Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Project Sweet Life by Brent Hartinger

BRENT HARTINGER is the author of many books for teenagers, including Geography Club, The Last Chance Texaco, Grand & Humble, and Project Sweet Life. Brent's book honors include being named a Book Sense 76 Pick (four times) and the winner of the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Judy Blume Grant for Best Young Adult Novel.

Also a playwright and a screenwriter, Brent has several scripts under option and in the process of studio or network development, including a film version of his novel, Geography Club.

Brent teaches writing on the faculty at Vermont College in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. He lives in Seattle with Michael Jensen, his partner since 1992.

Brent writes regularly on gay entertainment for, and founded and now edits a fantasy-themed website, Visit Brent's author website at

Reviews for Project Sweet Life:

"A hilarious story filled with mishaps, close calls, and outrageous adventures....the novel will be especially appealing to middle school boys."
-- School Library Journal

"The boys’ friendship, lightly and expertly depicted, drives the book, while their smartly plotted moneymaking schemes are creative, highjinks-filled, and hilariously almost effective."
-- Horn Book Review

"Marked by sly wit and a certain old-fashioned jauntiness, this tale of three chums on a quest for indolence strikes many a wish-fulfillment fancy...Hartinger blends urban legend with the actual history of Tacoma’s routing of its Chinese community (author’s note included) to craft an irresistible setting (who wouldn’t want to explore lost tunnels under a city in search of treasure?), humorous episodes tinged with mild danger, and a light-hearted mystery"

Marlene P:What was your inspiration for this story?

Brent: Project Sweet Life is about three 15 year-old boys who are told by their dads to get jobs -- "because work builds character!" But they've always been told that age 16, not age 15, is the year that you're required to get that first "summer job," so they were all counting on having one last summer of job-less freedom to share together. They don't feel they're dads' demand is fair.

So, seeking to preserve one last golden "job-less" summer, they invent "fake" jobs to satisfy their dads, and then embark on a series of "get-rich-quick" schemes in order to make the money they should be making from working. But getting rich quick is more difficult than they think!

The inspiration? Well, it was very, very much the way my friends and I felt when we were teenagers: we took "summer freedom" very seriously. As we got older, we worked, of course, but the way we saw it, we'd worked hard all year long, and we'd work hard for the rest of our lives, so there was nothing wrong with taking some time off in the summer and enjoying ourselves. We were only going to be young once! Work hard and play hard.

Ironically, just as in the book, I'm convinced that playing hard, at least the way we did, builds far more "character" than if we'd worked at KFC all summer.

Marlene P: Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?

Brent: What an interesting question!

I had to check this. This first words are:

"Dave," my dad said at dinner, "it's time you got yourself a summer job."

And yup, they were the words right from the beginning. I have a tendency to jump right into things, and you can see that the book's central problem is right there at the start.

Marlene P: What kind of research did you have to do for this story?

Brent: Interestingly, the very first inspiration for the book, even before I knew the story, was a true story I'd heard as I child: how my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, rounded up all its Chinese residents back in the 19th century, burned down Chinatown, and forced all the residents out of town and on a train down to Oregon. It was an historical event that ended up being called the "Tacoma Method" for a city's dealing with its immigrant population, and even today, over a hundred years later, Tacoma has a very small Chinese American population (not surprisingly).

I've been haunted by the story all my life. Can you imagine? Having your home burned down and being told to just leave? "Go away -- you and your whole community are not wanted here"?

As I got older and became a writer, I knew I wanted to write about it. But I didn't trust myself to write a historical novel or a literary novel -- I'm not a particular fan of either genre as a reader, and I'm a big believer that you should write the kind of book you love.

Anyway, Project Sweet Life is my attempt to write about this chilling historical event. I admit it's a "light," very round-about attempt! But there ends up being a treasure, and a big mystery that the kid attempt to solve, and it involves the expulsion of the Chinese, and the tunnels the Chinese supposedly dug under the city.

I'd like to think there's also a lesson about racism and historical accuracy in there somewhere.

