Barry Lyga has published eleven novels in various genres in his seven-year career, including the New York Times bestselling I Hunt Killers. His books have been or are slated to be published in a dozen different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia.
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. Publishers 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 .
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 first book landed on both the New York Times and USAToday bestsellers lists, and the series has been optioned for television by Warner Bros./Silver Pictures.
Lyga lives and writes in New York City. His comic book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but is still way too big.
Barry Lyga Interview
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Books by Barry Lyga
Barry Lyga Transcript
Tim Knox: Hi everyone! Welcome in to Interviewing Authors. Barry Lyga is my guest today. Barry is quite a prolific young man. He’s published eleven novels in various genres in his seven-year career, including the New York Times bestseller I Hunt Killers and the new sequel coming out this week called Blood of My Blood.
Barry’s a very interesting character. After graduating from Yale with a degree in English he worked in the comic book industry for awhile before quitting to pursue his lifelong dream of writing.
In 2006, his first young adult novel, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, was published to rave reviews and his second young adult novel, Boy Toy, met with the same critical acclaim.
Barry is not your run-of-the-mill Young Adult author. He pushes the envelope, but he knows when to stop and he knows when to start and he respects his audience greatly.
Since then, he has also written Goth Girl Rising, the secret to the Fan Boy book, as well as the Archvillain series for middle-grade readers and the graphic novel Mangaman with the wonderful artist Colleen Doran
As mentioned earlier, his new book, Blood of My Blood comes out this week. It is the sequel to I Hunt Killers and what a great, great book: the son of a serial killer having to track down his own dad because he just won’t stop.
A great interview with Barry. If you’re interested in writing in the Young Adult genre this is an interview you don’t want to miss.
Barry talks a lot about his audience, how he writes, about his entire process.
It’s an all around great interview regardless of genre, so I’m going to shut up and bring on Barry Lyga on today’s Interviewing Authors.
Tim Knox: Barry, welcome to the program.
Barry Lyga: It’s great to be here, Tim. Thanks for having me.
Tim Knox: Great having you here. We have a lot to talk about. I started reading your books and I just can’t stop. It’s good to have you on the show. Before we get started, if you will, just give the audience a little background on you.
Barry Lyga: I published my first book eight years ago, which makes me feel incredibly old and it doesn’t feel like it’s been eight years but somehow it’s been eight years. I published that book, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl back in 2006 and we sold that book in 2005. I guess somehow I’ve managed to do this for a living for nine years, which is about nine years longer than most people would have put money on, so that’s a pretty good feeling.
Tim Knox: You showed them, didn’t you?
Barry Lyga: Yeah I did.
Tim Knox: If you don’t mind, let’s go back to the beginning. Were you always a writer when you were younger?
Barry Lyga: Yeah. I was always a writer and usually something else. I have a memory of being really young, maybe seven years old, maybe eight years old and telling my grandmother that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up and she was this great old Jewish lady. She looked at me and said, “Oh that’s nice; you want to starve.” She didn’t mean it but it was that sarcastic tone that kids don’t have the filters for yet. When you’re a kid you take it seriously and I really thought that I would starve as a writer.
I spent a lot of my childhood figuring out ways not to starve and still be a writer and I spent a lot of time thinking maybe I can be a teacher and write on the side, or a lawyer and write on the side. I spent a lot of time thinking about stuff like that and it probably wasn’t until even my 20’s that I finally went no, no, no, I’ve got to just do this. It didn’t click right away. It still took quite a while but that was the point where I was like, okay, anything else I’m doing that isn’t writing is just marking time until the writing kicks in.
Tim Knox: So in spite of grandma’s warning. When you were younger what sort of things did you write and were you a big reader?
Barry Lyga: Oh I was a huge reader. I think I’m the only child in history… I don’t have documentation to prove this but I might be the only child in history whose mother said, “Stop reading that book and go play outside.” A lot of parents these days are like, “How do we get kids to read? How do we get boys to read?” My mother was like, “How do I get this kid to stop reading?” I used to read constantly.
Yeah, I wrote. I mean I wrote a lot of short stories when I was younger. They were terrible. I wrote a novel when I was in high school and that too was absolutely terrible. Then just as time went on you keep doing it and you get better and better. I keep telling people if you’re going to be a writer realize that in the beginning you’re going to suck and that’s okay. It’s alright to suck. It’s not a bad thing at all. It just means you haven’t gotten there yet.
Especially when you can recognize, “Oh I wrote this thing six months ago and I thought it was great but now I look at it and I realize it sucks.” That means you’ve made some progress in those six months, right, because six months ago you thought it was great but now you think it sucks. You’ve gotten better in those six months. I always say go for it. Just write stuff and don’t worry about how good it is. Write it, look at it later and learn how bad it is and get better from there.
Tim Knox: It’s kind of funny. I’ve probably interviewed close to 100 writers now and every one of them, including you, probably has a drawer somewhere with all of those early works that will never see the light of day.
Barry Lyga: It’s not a drawer for me. It’s a folder on my hard drive. All of this stuff was hard copy for a long, long, long time and then I got tired. I was moving once a year for a while there and it got to be a pain in the ass to pack this stuff into big boxes and schlep it from one town to another, from one apartment to another. So I finally just scanned it all in and then shredded the evidence. So yeah, there’s a folder on my hard drive that hopefully no one will ever open because it will be embarrassing let me tell you.
