Interview with The Art of Being Normal author Lisa Williamson

AOBN front on

 

Hi all,

I am thrilled to welcome Lisa Williamson to the blog today as part of The Art of Being Normal blog tour. The book is out this month and is a wonderful contemporary novel about gender identity and coming of age. I loved this book and I am so happy it is being published. One of the main things you learn when talking to L, G, B and trans* teens is how lonely most of them  feel and how much they would like to be heard and also to talk about who they are. I feel this book will go a long way in making trans* issues more widely acknowledged.

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lisa photoTwo boys. Two secrets. David Piper has always been an outsider. His parents think he’s gay. The school bully thinks he’s a freak. Only his two best friends know the real truth – David wants to be a girl. On the first day at his new school Leo Denton has one goal – to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in year 11 is definitely not part of that plan. When Leo stands up for David in a fight, an unlikely friendship forms. But things are about to get messy. Because at Eden Park School secrets have a funny habit of not staying secret for long …

Lisa Williamson was born and grew up in Nottingham. She studied drama at Middlesex University and since graduating has worked as an actor on stage and TV. Between acting jobs Lisa temped in offices across London, typing stories when no one was looking, one of which eventually became THE ART OF BEING NORMAL. Lisa lives in North London with her boyfriend.

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Would you be able to tell me a bit more about The Art of Being Normal and what inspired you to write this book?

Of course! The Art of Being Normal is told from the perspective of two boys, David and Leo, who each have a secret. David is struggling with his gender identity and when we meet him at the beginning of the book, he’s seriously thinking that he would prefer to live as female. Only his two best friends know and he’s terrified at the prospect of telling his parents. Leo is the new boy at David’s school, assumed expelled from a ‘rough’ school across town. He just wants to keep his head down, but then he attracts the attention of the coolest girl in Year 11, and his guard starts to slip. When Leo stands up for David in a fight, the two of them are thrown together and an unlikely friendship develops. I can’t say much more without getting ‘spoilery’!

I was inspired to write the book having spent two years working as the administrator for The Gender Identity Development Service (an NHS service for under-eighteens struggling with their gender identity). During my time there I was struck by the lack of trans protagonist in the YA literature, and also the lack of transgender characters in entertainment and the media in general (something that is steadily and quite excitingly improving)  One of my tasks in the job was to audio type the notes from patient therapy sessions. This gave me the opportunity to listen to an incredible range of stories (happy, sad, painful, triumphant, hopeful). Having never questioned my own gender identity, I was surprised at how relatable I found the lives of these young people and very quickly my perceptions of ‘what is normal’ were completely turned on their head. I became very committed to writing a book featuring trans characters that wasn’t sensationalist or shocking, and showed the characters dealing with their gender identity whilst not being defined by it, just like the young people I had come across.

I really loved how the characters in the book felt real – in the sense that they were as diverse as people you see in everyday life. How important is diversity in books for you?

Thank you! It’s hugely important. As a straight, white teenage girl, growing up I was privileged in that I could go into a library or bookshop, pick up a book off the shelf and find a character that resembled me. Back in the nineties, when I was a teenager, there was comparatively very little UK YA. As a result I read an awful lot of ghost-written US teen fiction, a lot of which presented an unrealistic, almost airbrushed teenage experience. Although they occasionally tackled tougher topics, or included more ‘diverse’ characters, it always felt very neat and preachy and had a certain sheen that stopped me engaging with the subject matter or characters on a deep level. I had a tweet the other day from a young trans teen who said The Art of Being Normal has inspired them to come out to their family. That blew me away and also reminded me of how important it is to reflect the diversity in our society on the pages of our books – it can actually change lives, or at the very least change perceptions! Luckily, I think UK YA is one place where diversity is celebrated and embraced, and nothing is off limits, and I’m so proud to be part of that.

Only a few days ago, Leelah Alcorn took her life and posted a heart-wrenching suicide note on Tumblr saying she couldn’t continue living if she couldn’t be herself. Transgender teens face a lot of misunderstanding and hate and it is particularly hard for them when their parents are not supportive. I was really fascinated by David’s relationship with his parents and how it develops. Was it a conscious choice for you to write them this way?

