Please welcome Mark Andrew Ferguson to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Lost Boys Symphony was published on March 24th by Little, Brown and Company.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Mark: Thanks so much for inviting me, it’s a pleasure. I started writing at around age four, though at that time my letters were very shaky and often backward. It was only with the help of dedicated teachers, parents, and special therapeutic paper that I got any better at it. My fingers often ached, but it was mostly worth it.
I wasn’t the kind of kid who just knew that I was going to be a writer. It wasn’t a blindingly obvious decision by any means. I always liked being creative, alone. I tinker and doodle, that sort of thing. I’m a graphic designer, too, which sort of feeds the same urge. In my mid-twenties, though, after kicking around an idea in my head for a long time, I came to understand that in writing a novel I could spend years telling a single story without being responsible to anyone but myself. I could really take my time and not say anything by accident. That’s very attractive to me, as someone who always worries that he’s said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person.
To clarify: I always wished I could be a novelist, ever since reading tons of Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary and, later, Kurt Vonnegut and Paul Auster. I just never really believed I could be until I actually finished a third or fourth draft of The Lost Boys Symphony.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Mark: Total pantser.
I have a theory that I call the “Elf” theory, which is that the discovery of a world at the beginning of a book or movie is almost always the most satisfying part. The story that happens after that discovery is usually disappointing, hence Elf. Will Ferrel is a genius. There is very little that’s funnier to me than the first forty-five minutes of watching him as Buddy the Elf. Discovering him and how he fits into his world, then watching him discover New York, that stuff is brilliant. But then Buddy has to save Christmas and his family and I fall into an angry sleep.
It’s why the first movie is a trilogy is usually the best, and why so many comedies are funnier in the trailer than they are in 90-120 minutes.
I’m terrified of knowing too much when I’m writing an initial draft. I want to discover things all the way through. Plotting is for later, for me, after the whole thing is written and I need to tighten it all up.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Mark: Concision. (see above)
For real. Between first draft and final of The Lost Boys Symphony I think I cut about 75,000 words, and none of them really mattered.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Mark: Vonnegut changed my life. I grew up Mormon, a lovely religion and a lovely family, but I think I knew pretty early on that the questions that interested me weren’t really religious in nature. I read Breakfast of Champions at fifteen and the blasphemy, the humor, the clarity of Vonnegut’s voice and opinions: it was nuts. And the central question of that book is whether it’s possible to know other minds, which is pretty much my lifelong obsession. It just primed me for a certain kind of reading and writing, and after devouring almost all of Vonnegut’s books I was on a crash with authors like Paul Auster, Murakami, Scarlett Thomas, Philip K. Dick – all writers who are clearly obsessed with philosophy but want to tell a great story.
TQ: Describe The Lost Boys Symphony in 140 characters or less.
Mark: 2 male bffs. 1 goes insane, disappears, & is abducted by his future selves. The 2nd, left behind, reaches out to his bff’s ex-gf for solace.
TQ: Tell us something about The Lost Boys Symphony that is not in the book description.
Mark: It is, in large part, a book about mental illness and how it affects those who care about the person who is suffering. Also, there are a lot of musical hallucination.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Lost Boys Symphony? What appealed to you about writing genre bending love story with time travel and alternate realities? Does the “Lost Boys” in the title refer to anything in particular (Peter Pan for example)?
Mark: I’m afraid the “lost boys” part is about as literal as it gets. The main characters are still kids, basically, even when they are much older, and they are totally lost. The Peter Pan thing fits, for sure, but I didn’t think of it until someone else pointed it out.
This is in no way a put-down of the question, but I don’t much like the word “inspired.” It’s so loaded. I think a lot of people wait for inspiration, myself included, and assume that if it doesn’t just come then they aren’t meant to create something. My main struggle was giving myself the right, the authority, and the responsibility to write. There is no muse strong enough to get me up out of bed and in front of the computer, you know?
