The guys offer up a new installment of Romance Revisited featuring recently re-released books.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Jeff reviews Erin McLellan’s Candy Hearts.
Brent Hartinger is here to talk about his latest book, The Otto Digmore Decision, the latest installment in the universe he began with Geography Club. He also has the details on Project Pay Day, a new movie that’s expected to be out later this year. Brent also discusses the digital nomad life he leads with his husband, author Michael Jensen.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.
- Top to BOTM Podcast website
- Candy Hearts by Erin McLellan on Amazon
- Brent Hartinger Interview
- Brent Hartinger: website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram| Newsletter | Amazon
- The Otto Digmore Decision by Brent Hartinger on Amazon
- The Otto Digmore Difference by Brent Hartinger on Amazon
- Geography Club by Brent Hartinger on Amazon
- Russel Middlebrook: The Futon Years series by Brent Hartinger on Amazon
- The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger on Amazon
- Younger on TV Land
- Project Pay Day on Crossbow Studio Website
- Stranger Things on Netflix
- The Goonies on Amazon Prime Video
- Geography Club (movie) on Amazon Prime Video
- Brent and Michael are Going Places website
- A Home Office Away from Home on CBS Sunday Morning (see Brent and Michael in an April 2018 story)
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Patreon.com
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast patrons on BGFP website
- Frolic Podcast Network website
- Romance Revisited Books for Episode 227
Interview Transcript – Brent Hartinger
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Brent, welcome back to the show. It is so good to have you here. It’s been, I think two years or more since you were here last.
Brent: Thank you, Jeff. It’s great to be back.
Jeff: I love that you are revisiting, once again, the world of Russell Middlebrook, focusing again on his friend Otto. You’ve got a brand new book in the “Otto Digmore” series out. Tell us all about that.
Brent: So for people who may not be familiar with me or these particular books. Back in 2003, I wrote a book called “Geography Club,” which was one of the first two gay teen books.
We sort of broke out in a mainstream way, and I published a series of sequels. Eventually I started self publishing these books. So by the fourth book I was self publishing. Those first four books became a young adult series, the “Russell Middlebrook” series.
Then this was sort of coinciding with the golden age of self-publishing. I decided to launch a new series about Russell in his twenties. So he had started out as a teenager in a young adult series, and then he grew up and he became new adult.
And I kinda think I still might be the only author to have done this, about his own character. I have had a character grow up and switch genres from young adult to new audlt. And I wrote three books that were called “Russell Middlebrook: The Futon Years.” One of the characters that I’d always really, really like named Otto Digmore, was a burn survivor when he was a child. He was in an accident with some fire and he burned half of his face. And I liked him. He was sort of a love interest for Russell back when Russell was a teenager. Then in the newer books, Russell moves to Los Angeles to Hollywood to try to make it as a screenwriter and Otto, meanwhile, who is now also in his early twenties is trying to make it as an actor, despite the fact that he has this scar and half his face. And I thought, okay. My God. Audiences like this character. I really liked this character. It seemed really timely, the whole, normalization of minorities that are trying to get into the mainstream.
You know, here’s this actor, he considers himself disabled. And he’s trying to make it in Hollywood, but Hollywood isn’t really ready. They don’t know what to do with them. Plus there’s a lot of prejudice and bigotry and so I launched another series about Otto Digmore about his struggles, trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood,
The first book was called the “Otto Digmore Difference.” And that was sort of a road trip that Russell, who is a supporting character in these books, Russell and Otto go on a road trip so that Otto can get this movie role. And then, you know, complications ensue.
And then this latest book, which is called “The Otto Digmore Decision.” Russell, who is a screenwriter now finally has a movie being produced and he maneuvers an audition. He writes the role for Otto and gets Otto an audition, and, and Otto gets the part. So finally, you know, Russell and Otto are getting their happy ending, or are they, because in this book, it turns out the director is sort of a jackass and he’s kind of ruining the movie. It’s a, the movie is a medieval heist. It’s about a heist taking place. You know, they’re trying to steal the gold from a King. And the characters are a ragtag team of, of characters and Otto is playing the thief, one of the thieves. Anyway, so then they have to figure out how are we going to save this movie without the director knowing about it.
So it’s sort of a comedy of errors. I am also a screen writer, as you know, and I wouldn’t say it’s directly based on my experiences as a screenwriter, but it’s based on my observations.
And, so it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy of errors, about the craziness of Hollywood. And it’s also like the first book, I like to say that it’s, it’s a love story between two friends. You know, it’s not really a classic romance romance, but Russell and Otto are best friends and, and they’d do anything for each other?
It’s no longer romantic at this point, or at least not really romantic, I loved writing this character. He may be my favorite character to have ever written. I feel like there’s nothing else like him. There wasn’t anything like him and gay YA, and there isn’t anything in gay fiction.
It seems to me nothing exactly like this. And then it’s also fun to be able to write. To sort of put some of my frustrations with Hollywood on paper and the explore. I think everybody’s interested in Hollywood. Everyone’s interested in movie making, and I can kind of go behind the scenes and talk about it.
I t was great experience and, and it’s been out, the book has been out for a couple of weeks now and people seem to like it.
