Monday, February 16, 2009

20 QUESTIONS WITH BARRY LYGA

I first met Barry Lyga in the offices of Diamond Comic Distributors. I worked one floor up at Gemstone Publishing and pretty quickly had scoped out who were the other creative types that worked there. He was definitely top of the list.

In describing his personal projects, the stuff he did outside of working the marketing department, he frequently used the word “re-writing.” Frequently enough to make one think he was being paid per use. As it turned out, he was just fanatically dedicated to his craft, and he was always writing something.

The finished product of some of his early comics work – Warrior Nun Areala from Antarctic Press – doesn’t show half the conceptual or story work that Mr. Lyga put into it, but behind the scenes it was immediately apparent to those who watched the level of effort he put forth for the project.

He created the back story or play concept for an ill-fated toy line called Lazer Wars and we produced the comic book and promotional copy for the packaging together. If they were half as neat as we expected, we’d still be working on it.

As the years passed, he mostly drifted from comic books as something he wanted to write (he was a nearly lifelong fan) to his original love, novels. He started writing and re-writing like crazy, or so it seemed, and he wasn’t afraid to switch between genres.

Then the day came when he said he was going to quit. He had been instrumental in setting up Diamond's side of Free Comic Book Day, but now he had enough money to write for a year, or so he thought. He had been attending writers’ conferences, had some good leads, and was ready to give it the make-it or break-it roll of the dice.

Something like two months later he had an agent and a two-book contract, and he was well on the way to the critical applause that greeted his first book, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, which asks and answers the question, "What happens when a 15-year-old comic book geek meets the girl of his nightmares?"

Steeped in the world of an aspiring creator who is a huge fan of real-world comic creator Brian Michael Bendis (who actually appears in the book), the novel hit big in the Young Adults category. USA Today called it "an entertaining read no matter what age you are," and Booklist and School Library Journal both gave it starred reviews.

His next novel was Boy Toy, which dealt with the depressingly common phenomenon of teachers involved in relationships with their underage students.

“Lyga's Boy Toy is a story that everyone thinks they understand: Teacher Has Affair With Student. However, this book guides readers beyond sensationalism and straight into empathy, challenging expectations and assumptions on every page. Lyga's prose is unflinching and the result is heartbreaking and unforgettable,” said the CYBILS, the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards, which gave him the win in their Young Adult Novels category.

His third novel, Hero-Type, featured a central character who took a controversial stand for uncertain reasons and managed to walk the fine line between making a point and slam-advocating that same point.

All three novels, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, Boy Toy, and Hero-Type, are all set in the same town and around the same school, but they aren’t really otherwise related. In comic book terms, they’re set in the same universe.

In the “just released” category, he has “The Mating Habits of Whales," a short story in the anthology Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?, a comic book story, with art by Jeff Dillon, whose work was to represent the central character’s comic art in Fanboy but didn’t survive the final edits. Beyond that, this summer he has “The Truth About Dino Girl,” a short story in the anthology Geektastic, and this fall he has Goth Girl Rising, the sequel to his first book

Next up, though, is Wolverine: Worst Day Ever, an all-ages illustrated novel from Marvel Comics told through the eyes of a new student at Professor Xavier’s school.

First, though, we hit Barry Lyga with the 20 Questions:

JCV: What compels you to create?
Barry Lyga: I'm not sure! I wish I could give you some metaphysical answer like, "A desire to understand the universe" or even a mercenary answer like, "The money." But I'm not consciously aware of any particular reason why I do this - I've just always created stories and characters, as far back as I can remember.

JCV: What was the first story you can remember coming up with or actually writing down?
Barry Lyga: As a child in elementary school, I had to do one of those assignments where you write a story using all of the week's spelling words. We were focusing on the "ch" and "tch" sorts of words, so I ended up with a story about a witch who stole my watch and ran to hide in a ranch. That sort of thing. I remember this story very distinctly because it was also my first experience with dealing with criticism - my teacher loved the story, but pointed out that I left out one of the words. She didn't really care, apparently, because the story was sort of advanced for second grade, but I was so mortified that I refused to share it with anyone.

JCV: When did you know that you wanted to pursue writing as your career?
Barry Lyga: God, forever! I distinctly remember telling people I wanted to be a writer when I was as young as eight or nine. I don't think I really had a full understanding of what exactly "being a writer" entailed, but that's what I wanted.

JCV: What type of education did you have? Did you have any particular formal focus on writing or was that something you picked up in addition to other studies?
Barry Lyga: I took some creative writing classes in college, but with one exception, they didn't really impact me. The exception is a class I took in my sophomore year, taught by the one and only Tom Perrotta. Tom was the first person in authority to tell me that reading comics wasn't necessarily an indication of serious brain damage and could, in fact, be helpful to me as a writer, even if I didn't write comics themselves.

