Monday, January 07, 2008
Interview with Barry Lyga
Today's interview is with Barry Lyga the author of Boy Toy and The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. Boy Toy has just been announced as one of the finalists in the Cybils in the YA category. You can read my review of Boy Toy here. You can read my review of Fanboy and Goth Girl here. His official site is here. The announcement about the Cybils is here.
What inspired you to write Boy Toy? (Or how did this novel come to be…)
The book began with a fascination with the spate of teacher/student sex scandals in the media, specifically the subset of those relationships that revolve around older female teachers and teenage boys. These are the ones that seem to get the most media attention, most likely for two reasons: 1) there’s a social hypocrisy that makes it more acceptable for a young male to have a sexual relationship than a young female, and 2) so many of the teachers in question are young and attractive.
That was the case in the school system where I grew up — a few years ago, a stunning, married young teacher was arrested after months of having drunken orgies with her underage students. Reactions, predictably, ran from outraged to “why weren’t there teachers like her around when I was a kid?”
The more engrossed I became in the case, the more I started to branch out and investigate more and more of them. There were common patterns and I became fascinated by the psychology of the women who throw away their marriages, their careers, and their lives, all to satisfy the pull of a taboo sexual thrill.
I realized that I had to do something with this weird obsession I’d developed, and for years I planned to write about it. And then I realized: We never hear from the kids. We never know their names, even, because they’re minors and they’re protected. So we never know what THEY think about it all. I decided I wanted to give a voice to one of them.
How long did it take to write it and see it through to the finished product?
Depends on how you count. I mean, I’d been THINKING about writing a book like this for about five years. But from the time I actually sat down to write to when I turned in my first draft was only about seven weeks.
That sounds really short, but it was an INTENSE seven weeks. By the time I was finished, I was a wreck. I was physically and emotionally exhausted.
From there, it was another month or so of revisions.
Is there anything you’d like to tell kids/teens going through such emotionally turbulent times?
God, yes — tell someone. Tell your parents. If your parents are the ones doing it, tell a teacher. If a teacher’s doing it, tell your parents. If your parents AND your teacher are doing it, tell a cop or call the district attorney’s office. Tell someone.
Shortly after the book came out, I got an e-mail from a girl who’d been molested by her teacher. She wrote to tell me that she had told people and they hadn’t believed her. That just killed me. I told her she still did the right thing and that someday people WOULD believe her. You have to tell someone. These people only have their power in secret.
What do you hope readers gain from reading Boy Toy?
Well, I’m not trying to change the world. You write to entertain people, to make them think a little, to give them a glimpse into someone else’s life. Maybe it’s a glimpse that’s somehow applicable to their own lives. That would be best — if reading the book helps someone understand their own problems or the problems of a loved one just a little bit better.
I got another e-mail from a girl who described herself as the “Rachel” in a relationship — she was in love with a guy who had been molested and after reading the book, she found that she was able to empathize with him and understand him much better. That’s an unintended side effect, but it makes me feel ten feet tall.
The book opens—quite effectively in my opinion—with a Top Ten list. Our narrator, Josh’s list of “Ten Things I Learned At the Age of Twelve.” Was this an easy decision? Did you know how or where to start to hook the reader? As I said, I think this works great…
Thanks! I wanted to tell people what this book was about right up front. I didn’t want to pretend. If the idea of a twelve year old having sex is beyond your comfort zone, then you can’t say I didn’t warn you from page one. I also felt like it was a good hook. I figured that if you got to the tenth item on the list and decided not to keep reading, I probably wasn’t going to keep you as a reader anyway. That opening was the first thing I thought of for the book — I carried it around in my head for a year or so before I actually sat down to write.
The story is not told chronologically. It’s told in bits and pieces as Josh struggles to come to terms with it, to open himself up—make himself vulnerable—with someone else. So much of this story was intense. Was it intense to write as well? Did you ever struggle with the characters and the scenes?
Yeah, it was very intense. I mean, that’s why I felt so drained when I was finished. I didn’t realize how intense it was until I was finished, at which point I sort of slumped in my chair and said, “God, I need a vacation!”
It was creepy for me because even though the story is from Josh’s point of view, Eve’s the one in control during the abuse. So every morning for about two months — every single morning — I would wake up and my first thought would be, “Hmm, how would I go about seducing a twelve year old boy?”
Did you know from the very beginning that Josh would need to confront his abuser? I think that is one of the most powerful scenes in the book, by the way. One where he really sees his abuser as the person she is—not the person he imagined her to be all along. Was it difficult to get inside her head, to understand her, to bring her to life?