Tim Knox: Someday I’d like to do an anthology of all these stories, all these really successful authors with all their crappy first stories. I think it’d sell a million.
Barry Lyga: That’s a great idea. You should do that and when you do that, don’t remember to call me.
Tim Knox: I’m still looking for that first author who will actually participate.
Barry Lyga: Yeah find the first person who’s confident enough and self-reliant enough that they’ll let you do that.
Tim Knox: Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you actually thought was really good?
Barry Lyga: Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting. When I was in about 2nd grade, maybe 3rd grade, I wrote a letter to DC Comics. I was a big comic book kid. I wrote a letter to DC Comics proposing a story to them that they should publish. Obviously I wanted to be the one to write it. That’s cheating a little bit. It wasn’t an actual story I wrote; it was more a pitch for a story but that’s the first thing that I can remember doing where I thought this is the best idea ever.
Then I do remember in 4th grade – I don’t know why I remember it was 4th grade – I started writing a novel, a terrible, terrible science fiction novel that somehow involved a descendent of Thomas Edison, who was an evil villain in the future. I think I got about five pages into it before I realized it was a good idea if you knew what your story was before you started writing it. Yeah, that was the first time I wrote something that I thought would actually have a structure to it.
Tim Knox: So you’re in the 4th grade writing novels.
Barry Lyga: Well trying.
Tim Knox: Most 4th graders don’t know what a novel is.
Barry Lyga: Yeah I think I probably don’t know either because I didn’t get very far. I do remember it was my ambition to create a book, something that was like those things on my bookcase that I read every day.
The first thing that I wrote that I thought, yeah this is good and somebody would pay money for this was a short story that I sent of Asimov Science Fiction when I was about 12 I guess. I sent it off to them and I got a rejection letter and I remember being baffled by the rejection letter because I didn’t understand that there was such a thing as rejection.
I was a kid. I thought this is how it works. You write a story, you send it to somebody and they publish it. So when I got the rejection letter I was really mystified. It was just a form letter. That’s all it was, just a form letter. There was a part of me that wanted to write back to them and explain that they’d made some sort of mistake, that they sent me this strange letter for some reason and instead they were supposed to publish my story. I very quickly was disabused of those notions.
Tim Knox: I love that. Did you ever hear back from DC Comics by the way?
Barry Lyga: About that story? No. They did however reject many, many other stories over the years.
Tim Knox: Well what did they know?
Barry Lyga: Yeah, what did they know?
Tim Knox: So you went on and graduated from Yale with a degree in English. Was that because you wanted to be a writer? Was that just the path you were going down?
Barry Lyga: You know, when I went to Yale I was still in that ‘I have to be a writer but I have to be something else’ mode so I was going to be a lawyer. So I went there and I started out and I was going to do pre-law. Then as time went on, beginning of sophomore year I thought I’m really miserable taking all these other classes and I really enjoy my English classes and what I really want to be is a writer and that’s what I should do.
The English classes, I always want to make sure that people understand. You don’t have to go to college and major in English in order to be a writer. You don’t have to go to college at all to be a writer. You just have to be able to write really, really well.
I took the English classes because I liked them; I enjoyed them. They were fun and they fed my imagination and they made me think about writing in different ways and they were excused to read and excuses to write. But I don’t think that it was necessary to do that.
Tim Knox: Do you think that what you learned there though, going through all those English courses made you a better writer in the end?
Barry Lyga: Sure, sure. I also think if I’d majored in history I probably would have been a better writer. I would have just been a different writer. If I’d majored in physics I would have been a very different sort of writer.
Somebody once said, a comic book writer named Jim Shooter said you should just read anything you can get your hands on. You should read a book about the life and death of a blade of grass. Anything you read is going to feed your imagination and change the way you think and add grist for that mill that we all have in our brains.
I’m an English nerd. I love Paradise Lost. I read it over and over again. That’s just my particular urge to do that stuff. I like to imagine that I would have been just as good a writer if I had done something else.
Tim Knox: One thing that I always find interesting. I cannot tell you how many authors that I have interviewed that either were in school to become lawyers or became lawyers and then became authors. I don’t know if there’s some kind of correlation there between the creative mind and the law or what.
Barry Lyga: I don’t know. It’s funny because I have a very good friend. We both signed our first book deals right around the same time and we were both struggling at the same time. She was a lawyer for many, many, many years and she hated it and she quit to write.
She said to me most lawyers want to be writers and I never thought about it from the other way, the other side of the equation. I always thought of it as lawyers don’t like lawyers and they end up being writers but I never thought, what is it that attracts all these proto-writers to being lawyers in the first place? I have no idea but that’s an interesting question.
Tim Knox: There needs to be some kind of Freakanomics answer to it. I think they’re former lawyers.
Barry Lyga: They probably are.
Tim Knox: When you were going to Yale did you continue to write?
Barry Lyga: Yeah, yeah I worked on a bunch of things at Yale. I worked on an idea for a comic book series with a friend of mine who’s an artist and we produced reams of paper on that project and it just went nowhere. That’s really too bad because we put so much work into it.
