Welcome to our Grand Finale celebrations for the amazing
We started this month-long celebration with Russel Middlebrook, so it's only fitting to end with him, specificially the Futon Years. We'll also take a look at the spin-off with Otto Digmore. Additionally, we have our author interview, plus one more chance to win one of his books!
First up, The Thing I Didn't Know I Didn't Know
"I guess this was what they meant by a loss of innocence. Who knew?"
Russel Middlebrook is twenty-three years old, gay, and living in trendy Seattle, but life isn't keeping up with the hype. Most of his friends have a direction in life—either ruthlessly pursuing their careers or passionately embracing their own aimlessness. But Russel is stuck in place. All he knows is that crappy jobs, horrible dates, and pointless hook-ups just aren't cutting it anymore.
What's the secret? What does everyone else know that he doesn't?
Enter Kevin, Russel's perfect high school boyfriend. Could rekindling an old flame be the thing Russel needs to get his life back on track? Or maybe the answer lies in a new friend, an eccentric screenwriter named Vernie Rose, who seems plenty wise. Or what the hell? Maybe Russel will find some answers by joining his best friend Gunnar's crazy search for the legendary Bigfoot!
One way or another, Russel is determined to learn the all-important secret to life, even if it's a thing he doesn't even know he doesn't know.
And then, standing in the middle of the massive fresh sushi section, I saw Kevin.
I literally caught my breath. I'd never done that before, so I didn't even know what it felt like (a cross between a gulp and a choke).
He wasn't riding in a white limousine like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, but it didn't matter. I was flooded with feelings of affection—I was drowning in a whole goddamn lake of them.
I was watching him, but he didn't see me, just like before. But this time he was barely ten feet away, and there was no crowd for him to get lost into. In other words, there was no chance of him getting away.
Do I want to talk to him? Once we talked, I'd have to accept whatever came next. Like, if his reappearance in my life didn't make everything wonderful again.
Truthfully, that kind of nonsense was a lot easier to accept when Kevin was mostly in the abstract, not when he was standing right in front of me with his neatly trimmed black beard. That was something new—he hadn't had a beard before. He filled out his shirt more now, and his pants too, but both in very good ways. And he hadn't worn glasses before either.
But even so, I couldn't make myself walk over to him. My pulse was pounding, but the blood didn't seem to be going anywhere. The warm feeling suddenly turned cold. I was remembering our break-up, how petty it was, what a dick I'd been. Would he remember that? Would he hold it against me?
I turned to leave.
At the same time, he turned toward me.
"Russel?" he said.
I looked back.
His face was warm and friendly and open. He was drowning in all the same feelings I'd been having only a few seconds earlier—I could tell. He hadn't remembered why or how we'd broken up, what a dick I'd been. Or maybe he did, but it paled compared to everything else he felt about me.
"Kevin?" I said, acting surprised, like I hadn't just been watching him for three minutes straight.
"How are you?"
He really was happy to see me. His face was blossoming like a flower.
"I'm good," I said.
He stepped toward me, and I stepped toward him. We hugged, loosely, a little awkwardly. He had absolutely filled out, and it was definitely in a good way. I think he was wearing cologne, but I didn't get a good sense of it, or of his own scent, over all the crazy smells of the store.
He pulled back from the hug first, then I pulled back.
"So you're living in Seattle now?" I said.
"I am. I moved back just a couple of months ago. I work for Amazon."
"Oh, God, don't tell me you're a 'brogrammer'!" There were two kinds of guys who worked in tech in Seattle: geeks and "brogrammers"—basically, jocky frat-type guys who've realized that tech is where the big bucks are. And it went without saying that Kevin was no geek.
Kevin laughed. "No, not tech. I actually work for IMDb—they're owned by Amazon. Editing."
"Kevin Land is an editor, huh? Who knew?"
"Turns out there's hope for us dumb jocks after all. What about you? What do you do?"
I told him about my two jobs. When it came to winning him back, I wasn't sure which was the better strategy: puffing up the jobs to make them sound more impressive than they were, or making them sound really pathetic and I was a complete lost wet puppy in need of rescuing. I couldn't decide, so I just told him the truth (which, unfortunately, was closer to "lost wet puppy in need of rescuing").
Kevin listened and smiled. He'd whitened his teeth at some point in the last three years—probably professionally, in a dentist's office, not with those stupid Crest Strips that I'd used (that had barely made any difference I could see).
