Thursday, June 21, 2007

Yay! It's Brent Hartinger!!

When the power from above (Colleen Mondor) announced the blogger/author match-ups for this extravaganza of interviews you all have been enjoying since Sunday, I was pretty giddy. I already loved Dana. My best friend gushed over Story of a Girl. Pretty new writers. Fantastic work, but not an avalanche to cover.

And then there was Brent Hartinger. Dude's got a lot of books. A lot of short st
ories. Plays. Material to cover a whole mountain side. And I'd only read some of it, and it'd been a while. I'm a big picture girl. I like to have all the information possible. If I'm going to interview someone, I WILL have read all their books. Their short stories. Whatever I can get my hands on. I was manically excited because, well, it's Brent Hartinger! Who wouldn't be excited? So I read, and read and re-read the stuff I had read in the past. Prior to this frenzy, I had been in a crappy reading rut - you know - when everything you're reading is mediocre at best and it's just depressing? Brent was a gust of fresh air. Important, poignant, and never forgetting to have some fun. Oh, and I think I might have scared him just a little...

JP: Going from realistic teen fiction to children's fantasy in Dreamquest is a pretty big jump. There were hints of this interest in Grand & Humble, you contributed a short story to the fantasy compilation Young Warriors, and you've said, "fantasy has always been [your] one true love." Why haven't we seen more fantasy from you in the past? Why children's and not teen?

BH: Wow, you either do great research, or you're stalking me. If it's the former, I appreciate the time and effort.

(JP: Gas is too expensive for stalking these days. sigh. ;)

Keep in mind that there are the books authors write, and there are the books authors find publishers for. My first few books were fantasy, but I was a terrible writer then and they were sucky books, so they didn't get published (thank God!). It was just sort of random chance that the first book I actually sold was realistic teen fiction. And once you establish yourself in one genre, publishers tend to like you to write more in that genre. It's all about branding, you know.

But trust me, I've been writing fantasy my whole life.

As for the children's thing, this story seemed to me to be sort of a "classic" children's story--in the vein of Alice in Wonderland or Roald Dahl, but with an edgy, hopefully contemporary twist. So I set it as middle grade.

JP: Dreamquest is equal parts fantasy and satire, and all good satire aims to point out the idiocies of life. It's immensely different in tone and attitude than everything else I've read by you. Was your experience writing it different in any way to past efforts? What are you poking sticks at with the satire?

BH: I wrote the first draft years and years ago, but it was one of those sucky early books I mentioned earlier, and I doubt a single word of it is still the same. But honestly, my process for all my books is basically the same: I get the story idea, then I fumble around for a while trying to find the right "tone" of the story, and the voice of the characters. It's true that this time around the tone and voice are very different from my other books, but only because it seemed to work for this story.

But yeah, this is my first outright satire. A girl plagued by nightmares wakes in a land inside her own head called Slumberia, in the "dream-studio" where they film her nightmares. The most obvious satire is of Hollywood, where I lived for a few years trying to sell my screenplays. But it's not really about Hollywood per se. I like to say it's about any place where people put profits ahead of people. Sadly, it's very timely these days.

And can I just say? The best children's books area always the ones that can be read and enjoyed even after you grow up, right? That's totally my philosophy. That said, kids get much more of the satire than adults think they do.

JP: You are very versatile in your fiction, both in subject and in format. You've said that you like writing fantasy best, but which of the formats that we frequently see your work in (novel, short story, play) is most comfortable for you to write in?

BH: Truthfully, I probably most like writing screenplays, because it's all about structure and plot and drama and conflict. I just absolutely love plot: the artistry of the character arc, or the perfectly crafted story with the perfect come-full-circle ending, totally inevitable, yet absolutely unpredictable. To me, a story is like a sculpture--just as precise, and just as beautiful. And it is storytelling we're doing, right? Emphasis on the story?

I also really like writing books for kids and teens, because I think kids really love plot too. But I do occasionally get discouraged, because I don't think writers of books get much credit for plot. I read these kids' books all the time that literally seem to have no plot. But because the language is evocative, they're praised to high heaven and win all kinds of awards. Meanwhile, a book with a clever, artful plot, but more straightforward language is sometimes ignored (by everyone except the kids we're supposedly writing for!).

Wait. Did I just say all that out loud? Yikes. I'm going to get in trouble.

JP: Last Chance Texaco and Dreamquest are darker stories that exhibit a certain disillusionment – what fuels that, and what is more difficult to write?

BH: It goes back to what I said before. The hard part is finding the tone and the voice. Once I do that, all my books are all about equally easy--or, more accurately, they're all equally insanely difficult.
But I totally believe there's a place for darker stories too. What is a book? It's a trip into the subconscious mind of the author. Some parts of my mind are happy, funny, optimistic parts. Other parts are bitter, cynical, and jarring. But hopefully both trips are worth taking.

