Welcome to the Spotlight: Brent Hartinger and The Elephant of Surprise!


Welcome back to my series where I put the spotlight on authors and books I love! I’m so thrilled to feature Brent Hartinger! I’ve been a long time fan. I’m especially pleased because we’re talking about Brent’s newest book, The Elephant of Surprise, book 4 in the Russel Middlebrook series. I’ve so missed Russel and his friends. Stayed tuned below for a chance to win a copy of this awesome book!


The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger (Buddha Kitty Books/2013)

In The Elephant of Surprise, Russel is trying to maintain a long distance relationship with Otto while Min is having relationship issues with Leah. Gunnar is on a kick of recording every second of his life online. During the course of the story, Russel meets a Wade, a freegan – someone who lives a free life by collecting food and material out of Dumpsters. Russel is not only attracted to this alternate lifestyle but he’s attracted to Wade, too. Oh, and Kevin Land, Russel’s first love is still on Russel’s radar. This story is part mystery and a lot love story – everything I adore about a good book!

You have quite a career – author, playwright, screenwriter! Call you tell us a little about your path to publication (in YA) and how the other facets of your careers came about? Do you favor one over another?

Like a lot of writers, I think my landing in YA was a bit of fluke. I wrote a book about a teenager back in the 1990s, and my agent said, “This is young adult.” At first I was a little offended, then I started reading YA and realized, “Ohhhh. This is good stuff!” And the genre has just kept getting better and better. It’s one of those cases where the genre’s success has totally be driven by its quality.

Anyway, that first book sold to HarperCollins and it was a hit, and suddenly I had a career as a YA author. But I think if I’d had my first big success writing screenplays or plays, I would have been totally happy working mostly in those worlds too.

Honestly, I see myself as a storyteller. I just love the whole idea of “story.” I think an intricate, well-crafted plot is a thing of such beauty and power. Plays, screenplays, and novels are three very different mediums, but I see more similarities than differences. Basically, it’s all about structure, baby, structure: beginning, middle, end. A main character with a dramatic goal, rising tension, and some kind of powerful, life-changing resolution.

People often confuse “structure” with “formula,” but they’re TOTALLY different things.

Incidentally, most YA novels are all about plot and story too, which is partly why I think I’ve fit into that genre so well.

These days I really have the best of all worlds: I make enough money writing books and screenplays that I’m able to write plays whenever I feel the urge.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing you a few times before. (2003, 2004, 2007) I suppose you could call me a HUGE fan (I hope you don’t call me a stalker)!  Can you tell me a little about how this fourth book in the series came about?

Ah, that’s so sweet of you to say. You’re the opposite of a stalker. And I really, really appreciate the support!

HarperCollins published GEOGRAPHY CLUB, the first book in the series, in 2003 — before I even knew it *was* a series. It’s about a gay teen named Russel and his misfit friends. The book did well, so I was asked to do some sequels. I’m one of those writers who thinks that sequels can’t just “continue the story.” If the story was at all well-written, the story is over when the book is done. So you need to tell an entirely *new* story: a new setting, new goals, new conflicts, new themes.

So that’s what I tried to do with the next two books in this series, THE ORDER OF THE POISON OAK (where Russel and his friends get jobs at a camp for burn survivors) and DOUBLE FEATURE (where Russel and his friends volunteer to be extras on a low-budget zombie film).

But honestly, HarperCollins wasn’t a very good fit for me. I wrote a total of six books for them, and I had six different editors — maybe more, now that I think about it. That’s just impossible, creatively speaking. No one really has your back. And while I’m grateful they published me, they made a lot of decisions regarding my books that seemed to me to be bone-headed.

So I left around 2008, moving onto other publishers. The problem was, I couldn’t write another book in the series, even though I wanted to, because they controlled the rights to the earlier books and had even taken a couple of them out of print. I was getting all these emails from people asking about the books, but at the time, HarperCollins wasn’t even interested in publishing them as e-books.

So my agent petitioned for the rights back, and we got em, and I started publishing my own independent editions. I didn’t get rich, but they sold a lot better than I thought they would.

Then, after about eight years in development, they finally announced the movie version of GEOGRAPHY CLUB. I’d always wanted to write another book in the series, so I thought, “Well, with the movie coming, why not just write it and publish it myself?”

So that’s what I did. I hired my first editor and copy-editor and everything. It was a lot of work, but it was totally worth it. And if it continues to sell like it has, I’m pretty sure I’ll make more money from this book than I ever did from most of the books I published with HarperCollins. So it’s a happy ending for everyone.

One of my favorite types of stories is a great love story. I count THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE in that category. I was rooting for Russel to find true love. Without giving anything away about the outcome of Russel’s love life, how do you orchestrate (plot) the romance angle of a story? Obviously there needs to be tension for a reader to continue turning pages. Do you know ahead of time what the outcome will be? I suppose I’m most curious about you as a writer – plotter or “free-writer”?

I think the perfect ending to a story is one that’s both totally surprising yet completely inevitable in retrospect. Something that really packs and punch and makes you realize that the writer brought you on this particular journey for a reason — that there was a point to the story, a reason why it was told. The story is a coherent whole; it all hangs expertly together. Every scene is there for a reason, and (again, in retrospect) it all fits together like a perfect puzzle.

I happen think that kind of thing is really, really, really hard to pull off by the seat of your pants. It’s hard to pull off even when it’s planned out in advance!

