Welcome to the Fiction Reboot’s author interview! Today I am very happy to present Barry Lyga, author of I Hunt Killers, veteran blogger and recent participant at the 2012 Comic-Con. Barry has a wide variety of publications–starting with Fan Boy and Goth Girl–as well as a comprehensive author blog (I think my favorite section is This Week in Rejection). Thank you, Barry, for taking time to speak to us about the writing life!
For more reasons to love Barry:
Called a “YA rebel-author” by Kirkus Reviews, Barry Lyga has published nine novels in various genres in his six-year career, including his latest, the I Hunt Killers series. His books have been or are slated to be published in nine different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia.
After graduating from Yale with a degree in English, Lyga worked in the comic book industry before quitting to pursue his lifelong love of writing. In 2006, his first young adult novel, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, was published to rave reviews, including starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal. Publisher’s Weekly named Lyga a “Flying Start” in December 2006 on the strength of the debut. His second young adult novel, Boy Toy, received starred reviews in SLJ, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. VOYA gave it its highest critical rating, and the Chicago Tribune called it “…an astounding portrayal of what it is like to be the young male victim.” His third novel, Hero-Type, according to VOYA ”proves that there are still fresh ideas and new, interesting story lines to be explored in young adult literature.”
Since then, he has also written Goth Girl Rising (the sequel to his first novel), as well as the Archvillain series for middle-grade readers and the graphic novel Mangaman (with art by Colleen Doran). His latest series is I Hunt Killers, called by the LA Times “one of the more daring concepts in recent years by a young-adult author” and an “extreme and utterly alluring narrative about nature versus nurture.” The series has been optioned for television by Warner Bros./Silver Pictures.
I HUNT KILLERS
But he’s also the son of the world’s most infamous serial killer, and for Dear Old Dad, “Take Your Son to Work Day” was year-round. Jazz has witnessed crime scenes the way cops wish they could—from the criminal’s point of view.
And now, even though Dad has been in jail for years, bodies are piling up in the sleepy town of Lobo’s Nod. Again.
In an effort to prove murder doesn’t run in the family, Jazz joins the police in the hunt for this new serial killer. But Jazz has a secret—could he be more like his father than anyone knows?
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences? Your favorite work?
Well, I think it’s a bit melodramatic to claim “not writing” as a potentially terminal condition, but, yeah — I write because I’m not very good at not writing. There were many, many times when I was younger and not getting anything published where I swore off writing with all the determination and resolve of a drunk who just miraculously survived wrapping his car around a telephone pole. And every time — like most drunks — I went back to the bottle after quitting cold turkey. My early writing experiences were very, very early — second grade, to my earliest memory. I remember being given the assignment to use the week’s spelling words in sentences and deciding to build a story out of them instead. Tried my hand at a novel in third or fourth grade and didn’t realize that you needed to know what your book was about before you wrote it. I think I got two or three handwritten pages into it before I gave up. But as I got older — middle school — I started submitting short stories to magazines, and quickly amassed a collection of rejection letters. (Those who are interested can see me go through that collection of rejections in my weekly series, “This Week in Rejection!”, located here: http://barrylyga.com/twir.)
In high school, I wrote my first novel, which sucked beyond belief. But I was proud of myself for actually sitting down and writing 300+ pages of Something at that age, and I took it as a sign that if I did it once, I could do it again. The next umpty-ump years were spent falling on and off the writing wagon over and over, then finally slipping into my niche.
2. Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you (also an English graduate) decided to “write for real”? How and when did you make the decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it so deserves?
I decided to write “for real” when I was about seven years old and my grandmother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, “A writer.” The problem is, I had decided, but the rest of the world didn’t get the memo! I always had people harping on me about having a fall-back plan, so I always saw myself being a writer on one end of the slash — teacher/writer, lawyer/writer, whatever/writer. I don’t know if that held me back or not. It may have, but then again, maybe I would have spent all those years flailing away at writing and being just as much a failure, only without the benefit of health insurance and a salary.
In 2004, I realized that I had to either Do This or give up. So I planned my “escape” from my job, squirreling away money to save up enough to live on for a year while I worked on a new book. At the same time, I wrote Fanboy & Goth Girl and — almost by accident — met my agent. That made it a lot easier to quit my job on schedule. By the time I walked out the door, we were on submission, and a month later, it was sold.
