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April 4, 2012

Living and Writing the Serial Killer

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After graduating from Yale with a degree in English, Barry Lyga worked in the comic book industry for ten years. In 2006, his first young adult novel, THE ASTONISHING ADVENTURE SOF FANBOY AND GOTH GIRL, was published to rave reviews. His newest novel, I HUNT KILLERS, just came out on April 3rd, and is about the teenaged son of the world's worst serial killer. Lyga lives and writes in the big city. His comic book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but is still way too big.

 

One day before most people knew about I HUNT KILLERS, I attended a reading at which a friend of mine read from a book she’d written about a girl who becomes involved with an online child predator. During Q&A, someone asked if it was difficult to write about such a subject. My friend answered that it was horrifying to her, that the thought of a child predator made her feel unclean, made her skin crawl. “I don’t know how people who write about, say, serial killers do it.”

At this point, the few people in the room who knew I was working on I HUNT KILLERS turned and looked at me very pointedly. Later, at dinner, some of them asked, “Doesn’t it bother you, thinking like a serial killer?”

I guess I could have lied, but I was honest: “Nah. Doesn’t bother me at all. Maybe,” I added when they seemed shocked, “I just don’t have a soul.”

The fact of the matter is that writing about a serial killer was no more bothersome or upsetting to me than writing about any of my various characters. And it was no more difficult, either. Slipping into Billy Dent’s twisted, perverse mind was like shrugging into my favorite jacket. Maybe I really don’t have a soul!

Or maybe it’s just because of the way I tend to write. In the past, I’ve compared writing a character to something akin to Method acting or even demonic possession. When I write a character, I “become” that character for the length of time necessary. It doesn’t matter if the character is a comic book geek, a Goth girl, a super-hero, or a child molester. Or a serial killer. I possess the character, I become the person in question.

So of course I’m not horrified or disturbed! For all intents and purposes, when I’m writing a serial killer, I feel like a serial killer. How do you manage that, you may be wondering?

Well, for most of my characters, a little imagination and a big dollop of human empathy are all that are required: “Hey, if I were a teenage girl who just got out of a mental hospital, how would I feel?” Or, “If I were a kid who suddenly had super-powers, how would that change me?”

In the case of I HUNT KILLERS,  I immersed myself in research. Over the course of a mere two months, I devoured close to two dozen books on forensic science, serial killer pathology, abnormal psychology, the history of serial murder... And the case files! Oh, the case files I studied...

I filled a notebook with facts and figures and bits and pieces of lore and legend. About Craig Price, the youngest serial killer in the U.S. About crazy old Albert Fish, classic lunatic Richard Macek, I learned about picking up fingerprints with ninhydrin (on paper) or cyanoacrylate esters (for non-porous surfaces).

And then I wrote the book. I didn’t write it with my research at my side. Oh, I dipped back into that notebook for facts (How long until rigor mortis starts? What is the evidence of blood pooling in the human body?), but when it came to the killers themselves... When it came to those guys, I felt as though I’d absorbed them. I had lived something of their lives through them. Channeling their particular madnesses to inform my most monstrous killer of them all --- the God of Murder, the Lord of Carnage, Billy Dent --- was the easiest thing in the world.

And does it bother me that I find it so easy to do that?

No. It really doesn’t.

Sometimes, though...

Sometimes, it bothers me that it doesn’t bother me.

But hey, don’t worry about me. It’s my job to go wallow in the muck and the mire of the human psyche. It’s your job to enjoy and --- if I’ve done my job right --- to sit back and wonder, “How on earth can he think this stuff???”