Barry Lyga on Barry Lyga: “Born on 9/11/71–you can imagine how I spent my thirtieth birthday! Lived for most of my life just about an hour below the Mason-Dixon Line, but never felt like a Southerner except when I visited family in New England, where I was told I talked like a rebel. Then, back in Maryland, friends said I sounded like a Yankee. So I guess I’ve felt like an outsider from the beginning!
“I learned how to read and write thanks to comic books–I absorbed the damn things as a kid, internalizing lessons in plot, characterization, and pacing. Some of those lessons were good, some of them were bad, but all of them led me to figure out more and more writing issues for myself. Plus, comics invigorated my imagination (anything could happen!) and also did wonders for my vocabulary (show of hands–who knew the words ‘impervious,’ ‘invulnerable,’ and ‘continuum’ in first grade?).
“My first book is The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). It’s about what happens when a young comic book geek meets the girl of his nightmares and oh, yes, it was quite cathartic to write it.”
What about the writing life first called to you? Did you shout “yes!” or run the other way?
I definitely shouted “yes!” but I also ran the other way at the same time! My earliest memory of “the writing life” is being very young–probably seven or eight. My grandmother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her, very seriously, that I wanted to be a writer. And she did Jewish grandmothers everywhere proud by saying, “Oh, so you want to starve!”
She was kidding, of course, but I was young and I didn’t understand that she was kidding. And while I liked the idea of writing, I also liked the idea of eating! So for much of my life, I figured I would be something else and then be a writer as well–lawyer/writer, teacher/writer, etc. But that just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t until I fully embraced the writing life that things started to happen for me.
What made you decide to write for young adults?
I had always resisted it because I had this lingering prejudice–from the young adult books of my childhood, which were awful–that YA literature wasn’t “real” literature. But people in my writers group, editors, my ex-wife, were all telling me I should try it. So I did, and I found it tremendously liberating and fun.
Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?
Well, I wrote the first draft of the book in a sprint–a five-week sprint! Stumbles along the way. You know, once I decided to write YA, everything pretty much fell into place. I would say the major stumbles came in the years prior to that, when I was writing stuff for adults and taking myself way too seriously and just spinning my wheels.
I think when we forget that writing should be fun, we lose our way–we become so serious and heavy that we bleed any joy out of what we’re writing. I mean, even in my second book, which is about a very serious topic, there’s room for humor. And a necessity for it.
We need humor as a way of contrasting the more downbeat moments. That’s not just in the work itself, but also in the process of writing–you need to have fun doing it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Congratulations on the publication of The Astonishing Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
My own life! I’ve often said that the book is too autobiographical for my own good. When I decided to write something for teens, I went back not only to my own teen years, but also to my twenties. I think we tend to forget that those post-college years are just as nerve-wracking and transformative as the teen years in many respects.
So I looked at the whole “writer’s journey,” all of the insecurity and worry and fear and sudden joys. I realized that the writer’s life is very analogous to being a teen–the isolation, rejection, striving to find your place in the world. Between the two of them, I found a balance that worked for me and for the story.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
From spark to publication was roughly three years. That includes a year between acceptance and publication. From the time I finished the book to the time it was accepted was about a year and a half. The most significant event along the way was meeting my agent at about a year in–from the point, things happened very quickly and a few months later I had a book deal.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?
Wow, I could go on for a looooooong time on this one! I’ll try to keep it short, lest your readers drop into comas. 🙂
The biggest challenge was the psychological barrier of “Someone who knows me could read this someday.” Since the book is autobiographical to a degree, I was concerned.
I wasn’t worried that people would be angry about the real life events that I “adapted” for the book–rather, I was worried that they would think that the made-up stuff was a way to dig at them or bash them after the fact! But I realized that I couldn’t let this concern prevent me from telling the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it. Once I got over that, I was able to bull through.
Logistically, the toughest thing about the book was a function of the tense and POV I chose. The whole book is told in first-person present-tense from the point of view of Fanboy, a solipsistic, gifted fifteen-year-old. He’s smart, yes, but anyone who was once fifteen will tell you that fifteen-year-old boys aren’t the most, uh, perceptive or empathic creatures on the planet.
Since the book was present-tense, there was little room for reflection or second-guessing on Fanboy’s part. We were always in his head, in the moment. And he wasn’t inclined to cut people slack.
So I was very, very worried that the supporting cast would come across as cardboard because there was no way to get into them and we only had Fanboy’s very biased view of them to go on. I had to find ways to get across Mom and Tony and Kyra and Cal and the others without betraying Fanboy’s singularly self-absorbed point of view. Not the easiest thing in the world, but I took it as a challenge.
Also difficult (at first) was “How Geeky Do I Go?” The book has a lot of comic book geekery in it, and I was worried that I was going to overdo it and scare off the non-comics readers.
Eventually, I just had to trust my gut on that one. It was scary, but it paid off. I’ve had a lot of people e-mail me to say, “I don’t read comics and I didn’t get half the comic book references, but I loved this book.” Whew!
You’re obviously a serious comics/graphic novel guy. Could you tell us about your background?
Well, I grew up reading comics. Like I said before, the YA fiction of my youth was pretty lame, so I didn’t read it–I read comics instead. Fortunately for me, I grew up at a time when comics were growing up, too, as books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and Maus were changing perceptions of the medium. So I never went through a period of time where I forsook comics–I just kept reading them. I even used them as the basis for an independent study project at Yale (much to the horror of the English Department, might I add!).
When I got out of college, I went to work for the biggest comic book distributor in the country. I did a bunch of marketing stuff and learned a lot of behind-the-scenes details about the industry, which was both good and bad. I tried my hand at writing comics, with mixed results. By the time I figured out how to write for the medium, I was starting to see some success in prose, and I stopped writing comics to move into prose full-time. I feel like I never really put my best foot forward in comics, and I hope to rectify that someday.
What do you think about the heightened attention to youth graphic novels in the youth book market, and why?
It’s very strange to see! Strange, but gratifying. If comics had been as accepted and as tolerated when I was a kid, my life would have been very different. It’s terrific to see the medium being treated so seriously, but I do worry about the bandwagon effect, where you have people who aren’t really qualified to talk about comics blabbing about them anyway, or comics that aren’t worth reading being touted as great just because they’re comics. I mean, there’s as much crap in the comic book field as in any other–maybe more.
What advice do you have for beginning novelists?
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t wonder “Can I do that?”–just do it. Remember that no matter how good you think your early efforts are, they probably actually suck–it’s just the law of averages. Early on, put everything away for six months minimum while you work on something else. When you come back to it, you’ll see the flaws and you’ll wince and you’ll be glad you didn’t send it out right away.
Oh, and if you think something isn’t working, but “it’s just me–readers won’t notice,” you’re dead wrong. Go with your gut. Almost every single change my editor ever asked me to make was something I had known was problematic from the get-go, but figured would slide by without anyone noticing. Nope! People notice.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Not much! I’m an extremely boring person. When I’m not writing, I’m either reading or glued to my crack pipe…er, I mean my Xbox. I played piano as a kid and now that I have some free time again, I plan to get back into it.
What can your fans look forward to next?
My next book, Boy Toy (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) comes out in October. It’s set in the same high school as Fanboy, the same town, with some of the same “walk-on characters,” but it’s a very different story: sex, violence, and uncontrollable urges. It’s perfect for kids!