As for why I chose this story and this genre, I think my author influences probably go a long way toward an explanation. I love speculative fiction and whatever you might want to call existential mystery. The seed of the book was a time travel story I thought was going to be a comedy sketch or one-act play. It never went anywhere until I paired it with some of my own experiences with mental illness. A good friend of mine suffered a break in college (only maybe 30% of the stuff in the book is true) but it really changed me, and I wanted to write about that. So that provided the emotional backbone and the characters.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Lost Boys Symphony?
Mark: Not much. I find that when you tell people what you are writing, they will tell you what book you should read or movie you should see. This is very helpful to me because I do not read any book or see any movie that is recommended. I don’t want to worry about how my idea stacks up against stuff that’s already out there, or lose momentum because I doubt myself.
I did read two book by Mark Vonnegut (The Eden Express and Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So), about his own schizophrenia and recovery, that were beautifully written and very helpful.
I have done a lot of research for my work-in-progress, though, and I think it’s really fun.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Mark: Henry was the easiest. Young Henry, anyway. So much of his stuff is perceptual, which is the most fun for me to write and the easiest in terms of character.
Gabe was the hardest, because he was the most autobiographical. I was struggling to have empathy for myself, so I couldn’t easily empathize with him either.
Val was really tough too, though. I was really worried that she wouldn’t hold her own to the satisfaction of female readers, particularly because she is wrapped up in a love triangle. I worked really hard to give her her own story.
TQ: Which question about The Lost Boys Symphony do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Mark1: Is it weird to know that total strangers are going to read this thing and create a version of you in their minds that is based exclusively on fiction?
Mark2: Yes. It is fantastically and beautifully bizarre.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Lost Boys Symphony.
Joan took a too-large pinch of tobacco from her pouch and placed it into a too-small paper, rolled it loosely, and licked the glue. Her purple-red tongue looked like some vital organ that had migrated up into her mouth. Gabe offered his Bic, trying not to let her hand touch his as she shielded the flame and leaned in.
TQ: What's next?
Mark: I’m deep in on a second novel, which is very generally about a near-future world in which the experience of one person can be recorded and played back in the mind of another. The technology is fairly new, so while everyone has access to receivers, only major entertainment studios and medical institutions are doing any recording. It’s about an actress, a kid, a cult, and dark secrets. Lots of fun stuff!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Mark: Oh please! This is so fun. Thank you.
The Lost Boys Symphony
Little, Brown And Company, March 24, 2015
Hardcover and eBook,352 pages
A STARTLINGLY ORIGINAL, GENRE-BENDING LITERARY DEBUT IN WHICH A LOVESICK COLLEGE STUDENT IS ABDUCTED BY HIS FUTURE SELVES.
After Henry's girlfriend Val leaves him and transfers to another school, his grief begins to manifest itself in bizarre and horrifying ways. Cause and effect, once so reliable, no longer appear to be related in any recognizable manner. Either he's hallucinating, or the strength of his heartbreak over Val has unhinged reality itself.
After weeks of sleepless nights and sick delusions, Henry decides to run away. If he can only find Val, he thinks, everything will make sense again. So he leaves his mother's home in the suburbs and marches toward the city and the woman who he thinks will save him. Once on the George Washington Bridge, however, a powerful hallucination knocks him out cold. When he awakens, he finds himself kidnapped by two strangers--one old, one middle-aged--who claim to be future versions of Henry himself. Val is the love of your life, they tell him. We've lost her, but you don't have to.
In the meantime, Henry's best friend Gabe is on the verge of breakdown of his own. Convinced he is somehow to blame for Henry's deterioration and eventual disappearance, Gabe is consumed by a potent mix of guilt and sadness. When he is approached by an enigmatic stranger who bears a striking resemblance to his lost friend, Gabe begins to fear for his own sanity. With nowhere else to turn, he reaches out to the only person who can possibly help him make sense of it all: Val.
The Lost Boys Symphony is a beautiful reminder of what it's like to be young, lost, and in and out of love for the very first time. By turns heartfelt and heartbreaking, Ferguson's debut novel boldly announces the arrival of a spellbinding new talent on the literary stage, in a master feat of empathy and multilayered storytelling that takes adventurous literary fiction to dizzying new heights.