As Charles Dickens, the man whom many claim invented the modern novel, once said: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This maxim certainly applies to the publishing industry, which is currently going through massive amounts of upheaval (Kindle? Nook? Or plain old paper?), as well as fighting repeated claims that people “aren’t reading anymore.” If you’ve read a novel for fun in the past year, you are becoming part of an increasingly rare breed.
But there is one genre of publishing that is doing gangbuster business: YA, or Young Adult. Primarily marketed at mid-to-older teens and young twenty-somethings, YA continues to make money hand over fist, and frequently leads to these books becoming critically acclaimed films (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), as well as major moneymakers (the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, The Hunger Games series, etc.). And some of these YA titles (such as Perks, Scott Pilgrim, Nick and Norah and the most recently-in-theaters The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) have gay characters and subplots.
We took a few minutes to speak with two openly gay YA authors who have found remarkable success and acclaim by focusing on gay teen characters. Lambda Literary Award-winner Brent Hartinger, former alumnus of AfterElton, is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his novel Geography Club, the first of four (!) books about gay teen Russel Middlebrook and his friends, and the latest book in the series, The Elephant of Surprise, was released in January of this year. The film version of Geography Club is currently making the film festival rounds and will have its theatrical release on November 15th. Similarly, Bill Konigsberg, a former sports journalist and Lambda Literary Award-winner for his 2008 book Out of the Pocket, just released his brand-new novel Openly Straight this summer, detailing the adventures of Rafe, an openly gay high school soccer player from Colorado who decides to attend New England boarding school and start over by not being known as “the gay kid”—which becomes problematic when he falls into a deepening, boundary-testing friendship with hunky athlete Ben.
TheBacklot: Everyone talks about publishing and books dying out, yet YA is still one of the strongest categories selling. How does GLBTQ-themed YA literature fit into this conundrum?
Brent Hartinger: Well, the secret of teen books is that they’ve always sold to adults. Here’s a very brief history of YA literature: it didn’t really exist in the 60’s, it was born in the 70’s, there were the budget cuts in the 80’s and the library markets were decimated, so the industry regrouped and started to sell the books directly to teenagers and consumers, and then in the 90’s the current YA renaissance began. Geography Club came out in March 2003, and it became very clear to me that many, many of my readers—easily 50%–were not teenagers. I had teen readers, but also adult readers. It was kind of a natural segue, for the industry, to target those people. I mean, it’s the one experience that every adult shares: every adult was once a teenager, so it’s just such a formative experience. So there was this genre, but the teen genre didn’t really begin until the early aughts. But I think people responded right away because they were tired of the doom and gloom, they were tired of depression, and self-hatred, which was understandable in the 90’s and 80’s and 70’s—totally understandable! But I don’t think it resonated so much with the current generation of teenagers or twentysomethings. And so they immedidately gravitate towards these books that are a little lighter, they’re more optimistic, they’re more forward thinking (they’re) not backward-looking—
TBL: They’re funnier.
BH: Yeah!…and more linear. So suddenly there’s this huge market. And the other unspoken—well, it’s more spoken now, but the unspoken secret—in gay teen lit—and I think it’s a difference in some of these teen lesbian titles—there is a BIG fascination with gay boys, gay teen boys, among teen girls and older girls. You know, there’s this sort of—it’s not the same thing as slash, but it’s derived from some of the same pool. A lot of people who are interested in gay male sexuality for a variety of reasons…there are all kinds of theories as to why a teenage girl would relate to a gay boy. These are sensitive boys, they’re kind of—idealized versions of men. The fact is that girls are very interested in these titles. Probably more than 50% of my readers are adults, and more than 50% are girls and women. So it’s a big, female-driven market. I feel bad, I’d like to write a book for straight boys, because they’re kind of screwed these days—there’s not a lot being written for them. But anyway…it’s sort of the engine that drives YA/teen lit; it’s this fascination with (gay issues)….but the powers-that-be don’t get this, they don’t think teens are interested in it. Or they would be if it was on TV, like Glee. Or Geography Club and whatever other gay-themed movies are in the pipeline. And it’s to their detriment. Someone’s going to figure that out, and make millions.
