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Interview: January 31, 2014

Len Vlahos's new book THE SCAR BOYS --- about a severely burned boy who finds solace in his punk rock band --- hits surprisingly close to home. The Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group was in a punk rock band in high school, Woofing Cookies, and eventually dropped out of NYU film school to reunite and tour. In this interview, he talks about how his own experience influenced THE SCAR BOYS, the power of music and some insight into his next project.

Teenreads: You've said that this book is loosely based on a tour that you took with your high school band, Woofing Cookies. What inspired you to use this experience in this book?

Len Vlahos: The time I spent playing guitar with Woofing Cookies was a transformative part of my life, and I've spent years trying to tell that story. I wrote (mediocre) screenplays, (kind of pointless) essays, even one (meandering) novel. None of it worked. It wasn't until I realized that the story I was trying to tell wasn't my own; it was the story of anyone who has ever found friendship, confidence and happiness through music. 

TR: I was really excited that Harry and his band got to travel to the Lower East side and explore some of the punk rock scene. Did the Woofing Cookies ever play at the infamous CBGB?

LV: We did! CBGB's had what they called "showcase nights" every Sunday and Monday. If they liked your demo, they let you play a half hour set for free. If your performance was good enough, and if you brought enough of your friends through the door, they gave you a paying gig on a better night. We played eight of those showcases without ever getting a paying gig before when two of us went to college (both to NYU film school) and the band broke up. But the lure of music was powerful and we reunited for a CBGB's showcase at the end of our freshman year; this time it worked. Within a couple of months we were playing weekend nights. We dropped out of school and went on the road with the band. My description of CBGB's in THE SCAR BOYS is entirely from my memory. (I hope I got it right!)

TR: Harry is a consistent victim of bullying and the torment from it prevents him from taking control of situations and branching out --- especially since a bullying incident led to facial disfiguration. This changes throughout the book as he's playing with the band. How does music help him open up?

LV: This a terrible thing for an author to say, but the power of music is hard to put into words. It's one of those indefinable, indescribable, intangible experiences that is, I suppose, almost religious in nature. The feeling I got the first time I heard music that really spoke to me --- the Beatles Greatest Hits albums (inherited from my older brother and sister) --- was like a pilot light deep inside me had finally been turned on. When I learned enough guitar to play some of those very same songs (e.g., "Day Tripper"), it was like someone added natural gas to the flame. That was the feeling I tried to convey through Harry. His feeling of isolation is meant to underscore just how potent music --- and friendship --- can be. 

TR: How has music affected your life?

LV: Well, in addition to what I just blathered on about in answer to the previous question, I will say this: Music is a better sedative or stimulant than anything found in nature or in a laboratory. It literally keeps me grounded. Plus, I've met some of the best friends in my life through music. 

TR: Harry's relationships with the people in his life are interesting, to say the least: he's heard his father call him a freak, his best friend pretty much dictates what he does and he doesn't have hope for a romantic relationship, despite his crush on his band-mate, Cheyenne. But it isn't until he pulls away from his friendships toward the end of the book that he realizes the complete nature of these relationships. Have you had a moment in your life in which you had a realization that something isn't as it appears?

LV: A better question might be if I've had a realization TODAY of that something isn't as it appears. In other words, yes. I think we all tend to misjudge one another's motives and intentions. Time is not only a great healer of wounds, it is a great revealer of truth. (Those misjudgments are what's at the heart of both good comedy and good tragedy, no?)

TR: Harry admits that he's addicted to knowing facts and loves math --- but he's also failing classes, and college isn't very much on his radar. Was there a correlation between knowledge and schooling that you wanted to portray?

LV: No, not really. I have two sons (five and three), so I find myself thinking about schooling a lot more than I used to. But most of those thoughts, as they pertain to K-12 schooling, are still in the formative stage. Regarding college, I don't think people should go just because they're supposed to. There's a great book -- the only business book that's also graphic novel that I know of -- by Dan Pink called THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY BUNKO. It's about how following convention doesn't usually lead to happiness. That's really the case with Harry. He discovers that what makes him happy is what matters.

TR: Why did you decide to frame the story as Harry writing his college essay?

LV: For some reason, I can't wrap my brain around writing in the first person unless the narrator has a reason to be talking to the audience. I don't mind it in other novels, but in my own stuff, the main character has to be talking to the readers for some specific reason. I'm not sure how and when I happened on the college essay, but I'm pleased with how it worked out. 

TR: What would you like readers to take away from your book?

LV: I did a pre-pub event at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, IL. The owner of the store, the incredible Becky Anderson, had everyone in attendance -- about 50 teens and educators -- sign a copy of THE SCAR BOYS' ARC to me. Everyone was great. They wrote really funny, interesting, and heartwarming things all throughout the book. When I got to the very last page, next the "about the author" stuff, an eighth grade girl had written. "Music is a rescuer not just to Harry and Johnny, but also to me. Thank you for writing this book. Now I am not alone." I was floored. 

So I suppose if readers take anything away from THE SCAR BOYS, know that you are not alone. There are lots of us out here. We just need to find one another. And music is a great place to start; it can even save your life. 

TR: What are you working on now? Anything else coming in the future?

LV: I finished an adult novel and am trying to figure out what to do with it, and I'm well into another YA, though it is very unrelated to THE SCAR BOYS. I posted the first page of the YA a while ago on my website. I will tell you that this first page is stylistically completely different from everything that follows. (It's also changed a bit since I posted it.) The rest of the story is the first person account of the teen referenced in here:

And of course, I do think about what happens next for Harry and his friends. But so far, I'm just thinking…Stay tuned.