Today, Mark Andrew Ferguson visits Fantasy Literature to celebrate the paperback release of his well-received debut novel, The Lost Boys Symphony, which brings mental illness, time travel, and the bonds of friendship into a compelling and cohesive whole. He was kind enough to talk with Jana about his novel, sharing insight into his writing process and an upcoming project. One lucky commenter will win a copy of The Lost Boys Symphony!
Jana Nyman: I appreciated your treatment of Henry’s mental state: you took a serious approach with a very real illness and added a fantastical layer to it, which then affects Gabe and Val as well. Did you worry while writing that readers might think you were making light of mental illness in some way? How did you manage to portray Henry’s struggles with such compassion and clarity?
Mark Andrew Ferguson: I have a very close friend who suffered in much the way Henry does in the book. The writing of the book wasn’t meant to be therapeutic, really, but I can’t deny that it was. Compassion and clarity are great words to use here, because when you are trying to remain connected to someone whose experience of reality is so far removed from your own, compassion and clarity are the toughest and most important things to hold on to.
When I wrote the book, I came at it from the perspective that I would never get Henry exactly “right.” I deeply appreciate your reaction and have been largely pleased with how readers have responded, but I definitely had concerns. I still do. Merging mental illness with time travel could be perceived as exploitative, I guess, or sensationalist, but I worked very hard to make the thematic link clear. Henry’s future, the one he thought he was going to live, was completely erased when he broke from reality. The cliché way of talking about this is to say that he was “robbed” of his future, which isn’t exactly right. He still has one, but it’s completely unknown and unpredictable, and this leaves Henry to make his own future almost from scratch. Time travel gets at this point really efficiently, because Henry’s older selves are doing just that (though, from their perspective, it’s the past). It dramatizes the thing that is saddest and most difficult to accept about serious mental illness, namely that it forces a person to abandon all of his ideas about himself and who he can and will be. The trauma of that is extreme.
Through Gabe and Val, you provide two anchor points for Henry: his childhood, through Gabe, and his visualized future, through Val. Why was it important for you to include their viewpoints alongside Henry’s instead of solely relying on his narrative?
Gabe, Val, and Henry’s mother Jan also have to let go of their ideas of Henry. They have their own trauma to deal with, and that was something that I did think I could get “right.” Mental illness, and illness of any kind really, it strikes individual people but it affects whole families and communities, and to me that’s the emotional backbone of the book.
There were more writerly considerations at play, too. I wanted to play with the concept of “objective” reality, which I think is pretty much not even really a thing, but it’s a non-existent thing that most of us take completely as granted. I needed characters whose ideas about reality were “normal” so that readers would feel safe with them and identify with them, and I needed that so that when those characters begin to question their own sanity, the reader has to go along for the ride.
Was it difficult for you to keep the various timelines and Henrys straight in your head, especially since their chapters bounce around in time while Gabe and Val’s chapters share a linear progression? How did you keep everything organized while you created the novel?
I wrote this book in about as stupid a way as possible, but it was the only way I knew how at the time. I kept track of nothing. I just thought a lot about the problems I’d created for myself with such a complicated plot. The solutions to those problems that ended up in the book were the solutions that I remembered. I assumed, I hope correctly, that if they were good enough solutions to remember, they were good enough solutions to base the book on.
Some readers find Henry’s timelines confounding, while other readers understood the time travel better than I did. I really did expect this, but I didn’t want to take away all the mystery by answering every question and shying away from questions that seemed unanswerable. What I wanted most was for people who didn’t know what the eff was going on with the time travel to still like the book because of the characters and their interactions with one another.
I thought you did a good job with the time travel; even though I’m the type of reader who wants to know more of the nuts-and-bolts behind certain concepts, I was satisfied with the amount of information you revealed through the text.
If you could time-shift backwards, is there anything you’d change or add to the novel? Is there a moment in your own life you’d like to re-experience with a new, more mature perspective?
I wouldn’t change anything about the novel. Not because I can’t think of anything to change, but because I just can’t go there. Where would I stop? Every single line could be different (and, at one point, was), and editing is as much about fixing things as it is about knowing when to let go.
I’m not big on wanting to go back in time. Maybe that seems strange considering the subject matter of The Lost Boys Symphony. My belief is that our own subjectivity is incredibly narrow, and our memories are narrower still. Like everyone else, I make my memories mean what I want them to mean, and that meaning changes over time. The way I choose to remember my memories is almost the entirety of who I am. It’s not tempting to me to go back and relive or change anything from my past, because I think that would make me a different person than I am, and at this moment in my life I happen to like myself the way I am. Ask again in a few years, though, and who knows what I’d say.
I think that’s a really good answer, actually!
Are you currently working on any writing projects, and if so, are there any details you’d like to share?
I’m working, almost done now, with a book called The Empathy Machine. It’s much less autobiographical, much broader, and I think more exciting than The Lost Boys Symphony. It takes place in the near future, and it’s about a form of virtual reality that’s based on recording the thoughts of a select few and disseminating those thoughts to the masses as entertainment. I don’t know how to elevator pitch it yet, honestly.
That does sound interesting, and I’m looking forward to reading it!
Finally, I’d like to know if you have a favorite drink — either relating to your creative process (as a relaxation aid while writing, for example) or something involved with your work. Are there any beverages which remind you of working on The Lost Boys Symphony, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?
Coffee, for one. And water. Boring, I know, but while writing, I need like three half-full water glasses around so I am not tempted to get up. I’ve written with a sleeping cat pinning my arms to the table for the same reason, and even tried it with my baby boy when he was just a lump, though that didn’t last.
As for celebratory drinks, yes and yes and yes. I still have about a quarter bottle of George T. Stagg overproof bourbon that I bought while editing The Lost Boys Symphony. Stagg is amazing, powerful stuff, and its limited release makes it very hard to find. I don’t say this to be all “Look at me and my fancy hard-to-find whiskey,” I say it because I think it’s important to have a hard-to-find bottle in the cupboard for nights when you’ve finished a draft, or sold a book, or found out about a good review, or for pub day. If it’s not hard to find, you’ll just drink it on any old night and where’s the fun in that?
My thoughts exactly. Thanks so much for your time, Mr. Ferguson!
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a paperback copy of The Lost Boys Symphony. U.S. and Canada-based addresses only, please.