Barry Lyga’s latest novel, I Hunt Killers (Little, Brown), tells the story of Jazz, the son of the world’s greatest serial killer. Going beyond the usual tropes of the thriller genre, Lyga explores the effect of murder on the family of the killer and on the community as a whole. Lyga has never shied away from darker themes, having explored teen depression in The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and sexual abuse in Boy Toy, and he continues to combine a sensitive exploration of these topics with solid storytelling.
Jazz, the hero and narrator of I Hunt Killers, was taught about serial killers ever since he was a boy. What sort of research did you have to do? Did you ever find yourself creeped out by some of the stuff you discovered?
I did a lot of research. I spent about three months before I sat down to write the book poring over things like forensic science, serial killer pathology, history of serial murder, all kinds of things like that. I read a lot of serial killer case studies, and tried to immerse myself in that world so that I could write about it. Strangely enough, there was not a whole lot that freaked me out. I was joking that my friends tell me that I was born without a soul because I write about this stuff and it doesn’t bother me at all. But I sort of just looked at it very clinically; I was studying it to learn so that I could write about it accurately. And I think that as a result, it didn’t bother me because it felt more like research material than something real. Which is probably how Jazz feels about it [laughs], so I think that in a way, that helped me.
Jazz's father, Billy Dent, is essentially an “evolved” serial killer, changing his signature and defying conventional profiling. What inspired his creation?
I kept thinking about a couple of things. One was, what if you had a serial killer who was smart enough to know how you get caught and could avoid it? I’ve got friends who are police officers, and one friend [a lieutenant in the Baltimore Police Department] said, “It’s a good thing criminals are stupid.” And I started to ask myself, what if you had one of these guys who was really, really smart and studied the history of serial killers, so he knew what everybody did that got them caught, and he could avoid those things?
So that was the beginning of it. The second part is, I’ve been joking that Billy Dent is really the world’s first self-actualized serial killer. He likes what he does, and he’s spent his life preparing for it. Consequentially, he’s really, really good at it. He’s somebody who takes it seriously and views it as his vocation, what he’s meant to do. As a result, he’s better at it than anybody else, and it’s the entire focus of his life. Most serial killers build up these fantasies, and then they slowly begin to live them out. Billy’s looked at it his whole life as the only thing he really wants to do.
A lot of teen mysteries feature a kid getting involved against the wishes of the local law enforcement, but Jazz’s relationship with the law is a little more complex. How tough is it to walk the line between portraying the authority figures as bumbling fools and having them as deux ex machina saviors?
It’s really difficult, actually. One of the things I really despise in fiction – any kind of fiction, including TV, books, anything – is when certain characters or types of characters are portrayed as stupid or missing the point or clueless solely so that the main character can look good. I really wanted to avoid that. In the first book, G. William, the sheriff, doesn’t think that the murders in town are the work of a serial killer at first, but I wanted good reasons for that. So it’s not just “Gee, he’s really stupid and doesn’t think there’s a serial killer.” He has rational reasons, and he also has personal reasons. The last time there was a serial killer in town, it almost killed him; it almost destroyed him psychologically, and he almost died physically. As a result, he’s in denial, and it’s a very ostensible, rational denial to be in.
I took a lot of care in that. In the second book, there’s a lot more involvement with the police and the FBI, and again, I wanted to make it clear that these are actually really good people, and they’re really good at what they do. I didn’t want them to look like idiots just so that Jazz could look good.
One of the characters I found most intriguing was Howie, Jazz’s hemophiliac best friend. What made you add such a fragile character to such a dangerous world?
When I first came up with the idea of Howie, I thought that this was going to be an interesting, ironic juxtaposition – the idea of the perfect murderer being best friends with the perfect victim. At first, that’s all it was. And then, as I wrote their relationship, I came to realize what Howie brought to the table. Howie, to Jazz, is a constant reminder of how fragile people are, and how easy it would be for Jazz to kill somebody. As a result, it forced Jazz to restrain himself a little bit. It wasn’t intentional when I first came up with Howie, but it evolved over the course of writing the book. I’m really pleased with how their friendship turned out. A lot of early readers have told me that they love Howie, and I’m glad, because Howie is just a lot of fun to write.
Comics play a big part in your books, and you’ve written a few characters like Warrior Nun Arrella and Wolverine. Do you have any interest in entering the field on more of an ongoing basis?