JCV: As you evaluate it now, did your education lend itself to this pursuit or was it ahindrance to it?
Barry Lyga: I majored in English, but honestly, I don't think that's necessary for a writer. If you can write, you can write. The English degree is nice when I'm feeling pretentious and want to bust out some classical allusions or name-drop Charles Brockden Brown, but it didn't impact the writing to any great degree. It might have hindered me a little bit in that I always felt like I was comparing myself to legendary writers who were and are so much better than I am, but I think everyone goes through that, regardless of what they studied.

JCV: What was your earliest exposure to comic books that you remember?
Barry Lyga: The first comic book cover I can remember is an issue of Superman. On it, Superman is standing on a deserted city street, screaming to the heavens, "Don't let it be true! I can't be the last man on Earth!" Man, when you're a kid, how can you not read that?

JCV: How did your tastes in reading, including comics, change as you got older?
Barry Lyga: As a kid, I read sci-fi and fantasy almost exclusively, with the occasional mystery thrown in. As I got older, I became more interested in the real world, and then how the real world intersects with magic and speculative notions of science and the future and all that. I like magical realism, metafiction, stuff like that. But it has to be grounded. That's the big thing for me: A story has to be grounded in the real world. I can appreciate the artistry of, say, a science fiction story told entirely from an alien perspective, but ultimately it will feel flat to me. That's not a value judgment - it's a totally subjective opinion.

JCV: Whose writing grabbed your attention and hasn't let go?
Barry Lyga: I can still read old Paul Levitz and Alan Moore comics from the eighties and feel like I'm a kid again. Joe Haldeman's work is amazing. John Barth is a hero of mine. And I will always read anything by Tom Perrotta, who only gets better with each book.

JCV: What is your regular work routine, if you have such a thing?
Barry Lyga: Usually it runs like this: Wake up. Eat breakfast while scanning e-mail and some news sites. Write for a few hours. Exercise. Eat lunch. Then, depending on how the work is going, I either go back to work or I read or do research. I typically write something like 3,000 words a day (about 10-12 pages). I've gone more when I'm really in the thick of things.

JCV: Do like distractions while you work, such as radio or TV, or do you prefer quiet?
Barry Lyga: Definitely no TV. No way, no how. Some days I need to blast some music from iTunes, while other days I need it quiet. I haven't found any sort of pattern to it. It's pretty much a whim.

JCV: When you're going to work on a new novel, what do you have to know to start? Do you have to know the ending, the tone you want, the full outline, something else?
Barry Lyga: Before I start, I need to know: The main character. The overall tone. The beginning. The ending. That's not to say that some of this stuff won't change as I work. In Boy Toy, for example, I got about halfway through and suddenly realized that I had gotten off-track and wouldn't be able to hit the original ending. I had to make a decision: Backtrack and fix things? Or keep going and see where I end up? I chose the latter and I'm really glad I did because I think the new ending was better than the original.I rarely outline. More accurately, I rarely do any sort of formal outline. I always have a vague, shifting, amorphous sort of plan tucked away in my brain. Sometimes I consult it, sometimes I don't.

JCV: You are among the most diligent re-writers I know. To get to that stage, when you're ripping whole chunks out of a finished project, how much do you have trust your abilities to do something different instead of just tweaking what you already have?
Barry Lyga: I think it's gotten easier to trust because I work with that ubiquitous safety net we call a computer. When you can save every iteration of your novel, it's less sweat-inducing to chop out big chunks of it. You can always go back and grab them if you want them. So the question becomes less, "Do I dare try this new draft?" and more, "Is it really worth my time to try this new draft?" Because, really, there are infinite variations on almost every story - the trick is to narrow yourself to one option and exploit it as best you can. You can waste endless amounts of time dicking around with this variation or that variation, so you need to have a clear sense of your story going in so that you don't get sidetracked into pointless tangents.

JCV: How did you develop your eye to do that?
Barry Lyga: This is actually a really difficult question for me because I've noticed that this tends to be an all-or-nothing proposition. For my first two books, I did very little in the way of rewriting. For Boy Toy, I had to cut some big chunks out of the book (the original manuscript was really long), but I didn't think of that as rewriting so much as trimming. For my third book, I did all kinds of rewriting, more than for any other book to that point. Fourth book was a breeze again. Fifth book just gushed out of me. But I'm working on a new book right now where I have - no lie - written this thing four different times. Once entirely from scratch!