I am always touched every time somebody likes my books and every time ever, if somebody is moved by one of my books, that’s awesome and it does make it worthwhile.
Jeff: You’ve written these characters now for ten books, the Russell Middlebrook universe, if I did the fast math right, I think it’s ten books now?
Brent: Yes. I think you’re right. Ten if you include a short story. Yeah.
Jeff: And, they’re still extremely fresh. One of the things that I like about the series so well is this friendship between Otto and Russell, because you see them evolve so much through the books, and that’s something that you don’t tend to get in a lot of series. You may see everybody is a little tangential thing, but. These two are so tight.
What’s it like to write characters across so many books? For one thing where they are always the primaries. and of course you’ve mixed it up between Otto being a primary and Russell being a primary between the series, but still they’re front and center and each other’s books. And what’s that like for you as an author in terms of keeping things fresh and then getting to revisit these characters every so often?
Brent: Well, first of all, thank you. I appreciate that. That’s really nice to hear. And it has been artistically extremely satisfying, but I’ll tell you at the beginning of this project, the vow I made to myself was, I’m not going to repeat myself if I don’t have a new story to tell. I’m not just going to do these for the money.
I’m going to do these because I feel like I have something to say. So for better or for worse, every book has been a radically different story. When you look at the three individual series is they all have a different sensibility. “The Elephant of Surprise,” was about this group called freegans, who, they dumpster dive and they don’t believe in buying things.
And so they’ve got this community of barter and, you know, eating roadkill and eating from dumpsters. And I was fascinated by this phenomenon. And so I wrote this book with Russell befriending one of these, and he sort of learns their philosophy and has an adventure, and a lot of people didn’t like that.
I thought it was so interesting. I had a ball researching that and writing that book, and I don’t really care that some significant… People said that about Otto too. They said, I don’t want to read about a character who has a scar on his face as well. I don’t care that, you know, don’t read my books then. This is what excited me at the time and excites me now.
One of the interesting things I was able to do because they are self published and the lead time between writing and publication is so quick. With this particular book, I wrote it in the first half of this year.
And I actually could have it is you could release them even faster. But I, you know, I very rigorous in my editing and then I’m, these also have Audible editions and we wanted to come out at the same time. So I had to basically finish the book and then set it aside for three months while the audio was recorded on all of that.
But, even so, I’m able to write these books in real time. So I’m commenting on things that are happening to me as I’m writing them. And for example, you know, Russell and Otto are lamenting the injustice of Hollywood, how it feels like the insiders get all the breaks and the rules only apply to the people on the outside.
And at the time that I’m writing this, the whole college admission scandal with Felicity Huffman and all these celebrities are getting their kids in college by paying SAT tutors and all the rest. I made one, I’m able to incorporate this. It’s like, this is going on. You know, they’re talking about this as it’s happening, as the news is breaking in the book, and they can comment on real world events, it’s sort of a subplot about Trump. What’s going on with Trump and Russell’s feeling of, of ennui and alienation. That’s part of this book.
You know there’s an ongoing debate. Should authors be timely or should they be timeless? And should you, should you quote music or TV shows because it can make a book seem so dated so quickly and you’re, you know, we’re all going for timeless. We obviously, we write our book, you know, three years before it’s published, and if it’s self published six months, but we want it to sell for years after that.
I mean, when we don’t want it to feel, you know, when I read a book that uses the word groovy. I know that it was written in 1971 and yeah, but with these books, I’m embracing that and they’re sort of snapshots in time and which I think makes them interesting. I mean, with the first “Futon Years” book, which I wrote in 2014 while PrEP had just come out in 2013.
Russell is single at the time, and all of these guys are you know, I can talk about the whole barebacking phenomenon and Russell and, and one guy’s on PrEP. I thought it was really relevant and people who were struggling with all these issues can read about them, but now the book is like a snap shot. In that particular moment in time when this concept was introduced and this single gay guy who is sexually active is negotiating and trying to figure out what’s right for him.
And I, I feel like this is another thing that I don’t think a lot of writers have been able to do. At least there’s not a, unless you’re self publishing, you can’t, you don’t have the luxury to do this. And for me, it’s made the whole project even more interesting.
Jeff: With the Otto books in particular you really get to poke around in Hollywood. And as you mentioned, you know, we’ll talk about one of these in just a minute. One of your movie projects. How much of that influences what goes on with Otto and with Russell and the frustration that they have? How autobiographical is this?
Brent: Well, the frustrations are very, very, very, very autobiographical.
Some of the successes are pure wish fulfillment. You know, like, yay, I’m getting a $45 million movie produced. That has not happened to me yet. I wish it had, I’m fascinated with writing. I like books, but for me, screenplays are such a pure medium. It’s just, I’m in, I’m fascinated with the story.
I always have been. I’m fascinated with plot – perfectly constructed plot and screenplays because you, you know, you have such a short amount of time to tell your story. You have to be so economical. So I’ve been fascinated by Hollywood. I’m fascinated by movies. I totally geek out on movies.
I like TV too. But so it’s been great to be able to take my experience and I hopefully make it very commercial, make it accessible to people who are not in the industry, but also give them, I mean, things are exaggerated. But they’re not exaggerated that much. At one point Otto is in Hollywood before Russell and Russell arrives and Otto is explaining how important it is, the way you look.
