It’s been 10 years since Brent Hartinger’s novel Geography Club first hit the shelves. A lot has changed since the publication of this book, which tells the story of closeted Russel Middlebrook, who forms a support club for isolated gay students. Gay YA fiction has become much more mainstream. Also, the publishing industry now includes more options for writers looking to bring work to market. Hartinger is on the inside of both of these trends, having just self-published The Elephant of Surprise, the fourth book in his Russel Middlebrook series. Hartinger talks about the new book, his experience with releasing (and promoting) his own work, and why it’s an exciting time to be a writer.
Why do you continue to write the Russel Middlebrook series?
I know every author gets fan email and it’s the best part of the job. But there’s something about these gay teen books. People have a relationship with them, and I get the most touching, wonderful emails. As a writer you can’t really ask for anything better.
I wrote Geography Club based loosely on my own experiences of feeling alone and alienated as a gay teenager back in the ’80s. The irony is that this story about a kid who feels alone makes me feel like I have friends all over the world. And if the book has done anything, it’s made people who used to feel like I felt, feel less alone, too.
Has the content of readers’ letters changed in the 10 years since Geography Club was first published?
I am hearing from kids who have come out at a much younger age. I still hear from a lot of kids in crisis and kids who have been kicked out [of their homes], but now I think they tend to be from Southern states and rural areas. Also, as the book gravitates across the planet, I get the same kind of emails that I was getting in 2003 and 2004 from the United States, [but now] from Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bolivia, Qatar, Peru, and Colombia. The facts of Geography Club are kind of dated if you live in a city like Seattle or Los Angeles. But if you live in a small city in Utah or Georgia, or Bolivia or India, they are very, very relevant. On one hand it’s incredibly depressing. On the other hand, we all know how the story ends. It’s a horrible struggle, yet it has a happy ending.
In The Elephant of Surprise, Russel falls in love with a freegan, an anti-consumer who forages for food. Where did this idea come from?
When you do a series, it’s really important that you don’t ever repeat yourself. People think they want to read more of the same story, but the reality is they want a new story. They just want to feel the way that first story made them feel. So you’re constantly on the lookout for a new way to talk about the same themes.
A friend of mine sent me an article on freeganism maybe four or five years ago. I thought, this is just perfect for Russel, because the recurring theme in his series is the outsider. What is an outsider? What makes an outsider? How do we deal with outsiders? Before, Russel was the outsider, and now he falls in love with this guy who is a Dumpster diver. I love the idea of the main character coming in contact with somebody who is even more of an outsider that he is, which forces him to question everything about his life.
Before, just getting a gay story published was revolutionary. Now it’s sort of revolutionary to tell a story that has gay characters who are just like other kids. They are not being gay bashed or dealing with bullying. They are just getting on with their lives and they are dealing with issues that every teen deals with.
Why did you decide to self-publish this book?
HarperCollins published the first three books in the series. but it wasn’t working out, so I left. HarperCollins still controlled the rights and a couple were out of print. The books had developed a following and I was getting all these emails from people saying they wanted to read these books. So I got back the rights for the latter two. Harper still publishes Geography Club.
Just as a lark, I reprinted [those] two books as e-books and paperbacks, too. I didn’t get rich, but they sold surprisingly well. I had left the third book with sort of a cliffhanger, and I always wanted to write a fourth book. So I decided to self-publish it.
I had trepidations. Like every writer, I’ve had frustration over the years with choices my publishers have made. At the same time I didn’t want to be responsible for all the marketing and deciding the cover and all of that. But then a movie version of Geography Club was announced and I thought well, certainly if I am going to [self-publish] I should do it now.
It’s a lot of work, but at the same time, I got to write exactly the book I want. Traditional publishing was not this burden, but you serve many masters. With self-publishing, if I want to write about freegans and Russel’s love affair with a kid who is a Dumpster diver, I can do it and no one is going to look at me askance.
I know my readers at this point. I know that what people like about these books is they are quirky, and the characters are neurotic and weird and dorks. So I knew this story would find its place. And if it continues to sell, I will make more money off this book then I made off any of the other books with HarperCollins, except Geography Club.
Do you plan to continue self-publishing other projects?
I have a movie coming out either next year or the one after that, which is based on a play of mine. I might novelize that play. Part of me thinks I should try to pitch that to publishers, and part of me thinks I should just self-publish it.
The problem with self-publishing is getting anybody to care. The books in the Russel Middlebrook series had a pre-existing audience, plus there’s been publicity about the upcoming movie [tentatively scheduled for. I tell people who write to me about self-publishing that you really have to think long and hard. Does your book have a media hook? Do you have a platform or a following? Self-publishing is a game-changer, but I don’t know that it’s a panacea.
As hard as it is for me to get traditionally published, especially with a gay book back in the 1990s, when I first started trying to sell Geography Club – self-publishing is harder. I don’t think it’s any shortcut. It’s just a different kind of hard. People should definitely go in with both eyes open.
Will you do a fifth book in the Russel Middlebrook series?
It is in my head, but I haven’t outlined it yet. If I write it, it will be a reboot of the series. I am going to jump ahead four or five years with Russel, when he’s in college. Writing it depends in part on how The Elephant of Surprise does – and how the Geography Club movie does, too. If the movie comes out and tanks, who knows?
How did the movie come about?
The rights were optioned right away and then it went through a whole series of producers. It almost got made a zillion different times: it was an indie film, a big budget film, a TV film, a TV series. I was starting to think it was never going to happen. But then around 2010, the latest producers invoked the option and purchased the rights.
It’s an indie production, so it doesn’t have a $50 million budget, but they really worked wonders and they didn’t skimp. I saw it a couple of weeks ago and it looks great. It’s updated as it needed to be, and some of the story was made more cinematic, since a big part of the book is in Russel’s head.
I didn’t write the movie, but the producers asked me my opinion now and again, and showed me the script. In a way, I am almost glad I didn’t write it, because if the movie is a success, I get lots of credit, and I don’t get any blame if it’s not well received.
I was on set for a half a week, and I had this out-of-body experience watching a scene based on something that actually happened to me. By the end of the scene, I literally couldn’t remember what actually happened to me, what did I write and what did I just see. It was this wonderful blur.
What else are you working on now?
I have a couple of projects that just went out with my agent a couple of weeks ago, as a traditional deal. In a couple of weeks, I am also pitching a Kindle Serial project for Amazon’s new program, which publishes novels in episodes. It’s an adult science fiction project, which I am writing right now. If Amazon says no, then I will try to traditionally publish that one as well.
It sounds like you’re exploring all kinds of possibilities.
It’s sort of nice to have options. We live in an exciting era where writers have more freedom than we’ve ever had.
The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger. Buddha Kitty Books, $12.99 paper ISBN 978-0-9846794-5-4