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2015 Morris Award: An Interview with Finalist Len Vlahos

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Each year, YALSA’s Morris Award honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature. The award morris_seal_finwinner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Join us for a live webcast of the YMA Awards press conference or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter or Facebook to be among the first to know the 2015 winners. The official hashtag for the 2015 Youth Media Awards is  #ALAyma.

Today we bring you an interview with Len Vlahos, a 2015 Morris Award finalist for The Scar Boys.

I listened to the audio book edition of Scar Boys, narrated Lincoln Hoppe.  Had you listened to him on another audiobook?  What made you choose him to be the voice of Harbinger “Harry” Jones?

I was so excited when I learned the Random House had acquired the rights to do the audiobook of The Scar Boys, but I was also mystified. I knew nothing about how the process worked. The producer, Kelly Gildea, sent me clips of four possible narrators. The production team had their eye on one in particular, but he sounded too old to me. I knew as soon as I heard Lincoln’s voice that he was Harry. Plus, he’d read King Dork by Frank Portman and absolutely nailed that.  (I should also note that I got to play guitar for the audiobook, which was a great experience.)

What music are you listening to right now?

Right this very second? The tapping of keys on my ancient Macbook. But in general, lately I’ve been playing Roxy Music’s Manifesto, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and Jackson Browne’s Solo Acoustic Vol 1. (In fact, your question made me stop what I was doing, pull out the Bose Speakers, launch Spotify, and put on some Jackson Browne.)

Were there any songs you wanted to use as chapter titles that didn’t make it to the final novel?

Actually, the original manuscScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.16.00 AMript did not use song titles as chapter heads; it used snippets of lyrics. So, for example, the chapter that currently starts with “Bad Brain (written by Dee Dee Ramone, Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone, and Marky Ramone, and performed by the Ramones)” originally started with “Gives me the shots, gives me the pills, got me takin’ this junk, against my will…”—New York Dolls Only, it turns out that pesky US copyright law doesn’t allow you to use a snippet of a poem or lyric in a work of commercial fiction without first getting permission. I tried to clear permission, but no one wrote me back. This part of Fair Use law — the copyright law governing use of others’ intellectual property — is actually a bit of a gray area, but it made my publisher nervous, so I changed all the chapter heads to song titles (which can;t be protected with copyright). I spent two weeks searching for appropriate titles that we recorded before 1987. It was a challenge but fun.

If money and copyright were not issues, would you have included all the songs from the titles with the audiobook or as part of a cd soundtrack or downloaded playlist?

Egmont made a Spotify playlist of the chapter heads: Scar Boys 

And yes, I would love it if they were in the audio book. However, those songs were chosen for the textual content. To get a better sense of what I really listen to, check out the playlist I made for my book tour.

I admit I judged this book.  I had an expectation that was far exceeded.  I loved the pervasive misery, the subplots of sadness like ;  reading The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Mrs. Mac dying so unexpectedly of cancer, Mr. K’s patient commits suicide, Richie’s accident, and even Harry’s dad loosing his job. Do you see yourself as an optimist, pessimist or realist?  What do you see for your future?

Oh man, what a question. :-) Okay, if we were playing truth or dare and you asked this question, I would have to tell you that outwardly I’m all pessimist, and inside I’m all optimist. I’m a consummate dreamer, My future? I see hard work, happy kids, and fresh air.

Be warned, by the way, Scar Girl — the sequel scheduled to publish in late August — is a lot darker than The Scar Boys. 

I spent way too much time thinking about the lost dog the family finds near a lighthouse while on vacation. I wanted a lot of things for Harry but I felt especially determined that he keep the dog. The impact of this scene changed when I reread it.  Instead of focusing on the dog, I was fixated on Harry’s dad and their terrible encounter. His dad’s quote “pain and stress can hijack a man’s soul and twist it out of shape” made me see how strong Harry was.  I didn’t think Harry’s soul was mangled from his accident. I felt an intense understanding of both characters at this exact scene. Did you write this scene in particular to help us understand forgiveness? 

Great question! There were a lot of things going on in this scene. First, when my family drove across country when I was six years old (I have an older brother and sister, and all five of us were crammed in a Plymouth sedan for three weeks), we found an abandoned dog at a rest stop in Texas. My dad really did throw his back out trying to coax the dog into our car so we could bring him to a shelter.

Second, I was paying homage to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. There’s a pivotal scene early in that book where the dad accidentally makes fun of his daughter’s stutter. It’s a powerful scene that has always stayed with me, and I was thinking of that when Harry’s father let’s his most horrible of insults slip.

Finally, I was thinking about ways of showing how Harry’s armor became hardened and how it shaped him as a person. That said, Harry doesn’t really come to understand the concept of forgiveness until he figures out how to forgive himself, which is kind of what happens with his story arc. (Whoops! Spoiler!)

Do you have a favorite music video that inspired your work? Or do you have a favorite video that was inspired by your work that we could share on The Hub?

I can’t say that any one music video inspired The Scar Boys, but I will share some video clips of students that were brave enough to play guitar and/or sing at my book events. It made the entire experience so wonderfully special. 

Now that Scar Boys has two awesome covers, do you love them both equally or do you have a favorite?  How involved are you in designing the covers?

Indies Asked to Choose Scar Boys Cover Design
Indies Asked to Choose Scar Boys Cover Design

Publishers have the decision making power over book covers, and I have been really fortunate that Egmont has included me at every step of the process. And really, there have been four covers.  There were two proposed covers for the advanced reader’s copy, which was changed for the hardcover. I kind of love them all equally. Designers are amazing people. It’s a talent I just don’t have. Finally, we just revealed the cover for Scar Girl

Pretty cool, huh?

Yes, Len, yes you are.

-Laura C. Perenic is currently reading Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach

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Laura Perenic