Barry Lyga Interview, Part 2

Barry LygaAnd here’s Part 2 of our “astonishing” interview with Barry Lyga.

Your Books:

“Boy Toy”:

YARN: “Boy Toy” is an amazingly difficult novel to describe in terms of plot. However, it seems like Josh’s main issue is not so much the actual sexual abuse but the memory of it.  Could you elaborate on the fine line between the two, and what you were thinking about this distinction as you wrote?

BL: I have always said that “Boy Toy” is not a book about abuse—it’s a book about baggage. It’s about figuring out how to deal with the stuff in your past and somehow move on. That’s the distinction I drew in my own mind as I was writing the book. The book isn’t about Josh dealing with being abused—it’s about Josh ADMITTING he was abused. That’s his triumph—letting go of his own guilt and accepting that he was powerless as a child.

“Fanboy and Goth Girl”:

YARN: “Sandman” by Neil Gaiman is referenced countless times in “Goth Girl Rising.”  With all the comics out there, what made you reference “Sandman” so often?  For those of us who haven’t read it, can you say a little something about its significance?  Also, when you think about Kyra, what other books do you thinks she’s into?

BL: I knew that Kyra would be obsessed with “Sandman” much in the way that Fanboy was obsessed with Bendis, so it made sense to reference it heavily. About halfway through writing “Goth Girl Rising,” I decided to re-read the entire “Sandman” series and it was really weird how many parallels to my story I found in there. I hadn’t read “Sandman” since the original monthly series ended in the early nineties, so it was like reading it again for the first time.

I think “Sandman” is significant because it really was in the vanguard as comics transitioned from kids’ stuff to “stuff for everyone.” If you read the series at one go, you can see how the comic book industry was changing and maturing, with Gaiman’s work at the forefront of that movement.

I don’t see Kyra as a big reader, to be honest with you. She’s a much more casual reader than anything else. There are certain comic books—“Sandman,” “Optic Nerve,” some manga—that she would be obsessed with, but she’s not likely to have her nose buried in a book at any random moment in time. That’s Fanboy. 🙂

YARN: As a young female I (Lourdes) was highly empowered when reading “Goth Girl Rising.” Kyra touches upon topics I do not see much in YA, and she declaims them all. Girls always feel this pressure to “upgrade” physically, like in “Girl, 15, Charming but Insane”—when I read that, I remember wondering why anyone would stuff her bra with bags of soup (the minestrone variety, if I remember rightly. I suppose it was for humor. I did enjoy the moment when when they popped, though).  Some girls might realize there is no need for this kind of thing in the end, but the thought always seems to be there. Kyra dislikes such thinking. So, my question is: How do you know what teen girls think about? How is it possible to create such a realistic female when being a male writer? Was it more difficult, or easier, to write a female narrator than your male narrators?

BL: You know, when it comes to knowing what teen girls think, it’s really just a matter of paying attention. I’ve always have a lot of female friends, and I just listen to them. When you actually listen to people, you come to understand their fears, their concerns, their desires. So when it came time to write Kyra, I felt like I had a pretty good notion of what it’s like to be a girl today—the social pressures, the cultural forces, stuff like that. And then you just add in the insecurity that comes with being a teenager—regardless of your sex—and I felt like I had a good handle on it. If the e-mails I’m getting from teen girls are any indication, I did a pretty good job at it, which is very gratifying.

I thought that writing Kyra would be tougher than writing Fanboy or Josh or Kross, but in truth, it was a piece of cake. I invented Kyra, after all—there’s no one in the world who knows her as well as I do. I just sat down, said to myself, “OK, now I’m Kyra—what am I thinking?” and the book exploded out of me.

“Hero Type”:

YARN: In “Hero,” Kevin realizes that his purpose is to open people’s minds, but ironically, sometimes Kevin himself is rather closed-minded about opposing opinions—this is such a great way to trust your readers and make Kevin a complex character.  But were you ever worried that readers with political leanings more like Kevin’s nemesis Riordan would stop reading the book?