Well, when I first envisioned it, the book had a completely different ending, but in every ending scenario I imagined, Josh had to have some sort of meeting with Eve. I mean, how could he not? I think it would be a cheat NOT to have Josh go to see her.
It was scarily easy to get into Eve’s head. Like I said before, she was in control, so I had to think like her a lot. A few years back, I did a ride-along with a cop friend who was in charge of the child abuse unit in Baltimore. At the time, I was going to help him write a book about his experiences. That never came to be, but from that night and from hours of talking to him about pedophiles, I came away with some good chunks of insight into them.
If Josh were to have a theme song, what would it be?
That’s actually a really tough one to answer in good taste! Umm… How about “Iron Man?” No? Probably “Growin’ Up” by Bruce Springsteen, but honestly, that could be used for just about any of my characters.
What was your first impression of the cover art for Boy Toy?
Absolutely loved it. I had said from the very beginning that I thought that the best cover for this book would be to let the title do the talking, just make those two words as big as possible. Jon did a terrific job. My agent says it looks European — it makes her think of sexy Italian shoes. I like that.
What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?
I love those moments where you almost lose track of where you are — say you’re at the beginning of the story and as you’re writing, you suddenly realize how something you JUST WROTE is going to play out at the end. That’s a great feeling, when you’re just tooling along and suddenly you can see the whole map of the story spread out before you.
The easiest part is the idea. The hardest part is figuring out which ideas are the good ones.
Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress? Do you have any upcoming releases?
Sure. My next book is titled Hero-Type. Like the first two, it takes place at South Brook High School, set about a week before the opening of Boy Toy. For fans of the first two books, both Kyra and Josh are name-dropped. It’s about a kid who’s in the right place at the right time and is called a hero. Then he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and suddenly he’s a villain. And he has to decide which is his true nature. It should be out next fall.
I’m working on the fourth book, but it’s way too early to talk about it.
Are you excited that your novel, Boy Toy, has been nominated for a Cybil award?
Does award-season (best of lists, awards, etc.) make you nervous or excited as a writer?
Not to be a smart-ass, but how about...“none of the above?” I really, really try my best not to get excited about awards and lists and the like. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I think it’s possible to get too caught up in it all, to lose sight of the work itself, of the reasons I started doing this in the first place. I didn’t start to write because I wanted an award or my name on a list — I did it to tell the stories.
If someone wants to put me on a list, that’s terrific — I’m thrilled by it. Honestly. If someone wants to give me an award, I will be honored and humbled by it. But I can’t let myself think about or stress about it in advance.
It’s not that I don’t care about these things. I just don’t get worked up about them. I don’t get nervous OR excited. They’re out of my control anyway.
Growing up, whose work did you admire most? Was there a particular author that made you say, “I want to grow up and do that!”?
Oh, that’s such a tough question for me because of course I want to lie and give you all kinds of literary names, but the fact of the matter is that I was a comic book kid. So Paul Levitz was the first writer whose work I read where I realized, “Hey, wait a minute! An actual person wrote this! Maybe I could do that someday.”
But probably the single biggest influence on me was Bruce Springsteen. I have zero musical talent, so I gave up on my quest to become the world’s greatest singer/songwriter and figured I would write instead. His music had an enormous influence on me, in terms of what a story is and how you tell it.
How do you find time—do you find time—to keep reading? Do you have any favorites of the year?
Oh, sure. I have a running competition with my friend Robin Brande to see who can read the most books in any given year, so I have to keep up. Favorites for this year would have to be Robin’s debut, Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature, as well as Sarah Aronson’s brilliant Head Case.
Oh, and The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta is just flat-out brilliant.
This one is for both you as a reader and an author. Do you write fan letters (or emails) to authors you admire? And have you received any fan letters from readers?
When I was a kid, I used to write fan letters to Paul Levitz all the time. He even printed some of them in his comics. I was shocked when I met him years later and he still remembered my name! More recently, yeah, sure — when I read something that strikes me, I drop a line to the writer. But most often, I just wait until I see that person at a conference and tell ‘em in person!
I’ve gotten a lot of fan letters. It’s terrific. I mentioned before some of the tough ones I’ve gotten recently, from kids who’ve been abused, but even those are gratifying because you see that you’ve helped someone. I’ve also gotten some great fan letters from parents and grandparents, who’ve told me they read my first book with their kids or grandkids and it helped them make a connection or discuss an issue. I think that’s cool.
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
Oh, boy. I’m such a practical guy… I would probably take that limitless supply of money and pay a bunch of historians and economists to figure out the one event in history that — when changed — would result in the maximum benefit to humankind. And then go change that event.
Because here’s the thing — if you have a time machine, a twenty-four limit is really no limit at all, right? :)