Bill Konigsberg: Absolutely, I agree with Brent. He has a very large audience, as he should. I hear from a lot of teenage girls for sure. All you have to do is look at the blogs that are popular—you know, the ones reviewing these books—and it’s teenage girl after teenage girl leaving comments. So, you know, that’s the market. And it’s also gay boys; gay boys read these books, absolutely. And I think, personally, this is my bias, but, this is where a lot of the exciting work is happening in YA literature right now. I understand I’m biased, but: David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing is a groundbreaking book that just came out yesterday. It’s one of the three or four most exciting gay books I’ve read in the last decade, and I’ve read a lot of good gay YA stuff. And I hope that I’m in that group.
TBL: Is there still baggage or pressure to create “perfect” characters, or do you have an inner voice saying “But what would the fans think if I do X?” Does that become a little bit of a snare sometimes?
BH: That’s an interesting question. First of all, the whole sequel thing really couldn’t have gone better, because the sequels I control the rights (to them), so I republished editions last year on my own, sort of before the movie was announced. So financially, across the board, it could not be better for me—we have an audio deal that I just signed last week, so there’ll be an audio version by the time the movie comes out. It really couldn’t have been better for me AND the movie—as you said before, it was kind of sweet spot. You know, the Russel books—those are a thing, and they have a lot of fans, and I appreciate them and respect them. I’m working on a lot of projects, and I’d like to keep doing (the series), and if the movie doesn’t really break out I definitely will, and even if it does I think I might do it anyway, because I appreciate the readers. There’s an investment, and the time that they’ve put into the series, that’s so gratifying as a writer—I’m so appreciative. But on the other hand, I’ve published other books since then, some of which have done well, some of which have done less well. And you try to get your audience to come along, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.
You can’t help thinking about that, especially as we all want a career, we start thinking long-term and we want to continue being given the opportunity to write books. But I also believe—I was thinking about Order of the Poison Oak, which is the first sequel. I thought a long time about what a sequel is, and I read and looked at a lot of sequels—some of which worked, and some of which didn’t. And the conclusion I came to was, people think they want a story to continue, they think they want to know what happens next—in the first story. And in reality if you just write that story—sometimes movies do, like The Hangover—if you just write a continuation and repeat the same story the audience is going to be disappointed, because the audience doesn’t really know what it wants.
What the audience doesn’t want is the same story, what they want is to feel the same way. But if you want them to feel the same way, ironically, you have to think different. You give them what they love in the heart, and the characters, and the feelings, but you absolutely have to change the story, have a new story, and a new antagonist. Because otherwise they’re going to feel, “Well, I already saw this story.” They think they want that, but they really want something new and different.
And I think that applies to sequels, but I also think that applies to the whole genre of gay teen lit—it’s become so rich and diverse, so now we’ve got actual clichés and tropes that we’ve seen before. When I was reviewing films for AfterElton, I watched every gay indie film for five years; I saw everything. And after awhile I wanted to claw my eyes out, because there were these things that I kept seeing over and over again, and I had this hunger for something new and different. So…I have a project right now that’s extremely dark. It’s a gay character, and sort of turns out to be the villain—I’m not going to mention the title, because it’s kind of a spoiler. Ten years ago it wouldn’t have worked, I think, because the audience wasn’t looking for something like that. Now, I think, as much as Geography Club was a response to some of the more depressing literary gay fiction of the 80’s and 90’s, I think now people are looking for a response to the more optimistic, cheery fiction of the early aughts, at least in gay teen fiction, and I think the audience will be more receptive to darker themes.
You see more adult themes in the new YA, in the twenty-something stuff. Whether or not they’ll respond to something I write, that’s an open question, because you never, ever know. I like to say “every book has an audience”—well, almost every book has an audience—and when you publish, that’s just your poll to find out how big that audience is. It could be an audience of the author and his friends (well, then it probably wouldn’t be published at all). But then maybe it’s something with an audience of a thousand copies, or tens of thousands of copies. You just don’t know until you publish the book and all that weird, magic stuff happens.