You know that the, and you’re judged by the, the shoes you wear. Well, that’s based on a conversation I had with somebody in Hollywood. It’s like you can’t wear those shoes to a pitch meeting because everybody dresses very casual in Hollywood except for the shoes. And the shoes can be casual too, but they’re going to be, you know, $1,200 and the shoes are the way you signal to people that you’re not an amateur. You know that you have money that you’re a player.
And I find that kind of thing… I mean, it’s so tribal, you know, it’s so, it’s so specific to the industry. At one point, Russell understands that the same standards are not applied to writers as they are to actors because everybody assumes writers have no fashion sense, and they’re all poor and they’re all sort of pathetic geeks, dorks and losers anyway. So the rules that apply to actors don’t necessarily apply to writers and that there are other rules that apply to writers. And, like I said, I’m fascinated by all this stuff, just on a sociological level.
I just, it’s interests me and I think, I hope other people are too. What I see on TV and in movies, and even other books when it comes to the publishing industry and when it comes to Hollywood, it’s just sheer fantasy. The TV show “Younger,” which is actually a good show, but they’ll like acquire a book and then a month later the book is released and it’s like, no, that’s, I mean it’s, it’s offensive to me. They’re not even trying to give it any semblance. Like I said, I am exaggerating things. I’m exaggerating the character . But I’m more interested in the, in the emotional truth to it all, and the actual nuts and bolts of it.
Jeff: Do you think Otto’s going to become a trilogy?
Brent: Otto is definitely not a trilogy. The series is over. It’s a two book series. There will be, well, I don’t want to, I, I did leave it open ended to start a new series, which is related to my life. Again, you know, that it could be, I’m a digital nomad. I sold my house, my husband and I sold our house three years ago, and we’ve been traveling the world ever since. And it could be, I will not make any promises, but it could be that if I could, if I started another series, that’ll be the next phase in Russell on Otto’s lives, that maybe, maybe they will do something similar.
Jeff: Let’s talk a little bit about film. You’ve got a movie that has wrapped photography called “Project Pay Day,” which is based on one of your books called “Project Sweet Life.” Start us off with a little bit about what this book was about.
Brent: “Project Pay Day,” I’m just going to refer to it as it is the current title cause otherwise it confuses people. “Project Pay Day” is, three 15 year olds are told by their parents that they have to get summer jobs. They reject that because they had been thinking that 15 is the year of the optional summer job, and they were just going to hang out together.
So their last summer of freedom, but instead their parents are saying, you have to get a job. So they invent fake jobs. And then they embark on a series of get rich quick schemes to make the money that they need to show to their parents, to convince them that they actually have real jobs. So it is a caper comedy of errors, caper sort of farce thing.
It’s a comedic movie, they get involved in the local adventure and, and of course, every scheme that they try is a debacle and they end up working much harder than if they’d just gotten jobs in the first place.
But of course, you know, they’re also looking for a local treasure to solve a mystery. I wrote it before “Stranger Things,” but it has sort of a retro vibe, you know, kids on their bikes in the summer, in fact, the movie is full of nods to both “Stranger Things” and “The Goonies,” which is the another movie that I was sort of inspired by. I like that movie. I like that sensibility.
And I, I actually, I’m trying to capture a serious moment in the sense that I get frustrated both in movies and in books. It feels like. Books and movies for teens either skew young, they’re either for kid kids, you know, like middle grade, and they’re innocent, or they’re edgy and they’re, you know, about kids having sex and kids being cool. And kids, you know, they’re like book smart and there’s sex comedies and there’s not a lot for that middle ground, like the 14, 15 year old. And I actually think that’s a really interesting age because when I was that age, I distinctly remember I wanted to grow old, or I wanted to be an adult. I wanted to be able to drive, but I knew that I was going to have to give something up.
I was going to have to give up that freedom and that innocence that comes from being a kid, where you have no responsibility and three full months of freedom. You don’t have a job, you don’t, and nobody cares. I wanted to capture that moment of being old enough to know you’re no longer innocence and you’re in it, your childhood is slipping away and appreciating it on that last year before, or you know, then you do become an adult and then you do have to deal with, you know, sex and money and all these other, I mean, I’m over oversimplifying things a little bit.
I do think that’s what I was trying to capture. The last year, you know, you can’t, you’re too old for trick or treating and now you have to give the candy away. And it’s not the same thing, you know? And there’s a sadness. On the other hand, you know, you get to hang out, you’ve got to go to the Halloween party and stay out until 2:00 AM.
As you can tell, I’m drawn to write things that are not, that nobody else’s writing and I don’t, there was something I didn’t see. Well, anyway, so I wrote the book, I wrote the book back in 2007. It was an orphaned book, which means my editor, the acquiring editor, had left or been fired, I can’t remember which, by the time it was actually released.
So this is never a good thing. So the book is given to another editor, but they don’t necessarily care. Certainly at the end of my career at Harper Collins at the time anyway, I don’t think they really cared. The book sort of came out. It actually sold okay. Which is surprising because they didn’t do a damn thing. Like I said, it didn’t really have an in house advocate.