I also worked on short stories. I started a couple of novels. I started one sort of big, ambitious novel that I had been wanting to do for years. I sort of got in my head, well I’m an English major at Yale. I should be writing a big, important novel. I started to write this thing and then I sort of petered out.
It’s funny because years later it has metamorphosed into this new project I’ve got that’s this crazy book. People who read my blog will know. I refer to it as the book that will kill me because it’s about 1,000 pages long and it’s very complicated and strange, and if the complexity of it doesn’t drive me to a stroke then someday when it’s printed out I’ll drop it on my head and kill myself with it. It’s very strange how that has sort of come back to me in a very different shape now because I’m much older and hopefully a wee bit wiser.
But yeah, I was working on stuff the whole time I was at Yale.
Tim Knox: You mentioned earlier that you had submitted a story to DC. At some point, was it after college that you actually went into the comic book industry?
Barry Lyga: Yeah after college I went into the comic book business. I worked for a company called Diamond, which is a wholesaler of comics. So I was sort of working in the middle man of comics. I worked in marketing for them. I was the only person in the comic book industry whose job description had the words ‘promote comic books’ in it. You know, if you worked for DC you would promote DC comics. If you worked for Marvel you’d promote Marvel comics. My job was to promote just comic books in general and I had some fun with it.
There’s an event that still goes on to this day called Free Comic Day, which is the first Saturday in May every year where they give away millions of comics around the world to people. That was something I started when I was at Diamond and it’s grown and gotten bigger and bigger. It’s kind of cool to see that’s still around.
Tim Knox: That’s very cool. So you were working on the marketing side of it. Were you dying to get in the creative side of it though?
Barry Lyga: Yeah and it’s funny because I really thought that since I was in the industry it wouldn’t be difficult to break in on the creative side. Comic books are really regimented and segmented and it really is a difficult field to break into creatively as a writer. If you’re an artist it’s much easier because they can just glace at your artwork and decide yeah we like this person or no we don’t, whereas a script is more difficult to read and try to imagine what it looks like.
I did do some comic book writing in the ‘90s. I wrote some really terrible, terrible comic books for a small publisher and what I realized in doing that was that I loved comic book characters dearly and I loved the medium dearly but I am not a comic book writer for the most part. It’s actually very difficult for me because I’m very wordy, as you can tell from this answer. It’s very difficult for me to sort of let the pictures do the talking, which is what you should do in a comic book.
So that was what sort of drove me back to writing novels again. I think that’s where my strength lays and sure enough I got back to that and within a matter of a few years I had interest in a book that I ended up publishing.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little bit about that. Was that book Fanboy?
Barry Lyga: Yeah The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl.
Tim Knox: What a great title.
Barry Lyga: If I’d known that that was going to be the title and I would be saying it on a regular basis for nine years I would have titled it something shorter.
Tim Knox: That’s why I said ‘Fanboy’.
Barry Lyga: Yeah that’s what I do half the time.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk about the genesis of that book because it really was critically acclaimed and put Barry on the map. Talk a little about the idea for that book and how it came to be.
Barry Lyga: That was the third novel that I wrote in my sort of second coming as a novelist after I had decided not to do comic books anymore and that I wanted to do novels again. I first wrote a very sort of quirky science fiction novel and then I wrote a really bizarre Western horror novel.
Then after that what happened was I was in a writing group at the time and they were looking at the sci-fi novel in particular and a little bit of the Western novel and they said to me, “How old are these characters? You never say but how old are they?” I said, “Oh they’re in their mid-20s.” I was in my 20’s at the time. They said, “They sound more like teenagers. They sort of act like teenagers. You should write young adult; you should try young adult novels.
I’m old enough that I remember when young adult meant books for idiots. There was a time when young adult did not have the cachet it has now, when young adult was tripe and moralizing and badly written. There were exceptions. There was Judy Blume for example but young adult was not considered to be good writing when I was growing up.
I sort of balked at this and then I did my research a little bit and read a couple of contemporary young adult novels and I thought, oh, you’re allowed to write good books for teenagers now. that’s cool. And that was when Fanboy/Goth Girl came to me. I thought I can say something about this. I can certainly say something about this. I did not have the most enjoyable teenage years and I thought I can write something interesting that people haven’t seen before and that’s where that book came from.
Tim Knox: So basically you just called on your teenage angst and let it go in your writing.
Barry Lyga: Yeah it was sort of ridiculously autobiographical in a way. My best friend read the book and would call me up and say, “I remember when I said that to you when we were kids. I remember this and I remember that!” That was sort of interesting when people who I had known at that age got a hold of the book and started saying, “Wait I know who that person is and that person and that person.” It was very interesting.
Tim Knox: So when you had that finished manuscript what was your process for getting it to market?
Barry Lyga: Pure dumb luck. I have to be honest with you. I still had that weird horror Western novel that I felt very strongly about it.
Tim Knox: Was it like a cowboy and aliens thing?
Barry Lyga: It was even weirder than that. It was very strange but I felt very strongly about it because I really liked it and I thought the writing was really solid. So I had this plan to go to a fantasy conference where it was a fantasy and science fiction conference and horror. I thought I’d take it there and it might fit in there and I’ll talk to some editors and agents there.