Well, I did have a graphic novel come out in November called Manga Man which was a lot of fun to do. I go through periods of time where I want to do some comic books really badly, and then I go through some periods where I don’t think about it that much. I think it’s one of those things that I’m always going to be drawn back to. I don’t know if it will ever be on some sort of continuing basis; I don’t know that it’ll be something like, once a year you’ll see a graphic novel from me or I’ll do some sort of a monthly comic. But every few years, there will be some kind of a comic book project from me; it’s just part of my DNA. I grew up reading comics as a kid and I never stopped. There are a lot of stories that occur to me very visually, and those stories are the ones I’d like to tell in that format.
I Hunt Killers has been optioned as a TV series. Are you going to be involved in the production at all?
I’m a consultant on the show, and when I was told that I thought, “Yeah, that means they’re going to give me a title to go away.” But I’ve spoken to the folks who are actually involved in producing the show several times, and they have actively sought my input and feedback, which is great. My answer to that is, I will do whatever it is they’d like me to do. I would be thrilled to be involved at any level. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. There are some things I know about the show, but there’s really nothing I can say in public at this point. But I’ve got a really good feeling about it. I think that if everything comes together appropriately, it’s going to be a really great show.
I Hunt Killers moves away from Brookdale, where your previous series are set. Did moving your literary “home” to Lobo’s Nod feel awkward at all?
At first it felt a little strange to not be writing a book set in Brookdale. But I really wanted to take advantage of it and create a new town. Brookdale is my version of a generic “Everytown, America.” Lobo’s Nod is a little more southern, a little less coastal. And although we don’t get into it quite as much in the second book, by the third book there’s going to be a little more about the town itself. What felt stranger than leaving Brookdale – what I missed about it, actually – was that I already had this ecosphere built for myself. I knew where the schools were, I knew where the mall was, I knew roughly how large the town was, I knew all of that stuff. With Lobo’s Nod, I was starting over from scratch. But I realized pretty quickly that it would be fun because there are many bodies showing up; that certainly didn’t happen in Brookdale at all. So it was a whole different situation to play with.
Even though the lead characters are all teens, I Hunt Killers often gets as dark as many thrillers for older readers. Have you considered ever writing books that aren’t aimed at the YA market?
Yeah, I have. Right now, I’m so incredibly busy and having so much fun with YA, that I just don’t have any room on my plate for adult. I do have an adult project that I’ve been working on off and on for about a year. At some point I’ll finish that and we’ll see what happens. But, regardless, I can’t picture a time when I won’t be writing young adult books. Even if I do some adult stuff and it takes off, I have so much fun and I really think that that young adult audience is at an age where they become obsessed with a good story, and a good story can change their life and the direction of their life. It’s not like that with adults. I don’t write books in order to change people’s lives, but it’s a nice side-effect.
You’re just finishing a book tour; what’s it like meeting your fans in person, and how have they been reacting to I Hunt Killers?
It’s terrific. It’s the greatest thing. You go into these schools and you talk about your books and how you put them together and where the ideas come from and you see these reactions! They just want to know “where did this come from?” and “how did you do this?” They’ve all got these dreams, and they all want to know how I achieved my dream, and I can tell them. For me, it’s particularly meaningful because I grew up in a very small town, and there was no real support system for somebody who wanted to do something like this for a living. We never had authors come to visit, I never met an author until I was one, and there was certainly nobody in town who had written a book or done something like that. So I feel really good when I can go and be that author for some kid out there who wants to do something like this, and be the person that makes them say, “oh, I can do something like this! I’ve met a guy who did it. It’s not just for people whose names are on books who I’ll never meet.”
Jazz’s father made his son watch him kill people. What’s the worst thing your parents ever forced you to do?
Oh boy. Well, first of all, we don’t know for sure that Billy actually made Jazz watch him kill somebody. We know Jazz saw the aftermath, but we don’t know if he saw the deaths or not. But the worst thing my parents made me do? Well, when I was a kid, my mother hated comic books. She wouldn’t let me have comic books in her house. So I had to sneak them in from my father’s house and then hide them under my bed. Most kids were hiding pornography; I was hiding comic books. I think it’s sort of cruel and unusual punishment to not let a kid read comic books. That was pretty bad.
You’ve already mentioned a sequel to I Hunt Killers, and the ending certainly showed the potential for more tales in this world. What else do you have in the works?
There’s going to be two more books in the I Hunt Killers series, and then I’ve got the third and final book in my Archvillain series from Scholastic, which is a middle-grade series. I believe that will come out in January of 2013. Then I’m always noodling around with other stuff. I’ve got all sorts of things in various stages. I’ve got one book that I call “the book that will kill me” because it’s a very long, very complicated book that I’m always working on. We’ll see how that comes along in the next few months.
I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga. Little, Brown, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-316-12584-0