But I thought it was a really cinematic idea, especially with nods to “The Goonies” and then, you know, “Stranger Things” hit, which really “Stranger Things” has exactly the same sensibility, except it’s a slightly different genre.
I thought this would make a good movie. And yet, unlike “Geography Club,” say, or some of my earlier books, it had received no interest, you know, even though it had, like I said, it sold, but it hadn’t made any real ripple in the industry. And so it hasn’t gotten any inquiries. And I thought, well, I’ll write this screenplay myself.
And I did, and I honed it for a couple of years. And then I pitched it and this producer came to me and he didn’t even know, I didn’t pitch it as a book. I pitched it as a screenplay. I didn’t tell anybody that it had been a book because it didn’t feel like that really served me and that book had not been particularly successful.
There’s a huge prejudice in Hollywood about novelists adapting their own work or novelists writing screenplays. Did people think correctly that there are two completely different mediums and that if you write novels, you don’t know how to write a screenplay?
So I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to complicate the pitch by saying, Oh, I’m a novelist and this is based on my novel. The producer liked it and he said, even though this hadn’t been part of my pitch, he said, I really like that you’re targeting this market in between the middle grade and the edgy young adult.
This is exactly the movie that I’m looking for. And I knew when he said that, I said, okay, well this is a match made in heaven that he was looking to produce a movie cause he had seen same void in the marketplace that I had seen, you know, 10 years before, eight years before when I was writing the book.
And that’s the movie he wanted to produce. And so that’s what we did. That’s what he did. And then we revised that for, you know, he was, how long was the development process? Four years. From the beginning of an option to production four years, that’s pretty fast.
He’s raising the financing while we’re developing the script. And then we shot. It’s set in my hometown. It’s sort of, it has a racism element and it’s been in my hometown of, Tacoma Washington, but we had to change it into sort of a, any town.
We shot in Pennsylvania last summer, and I was able to go for the whole shoot. And honestly, this is not, this is an indie film. It was not like a multimillion dollar, Hollywood budget. And I was thinking, you know, this is a complicated script. There’s underwater sequences.
They dive for sunken treasure. So there’s underwater sequences. There’s a series of smuggler tunnels, caverns underneath the city. That’s one of their schemes. So it’s like, so you have to find tunnels under the city. They’re gonna have to build sets. There’s a cast of, I think there’s 29 different speaking parts and zillions of different scenes.
I was thinking, how is he going to do this? If I were producing an indie film and I wanted to do it on a budget, this is not the script that I would pick, but he had picked it and then it wasn’t until the day I arrived, I’m thinking, what is this going to be? Plus, this is his, this is his first film he had produced. He’s produced short films and educational films. That’s how he makes his money. But he had not produced a feature and I was shocked. When I got there, I saw that basically he had called in every favor he had ever had in the world.
And he had very, very, very smartly gone into a town, I don’t know if I should tell this story, but I will. So they went to, they were negotiating, part of it is set in a shopping mall. So they rented a shopping mall for a week, and one of the scenes is set in a candy store and they were negotiating with the candy store owner and they said, you know, here’s the amount of money we, you know, here’s the amount of money. And the candy owner said, Oh, I don’t know that we can pay you that much. That’s an awful lot for us to pay you. And the producer said, or the production manager said, Oh no, that’s what we’re paying you. You don’t pay us anything. We rent the store from you.
The point being the town hadn’t had a movie shot there. The last movie was “Molly” shot 20 years ago, and they were so eager. Unlike a lot, you know, you go to Louisiana, you go to New Orleans, you go to New York, you go to Los Angeles, you go to Vancouver. The towns are rife with productions, but because he picked this out of the way town, they bent over backwards to help us in, you know, it saved him so much money. Oh, it was fantastic. He was so shrewd about it. And I mean, I’m big on, I mean, follow your artistic vision. Yeah, yeah. That’s great. And stick to your vision and be true to all of that, but be smart about it. And he was smart about it. And that made me really like him. Not just as a person, but as a businessman. I don’t want to be in bed with a crazy head in the clouds, refusing to compromise on anything artist. I want somebody who gets the fucking thing done, who gets the job done, and I want it to look good, but I ultimately, I want it to be produced to be finished. And he did. It’s not that he made compromises, it’s just that he was very, very smart about how he went about it.
I’ve only seen the distributor pitch cut, which is not the full cut of the movie. I really loved the way it looked and I’m cautiously optimistic. We’ll see.
Jeff: For a book you wrote, 2007, you know, came out in 2009 it looks like we’re not a decade on. It still sounds like this could be today’s teens cause you could see parents today going, okay, well you’re 15 now. You really need to go make some money.
Brent: The book came out right during the crash, right during the economic crash or the late aughts, and it’s like, it was not a good time for kids to be complaining about not having jobs because nobody had a job.
You know what I mean? It was like out of zeitgeists and now it does feel like it is more timely, but that’s the thing, you know, movies, I’m working on another project now. And this one is, maybe, I don’t want to say, I don’t want to jinx anything, but it could end up on Netflix. That’s the, that’s sort of like the current current incarnation.
