Nineteen Questions with L.T. Vargus
L.T. Vargus is the author of the novel, Casting Shadows Everywhere, which I review in this month’s issue. She agreed to answer some questions for us to give us some insight into her writing process, style and inspirations.
E. Branden Hart: Thanks for taking the time to answer some of our questions. I first heard about Casting Shadows Everywhere on Twitter and was intrigued by the comparison to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, which is one of my favorite novels. After reading CSE, I can understand the comparison: both are excellent examples of transgressive fiction done well. Where did the idea for CSE come from?
L.T. Vargus: Over the years, I’d read a lot of true crime books and seen interviews with serial killers on TV, and I felt like fiction fell flat when portraying the morality of criminals. It too often boiled things down to good and evil without examining the point of view of the bad guy and their motivation. So I felt like I could look at the philosophy of it by taking a sympathetic character, someone lonely and a little naïve, and sending them on a journey into darkness. I think people want to think of other people committing acts of violence as an alien thing outside of themselves that they can feel contempt for and be done with, rather than seeing that things like violence and murder have been part of humanity forever, and we’d be better off to try to understand them. With a character that the audience felt empathy for, maybe the audience could see it that way a little bit more.
EBH: One of the most impressive things about CSE is that it is written from a male’s point of view, and it was spot on. As I read, I had flashbacks to my own time in high school and could easily identify with Jake, who considers himself a “huge pussy.” As a female writer, what was the most challenging thing about writing from the perspective of an adolescent male?
LTV: I think one of the funniest critiques of the book is that I overdo the teenage boy vernacular. I would say for the most part it is written how I talk. How I talk isn’t necessarily how I write most of the time, but I think that probably goes a long way toward illustrating how hard it was for me to write from that perspective. Not at all.
One thing I’ve told fans and not mentioned in interviews, though – L.T. Vargus is a pen name for a team of two writers, a male and a female. Obviously that really undermines the challenge you refer to in the question. That said, each of us wrote sections of the book, and nobody can tell the difference.
We decided to work together under the same name as we thought it would be easier to promote one author name/brand rather than two. As it turns out, there are probably some advantages to using two names, so he plans to split and write under his own name starting with our next release, though we’ll still be working together.
EBH: Before we delve too deep into CSE, I have a couple of questions about your writing style. What authors or artists have the biggest influence on you?
LTV: In terms of pure writing style, I’m not really sure. I guess John Steinbeck made me appreciate the lean and hard approach to prose. I liked that you could be stark and easy to read but still have striking images and poetic turns of phrase. And then after that, I think Ray Bradbury emphasized that, and I saw how vivid and violent you could be with simple, active language.
EBH: When did you first start writing?
LTV: Well, I’ve always liked writing since I was old enough to physically do so. I started getting attention and encouragement in school for writing when I was in first grade, and my fourth grade teacher told my mom I’d be the next Stephen King.
I started working on novels and scripts about 8 years ago, but I’ve been off and on with it. I’ve steadily gotten more serious about it over that time. To me, I’ve been really working at it for 4 years.
EBH: When you write, what do you use the most: Word processor, typewriter, or pen and paper?
LTV: I mostly write on a word processor. I like being able to move things around and edit as I write the first draft.
EBH: About how long did it take you to write CSE, and how long did it take to get it to press when it was finished?
LTV: I had written the seed of the story over a year before I wrote the rest. I sometimes like to write the opening hook and setup – about 8,000 words in this case, if I’m remembering right – and then set it aside and let that live in my imagination for a while before I write the rest. During that off time, I moved and a lot of other things happened, so it got pushed aside for a lot longer than I intended. Once I started working on it the following year, I wrote the rest of it in about six weeks, and then did revisions about two months after that, which I probably worked on for a week or two.
Then I sent it around. Nine literary agents read and rejected it, about half gave me a lot of encouragement, but they universally thought it was “too dark.”
I published it about nine months after finishing the revisions, and a little over two years after writing the opening chapter.
EBH: Let’s talk a little bit about Nick. He’s kind of a modern-day Marxist with the mind of a sociopath. Is Nick a purely fictional construction, or are his characteristics based on people you know?
LTV: Some of the elements of his demeanor are based on people I knew when I was younger, but his philosophy and other ideas are fictional.
EBH: As I mentioned, one of the greatest things about the novel is how easy it is to identify with the main character, Jake, who is the kind of awkward teen most of us have been at some point in life. Despite the difference in gender, is there any of L.T. Vargus in Jake?
LTV: Yeah, for sure. Like I said, it’s written how I talk even now. Jake is vulnerable and full of wonder in a way that I think is pretty universal for young people. I was definitely sensitive and lonely that way in high school. And I really did take a college psychology class in high school, and a lot of that material was straight out of what I remembered from that.
EBH: Jake’s love interest in the novel, Beth, is damaged in her own way, despite the idealized way in which Jake sees her. Is this a commentary on your own views about love—that it allows us to see the best in people and ignore the worst?