And yes, I did a lot of research! I talked to town historians and read lots of local books. The best part was trying to find evidence of those actual tunnels -- which I sort of did. Do they really exist? I honestly think they do, but I can say no more -- I've been sworn to secrecy!

Marlene P: Which books influenced you most when you were growing up?

Brent: It's funny, because this book was very much inspired by the kinds of books I loved and read over and over again when I was a kid. Which were books like The Mad Scientists' Club, The Great Brain, The Chronicles of Narnia. Basically, stories about kids who go on pretty crazy, often "episodic" adventures, usually involving mysteries, but -- as I sort of mentioned above -- also end up discovering some important things about themselves and the world.

A lot of reviewers have commented on the "old-fashioned" nature of the story (in a good way!), which makes me happy, because that's exactly what I had intended: just a good, old-fashioned, somewhat outrageous, somewhat wacky comedy of errors -- but with contemporary characters and a more contemporary feel.

~~~Cafe Note~~ As a regular part of our interviews, featured authors will pop back in for one week after their interview is posted to answer any other questions blog readers may leave for them. So if you have any questions or comments for Brent, please post them now.


Janette Rallison said...

Sounds like a great book! My 15 year-old son is refusing to get job because everyone knows you have to be 16 to work. I should have him read your book.

Lisa Yee said...

Brent, when you get the germ of an idea for a book, what is it usually? Does it begin with a character? A situation? Also, how focused are you? Do you write multiple books at once, or one at a time?

Sarah Darer Littman said...

I can't wait to read this! And Lisa, great question, looking forward to hearing the answer.

Brent Hartinger said...

Hmmmm, the germ of the idea? Well, when I'm ready to write a book, I usually consult my journal of "ideas"...and all the great ones are always already taken (by me). So I begin a months-long process where I just try to come up with "ideas." That's usually a story, and the characters follow (they sort of go hand-in-hand), but it must also involve an attention-getting "hook" (since I've seen too many good, but "vaguely-defined" books die quiet deaths). Actually, I'm of the opinion that one mistake that a lot of novices make is they get a too-vague idea, and just sort of start writing, hoping to "discover" the story along the way. Sometimes that works, and I know some big authors swear by that process. But I think that process often leads to the hook-less book, which makes it that much harder to sell and/or market. Anyway, when I think I've found the "right" idea, then I'll outline it to see if it'll really hold my interest -- if I get bored writing an outline, you can bet I won't like writing a whole book. I usually one-page outline about 2-10 ideas before I finally settle on the one I want to write, which I then do a full chapter outline on. Once I'm really confident about the idea, I've almost never abandon it. It gets written. As for writing multiple books, I've done that many, many times. But with all the freelance writing I'm doing lately (to, um, PAY THE BILLS), I can barely write one book at a time these days...

Brent Hartinger said...

Yes, Janette, your son is absolutely right!! (I thought so when I was that age anyway. As my character in the book says, I think the 16 year-old rule is either in the Bible or the Constitution. And if it isn't, it SHOULD BE!!)

Alissa said...

Hi Brent. Here's another writer question to follow up on your earlier answer. How close do you tend to stay to your outlines? Do you ever start to write a story following an outline and then feel yourself being pulled in another direction?

I've never been a very good outliner. (When we had to turn one in conjunction with a school paper I always wrote the outline after my paper!) But I am trying to be better, and the topic came up on another writing blog I follow recently.

Brent Hartinger said...

Oh, yeah, there are always massive changes from my outlines. They're just more ... "guides" so I don't get lost, meander afield, or write myself into a corner. For me, an outlining isn't confining at all -- just the opposite. Because I have some foundation, my mind sort of opens up to all kinds of possibilities ... and yet most of the really really hard plot-stuff is done, so I never reach a point where I say, "Oh, damn. I just realized I didn't need to write those other six chapters."

Obviously, everyone has a different process, and I respect that. But I really, really, really used to resent outlining, and once I tried it, I decided I'd been wrong (for me).

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