JP: One thing that appeals to me about your Russel Middlebrook books is that there is an honest innocence and optimism. Much of what I've read depicting gay teens has a darker tone. Could you comment on the different representations within the genre?

BH: Good eye. Yes, that was totally intentional. I deliberately wanted to get away from the idea that a lot of gay teen books had fallen into, which is that being gay is all horribly serious and traumatic. First, that didn't describe my own teen years, which were sometimes horrible, but were also sometimes hilarious and just plain fun. Plus, let's face it: there's a lot of humor to be mined in the idea of a gay teen. I mean, a gay guy having to take showers with the hottest guys in school? Come on, that's just objectively funny, isn't it?

But I get why authors go in a different direction. So many people are so obstinately ignorant of what it might mean to be a gay teen, how hard it can be, that you just want to crack them over the head with the things that do happen and say, "Look, you idiot, can't you see how miserable you're making these people?!" But let's face it: those people aren't going to be reading gay teen books anyway.

JP: One of the bullies in Geography Club is named Brent… Can an author dub a character with his name and it be entirely coincidental?

BH: Well, it's not coincidental, but it could just be that the author couldn't think of another name that day and decided to get cheeky.

JP: We don't really meet Russel's parents until "Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies", which is the third Russel Middlebrook book. What's up with that? In fact, parents don't find too much love from you at all. In Dreamquest, the parents are pulling Julie apart. Why do you think that there is such a lack in positive parental roles in your writing and in teen lit in general?

BH: Hmmmm, I can't imagine any explanation for that, can you? Here's a hint: something about writing "what you know"? My mom died a few years back, and suddenly I started writing about all these bitchy mothers. I guess I have, uh, issues.

But the truth is, good storytellers look for drama, for conflict. I know a lot of people complain that parents don't come off very well in kids' books, but kids' books are told from the point-of-view of the kid. Who are the big antagonists in a kids' life? It's bullies, who also pop up pretty frequently in kids' books, and it's parents. Most of the characters in an engaging story are antagonists, so most of the parents in kids' books are antagonists too. If a character has a great relationship with his parents, they probably won't come into the story all that much, story being conflict, after all.

But I hasten to add I have written some positive parents: Manny's dad in Grand & Humble (more or less), and Min's parents in Split Screen.

Ok, I'll give you Min's parents. Especially her mom, she's awesome, but Manny's dad? Dude lied. A LOT. Repeatedly. Blatantly. Now, I realize that it was all in furthering the plot, and I recognize your conflict argument, but still. He could have come off rosier. He was definitely a good dad otherwise, but trust is a huge issue, and lying doesn't endear me much, personally; this wasn't an Easter Bunny/Santa lie...(um, I say all of this with the utmost respect, really. no, really. oh man. now who's in trouble?) I suppose that's what you mean with the more or less bit. I just want to say that he's a marvelously flawed character, but... I guess: Do the means justify the end? Were the lies worth it? Were they necessary? (yes, to the plot, but to Manny's relationship & perception of his father?)

Ha! You have a point.

Let's phrase it like this then:

Min's parents in Split Screen, for example, and Manny's dad in Grand & Humble, who has some flaws but is ultimately a decent guy.

JP: Split Screen's full title is awesome. I find it interesting that while the third book has the most light-hearted title, it's actually dealing with some of the heavier issues Russel has had to face - all while the characters are playing extras in a zombie movie. Were you wanting to lighten up those serious issues a little? Why zombies?*

BH: Another excellent insight! I'm totally impressed. You should, like, review books. Oh...wait.
Anyway, yes, I knew that the issue Russel faces would be pretty heavy, so I deliberately lightened the plot, and the titles. A spoonful of sugar and all that. (For readers unfamilar with the book, it's actually two books in one, one from Russel's POV, called Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, and one from Min's POV, called Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies. It's the world's first gay teen "flip book"!)

Ahhhhh, zombies! Well, aren't they just the best metaphor ever? The walking dead? I mean, there are just so many things you can do with that!

The book's been out for a few months now, so I guess I can now reveal one of the book's "Easter eggs": obviously the true "soul-sucking brain zombies" aren't the characters they're playing in the movie, they're characters from real-life. But every time one of these real-life soul-sucking brain zombie appears, I added a little clue. For example, the first time Russel's parents appear, they're taking down Halloween decorations--coffins and skulls and all the rest. Get it? They're "zombies," so they're clutching coffins and skulls?

Once you know what to look for, all the others soul-sucking brain zombies have clear identifiers too.

JP: I once heard (in those suspicious ways that librarians have) that Geography Club was challenged somewhere, not because of the gay content, but because Russel physically met someone he knew from the Internet. Can you tell us about that, or any other surprising ways your material has been challenged or banned?