I, uh, guess I should mention here that I got extremely lucky with that sequence of events. I don’t recommend people quit their jobs before they sell anything. It can be a long way down.
3. You worked first with DC Comics, I think?—several of the authors I have interviewed here have graphic novels or other media publications. Can you speak to how this beginning shaped your work? What does it take to be a successful cross-genre writer?
Actually, I never worked for DC. I worked for Diamond Comic Distributors. Similar initials, I guess. But Diamond was middle-man/wholesaler for companies like DC. I did marketing stuff for them and at the time, I was the only person in the American comic book industry whose job description had the words “Promote comics” in it.
I’ve always been a comic book fan, reading them right alongside my Poe and my Milton and my Spenser, and I’m told that the cross-breeding that results from that kind of reading diet has created something unique in me. And I suppose that’s true, but it’s most likely true of everyone — we all have disparate, unrelated interests that conflate in us. For me, it meant an early and abiding interest in cross-genre fiction and a disdain for genre itself. Stories are stories. The book I wrote before Fanboy & Goth Girl was turned down everywhere, despite my being told it was quite good, simply because no one knew which shelf in a bookstore it would fit into. That drives me crazy.
I don’t know what it takes to be a successful cross-genre writer. I don’t consider myself especially successful, for one thing, and I tend to think that whatever elements there are that would lead a cross-genre writer to success would be essentially similar to those necessary for success to any other kind of writer.
4. As an author and medical humanist, I am always interested in the intersections of history and fiction. I’ve also been a serious fan mystery and psychology. Can you tell us a bit about I Hunt Killers? What sort of research went into this text, and how do you navigate the spaces between medicine, science, fiction?
For most of my books to date, I’ve been able to get away with little to no research. For KILLERS, though, I knew that I needed to get the facts straight. Forensic science is a SCIENCE, after all, so I couldn’t just fake it. People expect a certain amount of fact with their fiction these days, and I didn’t want to get the details wrong. So I spent a few months reading up on forensics, law enforcement procedures, serial killer pathology, and so on. I interviewed NYPD detectives and an FBI agent. And then, honestly, I just wrote the book. I occasionally dipped into my notebook to recall a specific fact (like the timing of rigor mortis), but I didn’t want the book to come across as a lesson plan. I think research is good for getting you in the proper headspace to write the book, but if every page has some dry recitation of facts and information, the story falls apart. I wanted a book where research was the spice, not the meat. The meat is Jazz’s tale, his development, his fears and his hopes and the way he interacts with the people around him. So I would never — knowingly — write something that obviated a medical or scientific fact, but at the same time, I didn’t want to write a book ABOUT medical or scientific facts. The research is there to give the aura of reality to the whole endeavor, not to overwhelm the characters.
5. You have been described as a rebel. I love that. Many of us write fiction than does not fit into tidy boxes (I am writing a YA about a girl who does NOT have a love interest…rebellious indeed.) Do you think of yourself as a rebel? What does it take to successfully write outside the box?
I was very much caught off-guard by that bit in Kirkus and I’m still trying to figure out what it is about me and my work that makes me — in their eyes — a “rebel.” I have no idea. Honestly, not a single idea. I write the kinds of books I would like to read, and I don’t much care for trends or coddling the audience or even sticking to a particular form, style, or theme from one book to the next. Bob Dylan sang, “To live outside the law you must be honest,” and I guess the same goes for writing outside the box: If you try to do it deliberately or cynically, you’ll fall flat on your face. The best way to write outside the box is not to realize there’s a box in the first place.
6. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?
I approach writing like anything else in life: You show up, you sit down, you do it. It doesn’t impress anyone to be too precious about it…or at least, the people it does impress aren’t people I care about impressing in the first place. I’ve wanted to do this my entire life. I’ve been champing at the bit to write books since I was a child. The question isn’t “How do you write?” The question is, “How did you NOT write all those years?”
