Lisa: I’m so pleased to welcome author Brent Hartinger to The Novel Approach today. Brent is the award-winning author of, among many other works, the Russel Middlebrook series, which includes Geography Club, the Young Adult novel that was adapted into both a film and a stage play.
Welcome, Brent, why don’t we begin with Geography Club? Of all your books that might have been adapted, what made this one so well suited for both stage and screen? Why do you think it translates so well?
Brent: Timing is almost everything in the arts, and I think it was definitely partly a question of timing. When Geography Club was first being developed as a movie [in 2003], there was very little like it out there — gay, relatively accessible, not incredibly depressing. It was disappointing to me that the film version took ten years to get made, because if it had come out in 2005, I think it could have made a much bigger splash. By the time it did come out, I think it maybe came off as a little retro.
Right now, there’s a TV series in development based on the movie. They’re filming the pilot this summer, and I’ll be curious to see what they do with it, how they update it.
But yes, I’ve always had a pretty easy time interesting movie producers in adapting my books. I think that also has to do with the fact that I’m a screenwriter and a playwright, so I’m a big believer in plot and structure. I also like a strong central concept — a “hook” or “high-concept,” if you will. My books aren’t vaguely plotted character studies, so when producers read them, or hear the story, it’s very easy to “see” a movie version.
Lisa: What is the significance of the title?
Brent: In Geography Club, six gay teenagers create a “secret” GSA at their school. But because they don’t want anyone else to join, they give it the most boring name they can think of.
But of course they quickly have to wrestle with the question of whether to make things better just for themselves, or better for everyone. That’s sort of the key question in life, isn’t it? Anyway, that question splits the group. And since I believe strongly in the concept of karma, the characters who choose selflessness fair better than the one who choose selfishness, including poor Russel.
Lisa: What is it about Young Adult fiction that appeals to you as a writer?
Brent: Right now, I like that it’s a genre that people get excited about. The readers are young and passionate, and it feels “relevant,” you know? Even if the readers are not necessarily all still actual young adults, they’re young at heart. YA feels to me like the future of both publishing, and also maybe of society.
I’ve always said that if you want to know where television (and mainstream culture) is going to be in five years, read books. I think cultural trends often appear first in books, because they can be produced cheaper and faster than television or movies. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you had a burst of gay teen books in the early 00s, and then you saw gay TV shows like Glee five years later.
I confess I also like that YA is as much about plot as it is about character. I confess, I’m still surprised how many books are published with meandering or nonexistent plots. But that’s a bit harder to do in YA, because the market tends to have less patience for that.
Lisa: What are some of the most memorable interactions you’ve ever had with the young fans of your work? Are there any you can share with us?
Brent: I remember talking at one school, and this boy came up, thirteen or so, and he said, “I’m straight, but I totally relate to Russel.” And teasing him a bit, I said, “You’re just saying that. How can you possibly relate to him?” And he said, “Because I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider, and to feel like your friends won’t like you if they knew the ‘real’ you. I think everyone feels like that sometimes.”
So there I am, in my thirties, being schooled by this thirteen-year-old kid. I didn’t write Russel [the main character in Geography Club and most of the sequels], thinking, “This is a universal character! He’s an Everyboy!” On the contrary, I thought of him the way he thought of himself — a freak, an outsider, mostly alone. I honestly didn’t know, until this young kid told me, that that is a universal character.
I’ve also gotten lots of incredibly humbling email from people saying, “I gave your book to mom when I came out so she could read exactly what I’m going through.” Or, “Just FYI, I think you saved my life because your books were the only place I ever learned about safe sex.”
Lisa: Let’s redirect the conversation to your newest release, The Otto Digmore Difference. Otto was first introduced in The Russel Middlebrook Series. Along with Otto, who’s all grown up, the book also stars an older Russel. Why was it so compelling to you to explore these characters into adulthood?
Brent: Starting in 2003, I turned Geography Club into a four-book series, The Russel Middlebrook Series. Then a couple of years ago, I did a second series, moving those characters into the present, Russel Middlebrook: The Futon Years. In these latest three books, Russel and his friends are in their mid-twenties. I did this partly because I felt like I’d said all of what I wanted to say about Russel in his teen years. Why not write about the next stage in his life? What an interesting writer challenge!
And then there’s the fact that the world has changed so much on LGBT issues. At the time I was writing that first series, I think I was trying to write them as “timeless,” and in a way, they still are. But mostly they ended up being a chronicle of those specific moments in time, despite my best efforts. I didn’t expect the world to change so fast!
With the later books, I decided to really embrace that. I write them in real time, and release them shortly thereafter. So I write about whatever’s going on in the present. Online harassment, the election of Donald Trump, PrEP, you name it. In traditional publishing, editors always say, “Don’t use any specifics that will ‘date’ your book!” Well, I tried that with Geography Club, and it wasn’t true. The world is constantly changing. So now I’m going the exact opposite route, and I’m embracing it. I love that these newer books are all set in very specific places, and in very specific times.
