Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Double Feature!!! -- Len Vlahos

Len Vlahos is the Executive Director of BISG (Book Industry Study Group) and the former COO of the American Booksellers Association, where he worked for the past 20 years. Len has also worked in numerous bookstores, was an on-air personality for a commercial radio station in Atlantic City, and worked for a time for Internet marketing guru Seth Godin. THE SCAR BOYS is his first book. You can visit him online at www.lenvlahos.com and on Twitter @LenVlahos.

Be sure to check out all the stops on THE SCAR BOYS blog tour:

Mon, Jan 13
I Read Banned Books
Tues, Jan 14
Guys Lit Wire
Wed, Jan 15
Read Now, Sleep Later
Thurs, Jan 16
The Book Monsters
Fri, Jan 17
Mon, Jan 20
The Compulsive Reader
Tues, Jan 21
Mother Daughter Book Club
Wed, Jan 22
A.L. Davroe
Thurs, Jan 23
Adventures in YA Publishing
Fri, Jan 24
Geo Librarian


Len is visiting 20+ cities and bookstores around the country--and he’s bringing his guitar. His tour schedule is  here.
The Interview:

A.L.:
What piece of advice would you give to a budding author?

Len:
There are actually two pieces of complementary advice:

First, write every day. If you don’t exercise the part of your brain that creates, it starts to atrophy. Can you miss a day here and there? Of course. But when you start to miss weeks and months, it gets exponentially harder to dive back in. (See below for a personal example.)

I’m a very regimented writer, working at the same time and in the same environment each day. (I write on the commuter train to NYC.) Not everyone is wired that way, so find what works for you. But no matter how you do it, try to write every day, or something close to it.

And second, read every day because, well, duh.

A.L.:
What's your favorite book and why?

Len:
The Scar Boys, and again, duh.

Okay, seriously, I never know quite what to do with this question. It’s like asking which snowflake I like best. There is no rational answer. How about I give you my top three as of this moment in time? (It can and will change before I’m done writing this.)

1. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. It’s a 1960s science fiction classic that may seem a bit out of date, but the story—of a future lunar colony’s revolt against mother Earth—is filled with political intrigue, a sentient computer, a brilliant heroine, and a plot that twists and unfolds at every turn.

2. Crash and Burn by Michael Hassan. Okay, full disclosure alert. When my publisher (Egmont USA) was putting together the final cover for The Scar Boys, they solicited blurbs from other authors. The only blurb they got back was from Michael. (I was lucky enough to get one from Peter Buck of R.E.M., too. I’m still tingly over that.) I had never met Michael, nor had I heard of Crash and Burn, and I kind of freaked out. “What if I don’t like this book or this author?” I thought.

On the way home from work that night I stopped at Posman’s Bookstore in Grand Central and got myself a copy. And here’s the thing. I loved it. Seriously. It is probably the most compelling teen novel I’ve ever read. The story—of how Stephen Crashinksy saves his high school from David Burnett, a student who has gone around the metaphorical bend—is rife with sex, drugs, and violence, and is definitely not for younger teens. But for older teens, it’s the one book that probably best captures the current generation of high schoolers. And it doesn’t hurt the writing is a masters class in voice, character, and pacing. But really, this is not for the faint of heart.

3. Truman by David McCullough. “Yeah, right,” you’re thinking, “throw in a nonfiction book just to make yourself look smart.” Honestly, I’m not smart enough to pull off that kind of chicanery. No, Truman is here because it reads like a novel, and because it lays before you the most important epoch of American History—the transformation from an agrarian nation in the throes of adolescence, to that of a global super power—told through the life of America’s most interesting president, Harry Truman. This should be required reading everywhere.

There are so many other books (Shantaram, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, City of Thieves, The Book Thief, Will Grayson Will Grayson, etc., etc.) and so many writers (David Mitchell, John Green, Jon Krakauer, Rainbow Rowell, Isaac Asimov, etc., etc.), that I could go on all day. (Fear not, I won’t.)

A.L.:
Where did you get the idea for The Scar Boys?

Len:
When I was nineteen, I dropped out of NYU film school to go on the road with a punk pop band called Woofing Cookies. I played guitar, sang background vocals, and wrote a bunch of the music. We put out a record, bought a van, and went on tour. The van broke down two weeks into the tour, stranding us in Athens, GA. (If you’ve read The Scar Boys, this will be eerily familiar.)

I tried for many, many years to tell the story of that experience. I wrote screenplays, essays, even full-length novels, but nothing worked. I put it all aside and actually stopped writing for a while.

I was finding it increasingly difficult to work my way back in (see my answer to #1 above!) until I had a long conversation with a friend one night in L.A. We were at a Dodgers game, and once she told me she was a writer, we spent the next three hours talking about the craft. I was so jazzed that when I got back to my hotel later that night, I dusted off the word processor and started typing. That’s when I found Harbinger Jones. And that was the moment of inspiration.

The story I’d been trying to tell all those years wasn’t my story at all. It was the story of every kid who has ever found confidence, friendship, and happiness through music. My experience with Woofing Cookies became the backdrop for the book; the real story belonged to Harry.

A.L.:
Did you hit any snags while writing The Scar Boys?  What were they and how did you fix them?

Len:
The book was originally written as an adult novel. Every other chapter featured a forty year-old Harry on his way to a reunion of The Scar Boys, and he’s telling the story of the band. Some publishers showed interest, but it never found a home. I was just getting ready to stuff the manuscript in the back of my sock drawer, when Kristen, my wife and partner in all crimes and misdemeanors, said, “Why do you insist on jamming that forty year-old character into your young adult novel?”