Then pure dumb luck I damaged the major, the ulnar nerve in my left arm and I had to have surgery on it. Long story short is as a result of the surgery I couldn’t go to that conference and a friend of mine said, “Switch your ticket to this other conference that’s happening a few months later. You can go to that instead.” I did that and by that time Fanboy and Goth Girl was looking a little cooler in my eyes and I decided what the hell.
I don’t know how people at this other conference would respond to something weird like this Western so I’ll bring Fanboy and Goth Girl instead and I’ll pitch that to editors and agents. A bunch of editors were excited about it there and a couple of agents, and I ended up signing with my agent. Within five months, something like that, she had made a two book deal for me. It was just stupid luck.
Tim Knox: Isn’t it funny how that happens? If you hadn’t injured your arm you might be fulfilling your grandmother’s prophecy.
Barry Lyga: Yeah I tell people that. I say, who knows, if I’d gone to that conference maybe I’d still be scrabbling in the dirt and then other people say, “But who knows? Maybe that other book might have been a huge success and you might be even better off now.” “Who the hell are you and why are you saying this to me?”
Tim Knox: Have you ever thought of writing a story like that? There are two paths.
Barry Lyga: Yeah, it’s funny you bring that up. The two path idea is such a great theme in literature. I think of a movie like Sliding Doors, for example, or even the last season of Lost where they had the parallel universes. Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t watched Lost.
Also being a comic book kid, I’m such a huge fan of sort of the idea of parallel worlds. Superman looks like this on this world but in this other universe he looks like this because this happened, and I love that sort of stuff.
There’s definitely… I want to find a way to have a different take on it than something I’ve seen before, because I’ve read a lot of stories like that. I’d really love to do something like that someday.
Tim Knox: Yeah I think you could do interesting things, the bizarre Barry Lyga. It could be very interesting. For those that haven’t read the book give us a quick synopsis of Fanboy.
Barry Lyga: I always describe Fanboy and Goth Girl as a 15 year old comic book geek meets the girl of his nightmares. It is this kid, this 15 year old kid who’s really smart and really talents but also really put upon. He’s bullied and made fun of at school and in secret he is creating a graphic novel that he thinks is going to be the greatest thing ever. It’s going to make him rich and famous. It’s going to get him out of the little town he lives in and he’ll be able to laugh at everybody who ever made fun of him.
Then one day he meets this girl and she is just everything he wishes he could be. She is bold and she’s nuts and she says really horrible but really honest things. He sort of gets to a point where you begin to question is she going to drag him into this darker world that she inhabits or is he going to be the one to lift her out of her darker world?
I think that’s probably as much as I should say.
Tim Knox: Do you think the one thing that made the story so good though is the fact that they were kind of really coming from divergent places? I mean they were completely different. The nerd meets the goth girl.
Barry Lyga: Yeah. I haven’t thought of it that way. I think you’ve hit on that though. I think the fact that throwing them together did not result in a sort of sparks fly and they’re in love and they kiss and everything is wonderful. Instead it really resulted in this sort of clash of equals where he sort of comes at her with a lot of tough stuff that he says to her and she gives as good as she gets and more in some cases.
I think the fact that she is his equal and she’s not just looking for a man or a boy to rescue her or to tell her what to do and that she resists him and she pushes back against him, I think that probably had a lot to do with the success of the book.
Tim Knox: Right and she is such a strong character. How do you write for a character like this, especially a female in the YA market? How do you put yourself in her head and come up with her story?
Barry Lyga: The sequel to Fanboy and Goth Girl is called Goth Girl Rising and it’s from her point of view this time. The first book is from his point of view. The second book is from her point of view. Somebody asked me after the second book came out, “Do you have an angsty 16 year old girl living inside you?” The only honest answer is I guess so. It was really rewarding after that sequel came out to get emails from 16 year old girls saying things like, “How do you know that I feel that way? How do you understand that?” One girl said, “You’re a guy and you’re old. I don’t understand how you get it.”
Tim Knox: Thanks.
Barry Lyga: You can’t get angry at somebody for telling the truth. I am a guy and I am old. I think it really is about a couple of things. First of all, it’s about tapping into those sort of common elements that you have. Obviously I’ve never been a 16 year old girl but I have been a 16 year old boy who lacked extreme confidence and was afraid of a lot of things and worried about a lot of things and concerned about what people thought of me. So you can tap into that. You can use that.
I think the other part really, and this is what I say to men in particular when they ask me how to write women, is to pay attention to women. Women are not terribly shy about telling you how the world looks to them. They are very open about telling you exactly what’s wrong with the world from a woman’s perspective, and that’s a very good thing. If you just listen to them you will learn a hell of a lot.
A lot of what Kyra says and does in those two books was just the result of listening to the women in my life talking about the things that bothered them, the way they were treated by men, the way they were treated by other women. Just listening to that stuff and going, “Oh, okay, I understand that. That makes sense to me. I wouldn’t have thought that at first but I get it. I see how that happens.” It’s all around us if you just open yourself to it.
Tim Knox: I don’t know if you remember the movie with Jack Nicholson where he’s the writer of romance novels.