"It's pretty great, isn't it?" Kevin said.
"What?" I said.
"I don't know. Seattle in the summer. Being out of college. Life. Everyone says the future is shit, but it doesn't feel that way. Does it?"
"No, it doesn't," I said, and I was mostly telling the truth again, even if the only reason the future felt bright to me right then was because I was starting to think there was a real chance that Kevin and I would get back together again.
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Book two in the series, Barefoot In The City Of Broken Dreams
“There was no way moving to Los Angeles was going to make me give up my soul. After all, I’d already seen all the movies about Hollywood. I knew how things worked.”
Twenty-four year-old Russel Middebrook and his boyfriend have moved to Los Angeles so Russel can try to make it as a screenwriter.
Almost right away, in a forgotten old house off of Sunset Boulevard, Russel meets Isaac Brander, a once-famous film producer who is convinced he can turn Russel’s screenplay into a movie.
Russel knows that success can't possibly come this easy. After all, most of Russel's Los Angeles friends are so desperate to make it that it's downright scary. His ex-boyfriend, Otto, is trying everything to become an actor, and Daniel, the sexy neighbor, doesn't even need a casting couch to get naked.
So what’s the catch with Mr. Brander? Could it be that movies about Hollywood don’t tell the whole truth? But what does that mean for Russel’s soul?
Santa Monica is located near the beach, so we eventually made our way over to Palisades Park, which is this walkway at the top of a bluff looking out over the water. From there, you can see the Pacific Ocean, and also down to the Santa Monica Pier, which is one of those old-fashioned amusement parks with rides and carnival games and food stands that sells hot dogs and cotton candy.
The night was warm, but the breeze off the water was cool and soothing. It smelled like the ocean, and the eucalyptus trees in the park, and popcorn from the pier.
It was incredibly romantic, and Kevin and I had said before that we were going to have a romantic night out.
So why didn't it feel romantic? Was the romance really dead in our relationship? I'd thought that had been a joke.
"That's where they filmed a bunch of movies," I said, prattling on, pointing down to the pier. "Forrest Gump, The Sting, Ruthless People."
Kevin didn't say anything.
"Hannah Montana: The Movie," I said.
He looked at me and smiled. "Sorry," he said. "I'm being a dud."
He stepped to the guard railing and looked out over the bluff. "I don't know."
"You're still thinking about dinner," I said, "aren't you?"
"I wonder what that was all about. I mean, it was Gina, yeah. But it was Regina too — the two of them together. I can't imagine our being like that."
"We wouldn't," Kevin said. "We'd break up if we ever treated each other like that."
This was true. Like I said before, Kevin doesn't put up with shit. But it was still weird, hearing him say this out loud.
"Well, there you go," I said.
"But that's not even what's bugging me," he said. "It's not about them, it's about this city. There's something wrong here. You can feel it."
"What do you feel?"
He thought for a second. "The desperation." He turned to look at me. "You know? It's all around us. You can feel it in everyone we meet. You can taste it in the air, like salt off the ocean."
Part of me wanted to go back to quoting John Hughes movies.
Kevin had surprised me. This wasn't what I'd been feeling at all. But I knew what he was saying. It was the dark side to this city, the opposite of everything I'd been thinking before. I thought about all the people I'd met so far — Gina, Regina, Otto, Kyle, Rodney, even Mr. Brander and the other producers. They all desperately wanted something: namely, success in an industry where success was insanely elusive. The entertainment industry really wasn't like other professions. It was so much more competitive. If you go to med school or law school, you usually end up a doctor or a lawyer. Maybe not everyone, but most people, at least if you finish.
But in the entertainment industry, most people don't make it. There's even a famous statistic among screenwriters: given all the screenplays that get registered every year with the Writers Guild of America, you actually have a better chance of winning the California State Lottery than you do of selling your screenplay to a movie studio.
"I think the desperation is just part of the city," I said. "Like palm trees and taco trucks. The stakes are high, because this is the big time. People are pursuing their dreams. Make it or break it. Isn't that a good thing? Isn't it like, I don't know...the Olympics?"
"It seems like it broke Gina and Regina," Kevin said.
"That's not the city," I said. "That's them."
"Kevin, I'm serious. Los Angeles isn't going to break us. You don't need to worry about that."
