Longtime American Booksellers Association staffer-turned-COO, now executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, Len Vlahos is adding a new title to his name: debut novelist. Told in the form of a college admissions essay by Harbinger “Harry” Robert Francis Jones, Vlahos’s The Scar Boys (Jan. 2014) explains how Harry got the scars on his face, head, and neck in a vicious act of bullying when he was eight (he was tied to a tree that was later struck by lightning) and overcame his consequent isolation through performing with a punk band. The book, Egmont USA’s lead title on its spring 2014 list, has an announced first printing of 50,000 copies and is the largest galley printing for the press to date. The book will launch with a multimedia event (hint: Vlahos plays the guitar) and a special guest appearance at Winter Institute, a conference that Vlahos helped create nearly a decade ago. He’s also slated to do a 10-city tour, and counting. More stops continue to be added along with prepub events like one at Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill., and meet-and-greets in the Chicago area.
Even before the galleys were available, booksellers who read the manuscript were captured by Vlahos’s voice. Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s, wrote a letter that is bound into the galleys in which she calls The Scar Boys a “must-read” for children and adults. Fifteen booksellers blurbed the back cover. Among them, Cathy Berner, children’s and YA specialist at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., comments, “Harry’s voice is pitch perfect, and Len hits on themes universal to YA lit: being different, struggling through friendships, acceptance, girls.”
Earlier this fall Vlahos and Egmont publisher Andrea Cascardi stopped by PW’s offices to discuss The Scar Boys, which Vlahos said was triggered by his experiences in the band Woofing Cookies. “When I was 19, I dropped out of NYU film school, and I went on the road with a punk-pop band,” Vlahos recalled. “We had an album and a couple 45s. We saved up our money, bought a used van, and very much like in the book got an illegal [inspection] sticker. Eleven days into the tour our van threw an engine rod.” End of tour. Like The Scar Boys, Woofing Cookies played the New York City music club CBGB and did a reunion show there in 2002. Nowadays the band members gather to play in a basement every five years.
Finding The Right Voice
It’s a story and a time that Vlahos has tried to capture over a number of years in a variety of formats: screenplay, essays, and a few failed adult novels. “Nothing was working,” said Vlahos, “because I kept trying to write my story and that wasn’t the story I needed to tell. That’s when I found this Harry character. [The book] is a story about a kid who feels isolated. That’s why the lightning strike happens.” In one draft, every other chapter was written from the point-of-view of a much older Harry looking back. “Finally,” said Vlahos, “my wife said, ‘Why have you insisted on stuffing this 40-year-old character into your teen book?’ ” It took three more years for him to transform it into a YA novel. “I started with the idea of isolation. Bullying came along with the territory,” said Vlahos. “For me, yes, the book is about Harry and the story arc. The book is a love letter to music. It’s about how music saves the world.”
Each chapter is named for a song from the 1970s or ’80s, from Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road to Punk Rock Girl, performed by the Dead Milkmen, and What a Fool Believes, performed by the Doobie Brothers. Originally Vlahos wanted to have a snippet from each song as a chapter title, but lyrics don’t fall under fair use, and permissions were expensive and time-consuming. Despite the book’s strong connection to music, Vlahos says that he doesn’t listen to music when he writes. “That’s why the [commuter] train is awesome,” he said. “I’m alone and focused for 50 minutes.” In the evenings, at home, he spends time with his wife and kids, ages five and almost three, then works on his blog and Web site.
Along the road to publication and finding Egmont, Vlahos got help from industry friends. Allison Hill, CEO of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., was an early reader; Carl Lennertz, executive director of World Book Night U.S., put him in touch with his agent, Sandra Bond. Even though Vlahos has spent most of his career in the book industry, he said that the experience has given him a different perspective on the process. “And I’m learning more every day,” he added. “It’s been eye-opening, and truth be told, has been really helpful to me [at] BISG. I feel like I have a more holistic view of the whole publishing ecosystem.”
Since completing the book, Vlahos continues to write – something he’s done since he was a child – but not about Harry and his friends. “I may come back to them at some point,” he said. “I’m working on a couple of things with teen characters. That’s the voice in my head, because I’ve never grown up.”