Debut author Len Vlahos has a new guitar—which he’s purchased just in time to accompany him on a book tour for his debut young adult novel, The Scar Boys, which he describes as a “love letter to music.”
For years Vlahos has wanted to write about the “transformative” time he spent touring in the ‘80s with his band, the Woofing Cookies. “We started as teens and finished as 21-one-year-olds, and we had such an incredible experience traveling around,” Vlahos says. “I always wanted to tell that story. But every time I tried, it never came out right.” Vlahos experimented with screenplays, essays, short stories—nothing quite worked until one day he realized he was actually after something much more universal than a memoir.
“My story was just a backdrop to this story,” he explains, meaning the story of Harry, horribly scarred from a childhood bullying incident, whose membership in the Scar Boys and friendship with fellow band member Johnny helps Harry find his way back to life. Vlahos says it’s also the story of “every kid who’s ever found happiness, confidence and friends through music. It’s about the power of music to heal. Music plays such an important role in the life of teens. As people get older, they tend to lose that immediate connection. Some readers saw this as a book about bullying, but no, first, this is a book about music.”
He may be a debut novelist, but Vlahos is no stranger to the world of publishing. When the Woofing Cookies broke up in the late ‘80s, Vlahos followed his other passion, books, and has worked in the industry ever since, first for the American Booksellers Association (eventually he became the chief operating officer) and more recently as the Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group. Did his role as an industry insider make it harder to write—did he know too much? “Actually, it made it so much easier,” he says. “I have a huge advantage—I’m really fortunate to have the relationships I have and to know who I know. But equally important was understanding the way it all works, about signing a book contract years in advance, about the importance of agents and publicity. It’s a whole new vocabulary for someone else to learn.”
Despite his busy life, Vlahos plays his guitar three or four times a week—sometimes for his two young children and sometimes late at night, for himself (Vlahos confesses to being something of an insomniac.) A “consummate rewriter,” the author even describes his writing process in musical terms. “I like to plow through a big first draft then do a lot of revising, draft after draft. For me, getting the whole idea on paper first is how I work. As we’d say in the band, just get it down, then we’ll fix it in the mix.”
That band makes a cameo appearance in The Scar Boys, and Vlahos also includes in the novel some songs he wrote long ago. In a recent audio book production, Vlahos was delighted to participate as a musician: “I laid down guitar tracks, and the narrator is going to sing it. It's very exciting to hear someone else bring your song to life.”
Given all these connections to his past, it seems the line between fact and fiction might be blurry, but Vlahos is quite clear: The Scar Boys is a story. “It’s fun as a writer to put in little Easter eggs of fact for people to discover—there are some locations that are real, some real names of fri
ends and family as a fun way to include people. But fiction is fiction.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.