LTV: Like I said, I think everyone in high school is vulnerable, no matter what their circumstances might be. If anything, I’d say the message is that no one is perfect, everyone has flaws, but we love those people anyway, and maybe in some way we love them more because of them.
EBH: In the book, Nick tries to teach Jake about life through a series of lessons that escalate in risk as they progress. In particular, they break into houses. Your description of the process, and Nick’s advice to Jake, are almost an entry-level course in B&E. How did you go about researching this kind of an activity in order to provide such detail?
LTV: It’s mostly made up, actually. A couple years before I wrote CSE, I read a book about Richard Ramirez called The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo that really captured my imagination. He was a serial killer in Los Angeles that broke into people’s houses at night and murdered them. The book went into great detail, specifying the timeline of each night. In some cases, Ramirez would fail to find a way into a house and would drive miles away to another random house. The idea that life and death for real people hinged on a window being left unlocked blew my mind. So as I was writing mine, I tried to be as specific as possible because I’d seen how powerful those details could be.
EBH: There are a lot of different ways to view the ending of the novel. As weird as it sounds to say it, I actually thought it was a happy ending—as happy as it can be, anyway. Maybe realistic is the more fitting description here. What are your thoughts on the ending—happy, sad, neither?
LTV: I guess it’s open for interpretation, especially in terms of happy or sad. I feel like Jake started out idealizing things, but he got a glimpse of how cruel and ugly the world can be and that he could be those things himself. In the end, he’s hardened by that, but not all the way, and he still sees room for hope in the world.
EBH: One of the lessons I took from the book is that we all do some supremely fucked up shit when we’re younger, and part of growing up is to learn how to incorporate that into our identities. I think the last line, in particular, shows the importance of leaving the past behind and using it to become something bigger—and hopefully better—than you once were. Is this a reflection of your own thoughts regarding how the past plays into personal identity?
LTV: To me, the last line was more about how you’re quickly embarrassed about the things that happen at that age. I actually just watched a funny documentary called Mortified Nation where people get on stage and read embarrassing diary entries from their teenage years.
Of course, Jake’s journal would also have more disturbing elements that he’d want to erase.
EBH: Jake’s parents are mostly absent from the story. These days, we hear a lot of research and reports about how modern parents are more absent from their children’s lives than those of the previous generation. How much of CSE is a commentary on the state of parental presence in the modern world?
LTV: I felt like the story would be better served to have Nick and Beth be the sole influences on Jake’s morality and philosophy. Having the parents play an active role would only muddle it from that perspective. I guess the absent father is part of Jake’s characterization and leaves the door open for Nick to become a father figure.
I don’t think I was consciously trying to make any kind of comment on parenting, really, but that is something that many people mention, so it must resonate.
EBH: I’ve yet to find anything to support this, but in some of the reviews of CSE that I read, they referenced something you said about this being a Young Adult novel. But I think most parents would hesitate to buy CSE for their fourteen-year-old. Do you think this is a novel suited for the young adult market, and if so, why?
LTV: Going by the strict definition of a young adult novel having a young adult protagonist, I think it is a YA book. Beyond that, I don’t make much of a distinction between adult and young adult. Kids read some adult books. Adults read some YA books.
As far as what people’s kids should be allowed to read, that’s up to them. A lot of adult readers have told me that they’ve given the book to their kids. I think they see it as a way to converse about these kinds of things, and I think that’s great. The book has disturbing elements, but I think the message is ultimately positive and empowering, at least as I see it.
EBH: In general, do you think the world would be a better place if we all stopped being such “huge pussies,” like Jake does in the novel?
LTV: Generally speaking, I think people would be better off if they had less fear motivating their behavior. On the other hand, I think control is an equally empty motivator, and in some ways that was what Jake was really seeking.
EBH: Now for some more personal questions: You’re given the opportunity to have dinner with one living writer. Who would it be and where would you eat?
LTV: I have some of what I like to call “A Song of Ice and Fire Crackpot Conspiracy Theories”, so I’d like a chance to grill George R. R. Martin. See if I can get him to spill the beans. We’d eat pizza, probably New York style, because I’ve read that he prefers that over the thick crust varieties.
EBH: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take one book with you, what would it be?
LTV: Something long that I haven’t read yet. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or War and Peace or something like that. Boy would that be a mistake if it turned out I hate it.
EBH: If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
LTV: Write every day and promote yourself every day. No one can read your book if they’ve never heard of it. More importantly, no one can read it if you don’t write it. The only person that can stop you from writing is yourself.
EBH: What’s next for you—any other projects in the works we should be aware of?
LTV: My next novel will be the first in a fantasy/horror series about a character a lot like a 28-year-old version of Jake from CSE who has seizures during which he may or may not be astral projecting. I’m finishing up revisions now. I’ll probably tease the title and more of the plot in the run up to the release, and I’d say the Kindle version should be out in September or October.
E. Branden Hart is Executive Editor of EmptySinkPublishing.com. He lives and works in San Antonio. His fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Calamaties Press, Down in the Dirt Literary Magazine, and Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology, which is available on Kindle and in paperback by XChyler Publishing.