Barry Lyga: My favorite line ever.
Tim Knox: Give it to us.
Barry Lyga: The woman comes up to him and says breathlessly, “I love your books. How do you write such amazing women?” He looks at her and completely deadpan he says, “I think of a man and take away reason and accountability,” and then he just turns and walks away. It is of course offensive but it is hilarious because that’s how he thinks and it’s such insight into his character.
I always hasten to add whenever I use that line with people that it would be just as crass and offensive and just as funny to ask a female writer, “How do you write men so well?” and have her say, “I think of a woman and take away accountability and decency.” It’s just as reductive and it’s just funny because it’s Jack Nicholson saying it and it’s unexpected.
Yeah, I think about that a lot.
Tim Knox: And don’t you wish you had the balls to say that?
Barry Lyga: I have actually said it but only in groups where they know I’m joking.
Tim Knox: Exactly. Women rule the world; we just ride along. So once this book came out talk about how it was received because it really was the first book that got you a lot of attention and really put you on the map.
Barry Lyga: Yeah I was really surprised by the reception. I was humbled by it. One thing I was really surprised by was the female audience for the book because I really felt that that first book was such a look into a teenage boy’s mind, sort of an unvarnished look at what a teenage boy thinks.
I really thought that teenage girls would be turned off by it and that women would be turned off by it. Instead what I found was that girls and women who read the book really responded to it because they said, you know, I’ve always wondered what the hell boys are thinking and now I know and now I understand. That was really eye opening to me that there was such a big female audience for this book.
Tim Knox: So you were just giving them some insight into how boys think.
Barry Lyga: Yeah, a friend of mine read the book shortly after it came out and pulled me aside one day and said, “Dude, you’re not supposed to tell them this stuff,” which I thought was sort of interesting.
Tim Knox: You’re giving away the man code.
Barry Lyga: I know. I’m giving away the man code. I must have opened a vein though. That’s good. I’m glad. So the response was really interesting.
The other thing that was interesting about the response was that everybody expected a sequel right away. Even my editor said, “So your second book’s a sequel right?” and I had decided very early on that I was not going to write a sequel to this and it took me about four years before I did write a sequel to it. So I had other books in the meantime. I felt the book ends when Fanboy grows up and sure enough the end of the book he grows up and that’s the end of the book; that’s the end of the story.
It wasn’t until I thought I found a way to write a sequel that would not just be the exact same thing as the first book but from a girl’s point of view. Once I figured out how to do that then I went ahead and I wrote the sequel.
Tim Knox: Could that sequel have stood alone if you wanted it to?
Barry Lyga: I have heard from people who have read the second book before they even knew about the first one and they have enjoyed it. I think you get a deeper understanding of the characters if you read both books but I’ve heard from people who’ve read them in order and out of order. The people who’ve read it out of order don’t seem to have been hurt at all. They still seemed to enjoy both books. I don’t know that I’ve spoken to anybody who has just read the sequel. I tried to make it as standalone as I could but my feeling is those two books form one complete story so I would really want people to read both but if you just read the second one I think you don’t feel like you’re cheated at all.
Tim Knox: By the time you got this deal were you writing full-time or were you still working?
Barry Lyga: That’s sort of a story of my own idiocy and more luck again. I had decided a while ago before this book got published or even was bought that I was going to quit my job and spend some time just focusing on my writing. So I saved up some money. My goal was to save up years’ worth of expenses and then quit my job and take a year to do nothing but work on my writing with the assumption that I would be able to succeed in that amount of time and if I couldn’t I’d go find another job.
Well I went ahead and saved up the money, I quit my job and very quickly realized that I’d done the math wrong at some point and I only had six months in the bank, not a year. So right away I started to panic and then I got my agent and she sold the books almost immediately. So I thought that was great but I did not realize that publishing contracts can take months so by the time I actually got the contract and I signed the contract and got that first advance check, I had been living on my credit cards for like two months.
I always tell people either, one, be better at math that I am or, two, don’t quit your job until you actually have that book deal.
Tim Knox: So grandma came very close to being right.
Barry Lyga: Grandma came very close to being right. She had passed away by then but she was probably watching me from up above somewhere going, “I told you. I told you and you didn’t listen. I told you.”
Tim Knox: You’re 13 books in now?
Barry Lyga: Oh wow. I didn’t know there was going to be math in this interview. I think it’s about 13. I think the book, Blood of my Blood, the book that comes out in a few weeks – I think that’s 14.
Tim Knox: And you also write the Archvillian Series.
Barry Lyga: Yeah, the Archvillian trilogy. That’s a little younger than all of my other books. That skews more towards the 8-12 range and that’s a book about a kid with super powers who says to himself, “You know, I can get cats out of trees and help little old ladies cross the street and fight crime and do all that stuff or I could use my superpowers to play pranks on people and try to kill the local superhero.” He decides to go with the latter because that sounds like a lot more fun.
I just had a great time writing those books. I had a blast writing them. They were a lot of fun. When I sat down to write the first one I realized with something akin to horror that I couldn’t use sex in it because my books for young adults had sex in them or at least the thought of sex because you’re a teenager and nothing but a big ball of hormones. I realized when I sat down to write this one that I can’t put sex in this one. That would be inappropriate and crazy.
