My Writing Life: Barry Lyga
Barry Lyga is a bestselling novelist, short story writer, and recovering comic book geek. He can now add “hybrid author” to that list—he recently ventured into self-publishing with his first adult novel, Unsoul’d, which he describes as, “a Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow movie in novel form.” Kobo Writing Life is sponsoring an exciting event for Unsoul’d at WORD bookstore in Brooklyn on Wednesday, December 4th at 7:00pm. If you’re in the area, we hope you’ll join us!
Tell us a little bit about Unsoul’d.
Unsoul’d is the story of Randall Banner, a middling mid-list author who lives in Brooklyn. His whole career — his whole life, really — he’s wanted more of everything: More readers, more fame, more money. Everything. Then one day he meets the devil in a coffee shop and sells his soul in exchange for a hit book. Hilarity, horror, and sex all follow, not necessarily in that order. I call it “a dirty little fable” and that’s exactly what it is.
When did you first discover a love of writing? Is there a particular book that made you want to become a writer?
I wish I knew. I wish I could tell you. I really do! I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a little kid. But I have no idea where that came from. I’m not even sure when I first understood that “being a writer” was something to aspire to. I’ve just always wanted to tell stories. It’s one of the painful ironies of my life that I get to do what I love, but I have no idea how I got started on this path.
What’s your favourite book? What was your favourite book as a child?
It’s tough to talk about a “favorite book” because the books I love all push different buttons in my brain. I am, though, obsessed with the book Replay by Ken Grimwood. I read it as a kid and I re-read it on a regular basis. Really amazing stuff and so skillfully done. As a child, I was obsessed with The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts. Fortunately, I was too young and too self-absorbed to know that boys weren’t “supposed to” read books about girls. I loved that book. Still do — I think I have three copies of it!
Where do you get your story ideas?
It’s almost impossible to answer that question. Different ideas come from different places, and some of them just bubble up from the subconscious and announce themselves, leaving me slightly stunned and babbling, “But…but…”
The best explanation I’ve been able to come up with is this: Imagine you have a magic blender. And you carry it with you all day as you go about your life. And stuff falls into it: Sounds, names, words, smells, people, actions, everything. And every now and then, you stumble and hit the puree button and whatever’s in the blender at that moment gets pulped into one big, chunky mass. That’s an idea.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
“Just do it ‘til it’s done.” A screenwriter friend told me that when I was struggling early in my career. Basically, it’s just… Don’t be too precious about what you’re doing. Don’t think about it too much. Just plow through until you’re done and then go back see what you have. Turn off your internal critic until you actually have something to criticize.
I used to have “Just do it ‘til it’s done” posted over my computer, but now it’s so ingrained in me that I don’t have the sign any more.
Where do you usually write?
Usually at my desk, at home. I have a nice big iMac screen and a keyboard I’ve used for close to fifteen years, so it’s comfortable. Occasionally, I’ll take my iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard and head to a friend’s house or a coffee shop, but most days it’s just me, the desk, the iMac, and that keyboard.
The keyboard has magic properties. When it breaks, my career is so over.
Do you believe in Writer’s Block?
I like to say I’m a writer’s block atheist. I think most of the time when people speak of writer’s block, it’s just a way of saying they’re uninspired or tired, without having to admit it. “Writer’s block” sounds so much more romantic than, “I’m bored with what I’m writing,” doesn’t it? Writer’s block is usually a result of just that — being somewhere boring in your own story. The solution is easy: Find the last place where you weren’t bored and pick up from there — strike off in a new direction. If your story is boring you, it’s sure as hell not going to thrill a reader! So back up and try again.
If there was one writer (alive or deceased) that you would love to meet, who would it be?
Bruce Springsteen! I know, he’s not what most people think of when they think “writer,” but he’s probably my biggest influence.
What’s your favourite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?
I’ve never really been much for breaking books out into genres. I guess it comes from all of the comic books I read as a kid, where genres were crossed, broken, re-mixed, and generally abused. I tend to like stories that don’t self-consciously restrict themselves.
Guilty pleasures? I love John Grisham novels. Seriously can’t get enough of them.
What made you decide to self-publish?
It was a combination of factors. Mostly, it was curiosity. I’ve been in publishing for about eight years now, and I’ve always been fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stuff. I’m constantly annoying people by asking questions about their jobs and how they do things. I think they think I’m questioning their ability or commitment, but honestly — I’m just curious! So I wondered: What would it be like to do this on my own?
And I’ve always enjoyed alternate business methods, alternate means of publishing. I love noodling around with short fiction, flash fiction, hypertext, all kinds of stuff. So this was a chance to play around with a new way of getting a story out there.
Finally, there was the fact that Unsoul’d is very much a weird beast of a book. It crosses multiple genres, it has lots of sex in it, and it’s a combination of horror, humor, and satire. Most publishers have no idea what to do with something like that. What’s the reader demographic for a Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow movie in novel form? I dunno. Neither do they. So it made sense to do this on my own.
You recently ventured into “hybrid author” territory for the first time. How has the experience been so far? In what key ways has self-publishing differed from traditional publishing?
The biggest difference is the complete lack of a support system. If I screw something up, there’s no one there to backstop me. On the flipside, once I make a decision, it’s made — no one can second-guess me or override me.
So far, the experience has been fun. I know that’s a weak adjective, but it’s just been a lot of fun. I wrote this book and then I put it out there. No meetings. No months’-long wait. No endless dickering over covers. It was cool.
Are there any self-publishing tricks of the trade you’d like to share? What rules of craft or promotion do you live by?
I’m so new at this, I would never presume to know any tricks of the self-publishing trade, much less offer them as wisdom! In terms of rules of craft: Find your story and tell it as honestly as you can, with little or no compromise. For promotion: I am the world’s absolute worst promoter. I’ll turn this question around — if anyone has any thoughts, share ‘em in the comments!
Check out Barry Lyga:
Wednesday, December 4, 7:00pm
Featuring free snacks, drinks, giveaways, and more!