Interview with Brent Hartinger, author of The Elephant of Surprise

Publisher: Buddha Kitty Books

Publish Date: March 30, 2013

Order From:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble

Synopsis: People aren't always what they seem to be. Sometimes we even surprise ourselves.

So discovers seventeen-year-old Russel Middlebrook in The Elephant of Surprise, a stand-alone sequel to Brent Hartinger's landmark 2003 gay young adult novel Geography Club (which has now been adapted as a feature film co-starring Scott Bakula and Nikki Blonsky).

In this latest book, Russel and his friends Min and Gunnar are laughing about something they call the Elephant of Surprise -- the tendency for life to never turn out as expected. Sure enough, Russel soon happens upon a hot but mysterious homeless activist named Wade, even as he's drawn back to an old flame named Kevin. Meanwhile, Min is learning surprising things about her girlfriend Leah, and Gunnar just wants to be left alone to pursue his latest technology obsession.

But the elephant is definitely on the move in all three of their lives. Just who is Wade and what are he and his friends planning? What is Leah hiding? And why is Gunnar taking naked pictures of Kevin in the shower?

The Elephant of Surprise includes Hartinger's trademark combination of humor and romance, angst and optimism. Before the story is over, Russel and his friends will learn that the Elephant of Surprise really does appear when you least expect him—and that when he stomps on you, it really, really hurts.

Russel Middlebrook series: Geography Club (1), The Order of the Poison Oak (2), Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (3), The Elephant of Surprise (4)

Author Interview: Q. Please tell us about your current release.

It's called The Elephant of Surprise, and it's the latest book in the Russel Middlebrook Series, a series of four books (so far!) about a gay teen and his two best friends (a bisexual girl and a straight guy). The series all started with a YA book called Geography Club, which was first published back in 2003, and which will be released as a feature film adaptation later this year – something that has been pretty surreal.

You can see the trailer for the movie and one of the posters here:

Anyway, Geography Club was one of the first in a wave of gay YA books to really break out. Which is interesting, because NO ONE (except my editor and agent) thought it would be a hit. My agent had spent about four years trying to sell it, and I'd spent about four years before that trying to sell it on my own. A lot of people liked it, but everyone said, "Oh, there's no market for a book about gay teens. We can't make any money!"

Obviously, the world has changed a lot since the 1990s. Now you even have gay teens on TV on shows like Glee (although before they got on the air, I'm sure everyone told them, "Oh, there's no market for TV show about gay teens"!). Same thing with the movie version of Geography Club. It took ten years to get made because everyone said to the producers, "There's no market for a movie about gay teens!"


The Elephant of Surprise is a "stand-alone" book – meaning you don't have to have read all the books before it in the series. But obviously, I hope you do!

Q. How did you come up with the idea for your book?

With every book in this series, I've wanted my characters to have some interesting experience. In Geography Club, they start a "secret" gay-straight alliance (they call it the Geography Club because they think that sounds so boring that no one else will want to join. And yes, I have heard from dozens of angry geographers over the years!). In The Order of the Poison Oak (the second book in the series), they go to work at a summer camp for burn survivors. In Double Feature (the third book), they get jobs as zombie extras working on a horror film.

Well, for The Elephant of Surprise, this latest book, Russel gets involved with a mysterious guy who's a member of a group called "freegans." They're actually a real-life group of environmentalists who give up all their possessions and live on the streets, foraging for food and other necessities. I remember reading about them years ago. And the more I researched them for this book, the more interesting they became. It's a totally different kind of life – and as Russel learns in the book, it's a pretty fascinating one, and in some ways, even a very romantic one.

Q. Can you tell us about the journey that led you to write your book?

I've always been very proud of the three earlier books in the series, but I had problems with my original publisher, HarperCollins. I had something like six different editors in six years. So when I finally left that publisher for greener pastures in 2008, I figured I'd never be able to write these characters again – there aren't many publishers who want to continue a series that some other publisher started.

But then the movie version of Geography Club was announced, and suddenly it was a whole different ballgame. It gave me an opportunity to return to a group of characters that I really, really love. And hopefully the publicity from the movie will make people aware of these books when they might not have been before.

Q. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about the book?

Well, if there are any typos, I'd certainly change those! But no, by the time one of my books is published, I'm pretty certain it says exactly what I want.

Q. What was the hardest part of writing your book?

I loved the outlining, the research, the writing, but honestly? I'm not crazy about the proof-reading and the final editing. It's so tedious! I probably read the book twenty times – and this is long after I've finished the mostly-final draft. That does get tiring.

Q. Do you have a musical playlist you listen to when writing? If so, what kind of music?

Sadly, I need absolutely silence to write. I'm envious of writers who listen to music while writing, but I can't imagine doing that.

Q. What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

I'm kind of fanatical about plot and action. I'm constantly trying to move the story forward, or looking for great places to create a cliffhanger for the end of a chapter. I actually get really frustrated with meandering, "slice of life" books, or books that are all about flowery language, or books that are only about atmosphere and world-building.

The way I see it, a book is a story, and a story should have momentum – a beginning, a middle, and a knock-your-socks-off ending. I'm one of those people who think that if something isn't moving the story forward, if it's not there for a good reason, it shouldn’t be there at all.

I sometimes teach writing, and I always say to my students, "Your story should be about the most interesting character you can imagine on the most interesting day or week or year of his or her life!" Now that doesn't necessarily mean spaceships or meteors; sometimes the most interesting things are the most subtle. But it definitely means something fascinating happens!

Q. Do you plan any subsequent books?

Not only do I plan them, I have them written! I write for a living, so I've usually got three or four books in the works. Right now I have two books that are done and out with my agent, hopefully soon finding publishers. And I've just started writing another book series.

And that doesn't include the plays and screenplays I'm usually working on! Needless to say, I don't get much sleep.

Q. Please tell us your latest news.

Well, the movie version of Geography Club is my big news of the year. But I'm also working on another film project that I hope will go into production very soon. I didn't write the screenplay for Geography Club the movie, but I did write it for this new project. That's kind of cool. Here's hoping it really happens!

Q. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Well, I'm always happy to talk with folks via my website or my profiles on various social media (all listed on my website). One of the things that I think is pretty cool about the world today is that when you have question for a writer or just want to say hi, it's pretty easy to track him or her down. We writers spend a lot of time by ourselves in our offices – plus, we're always looking for excuses to procrastinate! – so there's a pretty good change the writer will be happy to write you back. 


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