The Otto Digmore Difference is a new series starring one of Russel’s friends: Otto Digmore, a burn survivor with scars on half his face. Now he’s living in Hollywood, trying to make it as an actor.
Lisa: Do you find that some of your young fans of the earlier books have grown up as fans of these later books too? Do you get a sense of nostalgia from readers as your characters have aged with them, or they’ve aged with your characters?
Brent: Absolutely! It wasn’t intentional — I didn’t do all this as part of some grand plan. But it turned out to be brilliant marketing. Who knew? People are really invested in these characters, and I couldn’t be more flattered.
Lisa: Since the blurb reveals this and I’m not spoiling anything for new readers with the question, Otto is a burn survivor whose face bears the scars. In a world of physically perfect fictional characters, and even a real world that prizes outward appearance, why was it important to you to write a character who doesn’t fit the definition of perfect?
Brent: I’ve always loved this character — and not just the specific character, but also the whole idea of a burn survivor as one of Russel’s love interests. That was definitely hard sell back in 2005, when I first started writing him. But times have changed, and diversity is much more celebrated now. I’d always intended to give him his own book, and I liked writing it so much that I decided to turn it into a whole series.
And yeah, part of it is a commentary on a theme that is as old as the hills — beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. But I think that’s an important message, especially for the gay male community, which, let’s face it, can be somewhat superficial.
I also like the “diversity” aspect. I mean, I’m a white, middle class gay guy, and I’m sick to death of LGBT stories about white, middle class gay guys!
But let me hasten to add that I tried hard to make Otto much more than just a stereotype. I hope he’s a unique person, not a stock “disabled” character. That’s why he’s an actor in Hollywood. It seems like a really unusual choice for a character like him, but it makes his story really specific to his character.
Otto is a character working to add diversity in Hollywood just as I’m an author working to add diversity in fiction.
Lisa: How many books do you have the series plotted out to, or do you anticipate will make up the series?
Brent: I’m committing to at least two books. As with everything, it depends on the reaction — although the sales and feedback have been really strong so far.
I’m definitely an outliner of my books — I always plan things out in advance, even if they change along the way. But I haven’t really planned out each series. I do it more on a book by book basis, and I only have a vague sense of the overarching story.
Lisa: Final question, Brent, what’s the one book you’ve read in your lifetime that you wish you’d written? Why did this particular book leave such a lasting impact on you?
Brent: Oh, that’s an interesting, and totally unfair question. I confess I love The Chronicles of Narnia, because I think they’re pure, 100% entertainment. I always say that, first and foremost, I’m a storyteller. The most important thing is for the writer to get out of the way and just tell the damn story. Entertain, enrich, and enthrall — and maybe even enlighten a bit too. But don’t preach, and never, ever be boring.
That is my mandate, 100%
Lisa: Thanks so much for taking the time to be here with us today! It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
Brent: Likewise! A pleasure.
About The Otto Digmore Difference
Otto Digmore is a 26-year-old gay guy with dreams of being a successful actor, and he’s finally getting some attention as a result of his supporting role on a struggling sitcom. But he’s also a burn survivor with scars on half his face, and all indications are that he’s just too different to ever find real Hollywood success.
Now he’s up for an amazing new role that could change everything. Problem is, he and his best friend Russel Middlebrook have to drive all the way across the country in order to get to the audition on time.
It’s hard to say which is worse: the fact that so many things go wrong, or that Russel, an aspiring screenwriter, keeps comparing their experiences to some kind of road trip movie.
There’s also the fact that Otto and Russel were once boyfriends, and Otto is starting to realize that he might still have romantic feelings for his best friend.
Just how far will Otto go to get the role, and maybe the guy, of his dreams?
Author Brent Hartinger first introduced the character of Otto Digmore in 2005, in his Lambda Award-winning books about Russel Middlebrook. Back then, Otto was something pretty unusual for YA literature: a disabled gay character.
Now, more than a decade later, Otto is grown up and finally stepping into the spotlight on his own. The Otto Digmore Difference, the first book in a new stand-alone series for adults, is about much more than the challenges of being “different.” It’s also about the unexpected nature of all of life’s journeys, and the heavy price that must be paid for Hollywood fame.
But more than anything, it’s a different kind of love story, about the frustrating and fantastic power of the love between two friends.
Find more information, including buy links for The Otto Digmore Difference, HERE
Trailer for Earlier Russel Series
Book Trailer for Three Truths and a Lie
About the Author
BRENT HARTINGER is an author and screenwriter. He wrote the YA classic, Geography Club (2003), which was adapted as a 2013 feature film co-starring Scott Bakula, and is now being developed as a television series. He’s since published twelve more novels and had eight of his screenplays optioned by producers. He has won both the Lambda and GLAAD Media Award, and been nominated for the Edgar Award. Visit him at brenthartinger.com, Facebook and Twitter.