He didn't say anything, just kept staring out at the water. The neon lights on the rides of the pier down below us flashed on his face — green and red and blue and yellow.
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And third, rounding out the trilogy, The Road To Amazing
“I think gay guys like weddings more than anyone. And it's not because we want to destroy marriage, like some people say. It's because we really, really want to get married!"
Russel Middlebrook is gettin' hitched!
The wedding is taking place in a remote lodge on an island in Puget Sound. Russel and his husband-to-be have invited all their close friends to spend the whole weekend together beforehand.
And for the first time in his life, Russel is determined to not be neurotic, and not over-think things.
But that's before things start going wrong. Who expected a dead killer whale to wash up on the beach below the inn? And what's this about a windstorm approaching? Then there's the problem of Russel's anxious fiancé, who is increasingly convinced the whole thing is going to be a disaster.
Meanwhile, the wedding is taking place near the ruins of a small town, Amazing, where, a hundred years earlier, the people supposedly all disappeared overnight. Why does it feel like the secret at the end of the road to Amazing has something to do with Russel's own future?
Can Russel's friends Min, Gunnar, Vernie, and Otto somehow help him make it all make sense?
Before long I realized I'd come to the end of the road to Amazing, to the little apron of land around the cove, the former location of the town of Amazing. I spotted the tops of the rocky ruins poking up from out of the rustling ferns. Even so, everything looked so different in the wind.
I looked up at the promontory to the left of the cove, the giant crag that faced the water. Through the wind and the needles, I saw someone standing at the top of the rock.
Kevin. He'd come to Amazing after all. I liked that I'd been able to predict it, like I'd been able to predict all the things he'd say in that bachelor party game the night before. I might have been a shitty amateur detective overall, but at least when it came to Kevin, Veronica Mars had nothing on me.
He was looking away, staring out over at the water.
There was something strange about him, something that had drawn my eyes to him even through the storm, and it took me a second to realize what it was.
All around him, everything moved: the ferns and plants and tree branches — even the tree trunks were swaying against the sky, a lot more than I would have expected. But Kevin wasn't moving at all. He stood there, legs spread, braced against the ground. He was the one solid thing in a never-ending wash of movement.
I climbed toward him, up the too-steep trail, through the plants and exposed dirt. Then I stood next to him amid those trees and ferns. I sensed that Kevin knew I was there with him, but he didn't turn to me, and I didn't turn to him. Instead, we both stared out at the sky and water — the clouds churning in front of us, the white caps in the water below us, everything a thousand shades of grey. It was somehow incredibly loud and completely quiet at exactly the same time.
We didn't speak, just kept standing there. Could we have spoken over the roar of the wind and the crash of the water? I wasn't sure, but I still didn't know what I wanted to say, and I guess Kevin didn't either. Even now, we didn't look at each other. I only saw him out of the corner of my eye — his handsome profile, his close-cropped hair barely blowing in the wind.
Why did we stand like that? For one thing, it was a pretty awesome sight, with so much to look at. The world smelled of salt and pine, fresher and cleaner than anything I'd ever known. From the waves crashing against the rocks below, a mist swirled in the air before us.
But there was something else going on. Somehow Kevin and I were a part of this incredible sight, but also apart from it, and that felt good, like it was the two of us against the storm.
Finally, still without saying a word, with the world raging all around us, we turned to each other.
I looked into Kevin's eyes, but I wasn't sure if I saw stillness or the storm — I think somehow it was both.
Then we were kissing. He tasted like the churning ocean — full of life.
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And now book one from the spin-off series, The Otto Digmore Difference
Otto Digmore is a 26-year-old gay guy with dreams of being a successful actor, and he’s finally getting some attention as a result of his supporting role on a struggling sitcom. But he’s also a burn survivor with scars on half his face, and all indications are that he’s just too different to ever find real Hollywood success.
Now he’s up for an amazing new role that could change everything. Problem is, he and his best friend Russel Middlebrook have to drive all the way across the country in order to get to the audition on time.
It’s hard to say which is worse: the fact that so many things go wrong, or that Russel, an aspiring screenwriter, keeps comparing their experiences to some kind of road trip movie.
There’s also the fact that Otto and Russel were once boyfriends, and Otto is starting to realize that he still might have romantic feelings for his best friend.
