Three Truths and a Lie, my latest book, is a change of pace for me. Part horror novel, part twisty puzzle box thriller, it’s the story of four teenagers who spend a weekend in a remote cabin in the rainforests of Washington State, and soon find themselves terrorized by some locals. Or is it the locals? It soon becomes clear that nothing in the rainforest is exactly what it appears, and none of the teens is telling the whole truth about anything.
Here’s my talking about the book:
Warning: This interview doesn’t contain spoilers exactly, but I do discuss the plot and various other aspects of the book. If you want to be completely surprised, don’t read on. (But you can buy the book here.)
Why this book?
Brent Hartinger: It was as simple as my visiting a remote cabin in a rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula near Seattle and thinking, “Oh, my God, this would make a fantastic setting for a book!”
Everyone knows what a tropical rain forest is, but these are temperate rain forests, which means they’re cold and dark and misty. They’re also incredibly lush, with ancient trees, and hanging moss. It’s like everything is growing, but nothing has changed in millions of years. Talk about a forest primeval!
Which is obviously a perfect place for a group of teenagers to be terrorized by some unnamed assailant, right?
BH: Exactly. But as one of the characters keeps saying, “Nothing is exactly what it seems in this place.” This is very much a psychological thriller.
I’m not one of those authors who says that a location is a “character.” It’s a location, not a character! Give me a break. But I’ll grant you that the location here is very specific and very important, and very much a reflection of the characters’ feelings.
Then again, that’s what I think the location should be in almost every novel.
The book feels different from your other books.
BH: As an author, I know I’m known for more lighthearted books, books with a lot of humor. And as a person, I think I’m sort of a genial, not particularly provocative guy.
And then out comes this book that’s a dark, edgy, sexy horror/thriller novel.
It’s weird having a “brand” as an author. I think it’s easier for some authors, because they genuinely gravitate toward one particular thing.
The rest of us get put in a particular category because we have some kind of success in it. Which is absolutely fine. As a reader, I like an author with a clear brand.
But I’ve always written in lots of different mediums and genres. In addition to my books, I have four movies in development right now based on my screenplays: a black comedy, a caper story, an animated family film, and a teen drama. Go figure.
I definitely intended for this to be something truly different, both for my own career and YA books in general. I hate to toot my own horn, but I also think it might be something new for a gay teen book, partly for reasons that I can’t talk about without giving away the ending.
About that ending…
BH: I’ve always been a fan of twist endings, but only so long as the writer plays fair. You can’t just pull it out of thin air. It has to all make perfect sense in retrospect. And on one hand, that’s more difficult to pull off seamlessly than it looks.
On the other hand, once I had the central conceit of the book, it was very clarifying. This is one of those books where almost everything that happens, definitely every scene, relates directly to that ending, and to the book’s theme. So in a way, it was a very difficult book to write, but in another way, it was very easy.
Incidentally, as my great editor, Michael Stother, and I were revising it, part of me kept thinking, “This is so obvious! Everyone will guess the ending!” But so far, no one has guessed correctly, and no one feels cheated. So hopefully I did my job well.
Let’s talk about the sex.
BH: This is a psychosexual thriller. I’m tempted to say, “The sex is all integral to the plot!” Which it is. But even so, I surprised myself by how it turned out, how dark it is, even a bit shocking at one point. I’ve always said before that I’m a “fade to black” kind of writer when it comes to sex. But this story seemed to call for a different approach.
The book is not a romance, and it’s not “realistic” fiction. It’s not about “issue sex” — I’m not making a greater point about some aspect of teen sexuality, except maybe that teens are sexual beings. I’m also not necessarily trying to “empower” teens.
No, I’m using sex to explore darker themes, like domination, and jealousy, and secret desires, and even the connection between sex and death. These themes are right in line with the genre I’m writing in, but they didn’t seem like things that I usually read in YA, at least when it comes to sex. For that reason, it seemed like an interesting place for me to go.
Another part of me is sort of pinching myself, because the sex here is gay. And yet the book was written for and is being marketed to a mainstream audience.
Fortunately, the YA readership is increasingly open to new voices and ideas. Teenagers today are so much more sophisticated than when I was that age. Anyway, this is how things change: what was shocking or controversial twenty years ago is often accepted as a non-issue today.
How has the market for teen fiction about gay teens changed since you started writing it?
BH: Well, now there is a market.
I wrote the first draft of Geography Club around 1993 or so, and I, and then my agent, spent almost a decade trying to sell it. A lot of editors really liked it, and some of them took it to their acquisitions departments. But then they’d come back and say things like, “We don’t know what to do with this.” Or, “There’s no market for a book about gay teenagers.”
I often wonder: Were they right? If the book had been published back then, would it have tanked?
All I know is that when HarperCollins picked it up in 2001, no one expected it to do anything. I mean, everyone in-house liked it and was rooting for it, but no one expected it to sell. But by the end of the second week of publication, we’d already gone into a third printing.
The conventional wisdom couldn’t have been more wrong. But the even better news is how much, and how quickly, society has changed since then. And of course that’s reflected in YA literature. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.
I also think it’s interesting how the success of YA literature predicted the success of gay TV shows like Glee by half a decade or so. I’ve always said, if you want to know what’s going to be happening on television in five years, you should be reading YA literature now.
This feels different from most gay YA, because it’s not “about” being gay.
BH: I’ve been saying for years that the next wave in gay teen lit was books where being gay is completely incidental to the plot. I’ve also been eager for more gay genre books — science fiction and fantasy and suspense and horror, and all the rest.
I think that’s finally starting to happen, which I think is pretty good indication that gay literature has become almost completely mainstream. Being gay really is becoming a non-issue.