Interview with Barry Lyga, Part 1

Barry LygaGuts. If there’s a word that describes Barry Lyga’s amazing novels, it’s that. Guts. I mean, what other writer is willing to totally reveal his comic book geekdom in his first novel (“The Amazing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl”), then discuss the complicated sexual abuse of a teen boy by a female teacher in his second book (“Boy Toy”), then risk pissing off a lot of people by tackling censorship and flag burning in Novel #3 (“Hero Type”), then not only write his fourth YA novel from a girl’s point of view, but open that novel with a dead-on lament about her menstrual cycle (“Goth Girl Rising”)?

And his next YA series, “I Hunt Killers,” is about a teen whose father is a serial killer. The series is described as “Dexter meets Silence of the Lambs for teens.”

Yeah. Guts just about sums it up.

And we haven’t even gotten into the genre-crossing he’s done by writing middle grade novels and comics, or his awesome blog. For details and to follow him online, check out his website.

But for all his guts, Lyga is also an extremely smart, sensitive writer. He handles all that touchy material with an intelligence and sense of humor that’ll keep you engrossed to the last page—and leave you wanting more. Also cool and noteworthy: In all his YA novels so far, Lyga has embarked on a project very like that of Honore de Balzac, a 19th century French writer who wrote a collection of novels and stories referred to as the “Human Comedy,” all of which were set in the same place (Paris) with recurring themes and characters. Lyga’s human comedy is set in the American anytown of Brookdale, and there are several recurring themes and characters: the Spermling, the Jurgens girls, SAMMPark, and more. What a great way to create a whole YA world without all the expectations of an actual “series.”

Okay, enough of us. Let’s here from the man himself:

Stuff we’d love to know about you:
YARN: In the acknowledgements to “Fanboy and Goth Girl” you mention that Tom Perrotta* told you to embrace your comic book passions. Can you tell us a little more about this relationship, and how Mr. Perrotta impacted you and your writing?

BL: Tom was my creative writing professor in college. He’s obviously a phenomenal writer, but he’s also a terrific teacher. At the time that I was in college, comic books weren’t considered to be as cool as they are now—they weren’t really considered a valid art form by many people. As a result, I felt sort of self-conscious in the creative writing class, surrounded by people who were reading “real” literature, as I sat there with my comics. Tom took me aside one day and told me that my love of comics made me unique in that class and that I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It took me a few years, but I finally understood what he meant, embraced my own geekitude, and the rest is history. 🙂

YARN: Your characters are often worriers (Kevin of “Hero Type” frets over Leah, his video secrets, and his divorced father; Josh of “Boy Toy” worries about everything; FanBoy constantly checks the comic convention website to make sure his idol will be there, and worries about what his mother will think of his relationship with Kyra). Were you a worrier as a teen? What kinds of things did you worry about?

BL: Oh, God, yes! I’ve always been a worrier and I suspect I always will be. Warren Zevon wrote a great song, “Worrier King,” that I feel was written just for me. I think like my characters, I worry about anything and everything, depending on the time of day and what’s on my radar. If I’m working on a book, I worry whether or not I’ll finish it. If I have a book coming out soon, I worry if anyone will like it. There’s always SOMETHING to worry about!

YARN: On a related note: In your “Book Page” interview, you define geeks as “people who are obsessed with something, possibly obsessed beyond the bounds of what is considered good mental health, and don’t mind letting that obsession dictate large portions of their lives.” And this is certainly true of each of your main characters. Might you reveal some thing(s) you obsessed over as a teen?

BL: Well, I certainly obsessed over comic books—in that regard, Fanboy and I are very, very similar. And like most of my characters, I obsessed over girls. Stuff like that. Nothing out of the ordinary there, I don’t think. I also obsessed like mad over my grades. In retrospect, I’m not sure why—school came very easily to me, but for some reason, I stressed over it a lot.

YARN: In “Goth Girl Rising,” the way Kyra discovers “Sandman” was so poignant and true. The best and most unforgettable books we will read in our lives are often found when simply browsing. How did you come across “Sandman,” or another book that’s meant a great deal to you?

BL: Well, I really stumbled into “Sandman.” You have to remember that I’m older than my characters—when I discovered “Sandman,” it was being published as a series of monthly comic books…and it was less than a year old! The publisher had produced a bunch of extra copies of issue #8 and given them to comic book stores to give away. The guy who ran my local comic book store handed me one and said, “I bet you’ll like this.” I was immediately captivated, so I made sure to pick up the next issue when it came out. And I kept buying it every month for the next five or six years, until it ended.

Most of the great, influential books I’ve read in my life I’ve simply stumbled upon. One of my favorite books ever is “Dealing In Futures,” a short story collection by Joe Haldeman. I found that as a kid at the local library. I think the title just grabbed me. I had no idea what it was when I picked it up, but I practically inhaled that book at one go!

Writing Process:
YARN: What’s your writing day like?

BL: I wish I could describe something exciting, but it’s pretty boring. I usually write for a couple of hours in the morning, then hit the gym, then go back and write more in the afternoon. Depending on my schedule and my current projects, I’ll either keep writing at night or read/do research.

Sexy, eh? 🙂

YARN: What’s your writing process like, from the start of a novel to the finished product? What’s your favorite part of the process?

BL: I actually give a fairly detailed description of the entire process on my Blog: That’s about as exhaustive as it gets, really.

My favorite part is a sort of amorphous, ill-defined moment: It’s when two seemingly disconnected moments in a project connect. You can’t predict it; you can’t plan for it. You’ve got two things planned and they don’t quite jibe, but some part of your brain tells you that it’ll work anyway. And then—one day—they suddenly click into place. It’s amazing. It happens at least once per project, and you can’t be ready for it. It’s the best feeling in the world when it happens!

YARN: We love that in your blog and in a recent interview with “Comics Spotlight,” you are all about re-writing. Can you say a little something more about your re-writing process, and maybe give our teen writer-readers some advice?

BL: OK, here I have to cop to something—until I went back and looked at that interview, I didn’t remember that question at all! And I honestly don’t know what I was thinking when I answered it because I don’t think I’m a heavy rewriter at all. I tend to blast through things one time and do very little rewriting later. So I might not have been thinking clearly when I answered that question.

But you know, when I was starting out many years ago, I did a lot of rewriting. I think the key to rewriting is not to bleed all of the life and energy out of your first draft. Your first draft usually has a lot of passion in it, and it’s all-too-easy to go through and neuter the excitement when you rewrite. Rewriting shouldn’t be about adding lots of adjectives or upgrading your vocabulary with the help of a thesaurus—it should be about making the story clearer and more immediate to the reader.

YARN: What advice would you give a teen who has a writing assignment that seems like a drag?

BL: Find a way to adhere to the letter of the assignment, but make the spirit more in tune with your own. If you’re supposed to write about a day in the life of a weasel, for example, go ahead and make it a weasel with superpowers. Or find a way to play around—write a poem or a song instead of a paragraph. Challenge yourself.

YARN: Come back next week for more of our interview with Barry Lyga, as he talks about his own books and those of other YA writers you know.

*For those who might not know, Mr. Perrotta is another writer, most famously of “Election,” on which a movie with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick was based.

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