Just how far will Otto go to get the role, and maybe the guy, of his dreams?
The shower turns off, and Russel steps out of the bathroom, and I realize I haven't read a word in the script in who knows how long — that I've been thinking about Russel the whole time. I have a hard-on, but I'm pretty sure Russel can't see, and won't see, not unless I have to get up out of bed for some reason.
Russel stands at the sink by the bathroom, combing his wet hair, then brushing his teeth. I'm pretty sure he isn't noticing me, so I peek over at him. He's got a towel wrapped around his waist again, but the towels in this motel are a lot smaller than the ones at that expensive hotel in San Diego, so they cover a lot less. They're thinner too, so things leave more of an outline. Is he not wearing underwear again?
Finally, he takes off the towel, putting it on the rack on the wall, and I see he is wearing underwear — his green briefs. I try not to look, but I do take a quick glance at his bulge, which somehow seems bigger than when we were teenagers. But that was so long ago, so many years, that I can barely remember what he'd looked like even back then. And we'd been together at an overnight summer camp, so it's not like we'd been able to have sex in well-lit areas anyway. Mostly, we'd snuck away at night, to swim naked in the lake and to have sex on the beach and other hidden places.
Russel moves toward the bed, and I feel like an idiot leering at him, and I look back at the script. But I can smell him, freshly-showered, even over the cloying scent of motel disinfectant. Russel smells different from the smell of him and Kevin together, back in their apartment — still lemony, masculine, but sweeter. I can also smell that he's put on Gold Bond again, and it's all kind of driving me crazy.
Russel pulls back the bedspread, then leaps onto the bed like a little boy, bouncing around, still in his underwear. Since he's making such a big show of it, I feel like I can watch him more openly now, and I do, even though I make a point not to look directly at his bulge. Still, there's always his abs, biceps, calves, and hairy chest. I smile watching him, because I can't imagine any of the hip, oh-so-cool cast members from Hammered doing anything so silly and innocent.
Finally, he falls backward, still on top of the covers, and I'm still trying to avoid looking at the bulge in his briefs. I'm also wondering if he's teasing me. But then I realize that no, that's not it at all, that he doesn't think of me that way anymore, that from his point of view we're just good friends. He's still thinking about Kevin, the guy he was sweet-talking on the phone a few minutes before.
And that's okay, because it's not like I'd ever act on my attraction to Russel or anything. He's with Kevin now — I was at their wedding a little over a week ago — and I wouldn't ever do anything to get between them. I'm not thrilled that Russel doesn't see me in a sexual way, that he obviously thinks of me only as a friend now. But it's not like how it is with other people, how no one ever sees me in a sexual way, because I know that Russel once did think of me that way, back when we were boyfriends at summer camp, and it had been really real.
As I lay there in the bed next to him, I can't help but realize something that I've never quite understood before — something I know I can never tell him.
I'm still a little bit in love with Russel Middlebrook.
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1. What inspires you? What gets you writing?
I'd always loved creative projects as a child -- I had absolutely no interest in sports, or cars, or fashion, or anything like that. I just wanted to watch movies, read books, and make movies and tell stories with my geeky, artsy friends.
So when I graduated from college, I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if I could spend my whole life doing this stuff? If I could make my living at it?"
Easier said than done, right? Ha!
But the longer I've done it, the more I've come to appreciate the beauty of the perfectly constructed story. Not that I've achieved that, but I try.
I'm not religious in any way, but sometimes when I'm writing, when I'm really caught up in the moment, it feels like I become, well, one with the universe. Seriously, I never feel more alive!
2. What's your writing process? Seat of your pants, lots of sticky notes, complex spreadsheets?
When I'm writing the first draft of a novel, I have a daily word-goal of 2000 words. I don't go to bed until I'm done! Even if it ends up being pretty bad.
People ask me how I can be so prolific. That's how.
In terms of each project, I do a "concept" outline, then a more detailed outline. Then if I can convince someone to buy the damn thing, I do a terrible first draft (that no one sees except me!). Then I rewrite it, and show it to my first reader. Then I rewrite again based on his feedback, and show it to some other early readers. Then I rewrite again based on their feedback. Then I show it to my editor. Then I rewrite again based on his or her feedback (often more than once!), and then I show it to my beta-readers, and rewrite at least one more time.
But yeah, I'm definitely an outliner of my books -- I always plan things out in advance, even if they change along the way.