I’ve been working on this since 2009. It was first optioned by these particular producers. It was based on a play that I wrote in 1997 and it is about one kid and his best friend commits suicide. And so that our main character refuses to believe that his friend would commit suicide.
And so he searches the memories, his memories of their past year together, which is what the bulk of the story is, trying to figure out why he committed suicide. And over the course of that time, even though the main character is straight, he realizes, Oh, my best friend was in love with me. And I think I was in love with them too.
So the point is. I’m writing about fluid sexuality and the idea of what is love, what is sex? What is sexual attraction? This was written in 1997. It’s now 2020. When I wrote it in 1997, it had a different meaning. This was part of the script, the fluid sexuality, but it was more about, you know, it was more about coming out and finding refuge and the people who know and who know your real self.
And that was important in 1997 because that was what’s relevant for LBGTQ 18 year old in 1997 that’s less relevant. Being alone is less likely. You know, you can go online, you know, you’re not alone in 2020 but now the fluid sexuality thing is extremely relevant. It’s like when that hasn’t been.
I don’t want to, I, maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this on a, on a public forum, but it’s like this is not really been explored. And I feel like this to me is really interesting territory. And I guess, I think it’s partly luck that I wrote a story that is still timely, almost. Oh my God, that’s more than 20 years.
But I guess I want to pat myself on the back a little bit and that I was dealing with, you know, people say, you know, Oh, it’s gen Y and gen Z that came with this concept. No, they didn’t know. We were talking about this back in the 80s. In the 90s. It’s always been a thing, and it is exciting that I feel like I can still contribute culturally even though, you know, I’m older now, but no, I get these issues, I think, I hope I do. Netflix seems to think that we do. So, hopefully, you know, I can share this in, you know, in two years we’ll be talking about this movie. But it is, it is always a challenge. I guess what I was going to say is, as writers, we’re always trying to pick where culture is going, where the zeitgeist is going, and you don’t want to be at a zeitgeists, but it’s impossible.
That’s literally impossible to pick the future. All you can do is try to find the things that speaks to your heart and try to find the specific, that’s also a universal.
Jeff: Any rough timelines for “Project Pay Day” when we might see it?
Brent: This is what’s being negotiated now. I know he wants a theatrical release, so knock on wood, it’ll be at least a small theatrical release. On the other hand, if it’s acquired by a streaming service, that’s okay too, because so many people see it right away, and frankly, it’s cheaper.
It should be this year. We don’t have a final edit. Hasn’t been scored. It hasn’t been, like I said, we don’t even have a final product, but it should be out.
So I got the rights back to the book, which was that it hit, it was still in print, I think. But I got the rights back last year and then I rewrote the book to coincide with the movie, Cause a lot of, you know, it is a however many years, 15 years, and things have changed. I had always imagined the main character, the point of view, character is gay, it’s subtext in the movie, but it’s text in the book. I was able to explore, go a little deeper in the book.
And again, I don’t, there’s such a rush. I know I sound like an old prude, but such a rush to sexualize everything. And I think, especially in YA. I mean, on one hand you couldn’t sexualize anything. So it’s great that now we have that freedom as writers, and I applaud that. And I’ve read books that I think are great. Yes, explore sex, explore sexual desire, but it’s also okay to explore the more reticent gay kid who it’s like, well, wait a minute, I’m not ready for sex. I recognize I will be one day, but I’m 15 and right now I want to hang out with my friends. And that’s a scary mysterious door that I’m not ready to open.
That’s a perfectly valid character too, and I think that I talk to these kids all the time online. You know, people who read my books and, and it’s like they’re not… I remember the thing that struck me the most when I was working with gay kids was there’s this idea that it’s like they all went sex, sex, sex. They all are obsessed with sex. It’s like, no, my experience is they all want a boyfriend or a girlfriend. They want a relationship, and sex is important. But you know, anybody can look at porn. Anybody can, you can explore those fantasies these days online, but you can’t have a boyfriend, you know, on porn. There’s no such thing as a porn boyfriend, the secret to life is that we all just want connection and we all just want somebody to accept us for who we are. No questions asked. We’re all yearning for, it’s what we all want. That’s what the characters in “Project Pay Day” have and they recognize that they have that kind of relationship and they don’t want to move on to the next phase where suddenly that’s complicated with boys and girls and relationships and sex. They recognize they will go there one day.
And frankly, that’s the subplot in the Otto books too, that Russell and Otto was a boyfriend and Russell as a husband. And that’s cool. And I explored that in earlier books. But the idea that they are friends and that they can count on each other. And I think we all want that more than anything in the world, that when things go wrong, is there somebody we can turn to when things, you know, if we’re not married or even if we are married and things go bad with our relationship, but there’s somebody who will, who will always be there for us?
You know, no matter what happens in our romantic life, they will always be there and they get us, you know, on some fundamental level. They get us, they understand us, and we don’t need to explain ourselves because they already know who we are. We all want that. And so I’m fascinated. I think that’s a more interesting connection to me
Jeff: Yeah. I think it’s even more true in this online era that we live in where you don’t get necessarily probably never true, true self online.
Brent: Absolutely. That’s a good point. I totally agree.
