Brent Hartinger was first featured in WD for his young adult novel Geography Club, which received praise for its realistic portrayal of gay teen characters. He has since published two sequels, one of which one the Lambda Literary Award, and YA novels The Last Chance Texaco, Grand & Humble, Dreamquest, and most recently Project Sweet Life, with Shadowwalkers forthcoming. He is also editor of the fantasy-genre site thetorchonline.com. Visit brenthartinger.com to learn more and sign up for his Daily Writing Tips on Twitter.
Judging from the success of Geography Club and the sequels that followed, it seems that the YA world was ready for books like yours. What do you think your books have meant to your readers?
I wrote the first draft in 1989 or so, and for the next ten years I heard every editor in New York tell me that, even if they liked the book, “It was too much of a niche market,” “It's too controversial for libraries,” etc. etc. And then it finally sold (in 2000) and came out in early 2003, and by it second week of release, it was already going into a third printing. So the conventional wisdom, that a gay teen novel wouldn't sell, was just totally totally wrong. But was it wrong in the 1990s? I often ask myself that. I honestly think if the book had come out before it did, it probably wouldn't have found the audience it did. The world wasn't ready.
The book and the sequels have resulted in just an avalanche of mail and e-mail. I mean, sometimes 20-30 in a week, thousands upon thousands over the years. It's amazing, and now as the books are published in other languages and in other countries, they're coming from all over the world. It's absolutely humbling and very, very gratifying.
You counsel gay teens. How do those experiences influence your writing?
Profoundly. It's obvious, of course, but I think that's how I get the right sensibility (assuming I do!).
Your books have won many awards and drawn many positive reviews. When did you feel like you’d “made it” as a writer?
Alas, it's such a precarious business, and it IS a business, which means that ultimately the only thing that matters is sales. I often feel I'm only as secure as my last hit book. And, of course, it's impossible to predict which books will connect with audiences. It's a very, very, very, very unpredictable industry! Good reviews? Awards? That often means nothing in terms of sales.
What is the most rewarding part of writing for the YA audience?
It is absolutely the response I get, which is just so honest and sincere and rewarding. I think adults are far less likely to really get excited about something. … For a teenager, it's an immediate, visceral thing, and the response is often so passionate and so emotional.
What is the most challenging part of writing YA?
The only part I find weird is that to write for a young adult audience, you have to write for, and appeal to, a bunch of 50-year old folks, mostly women, librarians and such, who decide which “teen” books are the ones worthy of buying for libraries, praising in reviews, or giving awards to. I'm not saying these aren't terrific people with whom I have a lot in common. But I confess, what appeals to them isn't always what appeals to teens, and vice-versa.
You've written two sequels to Geography Club. How is penning a series different from writing a stand-alone title?
You'd think it would get easier, but writing an effective sequel is actually very challenging. Plus you set the bar higher for yourself, so each book has been much harder (but, in the end, resulted in a better book too, I think).
To what do you attribute your success?
I think I'm pretty strong on plot and voice, two things that most teens seem to really respond to. That and the fact that I'm prolific, I promote my butt off, and I'm hopefully not too much of a jerk.
What role do you think having a supportive agent has played in your career?
Jennifer DeChiara is a dear friend, and literally best agent in the world. And I would know, because I've had seven. I think an agent is essential. An agent will make you far more than the 15 percent commission she charges. I can't tell you how many people I know who signed horrible contracts because they didn't think they needed an agent. Publishers represent their interests; you need someone to represent yours.
If you have a project that's marketable to a major publisher, and if it's written at a professional level, you;ll get an agent eventually. If you can't, the problem isn't “the industry” that can't see what a genius you are; it’s that you're not yet writing at a professional level, but you’re too close to your own work to be able to see that.
What have you learned about the publishing industry that you wish you’d known going in?
Listen to your gut. Be willing to compromise. Stand up for yourself. Be open to criticism.
Mostly, I wish I'd known how important promotion is, and that no one cares as much about or has as much riding on your book as you do. I also wish I'd known that ultimately you don't have that much control over how successful your book will be.
You've been a playwright, a screenwriter and a short story writer before releasing your first YA novel. How would you define your writing career now?
It's a very good question. But ultimately, I believe that writing in all those different mediums just helped make me a better writer. There are differences but ultimately it's all about “story.”
I call myself a “working writer.” I've made my living writing fiction for the last eight years, and every year I've made more money than the year before. I get to do what I love, tell stories, for a living. That makes me very, very proud, because now I know just how difficult, just what an insane pipe dream, that really is.
What's your writing routine?
I keep a regular weekday schedule, but I don't write every day, nor would I want to. I like having written, I take pride in finishing my projects, but writing for me is very hard work. I like my downtime too.
What advice can you offer to other aspiring writers?
Never write your first idea. I'm astounded by how many people just sit down and start writing. These days, before you can sell anyone your book, you need to sell them on the IDEA of your book. So pick a killer one—the idea that doesn't depend solely on execution, that doesn't take a whole paragraph to describe.