Then I realized I had something better than sex. I had superhero fight scenes and I could just write characters punching each other through walls and knocking buildings down on top of each other and shooting each other with lasers. That was a lot of fun.
Tim Knox: That’s one thing I was going to ask you. When you write these young adult novels, what is off limits? How far do you push things when you’re writing for this genre?
Barry Lyga: In young adult, I don’t think anything’s off limits. I have very much a no compromise attitude when it comes to young adult. The fact of the matter is, again, if we look back historically when I was the age of a young adult reader there was nothing worth reading that was young adult. I went straight from middle grade and comic books to adult novels. I was reading Stephen King, Dean Koontz at 14 or 15. They certainly weren’t pulling punches thinking some 14 year old kid in Maryland is reading my book.
So my attitude is if I could handle it so can today’s kids. So I don’t pull any punches when it comes to young adult.
When it comes to middle grade it’s a difficult line to balance. You don’t want to write down to the kids. They can tell. Kids are very savvy readers and they can tell when you’re patronizing them. So I write as honestly and with as much maturity as I can even for that age. There are certain subjects, certain vocabularies I avoid not necessarily because I’m afraid of the reaction from like a parent but more because it just doesn’t feel like something that would hold that age’s interest.
I’ll give you an example because I realize I’m talking in abstract so I’ll give you a concrete example. My second book was called Boy Toy and it was very controversial because it’s about a kid who has an affair with his teacher and the affair happens when he’s 12 years old and he’s reflecting back on it at the age of 18.
So there are these long stretches of flashback when he’s 12 years old being seduced by his teacher and they’re very explicit. So the book was very controversial as a result. One day I got an email from a kid who was 10 years old and he was telling me that he was reading Boy Toy. Like I said, I have a pretty uncompromising attitude about writing and creative expression but I have to admit that gave me pause. I thought wait a minute, this kid’s 10 years old. I don’t know how I feel about that.
I thought for a while like what’s my play here? It’s not my job to tell this kid to stop reading the book. That’s a little weird but I felt like I should do something. So I finally settled on writing back to him and saying, hey, glad you’re reading my book. I said I hope if there’s anything in there that confuses you or disturbs you that you feel you can talk to your parents about it. I thought that was sort of a responsible thing to say. He wrote back to me and I’ll never forget his email was, “Lol, my parents are cool. They know I’m reading it.” Then he skipped a line and his next sentence was, “There are some things I’m skipping though.”
I thought to myself, wow, that is the definitive statement to book banners everywhere. This kid is smart enough to know, eh, this part’s not for me and he skips it. It reminded me of when I was a kid. My dad was a big reader and I pulled some novel off the shelf and I was like 13 and I was like, “Oh dad read this and said it was good.” I pulled it off the shelf and got half a sentence into it and went, “This is not for me,” and put it away.
Kids are really good at censoring themselves and realizing I’m not ready for this or this doesn’t interest me. I’m not ready for this part yet. I skipped those sort of things in my middle grade fiction, again, not because I’m worried about it but just because it’s not going to be of interest or entertaining to a kid that age.
Tim Knox: And kids are a hell of a lot smarter than we think they are.
Barry Lyga: Oh yeah, it’s funny. I think there must be some point in time… I don’t know when it happens, maybe around 30, where they slip some sort of pill into the adult’s breakfast and we all forget how smart we were as kids.
Tim Knox: Well that’s one thing that I’ve always found interesting. I’ve talked to other middle grade authors like Bianca Turetsky and folks like that. They talk about how the last thing you want to do is disrespect or write down to this market because these kids will call you on it every time.
Barry Lyga: Yeah. At that age your mind is expanding and you are thirsty for anything that will expand your perspective or that will change your mind. It’s a time in your life when you will change your mind. How often do we see an adult say, “I was wrong about that. I’ve changed my mind” about anything of significance?
Kids do that on a daily basis from one day to the next. They learn something that changes their perspective. They will just have their minds blown by things that we just sort of shrug at. I think it behooves us to feed that, to give them that stuff, to give them as much fodder to think about as humanly possible so that they can expand their minds as much as possible. Maybe they’ll be the ones to grow up and don’t forget how smart they were when they were kids.
Tim Knox: Yeah I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Baby Geniuses.
Barry Lyga: I didn’t see it.
Tim Knox: I’ve got kids and we watched it until my brain was numb but the premise was babies are born with all knowledge and babies communicate between each other but as they get into the toddler years they start to forget all of that stuff and grow into humans, adults that really are the dumbest folks on the planet.
Barry Lyga: Right. That’s entirely possible.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about your process if you don’t mind. The folks that listen to this show primarily are authors who want to do what you’re doing and are interested in how you do it. 13, 14 books in now – what’s your process? Are you writing every day? Do you have a standard word count?
I crack up at Hugh Howey who is just on this tear to write like 60,000 words in a single day I think, which I think is brilliant. What do you do?
Barry Lyga: I’ve never done 60,000 words in a day. I did have a 12,000 word day when I was working on Boy Toy. The end sprint on Boy Toy was sort of insane. I finished that book in a very short period of time. I was possessed writing that book. I think 12,000 words is the most I’ve ever done in a day.
