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.