Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Q&A with Brent Hartinger and GIVEAWAY!

Brent Hartinger with Cameron Deane Stewart, who is playing Russel Middlebrook in the upcoming film version of Geography Club!

As I mentioned on Sunday, I'm very excited to present Reading on the F Train's first-ever author interview!  Brent Hartinger is the author of (among other things) the Russel Middlebrook series, about a gay teenager (Russel) and his friends.  My post about the first three books (Geography Club, Order of the Poison Oak, and Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies) can be found here; read on for my thoughts on Brent's latest (The Elephant of Surprise), plus my interview with Brent and a giveaway of all four Russel Middlebrook books!  

The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Russel Middlebrook and his friends are back, and this time they get into more intense, suspenseful adventures than ever before. The stakes are raised, the law is broken (more than once!) and relationships come and go. When Russel, Min, and Gunnar encounter a pair of freegan young adults in the dumpster behind their school, they aren't sure what to think of the whole lifestyle: occupying a vacant house, foraging for food (anything from wild greens to supermarket discards to...well, you'll see), and trying to live outside the system as much as possible. As Russel gets to know one (super good-looking) freegan, though, he starts to understand why someone might live that way.

Don't worry--while I found the information about freeganism fascinating, that's not all that makes this book good. Gunnar has decided to document his entire life--no, really, his entire life--on the internet; Min's girlfriend Leah is acting strange, and Russel has to sort out his feelings for Otto (the great guy he met at camp), Kevin (Russel's first boyfriend--who might be a huge jerk), and Wade (the hot freegan who's expanding Russel's worldview.) I think the romantic/swoonworthy scenes in this book are the best in the series, even when it's hard to decide who to root for. Plus, the aforementioned lawbreaking adds a ton of adventure. It's always exciting when a series actually picks up steam as it moves along--this one is doing just that!

I received a free digital copy in advance from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

Interview with Brent Hartinger: 
1) What advice do you have for straight writers of YA fiction who want to include LGBTQ characters in their writing?  

You know, I sympathize with how touchy this can be. Everyone says they want diversity in books and movies, but there are so many mixed messages. You can definitely pay a price in the eyes of publishers and readers and reviewers, at least if it's a leading character: suddenly it's a "niche" book. And what if people accuse you of writing stereotypes? A lot of writers think, "I don't need this headache." Not just on the gay issue, but also on race and other issues.

But it is just so important. And more importantly, it's truthful. I read books or watch TV shows with big casts, and none of them are gay or all of them are white, and I think, "People don't live like this anymore. This doesn't seem real to me." Or at least I think, "I don't know if I want to spend time with characters who have such limited perspectives."

That said, if you’re not LGBT and you’re writing a LGBT character, you have to do your research about those communities and get the details right. You also have a responsibility to be aware of existing media stereotypes about LGBT people, all the tropes and cliches. Basically, there are still a lot of raw nerves out there among a lot of minorities, because they've been burned before. So if you choose to employ minority stereotypes or tropes anyway, you should absolutely know that you’re doing it and also know exactly why

But let me repeat: writers, please don’t be scared of LGBT characters and stories. Frankly, I sometimes think non-gay folks can offer an extremely interesting perspective on our community. None of the three writers involved with the movie Brokeback Mountain (the original prose writer or the two screenwriters) were gay, but they were able to create a uniquely and profoundly “gay” story. 

All I know is that, for writers, there's ultimately much more to be gained here than there is to lose.

2) How can teachers and librarians make all their students and young readers (especially LGBTQ students) feel comfortable and included?

It always frustrates me when I hear teachers or counselors (!!) say that they don't have any LGBTQ students at their school. I don't hear it as much as I used to, but I still do.

And, of course, since every school and probably every classroom has some LGBTQ students, that's proof right there that they're doing a terrible job of making those teens feel comfortable and included.

Books in the library, GSAs, inclusive curricula, those are important, but ultimately it all comes down to language. If you assume everyone is straight, or even if that's sort of your "default" assumption, you're sending a very loud and very clear message that, for you, the LGBT issue is strange or unusual or weird or uncomfortable. 

So assume nothing. Use LGBT-inclusive language. Say "the sex you're attracted to," not "the opposite sex." If a student mentions they're dating someone and you're talking to a girl, don't assume it's a boy. Don't censor references to same-sex couples in class -- acknowledge in class the artists or historical figures that are thought to have been gay or transgender. Remind students who forget that some families have two fathers or two mothers.

Again, this is simply a question of being truthful, of describing the world accurately. But LGBT students are used to people not recognizing they exist. So they'll get the message right away that you're not like that -- that you're a "safe" adult.

Of course, some people will interpret talking like this as you having an "agenda." Which I guess you do if you consider treating all your students fairly and equally an "agenda." 

3) If you could send three books, other than your own, to every classroom and library in the country, which three would you choose and why?

Can I cheat and say I'd sent three e-readers? That way, since books are so personal, everyone can choose their own!

No, I know that's not fair. So if we're talking gay-related, I'll also say The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (my favorite play); Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (a gay classic, and a beautiful book); and the Neanderthal Parallax by Robert Sawyer (a really interesting and unique sci-fi series).

4) What has been the highlight of your writing career so far?

It's all about the people -- the email I've received, or the personal interactions I've had over the years with people who were somehow touched by my books. It just never gets old.

But it's also the experiences: giving keynote addresses in front of massive crowds; attending the premieres of my plays (and having it go well -- whew!); traveling to unfamiliar cities and towns; visiting the set of the movie version of my book.

It's already been a crazy ride, and I feel like I'm only just getting started.

5) Obviously you're running the show for Russel Middlebrook, but I know writers can't always be kind to their characters (or books would get pretty boring.)  If Russel Middlebrook was a real teenager, what would be the one piece of advice you would give him?

Oh, he really needs to relax. Things never work out exactly the way you expect, but things are almost never as bad as you think. And when they are, worrying doesn't make it any better anyway -- it actually makes it worse.

But that's easy for me to say -- I've already learned all the lessons he's just learning now.

Fortunately, Russel has already learned the most important thing I could ever tell him: how important your friends are. I'd say, "You chose well. Now fight like hell to keep them, and make sure you never lose them."

Questions? Comments? Visit me at www.brenthartinger.com

Thanks for the thoughtful, detailed responses, Brent!  

Enter below to win copies of all four Russel Middlebrook books!  If you already have them, or think they're not up your alley, you can always designate a school or library in your area to receive the books if you win!

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  1. I loved Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. Anything he writes is genius!

    Lauren Myracle's Kissing Kate was great too, although its protagonist more a bi-curious than actually gay. Still a great read!

    ♥ Karielle @ Books à la Mode

    1. Ooh, I'll have to look for Kissing Kate! Sounds like it's right up my alley!

  2. Great job on your first blog interview.
    These sound like good books and I like his advice about writing GLBT characters and including more diverse characters in general.

    1. Thanks! I agree--I really liked hearing what Brent had to say!

  3. I'd heard of Brent Hartinger before this, but I've never read any of his books. Thanks for sharing this informative interview. :)

    1. You're welcome! I've been meaning to read Geography Club since it was an option in a class I took in grad school (I read Annie On My Mind instead) so I'm really glad I had this prompt to read it!


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