My process has evolved over the years and it’s in the – no pun intended – process of evolving right now. I’m on sort of a hiatus from writing right now. I wrote four books in the last 12 months. Since I moved to New York in 2009 I’ve written over a million words for publication and I just got to the point where I was cross-eyed at the computer and I just had to take some time off.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about the process. Typically what I have done in the past is I try to go on word count. I try not to go on time because as any writer will tell you, you can kill a complete day and have five words to show for it at the end of it. It’s very, very easy to procrastinate and say, “Well I sat at the computer all day and worked,” and you’ve got a sentence.
So I try to go by word count. It just feels more productive and I usually set myself a goal of 3,000 words a day, which is about 10 pages I guess. It works out something about 10 pages. What I do is work up to that. What I do is when I’m first starting a project I do 1,000 words a day for the first week and then I do 1,500 a day for the second and so on, going by 500 word increments until I get to 3,000.
At that point what happens, by the time I get to 3,000 words, I’ve written the first third of the book and so 3,000 words a day isn’t as daunting because I’m already deep into the book. I don’t do a lot of planning when I write so I need those early weeks where it’s not a lot of pressure and not a lot of stress on me so that I can futz around a little bit and sort of find the story that I’m telling. Around about a third of the way through everything clicks for me and by then I’m up to 3,000 words a day and I can maintain that pace reliably at that point.
I’m looking into some modifications for that. I’ve done it that way for six or seven years now I guess and I’m sort of thinking in terms of maybe there’s a more efficient way, maybe there’s a way that’s a little better so I’m spending a lot of time thinking about that. I haven’t arrived at any conclusions yet.
Tim Knox: You’re in the process of thinking about the process.
Barry Lyga: Yeah, yeah, it’s what I decided to do. I decided to take a little time off from writing and think about writing as opposed to just doing it, doing it the same way I’ve always done it. We’re creatures of habit, creatures of pattern. If we do something one way long enough we’ll just keep doing it that way forever, even though there might be a better way to do it.
I’m always interested in trying to write better books. The process itself I think has something to do with the quality that you put out at the end of the day. So I sort of want to think about is there a way to improve my process and will that improve my work?
Tim Knox: How involved are you on the business side of things? I talk to a lot of self-published authors who talk about they have time to write but then they also put in a lot of time on the business side, the marketing, that sort of thing. How involved are you?
Barry Lyga: I’m actually what they call a hybrid author. I self-published a novel last year called Unsoul’d about an author who sells his soul to the devil so I have familiarity with that world. I enjoy that. I thought that was a lot of fun.
Since I came from a marketing background in the publishing industry, albeit the comic book publishing industry, I try to be as involved as possible in the business end. I do that not necessarily… sometimes I think that my publishers think I don’t have any faith in them because I’m constantly trying to work my way into the back office. That’s not it at all. I’m just interested in that stuff and I have a history with it so I enjoy being involved in it.
So I try to be as involved as possible. I do all the stuff everybody else is doing. I do the social media and all of that and of course if I’m offered to come speak somewhere I’m happy to do that. I’m happy to talk to you on this show. I enjoy that stuff to a degree. There comes a point where it starts to feel like a job, and writing itself rarely feels like a job to me and I’m a very selfish, simple person. I don’t like to work. I’d rather write than work so as soon as the business stuff starts to feel like work I sort of back off a little bit.
Tim Knox: I think we met on Twitter actually. You mentioned social media.
Barry Lyga: Yeah you found my Twitter.
Tim Knox: I did. What are your thoughts on I guess the accessibility that Twitter and Facebook and social media gives your fans? 10-15 years ago I couldn’t reach out and talk to you within minutes like we did on Twitter. What are your thoughts? Is that a good thing or sometimes a bad thing?
Barry Lyga: You said it in a nutshell. It’s a double edged sword, no question about it. It’s great because it’s wonderful to hear from people. The bad part of it is… there’s a couple of negative aspects to it.
One thing in particular with Twitter, your Twitter is not a medium designed for nuance and yet people constantly ask questions or make statements to you that I believe require a measured, nuanced response and it’s very difficult to give that on Twitter. So a lot of times I’ll end up writing a blog post about it instead and pointing people to that. Then you never know how many people actually click on that link and look at that.
Most of my positions on things are nuanced and so it’s not really good for me to say things on Twitter because it’s very easy for people to misinterpret what you say.
The other thing that sort of bothers me about the ready accessibility of authors is… I know I’m going to get in trouble for this but I’m going to say it anyways. I think in some ways it’s made people lazy. I get so much contact from people asking me questions that have readily available answers. You can type into the Google machine, as a friend of mine puts it. You can type your question in and the first hit will answer your question. Instead they go, “Oh Barry’s on Twitter so I’ll just ask him.”
So I end up answering the same very basic questions over and over and over again. That’s bothersome to me for a number of reasons. Number one, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. The other thing is a lot of times people will read more shallowly I think because they can ask the author, “Well what did you mean by XYZ? What did that mean? I don’t understand. What’s going to happen next?”