I sit down every day and I write. Simple as that. No magic formula. No special coffee shop. No lucky mug of tea at my side. I write at home, at friends’ houses, on trains, in hotel rooms. Boom. Do it. I actually outlined my entire method on my website: http://barrylyga.com/2010/03/writing-advice-43-my-method/.
Revision is interesting. I don’t do a lot of revising, but that’s mostly — I think — because I do so much pre-writing in my head before I sit down to write. Like, right now I’m working on an adult book, but at the same time I’m thinking a lot about the third KILLERS novel. Not actually writing anything, but just thinking about it a lot. So when I sit down a while from now to work on it, I’ll have already thought through the plot and most of the character interactions, and hopefully I’ll have resolved any issues that would have otherwise cropped up in the actual writing. Which means when I put my fingers on the keys, it’s just a matter of the actual physical work of writing because most of the tough stuff has been done already.
As to writer’s block… I am of the opinion that it falls into the category of “precious writer claims.” Douglas Adams once observed that no other occupation is allowed to suffer from “block,” including an amusing image of a brain surgeon looking at a patient on a table and saying, “I just don’t know what to do. I’m not feeling it today.”
Writer’s block isn’t a block — it’s a sign that you’re doing something wrong. “Being blocked” usually means one of two things: 1) you’re working on a story you’re not wholly invested in, or 2) you’ve somehow gone astray earlier in your project and it’s led you to an impasse. If the first, then suck it up, admit you don’t care about your project, and move on to something else. If the second, then back up to the last place in your project where things were going well, delete everything that comes after, and strike off in a new direction from there.
Anything else is just whining.
Sorry, Again, I’ve wanted to do this my entire life. I have no sympathy for folks who claim they ‘want’ to write but ‘can’t.’
7. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?
My response to criticism is to curl up in a ball on the floor and plot my death at my own hand. I wish I were kidding. When I get an editorial letter from my editor, it takes me a week even to OPEN the damn thing. So, I have nothing useful to impart in that regard! My agent keeps saying, “You have to learn how to deal with this!” And I keep saying, “The whole living-in-denial thing has worked so far. Why change it?” The funny thing is, my editorial letters are usually pretty benign. I just hate knowing that I’ve written something imperfect. Drives me crazy. Makes me feel all kinds of Catholic/Jewish guilt. Don’t be like me, kids — learn how to deal.
I get a lot of great feedback from my early readers, and I really appreciate it. They help me find little niggling details that are off, as well as plot holes. Very valuable. I still hate each and every one of them for showing me the flaws in my work, but they’re all good people. 😉
8. We are all looking for agents, and you have a great one! Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the YA publishing world? How do you find (and get!) a great YA agent?
My advice is simple and two-fold: Write a great book. Get a good agent. So many writers trying to break in are looking for some sort of magic formula, some special combination of words, sentence length, and cover letter font that will open the gates to the Land of Publishing. But it’s really all about the work. Stop stressing over the paper stock for your manuscript and the typefaces in your e-mails and just write a great book. A GREAT book. Not a “good enough” book. Not a “better than that crap on the bookshelves right now” book. A fucking GREAT book.
The story of how I met my agent is so larded with coincidence, serendipity, and stupid luck that it won’t help anyone. Except… That’s sort of the point. Again, there’s no magic formula for landing an agent. Do your research. Go to writing conferences. Meet people. Don’t just jump on the first agent who says “yes” — make sure he or she is a good fit for you. As soon as you sell your first book, you are financially connected to this person for the rest of your life.
9. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
I could toss out a long, long list of people, but truthfully, my primary inspiration is Bruce Springsteen. I don’t know how to play an instrument and I can’t sing worth a damn, so I write instead. 🙂
10. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
I feel like Stephen King’s “On Writing” is the de rigueur recommendation. Who am I to buck the trend? It’s a great book — read it. I also recommend “Fortune & Glory” by Brian Michael Bendis, a graphic novel that offers a hilarious and unvarnished look at Hollywood. Because let’s face it — every writer thinks his book is going to be a movie someday. And if I can plug my own website: my Writing Advice blog series contains everything I know about writing, in 44 installments. From dialogue and overwriting to the Path to Publication and what a royalty statement contains, this is everything I’ve learned, conveniently info-dumped onto the internet. The archive lives at barrylyga.com/writingadvice.