Now I’m much more Zen about things; if a book doesn’t do well, I’m like “Eh,” you know? I did my best, I enjoyed it, if other people didn’t respond to it…every book I’ve ever written I’ve always had at least a couple people who said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read,” which always makes me feel good: “Okay, you know, I can live with that.” As an author, I don’t want to repeat myself, I want to challenge myself…I’m finishing a project this week; maybe it’ll sell, maybe it won’t; I think it will, but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. If it does well, I’ll be happy. If it doesn’t, I won’t be devastated like I was before, because I’ll think, “Well, I enjoyed writing that.”
BK: I definitely, with Out of the Pocket, was trying to write a character with an audience in mind. I was trying to write a breakthrough, mainstream gay sports drama. And I felt that I was uniquely positioned to do that, because of my background as a sportswriter…I’ve let that go now; I’m not interested in doing that sort of writing anymore. I mean, I don’t think the writing in that book is poor by any stretch, but I was very conscious this time of allowing my characters to be who they are, and giving them the chance to be. And some people hate Rafe, they get so angry at him during the book, (but) I love Rafe. I mean, he’s totally flawed, but I adore him.
TBL: Oh, I totally agree. You totally understand exactly where he’s coming from, even when he does things and you go, “Oh, dude…”, you completely understand exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing.
BK: I really like so many of these characters…it’s funny what [Brent] said (about writing a sequel). I’d love to go back into this world, because there are so many people I’d love to spend time with and get to know. I think that I probably like Ben as a character the most. I’m attracted to Ben…but actually, Rafe is probably a deeper character…I really, really get where Rafe is coming from. And…I don’t know a lot of things about Ben—I still feel like he’s a bit of a mystery, which is why I’m attracted to him.
TBL: What is something you’ve wanted to do in your writing but haven’t as yet? Will you do it?
BH: I have this gay teen project with my agent, and then I have this fantasy project with my agent that I just submitted right now; hopefully they’ll both sell. And I like both of those things. The rest of things I’ve been working on lately have been movie projects and adult genre stuff. The project I finished this week is a sort of sci-fi thriller, and I’ve been very involved with this next movie project, which hopefully will be out in 2015—which is also a gay teen project, but I wrote the screenplay on this one. So they’re in pre-production now; it’s been fascinating. Then I’ve got five or six other scripts that I’ve been circulating. Every writer—I know what I just said, and I’m going to contradict myself somewhat—wants to be read, and we want to be experienced. And the fact is, the genre of movies, it’s night and day in terms of impact and influence and visibility. And I love the medium of film anyways; I just love it. Because I think film is very much about story, very much about structure—much more, even more, than novels, more than YA. It’s about a character on a journey, and then something happens, and then there’s a revolution or not…there’s a reason why you watch this 90-minute movie, and everything in it needs to be justified. Everything needs to be there for a reason; it’s the most lean and efficient medium I think there is. There’s no room for fat. And that’s why I it. I just love films, and I love screenplays.
BK: I’ve actually sold my next book. It’s called “The Porcupine of Truth.” It’s a big leap forward, I should say, in terms of…intensity? It’s actually similar to this book (“Openly Straight”); it’s funny, and it’s dark, and it involves character who I’d say feel discontented and neglected. And these two characters go on a quest. And for the first time, the major character is not a gay boy; he’s a straight boy. But his sidekick is a lesbian…(we were) just talking about lesbians and literature, and you know, I hate to be critical, but I find this curious: Where are the funny lesbians, the funny lesbian teen stories? I cannot remember the last time I read a teen book with a lesbian character who was funny. And it’s interesting, because just looking at comediennes! There are so many funny women!
TBL: Oh yeah—Wanda Sykes, Ellen Degeneres, Kate Clinton, Tig (Notaro)…really, really funny lesbian comediennes.
BK: Yeah, totally! So, what I’m excited about is that (the character) Aisha, along with being very—it’s a deep book, and her pain is very deep—is a very, very funny character. I think that that’s something that we’re missing. So I’m excited about that, and now I’m focused on my next book, which is going to be about gay foster kids. It’s going to be an adventure in which the protagonists are all in a foster home.