So I guess the answer is: Sometimes you can tell that something just isn't working. And sometimes you have to be told. On the book I'm (re)writing right now, I gave a draft to four different readers. One of them loved it. One of them thought it was a great improvement over the earlier draft. One of them was bored by it and thought it needed a lot of work. And the fourth hated it so much that she couldn't even articulate why in any coherent fashion! So what the hell do you do with that? An even split, with extreme reactions on either end. Ultimately, that was gut-check time, and even though it would have been easy to say, "Hey, this person over here loved it, so it can't be objectively bad," I had to admit that the book just wasn't ready. And so, I'm rewriting it. Again.

JCV: What's the best way you could recommend to an aspiring or young writer to look at his or her own work with a critical eye?
Barry Lyga: In my experience, you develop a critical eye for your own work by developing a critical eye for the work of others. So, join a critique group and/or find a good critique partner. When you start finding things in other people's work, that's when you'll begin to notice the same things in your own work.

JCV: When did you write your first novel, and how long was it between then and when you actually sold your first published novel?
Barry Lyga: And the award for Most Depressing Question goes to…!

I was in high school when I wrote my first novel, a truly terrible mish-mash of fantasy, science-fiction, and Millennial fears. I didn't sell my first published novel until I had been out of high school for around fifteen years. That's a long time to wait.

JCV: There's actually a method to my madness sometimes. The reason I asked about how long between your first novel and the first one you sold is so I could ask this question in context: What made you keep after it? What is it in you that made keep going when I lot of talented people, including folks both of us know, just gave up their dreams?
Barry Lyga: I wish I knew. The first answer that comes to mind is, "Stubborn idiocy." I mean, for a very long stretch of time, there was just no reason to keep going. No one was publishing me. No one was even saying nice things about my work. I don't know what kept me going during those years. But I held on long enough that eventually little things started to click, and those little things were enough to make me hang in there a little bit longer.

JCV: Your work at Diamond Comic Distributors could seem to be almost painfully close to what you really wanted to do in that it put you right up against the window looking in but didn't put you inside to do the writing. Was it, in fact, a double-edged sword, and regardless of that what did it teach you?
Barry Lyga: You characterize it well: Up against the window, looking in, but never allowed to open that window and go in. Very frustrating. On the other hand, it also opened me up to a lot of opportunities - I met some cool people and I learned about publishing and marketing in a way that gave me some helpful perspective on the business. I don't really dwell on it that much, to be honest.

JCV: When you got to that point when you rolled the dice, quit your job and decided to go for it as a writer, did you have a time limit in mind? What would you have done if you hadn't succeeded at that time?
Barry Lyga: I seem to recall planning things out where I had enough of a cushion that I could spend a year on my writing before I would have to panic. The plan was to do some freelance editing to try to keep the wolf from the door. But I realized very early on that my calculations were off and I only had six months in that cushion!I was very lucky, though - within two months of quitting my job, my agent sold my first book, so I never had to consider alternate scenarios.

JCV: In the conversations we've had since Fanboy was published and in the interviews with you that I've read, you're very even-handed about the whole Hollywood thing. What's your relationship with the film world been like and when, if ever, do you think we'll really see one of your books made into a film?
Barry Lyga: I look at Hollywood this way: I write books, not movies. If someone wants to make a movie out of one of my books, that's very flattering, but it's going to have to be the right person, with the right attitude. I don't allow myself to let Hollywood become a part of me or my lifestyle. I never put myself in a position where I'm counting on Hollywood for a paycheck. That's the only way to stay sane. I write books. The movies - if they happen at all - are gravy.So we've optioned one of the books and we're close on a second one, and in each case I picked guys who may have small budgets, but they have the right attitudes and the right respect for the material. But you know how it is: A lot of stuff gets optioned, but of the stuff that's optioned, not a lot gets made. So we'll see if either of these end up on a screen somewhere. If they don't, I'm fine with that, too.

JCV: You know I have to ask. You're well-known to your friends as a DC Comics fan, particularly the Legion of Super-Heroes. Now I know - and I'm sure your regular readers have already figured out - that you're not going to do anything unless you can kick ass, but how the heck did you end up writing Wolverine: Worst Day Ever?
Barry Lyga: I am sort of the last guy in the world you would expect to be writing Wolverine, especially when you look at the very non-super-hero-y books I've published.

It just happened. A perfect confluence of events, really. I was sort of between projects - I had finished my edits on Goth Girl Rising and I was waiting for my beta readers to finish commenting on my next project. So I was just enjoying some time off when I got an e-mail from Marvel asking me to write Wolverine.

And my first response was, "Are you sure?" But then they told me what they wanted the book to look like, the tone they wanted it to have, and what they wanted to accomplish with it. And suddenly I could see the whole book in front of me. I could see how I could do this, and I had the time to do it.I just had a blast with it.

It was so much fun to write it, and even though I wrote it aiming at a specific age group, I really think it's one of those books that earns the label of "all ages." Kids will like it, and I think their parents will like it, and I think old fanboys like you and me will dig it, too.

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