Jeff: Let’s talk about your travels. So you and your husband, Michael Jensen, who has been on the show before as well, you guys have been traveling for like the last three years now. You packed it up, left Seattle, and have been on this kind of nomad adventure, living your life around the world.
Brent: We love it. It’s the smartest thing we’ve ever did. The night of the election, we were with our good friends, our best friends who are lesbian couple. They had thrown an election party and we had gone and we were all excited to celebrate the first female president.
And of course, Trump was elected and we all wanted to kill ourselves. The party ended 30 minutes after it started, and Michael and I were driving home and we felt like shit, like much of the world, we just felt hopeless. We had always planned at some point that we were going to travel the world for awhile.
This has always been the plan, but it was always sort of a later kind of thing that, well, we’ll get around to it. Eventually we turned to each other and we said, let’s sell the house and leave, and it’s like we felt so powerless and depressed and I am like a control freak when things I, this is what I like plot so much.
This is like why I like writing. I want to fix problems and I want to solve it. Well, when your country elects, ignorant, fascist, racist, you can’t, I can’t, there’s no way I can solve that problem. You know, I had done what I could in the election, but I could solve my problem of feeling so frustrated by getting the hell out of Dodge, or at least taking control of my own narrative.
And Michael was absolutely on board, and our friends thought, Oh yeah, you’re not really gonna leave. But because we had always planned to do this anyway, we bought the new, you know, within two months we’d sold our house, and within eight months, we were on the road. and basically we are called digital nomads, which means we work remotely.
I always wanted to do this because it felt silly. We were living in Seattle. It felt silly to be paying the Seattle premium. Seattle is extremely expensive. It’s become like San Francisco. It’s one of the most expensive cities in the country.
But our income did not reflect that, our income was the same and is the same wherever we live. We sold the house for a lot of money because it was Seattle, and we had bought it cheaply and things had gone crazy.
Which gave us a cushion to experiment with. Then we left, we live in a country anywhere from one to three months. And then we move on because that’s how long the visa will last. We started in Miami, Florida. We moved to Malta in the Mediterranean. Then we lived in Italy. Then we lived in Bulgaria because of something, called the Schengen Zone. You can only be anywhere in Europe for three months. So we had to leave. We ended up in Eastern Europe, which is outside of the Schengen zone. Had no plans to go to Eastern Europe, but friends said, Hey, you know, Bulgaria is awesome.
It was awesome. We took a cruise ship home. We take repositioning cruises. So we lived on a cruise ship for two months as we took a cruise ship back through the Panama canal and back to Seattle. Then in 2019 we left. We went into Asia, we went to Thailand. We lived on an Island in Thailand. Then we lived in Vietnam, which was awesome.
We loved Vietnam. We lived in rice fields right outside of Hoi An. Fantastic experience. Came home for the movie shoot in June, which was in Pennsylvania, as I said earlier. Then we continued, took another cruise ship across to Europe. We went to Switzerland. We lived in Switzerland and the Swiss Alps for the summer, which was beautiful, incredibly expensive, but beautiful.
Then we went, I’m feel like I’m, I feel like I’m missing a couple of countries. Then we went back to Eastern Europe. I went to Tbilisi, Georgia. Which again was awesome. Came home, took another cruise ship home, for the holidays. Now we are in Mexico City, which is also fantastic. It’s funny, the state department issued a travel alert the day before we were to come to Mexico.
They said, you know, crime is up. Americans should be wary. I think they were just saying, Americans shouldn’t go to Mexico. And we had three or four friends here at the time, and we thought, you know, should we be worried? And they said, you know there are parts of the United States where you should not go.
It’s like you’ve been to Los Angeles, you’ve been to Chicago or New York. There are places you know that are, that are sort of tough, sort of dangerous there. And that’s just like Mexico. There are places in Mexico where I wouldn’t go, but Mexico City itself is stunningly beautiful city. I had no idea. It’s all plazas and parks. The Mexican people are charming. My Spanish still sucks, but I’m learning cause nothing like immersion to get you to, to pick up a language. I’m learning and we’re having a ball. We really were going to stay in Mexico, I think, a couple of months.
And then depending on what happens with this Chinese virus, we may go back to Asia. We may not, we may just go to Columbia. We may go to South America. But the point is we love our life. And we thought it would be really expensive. And in fact, our cost of living is about half what it was in Seattle, and it could be a lot cheaper if we wanted it to be, if we wanted to live in, you know, a little more frugally. We just don’t deprive ourselves.
And that, the other thing that’s been really, really wonderful, we thought we would be lonely. We thought we would be isolated. You know? How do you get to know people? Well, because there is this digital nomad community around the world now and because they’re all awesome people, you know, it’s like, I like to say. Nobody leaves home because they’re happy with their life. Everybody leaves home because they don’t quite fit in because they feel like they have a yearning for something more.
So it’s kind of like the Island of misfit toys. Everybody’s a little dorky. Everybody’s a little quirky. And so are we. And the other interesting thing, we’re in our fifties, early fifties. And most of our friends are now in their twenties and thirties, which has been really interesting. And I think they think of us as peers. I know they think of us as peers. We think of them as peers.