Honestly, I even hate the expression "pantser" because it feels like it devalues the whole idea of plot. No one is a "pantser" when it comes to character.
I much prefer George. R. R. Martin's terminology: architect (writing from a blueprint) or gardener (planting seeds and seeing what comes up). Every writer is both architect and gardener, but I lean architect.
When it comes to writing in general, I think character is important, but plot is most important. I've always seen myself as a storyteller. The point is tell a story. Things have to happen. It needs to be going somewhere. When you're done, it needs to feel complete, like there was some kind of conscious, intentional resolution (even an ambiguous one). Personally, I need to feel like there was some kind of point to the books I read, and the author wasn't just jerking me around, or being completely self-indulgent.
Self-expression is fine, and world-building is important too, but those things are not the same as telling a story.
3. Which character from your books is your favorite, and why?
I have a fond spot for Russel Middlebrook, because I've written him for eight books, and because he's a lot like me. He looks a little like I do (or at least like I did). We have the same sensibility about many things and a similar outlook on life. And about 30-40% of the things that happen to him also happened to me.
But we’re different too. He’s funnier than I am, and a bit more optimistic (but I’m a little wiser and have a broader perspective).
I did make a point to make Russel be likable. A lot of my characters are generally decent people, flawed, yeah, but not jerks. I don't think there's anything wrong with this. One of my pet peeves is the idea that the only way a character can be “truthful” and “authentic,” or even worthy of literary criticism, is if he or she is a raging asshole.
I don't finds self-absorbed jerks to be nearly as interesting as a lot of other writers, and I definitely can't relate to them.
4. Which character is your least favorite, and why?
If I write a character, and it's a major character, I try hard to understand them. So, of course, I end up "liking" them on some level. I don't have a lot of outright "villains" in my books, so there's not really anyone to hate.
And writing a series, I've been able to "redeem" some characters. Kevin, for example, starts out jerky, but in the end, he's arguably the most noble character of all. Conversely, I've been able to show that Min, who starts out nearly perfect, has plenty of flaws of her own.
It's all complicated, right?
5. If you could go back into one of your books and change one thing, what would that be? And why?
Oh, man! I would change EVERYTHING! Seriously, as a writer, you have to accept that a novel is never "finished," it's just published, and the revising had to stop. A novel is a moment in time, that's all.
That said, sometimes I do read past novels, and think, "Oh! This has a certain amount of charm."
But in general, I don't look back, because otherwise I'd be insane.
6. What's next for you? What amazing book are you working on?
I always have a ton of projects in the works. I just finished a screenplay that's a gay romantic comedy about four best friends, one gay couple and one lesbian one, over the course of one night in Seattle. I don't think there's ever been anything like it.
I'm writing a cool YA thriller about alternate dimensions, and the main character discovers he's bisexual because of one of those dimensions.
And I'm also working on a fantasy-mystery series set on a bunch of alien worlds, which is one of those books that I feel like I was born to write.
I'm having a ball!
7. Anything else?
Well, at the risk of repeating myself, I consider myself a storyteller. The most important thing is for the writer to get out of the way and just tell the damn story. Entertain, enrich, and enthrall -- and maybe even enlighten a bit too. But don't preach, and never, ever be boring.
That is my mandate, 100%.
More about Brent Hartinger, and where to find him:
BRENT HARTINGER is the author of fourteen novels, including Three Truths and a Lie (Simon Pulse, 2016), which was nominated for an Edgar Award; and Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003), which was adapted as a feature film in 2013, co-starring Scott Bakula, and is now being developed as a television series. Brent is also a screenwriter, and eight of his screenplays have been optioned for film; four are currently in various stages of development.
Brent’s writing honors include being named the winner of the Lambda Literary Award; a GLAAD Media Award; an Edgar Award nomination; the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award; the Screenwriting in the Sun Award, and a Writers Network Fellowship.
Hartinger is the co-host of the Media Carnivores podcast; a sometime-member of the faculty at Vermont College in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults; and the co-founder of the entertainment website AfterElton.com, which was sold to MTV/Viacom in 2006 (in a multimillion dollar deal).
Brent lives in Seattle.
Thanks for celebrating this fantastic author with us. We hope you found a few more books to end to your never-ending TBR and learned some things about Brent.
Until next time, happy reading!