10-15 years ago, 30 years ago, whatever, when I’m geeking out reading Paradise Lost I can’t tweet John Milton and ask him what he meant by something. I have to read it again and think about it and if I still don’t understand, read it again and sort of develop my own meaning. That’s what I love about reading. As a reader that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy reading things that challenge me and make me think and don’t have easy answers.
I think there’s a percentage of readers out there who want easy answers and when they don’t get them instead of looking at it again, thinking about it more deeply, they just email the author and say, “What did you mean by this?” which just makes me sort of sad.
Tim Knox: I think you’re dead on though. Twitter is kind of a Cliff Note mentality. Why should I go read his book? I’ll just ask him about it. Do that with some of the old guys and they would tell you where to go.
We’ve got a couple of minutes left. You’ve got quite a body of work now. I don’t ask an author what his favorite book is anymore because I always get the, “It’s what I’m working on” answer but do you have a particular fondness for any of your books?
Barry Lyga: Yes and I’m glad you put it that way, thank you, because then I don’t have to give you my standard answer. I am particularly fond and particularly proud of Goth Girl Rising, the sequel to The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. It was not my first time writing from a female perspective. I had done a number of short stories over the years written from the perspective of a woman but it was my first time doing a novel that way and it was my first time writing from the perspective of a teenage girl. As I like to joke, who knows a teenage girl’s mind better than a middle aged man?
Tim Knox: That’s a t-shirt right there.
Barry Lyga: It really is, a very scary t-shirt. I had a lot of people around me, including some people at my publisher say to me, “Don’t write this book. That’s not what you’re good at. You write really good boy characters. You understand boys. That’s what you do.” I said, “No, I’m writing this book. I have to write this book,” and I wrote it anyway.
The response to it was really great. Like I said before, I got a lot of email from teenage girls saying, “Oh my God, it’s like you can read my mind. I don’t understand. I don’t know how you can do this.” Even the people at the publisher who had been against it said, “Wow, you can do this. Who knew?”
I feel very proud of that and I’m very fond of that book for that reason. I stretched myself as an author and as a person and I just feel really good about what came out of it.
Tim Knox: What are you working on now, anything? I know you’re on hiatus but what’s on the horizon?
Barry Lyga: I’m on hiatus. The stuff that’s on the horizon is… I’m about to publish a prequel story to my I Hunt Killers trilogy. There are already two prequel stories and a prequel novella out there and I’m about to do a third prequel story that will come out in a couple weeks, a week or so I guess.
Then I have a book that I co-wrote with Peter Facinelli, who’s on Nurse Jackie and was Carlisle Cullen in the Twilight movies. He and I co-wrote a novel with Rob DeFranco, who is Peter’s producing partner in Hollywood. The three of us wrote a book together, a YA novel that’s really cool and bizarre. It’s going to come out next year. It’s called After the Red Rain. We just finished that up so I’m really looking forward to that coming out next year.
Then I’ve got another middle grade novel that I did. I love it. I’m really happy about it. It’s one of my favorite things and that will come out some time in 2016. There’s still plenty of stuff for me.
Tim Knox: There really is. Let’s give a really quick plug to the I Hunt Killers trilogy because I think it’s such an interesting slant on the old serial killer story. Give us a quick plug on that one.
Barry Lyga: It’s basically what if you were 17 years old and your father was one of the world’s worst serial killers? That’s it in a nutshell. That’s the Hollywood paragraph.
It’s about a kid named Jasper Dent. His nickname is Jazz. He’s 17 and four years ago his father, Billy, was arrested. Billy had killed about 120 some odd people before the police finally caught onto him. Billy’s been in jail for four years. Jazz is just trying to get through his life. Jazz’s big problem is Billy. Parents always want their kids to grow up to be just like them and Billy was no different. He raised Jazz to be a serial killer and Jazz struggles with this every day. He questions every impulse he has because he wonders is that an actual impulse or is that something Billy put in me?
Then in the little town he lives in people start dying again and he figures people are going to blame me. It makes sense, right? The son of the guy who did it last time; that’s who you would blame. So he decides he’s going to go off on his own and find out who’s doing this to prove to the world that it’s not him and maybe at the same time maybe he can prove to himself that he’s not condemned by nature and by nurture to grow up to do that.
That’s the series in a nutshell. It’s a trilogy. Like I said, there’s some prequels and the third and final book, Blood of My Blood, comes out on September 9th.
Tim Knox: It’s no paranormal cowboy story but that’s pretty dang good.
Barry Lyga: It’s no paranormal cowboy story. It’s very much not paranormal at all.
Tim Knox: Very good. Last question. As I said before, the audience for this show are authors who want to do what you’ve done. What’s your best advice to these folks?
Barry Lyga: The best advice I give is the best advice I ever got, which is that there’s an old saying that every author has a million bad words in him and until you write those bad words you’re not going to write anything anybody cares about. This sort of dovetails with what I said way before about it being okay to suck. Write those million bad words. Don’t be afraid of writing something bad. Everything that you write that’s bad is on the path to writing something good. Just keep doing it.
Tim Knox: Great information. Where can folks find more about you and your books?
Tim Knox: Barry Lyga, we appreciate your time. We would love to have you back on the show next book.
Barry Lyga: Great, I’d love to do it.