Today on The Book Smugglers, we are thrilled to be a part of Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers blog tour, celebrating the novel’s release. I Hunt Killers is a YA novel with serious bite; a mystery/thriller that follows a young man named Jazz as he struggles to find his way out from beneath his serial killer father’s shadow. We’ve had I Hunt Killers on our radar for a while now, so when we were offered the chance to interview Barry Lyga about his new novel, we jumped at the chance (and by the way, spoiler alert? The following interview is one of our favorites. EVER.).
Please give a warm welcome to Barry Lyga, folks!
The Book Smugglers: Welcome, Barry, and thanks for taking the time to answer a few of our questions! I Hunt Killers is a YA thriller, that explores the psyche of the son of a prolific serial killer. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired Jazz’s story? What made you want to tell the story of a serial killer’s son?
Barry: You know, it’s never really an issue of WANTING to tell a story. It’s more like the story sneaks up behind me, grabs me by the throat and starts throttling me, while whispering in my ear, “Tell me to the world OR YOU DIE!” And it’s at that point that I figure, “I should probably tell this story.”
The inspiration for KILLERS was so bizarre, really… Long story short, I said something to my editor that she misinterpreted as me saying that I was writing a book about a serial killer. She was very excited by the idea and seemed disappointed when I told her she’d misunderstood me. I really had no interest in writing such a book, even though I’ve read them and enjoyed them. But her enthusiasm for the idea of it stuck with me and it started me thinking. Literally a day later, I woke up thinking, “What if your father was the world’s most notorious serial killer?” And then I recognized the stealthy pad of the story sneaking up behind me and decided, yeah, it was time to tell this tale.
The Book Smugglers: Jazz faces a constant struggle between the horrible things he has learned from his father and what he knows is empirically right and socially acceptable. This tension between nature and nurture is fascinating particularly in this novel, because the classic role of “nurture” is subverted as Jazz has been raised to be a serial killer. What is your take on the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, and how did you approach this theme in I Hunt Killers?
Barry: Well, first of all, no one is going to solve the question of nature vs. nurture any time soon, especially an author whose last biology and psychology classes are a couple of decades in the past. But, yeah, that’s sort of the fundamental issue at stake here, isn’t it? And again, I’m not claiming to have an answer, but the question itself is so deep and so broad that there’s a lot of room to play with it. Are we slaves to our genes or to the way we’re raised? No one knows for sure, and that means people can (and do!) constantly surprise us. Constant surprise makes for really fun fiction!
In the book, I think it comes down to something that Jazz and his supporting cohort talk about a lot: his soul. They don’t necessarily mean “soul” in a religious or supernatural sense. It’s just a very convenient metaphor for them to use when they talk about Jazz. Does he have a soul or not? Meaning, is he bound to turn out like his dad or not? Is there anything anyone can do to influence him one way or the other, or is it all set in stone?
To me, what makes this more than just the typical nature vs. nurture question is that Jazz is really screwed coming and going: On the nature end of things, genetically, he’s got the Dent genes, the bad-crazy that came down from his grandmother to Billy and now to Jazz. And on the nurture side, he was raised by Billy to be the next generation of Dent serial killers. So the question of nature vs. nurture becomes even more complicated when both factors are against you. When the deck is stacked against you the way it is against Jazz, is it even possible to be a good person at all?
That’s one of the questions the series will explore.
The Book Smugglers: I Hunt Killers is a dark, disturbing, slightly twisted tale, but written for a YA audience. In the past we have seen many people (including outspoken critics from the likes of the WSJ) decrying this sort of topic or these types of novels as “too dark for teens.” Naturally, we disagree and we have an inkling that you might disagree with these sentiments, too. What is your position on the debate? Is there anything that you feel is too dark or inappropriate for young adult readers?
Barry: “Slightly twisted?” “Slightly twisted?” I clearly have failed in my mission — I intended it to be a FULLY twisted tale.
I’ll have to try harder in Book 2.
Yeah, look, when it comes to “too dark for teens,” I could talk for hours and hours. I’ll try to keep this short. People who think something is “too dark” for teens probably need a good, hard dose of reality…which is pretty damn dark itself. The thing is, “darkness” is in the eye of the beholder. A few years back, I wrote a book called BOY TOY. And some people were like, “This is way too intense for kids.” But there were also a LOT of kids who got in touch with me who were like, “This book saved my life.” Real heart-breaking stuff. So who the hell is anyone to decide what’s “too dark” for anyone else? The only person anyone should be concerned with is themselves and anyone dependent on them. If you’re a parent and you don’t want your kid to read my book, then tell your kid not to read my book. But how DARE you snatch it out of the hands of someone else, who may derive something important or life-saving or just fun from it?
Here’s the most amazing fact of all, something that these clueless boobs don’t understand: The best censor in the world is a CHILD. Kids are AMAZING at self-censoring stuff. When a young kid picks up a book that is beyond his or her capacity to understand, they almost always “get” that on a gut level and they put it down. I heard from a nine-year-old once. He was reading BOY TOY. And I was like, “Oh, man. That is WAY too young.” But it’s not MY place to say that, you know? So I just asked him, “Hey, do your parents know you’re reading this book? Because it’s pretty intense.” And he wrote back and said, “My parents are cool. And there’s some stuff I’m skipping.”