I mean, there are different kinds of stories, and they all have their readers, their place in the world. The more literary type novels, the ones with softer ending or a more meandering feel, I can see how they can be sort of “discovered” along the way. I heard one writer talk recently about seemingly plot-free books actually having an “emotional plot.” I wasn’t very impressed, but if it works for some readers, I think that’s great.

But a story-story? That takes a hell of a lot of thought. For me anyway, it’s not an intuitive process — at least not entirely. It’s partly an intellectual one: figuring out how all the pieces fit together, and exactly why.

So yeah, I’m definitely a plotter.

As for the “romance” aspect, that’s always hard because — let’s face it — we sort of know the ending to a romance, right? But I’d like to think a threw in a few pretty wild surprises in THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE. And if I did my job right, they’re “earned” twists. At the end, you’ll be excited and surprised, but you’ll also think, “Of *course*! Why didn’t I see that coming?!”

Russel is introduced to an alternate lifestyle called Freeganism. You describe freegans as “a real-life group of environmentalists who give up all their possessions and live on the streets, foraging for food and other necessities.”  How did you hear about this and what kind of research did you do?

A friend told me about them a couple of years ago — they’re better known as the people who eat out of Dumpsters. Then I read an article, and I thought, “Oh, yeah! I’m totally writing about them one day!”

One of the reoccurring themes in the Russel Middlebrook Series is the whole notion of the “outsider.” Russel sees the concept from lots of different places. But when I read about the freegans, I thought, “Now these are the *real* outsiders!” I mean, eating out of Dumpsters? It doesn’t get any more outsider than that!

But it was important for me not to stereotype them. I spent a lot of time researching them, and I saw they have a coherent, very compelling point of view — and in many ways, it’s a very romantic one.

I loved writing about Wade, the freegan that Russel gets involved with, because he basically forces Russel to question absolutely everything about his life and what he believes. And dramatically speaking, you just can’t ask for a better object of romance than that!

The first book in the series, THE GEOGRAPHY CLUB, has been turned into a movie. How exciting! Can you tell us a little about that? What was the most exciting thing about that process? And when can we expect to see it?

I guess it’s a two-part story. The first part was pretty frustrating. The rights were optioned right after the book came out in early 2003. And it “almost” got made lots of times — a big-budget movie, a TV movie, a TV series, a micro-budget indie project. It went through a whole string of different producers. But it always seemed to fall through. At one point, one producer said to me, “I think this thing has literally been rejected by every studio and financing entity in town.” This was before the success of GLEE or anything.

But around 2010, everything changed. The producer invoked the option (which means they purchased the rights, and I got paid the full price we’d previously negotiated). And what do you know? It actually went into production!

It is an indie project, so it’s not a $50 million dollar budget. But it’s not a micro-budget either. It’s a quality production with a great cast — some famous actors like Scott Bakula and Ana Gasteyer, and some up-and-coming young actors too.

And the good news, it’s actually a decent movie! It’s different from the book, but they were pretty respectful, and I’m very happy to have my name involved with it. The plan is it for it to be released later this year or early next.

It’s also exciting because I have another film project that I think will go into production later this year based on an old play of mine. So movie-wise, it’s been a very exciting year.

It’s just a coincidence that this is all happening now. But I’d like to think it’s sort of a reward too, because — not to pat myself on the back too much — I’ve been working my butt off!

Well! I for one can’t wait to see the movie! Congratulations, Brent! All exciting stuff!

BrentCameronBrent Hartinger and Cameron Deane Stewart, the actor who plays Russel in the movie

Brent Hartinger is an author, teacher, playwright, and screenwriter. Geography Club, the first book in his Lambda Award-winning Russel Middlebrook Series, is now a feature film co-starring Scott Bakula and Nikki Blonsky. In 2005, he co-founded the entertainment website AfterElton.com, which was sold to MTV/Viacom in 2006. Read more by and about Brent, or contact him at www.brenthartinger.com.

You can also follow Brent on Twitter and on Facebook.


Follow the directions below to be entered in a drawing where one lucky winner will receive a copy of this fab book! Good luck!

1. Comment on this post, and for fun, what is your favorite food (and would you eat it if you found it in a Dumpster?). I have many favorite foods, but the only one I can think of that I would eat if I found it in a trash can (and it would have to be a very clean trash can and I’d have to know it was tossed out just seconds ago) is a wrapped Lake Champlain Peppermint Crunch bar. Although I’d have to wonder why it was thrown out. Hmmmm.

2. Leave your comment and email address by midnight EST Sunday, April 21st. The lucky winner will be announced here and contacted by email on Tuesday, April 22nd.

3. Entrants must have a U.S. or Canada mailing address.

Thanks for stopping by! Happy reading!

8 responses »

  1. Great interview, especially about the plotting, which is the hardest part of writing for me. I don’t know what I’d eat out of a dumpster… I’ve got many food restrictions so maybe it would have to be some fresh fruit tossed by a store or restaurant. Whole, no bites taken out. Too unrealistic? If I were able to eat fast food – any fast food – I might take something that had just been tossed if it was mainly wrapped. I’d love to see what the book tells us about the freegainism group.

  2. I’m off to get the first book and start the series. Favorite food? So many. My favorite comfort food–let’s go with that–is white rice with list of butter and salt. I know, boring, but yum. From a dumpster? No. Anything? MAYBE a bananas, skin totally intact and sealed, that I’d JUST seen dropped on top. Barely touching anything else. Maybe. 🙂

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