite my own teen years, and give them a happier ending!
Frankly, maybe writing for teens has just made my writing more appealing for all ages. Because the books are shorter, it forces me to be more disciplined. And because I'm basically writing for 'reluctant readers,' I really have to keep things moving. Let's face it: my competition is Nintendo and Britney Spears humping a couch.
Why have you chosen to make your books light and humorous?
My beef with a lot of gay novels and a lot of other teen novels is that they're so doom-and-gloom. I guess there's this idea that books have to be 'serious' to be important. But when I was a teenager, I remember things careening between really happy and really sad, all in the same day. Adults always remember the angst and the depression of their teen years, but they don't seem to remember the fun.
Anyway, I try to make my books to be dessert, not broccoli, and humor definitely helps.
I know you visit a lot of high school classrooms. What's the reaction been?
Well, the teachers are usually terrified that I'll dwell on the 'gay' thing. One principal recently had a melt-down when he learned just who the librarian had invited to his school!
As for the students, they do want me to talk about the gay issue. I never mention it in my presentations, but the kids bring it up in the Q&A. And there's a surprising lack of snickering. Most of them have openly gay friends, and they watch MTV, so it's just not that big a deal. They are so far ahead of the adults on this issue that it's scary. But it says to me that the Republicans are only going to be able to ride this anti-gay wave for a few more years, and then they'll start to be seen as the bigots they are.