Occasionally they’ll ask us, you know, advice. But for the most part, we sort of see each other as peers. So it is great to be around such as this young, open-minded, positive energy. This has made me feel empowered. I have my perspective because I have an older perspective and they have a younger perspective and that’s interesting, but I don’t feel like, ‘okay, boomered’ by these people.
I feel accepted. They’re not like gonna dismiss me because of my age and I’m not going to dismiss them. I’m not going to say, Oh, millennials or, oh, you’re gen Y. It feels like there’s a meeting of minds, and so it has been really awesome to meet these people.
And so as opposed to being isolated, we feel more connected. I mean, I’m an introvert, like times 50. I wanted to stay home. I want to Netflix and chill. Every city other than the, anything in the United States is so much more livable because everything is so walkable. Like I said, Mexico city has all these sidewalk cafes and plazas and parks and everything is, from a Western perspective, everything is cheap. So we find ourselves being so much more social. It has been a reinvention that I didn’t think I was capable of at my age. I didn’t think I wanted to reinvent myself, and yet I have, and Michael has too.
And we’ve been surprised by things. All of my life I thought I had work life balance, but it wasn’t until I left the United States that I realized, Oh, I didn’t have work life balance at all. Because it’s hard to have work life balance because everything’s so God damn expensive, you know, you have to kill yourself. For Michael and myself, I don’t want to sound judgy, I really don’t and I hope I’m not coming across that way, but for us it has been. We were at a very low point both politically and career wise, and we felt very frustrated. Things had not gone our way in so many, we had so many disappointments in our career and now it feels like you know, like all writing careers, you have successes and you have disappointments. Now they are put in perspective because there are so much else. The rest of our lives are richer now.
And the more people I meet around the world. the differences are what make it fascinating. You know? It’s like I love being forced to see something about myself or my country from a different point of view, the reality is we really have so much in common, you know, and we are just so much alike and we are all yearning for that connection that so many people have opened their hearts and their minds to us.
And you mentioned, you know, online the alienation. I used to think social media was bringing people together and I don’t believe that anymore. I feel like now it is driving people apart more than it’s bringing them together. And that makes me sad. That makes me very sad because it feels like the world is coming apart. But there are, there is still this yearning for connection and there are so many people, cause I’ve experienced it. I feel like I see it every day. When I meet people in real life, it makes me feel so openhearted and hopeful. It makes me feel optimistic about the future. So it was for me, this was just what we needed to get out of that mindset, whatever it was, the rut that I was in, and it makes me feel like, Oh God, humanity’s not doomed. There are still all these wonderful people.
Jeff: I’m curious what this three year journey has done for your creativity overall?
Brent: I wouldn’t say the well had gone dry, but there are certain topics, you know, I mean, “Project Sweet Life”/”Project Pay Day,” that is based on an experience. “Geography Club,” that’s based on an experience I have. The later Russell books a screen writing based on experiences I had in Hollywood, the well of my personal life had begun to run dry So it has been interesting to have the well be refilled about all these other things. And now I do find myself writing about places and people that I wouldn’t have felt qualified to write about before. And even now, I’m not sure I feel qualified to write about, but I am certainly, I feel qualified to write about the experience of travel.
And I have written several screenplays about just what it’s like to travel. I wrote a thriller to people in an Airbnb. And when you meet somebody on the road, all you know about them is what they are presenting to you. Their past could be anything in the world. They could be a killer. They could be a monster, they could be a literal monster, you know, and you just don’t know. And you have to figure that out. And so I’ve written that from the point of view of a thriller where two people are sharing an Airbnb and they both think the other has killed somebody. And the reality is even worse than that, you know, there’s something else going on in the Airbnb.
And I’ve also written about it in a more positive way. I sort of wrote a I guess you would say it’s like eat, pray, love meets Four Weddings and a Funeral in that it’s the story of a woman as she travels the world as a digital nomad, like myself and her path keeps crossing with another digital nomad, but circumstances are never right that they can be like Four Weddings and a Funeral. And so over the course of three different countries, their paths keep crossing. So it is, it has been wonderful to be excited about and to do things that are way out of my bailiwick.
But I don’t think I’m probably ever going to write young adult again. I’ve written realistic YA fiction. I’ve written realistic YA romances. Now I want to do other stuff. Michael and I just finished writing a memoir of our first two years together. Writing a book with your husband is enormously difficult because, you know, of course the job of a spouse is to be supportive and noncritical and the job of a co-writer is to be ultra critical and to be very judgmental. And so the two things don’t go together, so we’ve had to hash out what it means to write together. That’s been really difficult, but it’s also been really fun and really interesting. It’s been an interesting project and now we’re just about done and we really liked the project and, and hopefully you can tell all my enthusiasm for what we’ve done and we’re trying to share that in the book. Try to be advocates and emissaries for this lifestyle. And then also just sort of tell the story of, of what has happened.
Jeff: Do you think the memoir will make its way out this year?
Brent: We should have a draft for beta readers in. A couple of months, you know, we’re going to edit and then we should have a draft and then then go to our agents who, it really depends. This one we want, this will definitely not be self-published. This feels, we know we wrote this as a, as a big, bold mainstream memoir. You know, I feel like publishers could see, because this is sort of an exploding phenomenon. There haven’t been a lot of memoirs by people who have done this.
