What inspired you to write about Sebastian, a teen boy who shot his infant sister when he was a toddler?
It was my wife’s idea. Shortly after our daughter was born, she said to me one night, out of the blue: “You know what I’ve never seen a book about? These poor kids who get a hold of a gun and accidentally kill someone. What does that do to you?”
I told her that sounded like a fascinating premise and that she should write it, but she said it wasn’t her sort of book to write. “That’s a Barry Lyga book,” she said. And I realized in that instant that I knew exactly how to write it.
The formatting of the novel is intriguing, with sections such as History, The Present, Tomorrow; occasional short, one-page chapters; and intermittent text messages within a more usual narrative structure. Why did you choose to do this?
A lot of fiction is written in first-person present tense, but I feel as though it comes across as more a stylistic decision than anything else. Rarely does that choice actually change the story in any meaningful way. I wanted the point of view and the tense to impact the way the story was told, with an immediacy and a sense of dislocation at times. I wanted readers to experience what it would be like to be in Sebastian’s fractured and rambling psyche without the benefit of hindsight so that his guilt, his desperation, and his fear would always be immediate.
The friendship that Sebastian develops with Aneesa, a new girl who is biracial and a practicing Muslim, is a touchstone in this novel. The scenes in which they create varieties of pizzas for a YouTube channel are the book’s funniest. What kind of research did you do to bring their friendship and their project to life?
I actually love making homemade pizza and some of the pizzas in the book are my own recipes! So, very little research there. To write Aneesa, I relied—as I so often have in previous books—on observation, empathy, and my own reading of some Muslim-written personal narratives. I also spoke to an old friend who was raised Muslim to get some additional perspective. Then my editor suggested getting a closer look and asked two Muslim women to read the book to see if I tripped on anything.
What can the librarian/publishing community do to learn about how to address gun violence and suicide, especially among young people?
Any answer I give to that is going to be incomplete by its nature, but I think the biggest thing is first to seek a sort of baseline of education. There are a lot of resources out there— like the Brady Campaign and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline— that are the results of people spending decades studying these issues. They know the warning signs and the best practices. I think they’re a great place to start the process of understanding.
Which of the characters do you identify with the most? Which was the hardest to write?
The answer is the same: Sebastian. I almost always identify most with the main character (which is why they’re the main character, usually), but his pain was so deep and so horrifically embedded in him that writing him hurt in a way I’ve never experienced before. There are scenes and moments in this book that I wish I could forget writing because they were so intensely painful. That’s never happened to me before in writing a book, and I’ve written some pretty brutal stuff! Sebastian got under my skin and burrowed all the way down to the bones.
What are you working on next?
I wish I could tell you, but I’m waiting on the contract and until I get it, I can’t announce anything! But I will say that— if everything works out— I’ll have two different dream projects happening soon.
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