And I don’t think I’m going to jump out of this genre. I think that…when things are moving forward in a certain genre, you kind of have to stick there.
TBL: What are some of your favorite YA LGBT books/authors besides your own that you’d recommend?
BH: I tend to put books I like on the website (brenthartinger.com)…and it’s also cool that there’s finally starting to be racial diversity and gender diversity. I thought Malinda (Lo)’s book (Ash) was terrific, and now it’s (YA literature) really changed. And now there are a couple transgendered titles.
BK: I haven’t read a lot of lesbian stuff recently. But definitely, what hit me most recently, was Aaron Hartzler’s book Rapture Practice. It’s a memoir about growing up in a Christian conservative household in Kansas. It was a REALLY interesting, well-written book. For a more mainstream take on what the gay novel is becoming, I enjoyed Proxy by Alex London. It’s a dystopian futuristic novel in which the main character happens to be gay, (but it) doesn’t play a huge role in the book. I think that’s pretty much as contemporary as we can get right now, that’s the future: our stories aren’t always about gay things. My books never really have been; Openly Straight is about, in a lot of ways, what the label “gay” really means, how does it relate to who you are as a person.
TBL: What advice—besides write every day and get a literary agent—would you give someone who wants to write LGBT YA works?
BH: I think all of the clichés are true: you should read everything you can. And you want to work your butt off. And you want to try to think about what makes you feel passionate, and what you hate, and why you hate it. You need to think about all these things—the feelings in your heart, and then you need to try to intellectually understand them. The piece of the puzzle that I didn’t get that I get now—and the older I get the more I get it—is the boring part, and that is that it’s important to understand the business of being an artist, the business of publishing. You need to know the unwritten rules, and I’m not saying you need to follow them, but you need to know what they are. I spent a lot of time beating my head against doors that were never going to open. Decide how you’re going to play the game, and once you’re through the door you can pull a bait-and-switch. Every writer, you can’t just sit in your room and write. Get a job in a bookstore, get a job at a publishing house, get an internship at a literary agency. Meet other writers, become voracious in your pursuit of new experiences. Contact professional writers and ask them “What worked? What didn’t? What do I do?” And get to know the process by which people discover books. Get online, and don’t hesitate to participate in the messiness and the sordidness—we all need to eat!—and figure out how it works. And when it happens to you, it’s not going to be such a shock. Once you know the unwritten rules, it become a lot easier to break them because you know exactly what you’re doing and why you’re breaking them. I was really naïve, and I sort of thought, “Oh, it’s all about the work, nothing else matters.” It’s all about the networking, that’s what it’s about! Get out there and know people! Don’t be this shy, introspective writer like I was. People are not scary, people have lots of information. And yeah, some of them are jerks, but some of them are great; get out there and meet them, and squeeze them dry. (Laughs) And that is literally how you become a successful writer!
BK: I think that reading everything you can get your hands on is great; you really need to know the genre. And I think that beyond that, just writing something that only you can write is so important, because there is so much generic gay YA stuff. We’ve read those coming-out stories, and there’s nothing wrong with a coming-out story. But at this point in our history, the character has to be unique, and different, and somebody we have to read about. So, it’s not like writing a coming-out story twenty years ago, which I think at that point was, “Oh, this person’s coming out.”
TBL: Mmm-hmmm. And they’d usually come out with a lot of angst and a lot of bitterness and somebody usually died…
BK: (Laughing) I don’t know if (that’s) exactly a gimmick so much as a voice? You have to have a masterful voice, and that’s true of all writing. And at this point it’s a tough field, so writing something that stands out from the crowd, it doesn’t really matter if you’re writing gay or straight, if it’s going to work.
The Elephant of Surprise—Book 4 in the Russel Middlebrook series—is available from Buddha Kitty Books, as are its three predecessors; Geography Club, the film, is slated for theaters in early 2014. Openly Straight is available from Arthur E. Levine books.