So it feels like I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, but then this is me trying to anticipate the zeitgeists, which is always a mistake. But, the point is to get this out to publishers and then hopefully it’ll be out, you know. Yeah. Three years from now, two years from now at best.
Ironically, it is the book that I am most proud of at this point. You know, that, it’ll be easy for me to publicize because I feel so enthusiastic about the story we’re telling.
Jeff: So “Otto” has just come out “Project Pay Day” hopefully sometime this year. It looks like anything else on the 2020 timeline to talk about.
Brent: I would love to be able to talk about this, this other movie, this, drama that I was talking about earlier. “The Starfish Scream,” and I hope that happens. Because that has been a wild ride and it’ll be very unsatisfying if we did all this work and the world is never able to see it.
What else am I working on? I’m working on? I’m pitching screenplays this week and next week, and, and I’ve got a fantasy that I’m working on too, that is not ready to go out yet. Part of the problem is I am all over the place.
I like to write so many different things and sometimes I feel like I just should just, sometimes I think I should just pick a genre and stick to it for a couple of years, but I can’t seem to do that.
Jeff: What is the best way for everyone to keep up with you so they know what is coming next and how some of these other projects come to fruition?
Brent: My website, you can sign up for my newsletter on my website. You can follow me on social media. I generally am on Twitter more than I’m on Facebook, but you can do either. I, Oh, you could also follow Michael and I on Instagram, which is Brent And Michael Are Going Places. That’s also where website, BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com.
And, I have a policy that I will talk to anyone and I have sort of an open IM policy. If somebody wants to chat with me, I am available. Also send me an email. I don’t get very many emails anymore though. It’s mostly through social media these days.
Jeff: Fantastic. We’ll link to all of that in the shownotes and thank you so much for coming and telling us all about these projects and about your nomad life.
Brent: Well, thank you, Jeff.
Here’s the text of this week’s reviews:
Candy Hearts by Erin McLellan. Reviewed by Jeff.
It’s Valentine’s week so I wanted to read a Valentine’s themed story and Candy Hearts by Erin McLellan was the perfect choice for it’s fun, flirty, sexy, sweet, heartfelt romance.
Benji Holiday’s a mechanic who is done with romance, done with dating, and very much done with Valentine’s Day, especially after a cheating boyfriend. Even though he doesn’t want anything to do with the holiday, he begrudgingly accepts an invitation from his sister to join a few of her friends for what’s supposed to be a chill house party that weekend at a lake house.
When Benji arrives, he discovers that the start of the festivities has been postponed by a day due to a power outage. Nobody told Benji about the postponement. William O’Dare, the owner of the house who is a workaholic also trying to avoid the holiday but does want to reconnect with his friends that he hasn’t seen in a way too long, invites Benji to stay since he’s already there.
These two are immediately attracted to each other and sizing each other up. One of my favorite sentences in this story is from Benji as he meets William: “His tortoise-shell glasses made him look like a stern librarian wet dream.” Benji’s very into this slightly older man. For William, the fact that Benji declared that he could keep himself occupied alone in his room jerking off and eating Valentine’s candy and then a few beats later revealed that one of his bags had sex toys and lingerie, left him reeling. The inner dialogues these guys have about one another is charming and sexy.
Benji and William give in to their attraction–why not since the house is empty and dark–and William soon finds that under Benji’s overalls, which he’s already found crazy sexy, Benji’s wearing a baby-pink harness and lacy jockstrap. While Benji mentioned he had lingerie with him, he hadn’t planned on revealing it on him in that moment–but he went with it because it’d be practice for not changing himself to suit someone else. William finds it hot–not just the clothing but that Benji’s power in wearing it. They decide to spend the weekend exploring each other, being secret boyfriends and valentines even once people arrive.
Of course, neither of them expected to fall for the other. Benji has sworn off relationships and while William looked for one–he’d even made a list of traits he thought he wanted–he hadn’t thought the perfect guy for him would land on his doorstep. By the time people arrive for the party, it’s beyond difficult for Benji and William to hide their feelings–they fool no one even as their guests allow them to continue their charade for a while.
What makes this book soar is how Benji and William reveal aspects of themselves. It starts bold with Benji’s openness about why he likes lingerie and continues from there with what’s gone wrong in their relationships, what they want to fix in their lives and delves into the core of who they are. Most of these revelations, especially some of the early ones, happen around their sexy times. I often get bored with the sex in books unless it’s truly driving the story and Erin uses every sexy time to get Benji and William to share more. And to make all this sweeter they use the revelations end up pointing the way towards the people they’d like to become–like Benji trying to nudge William out of his workaholic condition and William helping Benji be even more his authentic self. Not only do these guys find love, but they end up on a path to truly better lives beyond the relationship they created.
Also satisfying is how the dark moment works out. Erin’s presented very smart obstacles to the relationship and I loved what Benji and William went through to get to their happy. As a reader, I loved how this part of the story played out.
This is my third book of Erin’s and I think it’s my favorite. Benji and William are so ridiculously awesome, slightly quirky, extremely sexy but also so very sweet. These two guys needed each other and as a reader I rooter for them so hard. I highly recommend Candy Hearts, whether you read it for Valentine’s week or any other time of the year.