Get that? He was skipping “some stuff” on his own! He didn’t need an adult standing over his shoulder, telling him, “This is too much for you.” He wanted to read the book, but he understood — in his gut — that parts of it were beyond him. He could have given up reading the book, but instead he just decided to skip some stuff. Genius. And I bet a few years from now, he’ll re-read it and have a whole different experience. Good for him.
The thing is, that’s an example of a young kid who was obviously very precocious. And he had good parents who knew how much and how little to tug on his leash. So you can’t say “No nine-year-old should ever read BOOK X” because somewhere out there, there are a bunch of mature nine-year-olds who can handle it. Instead of making sweeping proclamations, just worry about yourself and the people you’re responsible for. The art will take care of itself.
Whenever people appoint themselves the arbiters of propriety, you can be sure they have zero taste and even less intelligence. And whenever someone shouts, “What about the children?” you can be sure that the LAST thing they care about is “the children” and the FIRST thing they care about is hearing their own voices and imposing their own will on others.
OK, I gotta stop. I’m gonna give myself an aneurysm.
The Book Smugglers: You’re an experienced write of YA fiction, as well as an accomplished comic book author. Do you find it challenging to write for different audiences, or across different genres? Which genre is your favorite, from a writing perspective?
Barry: You are FAR too generous in calling me an “accomplished comic book author,” but I appreciate it! I wrote a handful of bad comics in the nineties and then I tried to redeem myself with my graphic novel, MANGAMAN, which came out last year. I feel like with MANGAMAN I finally figured out the elements of putting together a comic book. It only took me thirty years!
I don’t find it challenging to write for different audiences because I don’t really think about the audience when I write. I just go into the story and think, “How can I make this story the best version of itself?” And when I’m done, I look back at it and I go, “Oh, I guess insert-kind-of-audience-here will like this.”
As to different genres… Again, nah. I love mixing things up. I think if you had asked most people what my next book would be, not many of them would have said, “A thriller about a serial killer.” But I have really catholic tastes, so I like switching things up and surprising people and trying different genres, different forms, different everything.
The Book Smugglers: Are you a reader of Young Adult fiction? Who are your favorite
authors and/or most beloved books?
Barry: Oh, yeah, of course! I’d have to be — half my friends are YA authors! I could talk for hours about this, so let’s just keep it short and sweet. Everyone should be reading Libba Bray, of course. Every word that survives the pounding of her keyboard is gold. And then there’s Paul Griffin who is, no lie, the most fearless author I know. Period. This guy takes so many risks in his writing and it’s so ingrained in his psyche that he doesn’t even realize he’s taking risks. Amazing stuff. Read his book STAY WITH ME for an example of what I’m talking about. And everyone should read Terry Davis’s VISION QUEST, which is an old book, yeah, but so powerful and still incredibly relevant.
Libba Bray interviews Barry Lyga about I HUNT KILLERS
And one of my favorite books ever is Pete Hautmann’s GODLESS. A great coming-of-age story and a scathing, hilarious critique of organized religion, all in under 200 pages. Are you KIDDING ME? I wish I could write like that.
The Book Smugglers: What are your top five recommended serial killer type novels? Films/shows?
Barry: Hoo-boy! Off the top of my head… For novels, I’d have to say SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which is better known as a film, but the book really is incredible. And I can’t believe I’m remembering this, but there was a book published something like thirty years ago, I think, called THE ULTIMATE GAME, about a serial killer called The Man. I read it over and over as a teen. Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST. HEARTSICK by Chelsea Cain was good. And I’m gonna cheat and say Libba’s upcoming THE DIVINERS.
Movie and TV-wise, you have to go to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS again, of course. And I loved the show PROFILER when it first started, though it fell apart pretty quickly. MILLENNIUM started out as a serial killer show, so I’m going to count that one. Brilliant stuff. THE BONE COLLECTOR. And let’s wrap things up with DIRTY HARRY, a classic!
The Book Smugglers: We Book Smugglers are faced with constant threats and criticisms from our significant others concerning the sheer volume of books we purchase and read – hence, we have resorted to ’smuggling books’ home to escape scrutinizing eyes. Have you ever had to smuggle books?
Barry: Actually, yes! When I was a kid, my mother suddenly decided that she despised comic books…probably because my dad encouraged me to read them. So when I would visit my dad, I had this huge collection of awesome comics, but my mom refused — absolutely REFUSED — to allow me to bring a single comic book into her house. I only saw my dad a couple of times a month and that was just too long between comic books, so I used to sneak comics into my mom’s house in my overnight bag when I’d come back from my dad’s, and then I’d hide them somewhere in my closet. Other kids hid porn; I hid comics.
I just realized: I don’t think my mom ever found out I was doing that, so if she’s reading this interview, I’m totally busted.
After graduating from Yale with a degree in English, Barry Lyga worked in the comic book industry for ten years. 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. USA Today called it “an entertaining read no matter what age you are.” VOYA commented, “A triumphant finale leaves readers wanting to read the novel again and again.” SLJ listed the book as one of the best of 2006. 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, hit stores in Fall 2008 and, according to VOYA “proves that there are still fresh ideas and new, interesting story lines to be explored in young adult literature.”
You can find Barry at his website barrylyga.com.
We are giving away ONE copy of I Hunt Killers! The contest is open to all, and will run until Saturday April 14 at 11:59 (PST). In order to enter, leave a comment here letting us know your favorite serial killer film, television show, or book. Only one entry per person, please! Multiple entries will be disqualified. Good luck!