:: Interview with Brent Hartinger
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Brent Hartinger is the author of Geography Club, The Last Chance Texaco, and The Order of the Poison Oak, a sequel to Geography Club. His most recent book, Grand & Humble, was released in January 2006. Forthcoming novels include Dreamquest, and The Fifth Season.
Mr. Hartinger's Geography Club was twice named a Book Sense 76 Pick — once in hardcover, and once in paperback. His other honors include an IRA Notable Book, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, a Booklist Top Ten First Young Adult Novel, an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, winner of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators/Judy Blume Grant for a Contemporary Young Adult Novel, and an InsightOut (Bookspan) Book Club Main Selection. He lives in Tacoma, Washington with his partner, Michael Jensen. Visit his website at www.brenthartinger.com.
DM: What were some of your best-loved books as a child?
BH: So many, but mostly fantasy. It wasn't until I was older—in high school—that I discovered fantasy books, and that's when I realized that books didn't have to be boring and depressing.
I loved The Lord of the Rings, MOMO, The Neverending Story, and The Chronicles of Narnia. I also loved The Great Brain books, and The Mad Scientist's Club. I didn't read a lot of realistic fiction, which is mostly what I write now, but I adored The Outsiders. I was so disappointed when I learned that S.E. Hinton wasn't actually a boy (though she was 16 years old when she wrote the book!).
DM: I loved The Neverending Story. And I loved The Outsiders, too. And I was happy the writer was a woman because it reaffirmed my feelings as a young person that girls could also feel that way. Even though I grew up in a middle class home and took ballet lessons and drama lessons and piano lessons, I continued to feel mostly like an outsider.
BH: Isn't that funny? I grew up white bread suburban all the way, and yet I totally related to Ponyboy and his friends. I remember how disturbing it was when I realized that The Outsiders was fiction—that it didn't "really" happen. I get e-mails like that now from teen readers. They're disappointed that I'm not a teen, and that Russel [the main character in Geography Club] doesn't really exist.
DM: Was there a particular teacher who fanned your creative flame as you were growing up?
BH: Well, to be honest, I really disliked school, and most of my memorable teachers were the ones I hated. Many of them were nuns, many of whom seemed spectacularly untalented with kids. As an adult, I can now see that a lot of those teachers did their best. But I've always been a self-driven person, so I get frustrated when I'm told I have to do the same things as everyone else, along with everyone else.
Teachers, and adults in general, don't always come off too well in my books, and I think that's probably because when I was a teenager, teachers didn't come off too well in my life.
It was in college that I learned you could actually be friends with your teachers, and talk back when you disagreed with them! I had several great professors in college, including one, Michael Leiserson, who really showed me what great teaching is. He is still the wisest person I've ever met, and truly an inspiration.
How about if I told you I had great librarians at my schools?
DM: Did you?
BH: Actually, even that’s not true. My grade school librarian was the nun who had gone sort of senile, so they put her in the library. The problem was, she wouldn't let you touch the books!
DM: Hmmm. She was one of those dragon lady librarians.
BH: Seriously. Gosh, we laughed about that.
DM: Brent, have you taken any formal writing classes? Or did you teach yourself?
BH: I took a few formal writing classes, but nothing that was very influential. I once misinterpreted an assignment and had a writing teacher spend about an hour humiliating me in class, telling me what a horrible, hopeless writer I was. Afterwards, my friend said to me, "I can't believe that just happened. I've never seen a teacher be so mean to anyone before!" So my writing class was not a very positive experience!
Basically, yes, I taught myself the process, by reading and by trial and error (mostly error!). I wrote in three mediums: novels, screenplays, and plays. And I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, until other people started saying that what I was writing might have some small amount of potential. But I think writing in three mediums was very helpful, because it helped me to see the elements of "story" that all three mediums have in common, which is a lot. Basically, it has to do with structure, and I think the fact that I believe so strongly in structure (and in character) is really the key to whatever success I've had.
DM: Would you talk about your plays?
BH: I think every writer of novels should have to spend time as a playwright, because it’s really the only medium where you’re forced to sit and watch an audience react to your work. It immediately becomes clear what interests them and what doesn’t—where they perk up, and where they get bored. Because it’s such a miserable experience watching your work bomb—and because you never, ever want to go through it again!—you immediately start to ask yourself some important questions, like: do I really need that scene? And, more importantly, what is the essence of drama? The answer, of course, is conflict, action, and getting to the point. Anyway, the experience of seeing your plays performed changes a writer forever.
Conducted via e-mail in Fall 2005. The complete interview is available in the July/August 2006 issue of Public Libraries.