BL: I gave that a little thought, but not much. I wrote “Hero Type” from a fairly angry place. I was angry about the sort of brain-dead way our culture approaches public issues and politics, and I didn’t care if I made people who disagreed with me angry. After all, they had already made me angry, so turnabout is fair play!

What I’ve discovered, much to my pleasure, is that the kids reading “Hero Type” have never really thought much about the issues Kross gets into in the book, so this is sort of their introduction to it all. So I hope that down the road when some brain-dead reactionary tries to convince them that it’s OK to censor, it’s OK to block speech, that they will respond, “Oh, hell no it isn’t!”

YARN: Do you see yourself staying in Brookdale much longer, with SAMMPark and the Spermling, and all the other great recurring themes and characters you’ve built there?

BL: Oh, I’ll definitely be returning to Brookdale. Right now I’m working on a bunch of projects that take me outside of Brookdale, but that won’t last forever. There are at least another half dozen or so books set in Brookdale, including companion books to “Boy Toy” and “Hero Type,” as well as a book that starts in Brookdale and then becomes a weird sort of road trip movie. So, yeah, I’ll be back. You haven’t seen the last of that place!

YARN: There’s a very interesting strain of voyeurism in your books—Fan Boy drawing Dina, Kevin with his videotapes of Leah, and Josh with his tapes of his psychiatric sessions.  Writers always have themes like this in their writing careers, and this seems to be one of yours.  Can you say a little bit about where it comes from, and what brings you back to explore the theme with different characters, in different ways?

BL: Wow. I never really thought about it until you brought it up in that context. You could probably even say Kyra is a bit voyeuristic in “Goth Girl Rising,” following Fanboy around and watching him from a distance.

I’m not sure where it comes from. I think that growing up I always felt like a bit of an outsider, so my characters tend to be outcasts who look in on the rest of the world from an external vantage point. They don’t feel like they can participate directly, so they watch instead. And a big part of my stories is that moment when the characters decide to stop watching and instead take action: Fanboy accepting his sister, Josh finally connecting with Rachel, Kross going to California, Kyra admitting she loves Fanboy.  “Wolverine: Worst Day Ever” is probably the most literal iteration of this theme, with Eric invisible for all intents and purposes, but finally risking his life at the end to help Wolverine.

Other people’s books:

YARN: You’ve had experience writing in multiple genres—several YA novels, and for the middle school set, the graphic novel “Archvillian” and its sequel, as well as the comic “Wolverine: Worst Day Ever.” Have you noticed any differences between YA and Middle Grade? Are there things you can get away with in one that you can not in the other? Also, would you ever consider writing an adult book or picture book?

BL: First of all, “Archvillain” isn’t a graphic novel—it’s a prose novel. Just wanted to clear that up.

The differences between YA and middle grade are really differences of language. You obviously want to steer clear of cursing in middle grade, but you also want to modulate your vocabulary for an audience that doesn’t have as highly developed a sense of language. You don’t want to frustrate a middle grade reader with words that are just beyond his or her development.

Content-wise, you can do anything in YA. Anything at all. But with middle grade, while you can tackle pretty much any topic, you want to do so with a bit more circumspection and discretion. I think I could have written a middle grade version of “Boy Toy,” for example, but it would have been done very differently, with less explicit moments and more left to the imagination.

YARN: Oops, our bad.  Sorry about “Wolverine.”  Next question!  What writers do you admire that you think have guts?

BL: I think David Levithan has guts—he’s ego-less as a writer, which is something I really admire, especially since I’m such a control freak. His ability to collaborate just blows me away. Pete Hautmann has guts—I love the way he tackles really huge issues with fearless humor. And I think Chris Crutcher and Terry Trueman are great examples of writers with guts.

YARN: Have you ever read a book and wished you wrote it instead?

BL: Oh, sure—plenty of them! Pete Hautmann’s “Godless” is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I wish I’d written it. “Going Bovine” by Libba Bray.  “The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon. Those are just a few books I wish I’d written.

YARN: Thanks for all these great answers, Barry.  Can’t wait for your next book.

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