“Young adult novel?”

“Yes, it’s clearly a teen novel.”

It took me three days to come to grips with what she was saying, but she was right. I rewrote the book without the older Harry present, and it clicked.

A.L.:
Which one of the characters in The Scar Boys is your favorite and why?

Len:
I kind of feel like a parent in that I have to love them all equally, but I can tell you that Johnny was especially fun to write. I wanted to make him more than just a foil for Harry, to give him some complexity. I hope I succeeded.

A.L.:
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as an author?

Len:
I’ve always played music, and I’ve always written. So my journey as an author is lifelong. My journey as a published author, however, is thanks entirely to my day job.

I’ve spent most of my professional career working in the book industry. The vast majority of that time was at the American Booksellers Association, where I worked in the service of America’s vibrant and wonderful family of locally owned, independent bookstores.

Through that experience I got to know booksellers all over America. A small group of those booksellers—Becky Anderson (Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL), Matt Norcross (McLean & Eakin in Petosky, MI), Valerie Koehler (Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston), and Andrea Vuleta (then of Mrs. Nelson’s just outside of L.A.)—all wrote strong letters of recommendation for The Scar Boys, and I think that’s ultimately what swayed Egmont to buy it.

A.L.:
What are you working on now?  Sequel?  Something new?

Len:
I started a sequel, but it just didn’t feel right. I don’t think the characters are ready to re-engage with me. Instead I have two other projects: A completed adult novel that I’ll describe as a quirky black comedy about a guy with a terminal brain tumor. Like The Scar Boys, it crosses the line between young adult and adult—one of the protagonists is the anchor character’s fifteen year-old daughter—but it’s definitely aimed less directly at a teen audience.

I’m also well into another YA novel that deals with a near future U.S.A. that has devolved into a civil war, but I won’t’ say more until I get farther along. The protagonist, a sixteen year-old boy named Ant Ellis, is very much in my head right now.

A.L.:
Was it difficult writing a character who was so physically and psychologically scarred?

Len:
Writing Harry’s reaction to his physical injuries was very challenging. I’ve never had to deal with anything like that in my personal life, so I was on unfamiliar ground. The real purpose of Harry suffering those injuries was more of way to isolate him, or at least to make him feel isolated.

One of my favorite parts of the book is Harry’s catalog of people—Potsis, Nazis, Faints, Freaks, and Friends. While it was hard to stand in the shoes of someone with physical challenges, it was easy to live in the skin of a teenager who feels isolated and alone. My guess is that this is exactly how many, if not most, young people feel. And yes, most adults, too.

A.L.:
You get +10 points for being a fellow CT author.  What's your favorite part about living in CT?

Len:
I wrote an essay that was kind of about Connecticut a while ago, and I still kind of like it. I’ll let that answer the question; it’s on my website, here:

http://www.lenvlahos.com/straight-to-the-queen/

A.L.:
You bring a lot of personal punk rocker experience to your novel.  Can you tell us (a clean story) about one of your most memorable nights as a member of Woofing Cookies?

Len:
Four or five days before our van broke down for good, we were on our way to a radio interview in Richmond, VA when our transmission gave out. Our drummer, Chad, whose father was actually a mechanic, fixed the cotter pin—a little piece of metal that makes the clutch work, or so I was told—with a hanger and pliers, and he did it on his back beneath the van in a raging rainstorm. (This scene also made it into the book, and is actually an important scene for Harry’s character.) Unfortunately, the beast broke down again a few blocks later, and we wound up having to push it to a service station and wrangle a ride to that evening’s gig. (We had already dropped off our gear.)

There was not one single person in the room when we played that night. Even the soundman was so bored that he got up and left the room. Halfway through the set, some preppy college kids wandered in, sat for a while, and then formed a conga line and conga-ed their way out of the room. We wound up sleeping on the floor at the club owner’s mom’s house. The whole evening was pretty funny.

And, of course, speaking of tours (how’s that for a ham-fisted segue!) you can see a list of Scar Boys (the book, not the band) tour dates, here:
http://www.lenvlahos.com/tour-dates/

The Giveaway:
One lucky winner will receive a copy of THE SCAR BOYS (U.S. only).
The Scar Boys:  A severely burned teenager. A guitar. Punk rock. The chords of a rock 'n' roll road trip in a coming-of-age novel that is a must-read story about finding your place in the world...even if you carry scars inside and out.

In attempting to describe himself in his college application essay--help us to become acquainted with you beyond your courses, grades, and test scores--Harbinger (Harry) Jones goes way beyond the 250-word limit and gives a full account of his life.

The first defining moment: the day the neighborhood goons tied him to a tree during a lightning storm when he was 8 years old, and the tree was struck and caught fire. Harry was badly burned and has had to live with the physical and emotional scars, reactions from strangers, bullying, and loneliness that instantly became his everyday reality.

The second defining moment: the day in 8th grade when the handsome, charismatic Johnny rescued him from the bullies and then made the startling suggestion that they start a band together. Harry discovered that playing music transported him out of his nightmare of a world, and he finally had something that compelled people to look beyond his physical appearance. Harry's description of his life in his essay is both humorous and heart-wrenching. He had a steeper road to climb than the average kid, but he ends up learning something about personal power, friendship, first love, and how to fit in the world. While he's looking back at the moments that have shaped his life, most of this story takes place while Harry is in high school and the summer after he graduates.

How to Enter:
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