Goth Girl finds her voice
Barry Lyga’s debut YA novel, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, told the story of two high school outcasts: one a self-described geek who spent most of his time writing and illustrating his comic book, and one an angry, depressed girl still reeling from the death of her mother. Fanboy and Goth Girl touched a chord in many readers, and although Lyga has since published several more books, his fans kept asking to see more of those two characters. In Goth Girl Rising, he brings them together once again. Emotions run high and the outcome is uncertain when the two reunite; the result is an honest and thoughtful exploration of friendship, anger and love.
Lyga answered questions about the new book from his home in Las Vegas.
Your three previous YA novels have all been written from the perspective of a teen boy. Was it difficult to get inside the mind of a teen girl for this book?
You know, I worried about that . . . for roughly 10 seconds. The instant I sat down and started writing, the concern went away. Maybe if I was writing about some other teen girl, it would have been difficult, but this is Kyra. I know her. I know her incredibly well. I just said to myself, "OK, I'm Kyra now. What am I thinking?" and the book flew from there.
You make quite a few references to comic book writers such as Brian Michael Bendis and Neil Gaiman in the Fanboy and Goth Girl books. Why did you decide to incorporate real people into these stories, and what was it like to write about them as characters?
I had decided early on that these stories took place in the real world, where there were comic books about Superman and Spider-Man, not in some alternate universe with characters like SuperbGuy and Arachnid-Kid. I could have made up my own ersatz versions of the characters, but it just seemed phony and transparent. Once I decided to use the actual names of the characters, it was just a short step to incorporate the actual names of the people who work on those characters. Using a name like Bendis or Gaiman will immediately communicate volumes of information to someone who knows about those guys, and if a reader doesn't know anything about them, it's not like the story will be harmed by that not knowing. A reader who doesn't know who Bendis is, for example, would just assume I made him up. (And I'm sure Bendis would be thrilled to know someone out there thinks I invented him!) I just felt that using these public figures made the book more authentic, grounding it in reality.
As to what it was like to write about them as characters: It was slightly nerve-wracking at first, but then I just let go and allowed myself to enjoy it. Neil Gaiman is mentioned in the books, but Bendis actually shows up, so I was most concerned with writing his dialogue and getting him right. When I wrote the book, I hadn't met him, so I was flying blind, but then a friend of mine who knows him read the book and said, "Oh my God—you got him! This is exactly how he talks!" So that was cool.
Kyra talks about comic books as having a simple structure, created from basic building blocks such as panel borders and word balloons. Having recently written a book about Wolverine (from the X-Men comics), do you think that's true? How is writing a comic book different from writing a novel or short story?
Well, first of all, the Wolverine book I did (Wolverine: Worst Day Ever) wasn't actually a comic book—it's an illustrated novel. So the concerns aren't really the same as writing a comic book. But I have written comics in the past, and the differences between comics and prose are pretty stark. Each format has its strengths and weaknesses, and there are very complicated distinctions—too complicated to really expound on them here and now beyond some generalizations. In comics, you're really telling a story to the artist, who then interprets it for the audience. It's more akin to filmmaking, in that you have to think visually. In prose, you have the opportunity to get much deeper into the head of the protagonist, but lose some of the visceral thrill of immediate reader identification with a scene, character or moment.
You had a story in the recent YA anthology Geektastic: Stories From the Nerd Herd, and some of your characters—notably Fanboy—consider themselves geeks. Do you identify as a geek? What do you think defines a geek?
Yeah, I guess I identify as a geek, which isn't as shameful these days as it used to be, now that geeks have sort of reclaimed that term and turned it around. I used to do a presentation in schools called "Geekery: An Analysis," which was a half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek analysis of what a geek was and how geeks rule the world. I think geeks are people who are obsessed with something, possibly obsessed beyond the bounds of what is considered good mental health, and don't mind letting that obsession dictate large portions of their lives. To that degree, crazy sports fans are geeks—they just happen to be geeks for something that society doesn't look down on. There's no qualitative difference between a guy who's learning to speak Klingon and a guy who can recite chapter and verse of every inning of every game in the World Series dating back to 1912. It's just that society has decided that the latter is acceptable and the former is risible.
Screw society. :)
All of your books and stories so far have been set at the same school, at roughly the same time and with many of the same characters appearing in them. How do you keep track of the timeline of events and the interactions between characters? Is there a specific time in your mind when all these stories are taking place?
The "specific time" is always roughly "now." I want the stories to feel as if they take place in a loosely definable age that could always be right now. I realize that the comic book references will, inevitably, date the books to a degree, but that was a balance I decided was worth seeking—countering timelessness with immediate identification.
As to how I keep track: Well, most of it is just in my head. I do have a list of all of the teachers and various adults because they're less immediately present in my mind, but the kids are no problem. The kids just tell their stories and things seem to work out.
Your books often contain some raw dialogue and graphic scenes, and have dealt with issues such as suicide and sexual abuse. What makes you decide to include those elements in your writing? Do you worry about your books being censored or banned?
I'll take the second question first: Yeah, I think about it. I'm not sure "worry" is the right word because it sort of implies that I sit around stressing about it, which I don't. It flits through my head, but I don't let that impact how I write or what I write. Our best efforts to the contrary, there will always be a confederation of idiots out there who want to ban books. Sometimes they'll want to ban mine. I prefer to deal with it when it happens and not give them one ounce of my precious thought in advance.
As to the first question: It's not really a decision. It's not like I sit down to write a book and think, "Hmm, what topic or salty language can I add to this?" The topics, the language—these things are integral to the story. They're crucial organs. I write what I write and the way I write it because I'm writing for teens and about teens. This is the world they live in. These are the words they speak. I'm not inventing any of this. I'm just taking it in, massaging it and turning it around for everyone to see. It would be dishonest to write otherwise, I think.
What kind of responses have you gotten from teens who have read your books?
For the most part, great enthusiasm! It's terrific. I think most gratifying have been the kids who write to tell me that they never liked reading until they read one of my books. Most authors have that experience, I believe, and it's great. To think that you've opened up a whole new world to this person. Reading saved my life as a kid—it was the one thing that kept me sane when the world around me made no sense. So to be able to give that gift back into the world is just tremendously fulfilling.
In the acknowledgments for Goth Girl Rising, you say that you never planned a sequel to The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, but that you received lots of emails from fans who wanted the story to continue. Do you think that your fans will be satisfied with the way Goth Girl Rising ends? Will Fanboy and Goth Girl's story continue in another book?
Oh, wow. I have no idea if people will be satisfied. I'm not even sure I want people to be satisfied by the ending. Sometimes I get hassled for my endings because I tend not to tie everything up in a nice, neat little package, but I think at times an untidy ending—something that lingers and gnaws at your brain—can be more satisfying than something that just drops all the answers in your lap and says, "Here! Ta-da!" I hope people who read the book will get to the end and say, "Oh, OK, I get it," and then sit back and speculate on their own as to what might happen next. And I hope they'll enjoy that.
I don't know about another book. I tend to think not. I think with Goth Girl Rising, I've taken these characters as far as I can. Or should. I think everything that happens next is pretty easily predicted, and easy predictions don't make for great storytelling.
Then again, I never thought I would write the sequel, so who knows!