An Interview with Brent Hartinger, Author of Split Screen By William Burleson
You mentioned having worked with teens for years. Was that as a teacher, as you mention later?
I taught high school for a semester (just two classes a week). But I've also been a swim coach for seven years, I worked as a counselor in a group home, and I helped found one of the first GLBT youth groups in my hometown back in 1990. I was also a GSA facilitator for a three years at my alma mater.
How did you come to writing young adult, LGBT-themed, fiction?
It was a complete fluke. I had written a book with a teenage protagonist, and my agent-at-thetime said, “I think I'll try to sell this as YA.” I remember being totally offended, thinking that I was being pigeon-holed, that teen wasn't “real” literature. But then I started reading some teen books, and I realized how good they are--that the average teen book is, [in my opinion], much better than the average “adult” book. Why? Well, since we're supposedly writing for “reluctant” readers, we're strongly encouraged to get to the point, to engage the reader right away, to use economy of language, be plot-driven. Self-indulgence and a meandering or non-existent plot is just far less acceptable in this genre (though not non-existent, alas).
But if you ask me, this is the stuff of all good writing, whether it's written for kids or adults. A lot of adult fiction has gotten away from these basics. Anyway, I'm a writer who loves plot and action (and also character--it's a myth that these things are somehow contradictory). Plus, I've worked with teenagers for years, often GLBT teenagers. So the teen lit genre turned out to be the perfect fit for me.
Is this a growing category? Is there a lot of such reading now joining Little House on the Prairie in school libraries?
Oh, absolutely. Right when I decided to commit myself to teen lit, which was around 1995, that was the start of this absolute explosion in the genre in terms of both quality and quantity. Teen fiction is one of the few genres that is actually pretty healthy these days--that and fantasy.
I think there are two reasons why: (1) the fact that the books are so damn good, that the genre hasn't gotten bogged down in introspection and self-indulgence like so much literary fiction, and (2) the fact that the teen years truly are the “universal” experience. After all, almost every reader in existence either *is* a teen or *was* a teen.
There's a little secret about teen books: we have many, many adult cross-over readers. I think it's especially true of GLBT teen lit--adults eager to read stories of the teen years they wish they'd had. Since so many of us were robbed of a true adolescence, we relive those years through these books. That's certainly part of the reason why I write these books!
Anyway, GLBT teen lit is hot, hot, hot right now. Who knew?
You won the Lambda award in the “Bisexual” category because Min, the focus of one of the two stories and an out bisexual, was such as strong character. What brought you to that choice, of making her bi?
First, I was thrilled to win the award! I've judged many awards myself, and I know what an arduous process it is for the judges, and what a thankless task. So...thanks!
As for Min being bi, she was that way right from the beginning, probably in part because so many of the teen girls I was working with were also bi. I knew there was something going on in society among young people, even back in the 1990s, which most adults were completely unaware of. What's depressing is that here it is over ten years later and bisexuals are still fighting for awareness!
It's especially true in teen lit. This is one example of how teen books suffer from the fact that most of them are written by adults, and not actual teens. Bisexuality is huge right now, really resonating with teens, especially girls. But it's being ignored by most adults. Every time I teach a writing class, I tell my students, “Write about bisexuality! It's going to be huge!” But it never happens, or maybe editors aren't buying these books. I dunno. Anyway, for the time being, I guess I have that corner of the genre almost to myself.
Have you received much feedback from teen readers, both to this work and the earlier books in the Geography Club series? For that matter, have you received any push-back from people who believe topics like this should be best left in the closet?
Oh, it's overwhelming--just thousands of letters and emails. Very gratifying, and very, very humbling. I write non-gay books too, often with similar sales, but I don't get anywhere near the amount of email from those books. The GBLT teen genre somehow really touches a deep cord in people, adult and teen alike. It has something to do with what I said before. And hopefully I wrote some halfway decent books too!
As for a push-back, yeah, I've been challenged and banned quite a few times, and I get the occasional hate email and death threat. It's a little disturbing when you realize how truly insane some of these anti-gay folks are. I mean, man, do they have issues! And we have to somehow share a country and a planet with them. It's sobering.
But the good far, far, far outweighs the bad!
What message do you want your readers, especially teens, to take away from Split Screen?
Mostly, I'd just like people to think I wrote a fun, funny, interesting, entertaining book that maybe made them see things in a way they hadn't seen before. It's always dangerous when an author talks about “the point” of one of his books. But given that it's a “flip” book, with the same
period of time told from two completely different points-of-view, I guess I did have a “point” of sorts.
I think Split Screen: Attack Of The Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride Of The Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies is about how reality really depends on your point-of-view, and that everyone has a different perspective on almost everything. Make no judgments about anyone in the stories until you read both stories!
I'm very proud of this book, of the two intersecting, yet completely different storylines. I'd also like to think it's sort of bridges the gap between guys and girls, gays and bisexuals. We're all the same...and yet completely different...and yet the same.
But can I just say? Getting these two stories to more or less line up was hard as hell!
Split Screen is the third in a series. Will there be a fourth?
Truthfully, that depends on if the Geography Club movie ever gets made, which, at this moment in time, seems pretty likely. But it's not a small budget project, so it's been a long process.
I would love to continue the series. The plan is for the next two books to be from Kevin's POV and from Min's POV. But at the same time, there are zillion other stories I'd like to tell, some GLBT, some not. So when my publisher says, “Let's try something new for a bit,” I'm totally down with that.