BH: Yup, you heard right. It was a big fat ban in Washington State, which led to a series of copy-cat challenges around the state (and maybe one ever tells us authors anything). But eventually the ban was overturned, and it was actually a very good thing, because, well, it got a ton of publicity for the book but, even more importantly, it got the whole community talking about literature, and libraries, and even gay teens. That was a very valuable conversation to have, and I'm flattered I played a small role in it.

As for other challenges, I always tell authors not to worry too much about that, because you can't ever anticipate what will get people upset. It's almost never what you think.

JP: In Split Screen, Last Chance Texaco and now Dreamquest, you write from the perspective of girls. How is that different for you than when you write Russel or the boys in Grand & Humble?

BH: It goes back to finding the voice. But yes, I'd like to think the voices are different. I do give it a lot of thought, and I certainly think of these characters as different genders. Whether that comes through in the writing, I'm never sure.

JP: What authors do you get overly excited for when you hear about their next book?

BH: Lisa Yee, David Lubar, Octavia Butler, Robert Sawyer, my partner Michael Jensen, Robert Charles Wilson, George R. R. Martin, and Ursula le Guin, at least before she got plotless and boring.

JP: (ouch) What book do you think everyone ought to read, and at what age or stage of life should they read it?

BH: I actually don't believe in the "universal book" theory. I've been given too many "life-changing" books by other people, only to find them totally unimpressive. But that's the great thing about books: they're so personal and individual.

I tell kids all the time: not every book is for every person, but there is a book for everyone. Lots of books, actually.

That said, here are some books that I totally loved, and occasionally reread: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin; The Lord of the Rings; The Chronicles of Narnia; The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; Momo by Michael Ende; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne; and The Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald.

JP: One final penetrating question: What do YOU like on your pizza? Artichokes & Anchovies, like Russel?

BH: Oh! I totally forgot that I wrote that! Keep in mind that I wrote the first draft of Geography Club in 1999, so it all seems pretty foggy to me now. Crazy, huh?

But I'm a veggies kind of guy: mushrooms, olives, onions, etc. And artichokes. That part I agree with Russel.

JP: Thanks, Brent, for the interview!

While you wait for the sequel to Dreamquest and the I-Wish-It-Were-Sooner Kevin installment in the Russel Middlebrook series, you can find Brent all over the web. Try these first:

Official Website
As IF!
News Tribune

The Rest of Today's Interviews:

Eddie Campbell at Chasing Ray
Sara Zarr at Writing and Ruminating
Justine Larbalestier at Big A, little a
Cecil Castellucci at Shaken & Stirred
Ysabeau Wilce at Bildungsroman
Jordan Sonnenblick at Jen Robinson's Book Page
Chris Crutcher at Finding Wonderland
Kazu Kibuishi at lectitans
Mitali Perkins at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Laura Ruby at The YA YA YAs

Since I'll be in Chicago, here's Friday's:

Tim Tharp at Chasing Ray
Justina Chen Headley at Big A, little a
Ysabeau Wilce at Shaken & Stirred
Dana Reinhardt at Bildungsroman
Julie Ann Peters at Finding Wonderland
Cecil Castellucci at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Bennett Madison at Bookshelves of Doom
Holly Black at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Justine Larbalestier at Hip Writer Mama
Kirsten Miller at A Fuse #8 Production

And because I'll be in Michigan - Saturday's:
Justina Chen Headley at Finding Wonderland

*for the record: I like zombies. In fact, in I once made a webpage about zombies for a class. Everyone else was doing stuff about quilts, pets and other boring things. Except for my friend Brian. I think his was about beer…Ok, back to the interview…


Anonymous said...

Okay, that was just an awesome interview. Excellent questions (and insight, as Brent put it). I enjoyed reading that, and we managed to completely avoid asking him duplicate questions in our two interviews. Rock on.

And now, because I'm a Super Nerd, I'm going to go add your interview with him to the bottom of my interview over at 7-Imp.

Anonymous said...

I liked it too. Very entertaining, and insightful stuff about the darker side to some of his stories.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview. Outstanding, even, and that's saying a lot because all of the interviews this week have been pretty awesome (imo).

Kelly said...

Awesome interview, Jackie. I want to read more!!

Unknown said...

Wow Jackie, this is *such* a great interview- well done! Have a fabulous vacation, see you when you get back!

PS said...

So now I have to move Dreamquest and the Russel books to the top of my to-read pile. Great interview. Have a wicked good vacation.

Jackie Parker said...

Thanks, guys! It was fun!!

Jackie Parker said...

Thanks, guys! It was fun!!

Little Willow said...

Huzzah for reading all of his works. (Time to quote Xander from BtVS: "Research girl comes through with the knowledge." I love that quote!)

Ooh, have you read his play in 21 Proms?

erith1 said...

A little off topic, but since you haven't been around to post this is the only one I have to go on. Just wondering if you had seen this:
I suppose I could just wait for you to get here in a few days, but I'd probably forget! ;)