I like to think, in the UK at least, coming across parents with a similar attitude to Leelah Alcorn’s would be incredibly rare and I’m glad to say I never have. That’s not to say that parents don’t struggle to adjust when their child comes out as trans. In The Art of Being Normal David’s parents assume he is gay. They’re quite liberal and like to think they’re a bit trendy so they’re all geared up for him to come out, which in turn puts David in an even harder position in a way, as they’ve prepared themselves for the wrong outcome and he fears they’ll be doubly shocked as a result. Although gender identity and sexuality are obviously completely separate things, a lot of trans teens who identify as straight in their preferred gender, come out as gay before then coming out as trans. Often it’s because they’re still confused and trying to suss out their feelings and what they mean, or they’re building up to then coming out as trans. Whilst working at the Gender Identity Development Service, I was fascinated by family relationships and there was a huge range of parental reactions, from complete shock and confusion, to total and unconditional support. However, most parents, no matter how much they were struggling to get their head round (in some cases) ‘losing a son and gaining a daughter’ (or vice versa), continued to love their child and support them through the process, whatever form that took, as much they possibly could. I wanted to replicate this on the page and also give readers, whatever their gender identity or sexuality, a sense of hope.

I loved the whole scene [I will try to keep this spoiler free!] with the alternative “place” where the main characters can be themselves. The feeling of safety can be so important for teens, not just physical safety but safety to be themselves. How did you approach writing about this scene?

I really loved writing this scene! It was actually one of the very last I wrote and it came to me after brainstorming ideas with a friend who is a playwright and always gets my creative juices flowing! I knew I wanted the scene to have a certain mood and be a bit magical but I didn’t have a setting in mind and was really struggling to come up with something that fitted my rather vague vision. Then my friend asked me if there was a setting in the book with special significance that I could maybe re-visit, and bingo, I could write the chapter! A lot of people have said they can imagine this particular chapter on film which I’m really pleased about because when I was writing it, I had such a clear picture in my head of all the ‘shots’ and exactly how they might look. Although The Art of Being Normal is entirely contemporary and realistic, I did want this chapter to have a bit of magic about it, not Harry Potter style magic, but the everyday stuff that makes you feel all sort of warm and blowy!

What are your favourite books and films? Do you have any LGBT YA to recommend for our readers? 

The film I loved most recently was Pride. I think I beamed the entire running time! My all-time favourites though are Stand by Me (eighties classic) and Meet Me In St Louis (I’m a bit of a sucker for an old musical). I also have a soft spot for doomed romances and love torturing myself by watching Brief Encounter or The Bridges of Madison County! My favourite author is probably Kate Atkinson who can do absolutely no wrong in my eyes! My fave YA books of recent years are Trouble by Non Pratt, Lobsters by Tom Ellen & Lucy Ivison, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart and Cruel Summer by James Dawson.

It’s perhaps not a immediately obvious LGBT YA recommendation but I loved Every Day by David Levithan. It deals with gender in such a fluid, open and thoughtful way and is different to any book I’ve ever read. Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley is also wonderful. It’s a love story between two girls set against the background of the civil rights movement and is hugely powerful. I’m also a massive fan of Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. It features two gay main characters, and is smart, funny and romantic. Finally, it’s not a YA read (nor LGBT really), but Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is an epic book featuring an intersex protagonist. It’s stunningly well written and really makes you think about what it means to be female or male.

Last question – now I know the book is only being published now, but what are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on another YA novel (another standalone) about the last week of the end of the world, exploring how a bunch of ordinary teenagers might deal with their fates. In spite of the rather morbid subject matter, it’s proving good fun to write and will hopefully be fun to read too!

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Thank you to Lisa Williamson for taking the time to answer our questions! If you don’t already have The Art of Being Normal, go to your nearest bookshop to grab a copy, you won’t regret it!