Queer YA Scrabble: Interview with Lisa Williamson

Queer YA ScrabbleThe Art of Being Normal

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

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Two 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 eleven 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 WilliamsonThe lovely Lisa Williamson, author of The Art of Being Normal, took the time to answer a few questions for me!

1. What inspired you to write The Art of Being Normal?

In 2010, I got a job working as an administrator at The Gender Identity Development Service (an NHS service offering talking therapies for under-18s struggling with their gender identity). It was just meant to be a temporary thing between acting jobs but I ended up staying for two years! As part of the role I typed up notes from all the individual therapy sessions and heard all these incredible stories – happy, sad, painful, triumphant. I was writing something else at the time and it took a while for it to dawn on me that I had some incredibly rich source material at my finger tips and should perhaps be writing about that instead! I set about looking for fiction featuring trans protagonists and found very little. It quickly became very clear young trans people were massively under-represented in the arts and media, and I became very committed to doing something about it if I possibly could. I observed several group therapy sessions for trans teens, all of whom were as engaging and complicated and individual as any great YA hero or heroine. Collectively they inspired me to create a character who was struggling with their gender identity but not defined by it. They also inspired the tone of the book. Although several of the young people were having a really tough time, there was always so much joy and positivity and energy in the room at these sessions. I didn't want TAOBN to feel like an 'issue' book or heavy or gloomy in any way. Although there are painful moments, there are also moments of magic. I wanted the book to have light and shade, and for the downs to be balanced with real ups, just like real life.

2. I know there’s been really positive response to the book. Have you received any encouraging messages from your readers that you can tell us about?

I've had lots of lovely messages following the publication of TAOBN and feel very lucky indeed to be able to connect directly with readers via social media. It's daunting knowing strangers are out there reading the words you've written, so when they take the time to contact you and tell you they enjoyed your book, it's a wonderful feeling. I've received lots of messages from young transgender people, many of which have moved me deeply. One young person told me they were going to give the book to all his friends to read, so they could better understand what he is going through. Another said she hoped it would give her the courage the come out to her family. Another told me he had used the book as a tool to tell his parents about his gender feelings, using passages of the book to help articulate his feelings. I also received a lovely email in which a young person explained how seeing a book featuring a transgender protagonist on the table in his local branch of Waterstones made him feel like he wasn't a freak anymore and finally in the spotlight in a positive way. Equally, I've been touched to receive messages from cisgender people letting me know the book made them think more about their own attitudes towards gender and identity. A friend of mine described it as a book for 'anyone who ever went to school'. I think we've all felt like we don't fit in at some point and it was always my intention that the more universal theme of feeling different and 'what is normal?' would be a big part of the book. We still have a very long way to go in terms of achieving widespread respect and acceptance for trans people and I'm under no illusions that prejudice and ignorance continues to exist on a large scale. If TAOBN can make a difference, however small, in helping to educate and enlighten, and open hearts and minds, then I'll be delighted.

3. Are you going to write more LGBT YA in the future, and if so, what other aspects of LGBT YA are you interested in exploring?

I haven't ruled out a sequel to TAOBN down the line, perhaps catching up with the characters when they're university age. It's such an interesting time of life. You're almost an adult, but not quite. Going off to uni is often a bit of a chance to reinvent yourself without the fear of being outed as the 'nerd' or 'freak' or 'bitch' you were perhaps labelled at school, and I think it would be fascinating to see how the characters deal with this new start. I like to write about characters and situations that move me in some way. If that happens to be an LBGT issue or topic, then I'll write about it. It's more a case of waiting for inspiration to strike, whether it be in the form of a TV documentary, a news article, a song, or even perhaps something I overhear in the street, than making a conscious decision to tackle a certain subject through my writing. Having said that, I think every child deserves to be able to walk into a bookshop or library and find a book featuring a character they can relate to. With that in mind, I will always aim for the casts in my books to be as diverse as the plot and setting allows (whether this be in relation to gender, race, sexuality, class etc), not as a tick box exercise, but as a true reflection of the life of UK teens in 2015.

Next up: an excerpt from Trust Me I'm Trouble by Mary Elizabeth Summer!

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