An Interview with Lisa Williamson

Why do you like to write for young adults and do any aspects of your book, ‘The Art of being Normal’ relate to how your everyday life is? 

The first novel I wrote (unpublished) was actually for adults. Although not strictly autobiographical, it was definitely influenced by my own life and experiences (it was about an out of work actor, which is exactly what I was at the time!). I had no luck getting it published so stuck it in a drawer and decided to try writing something else. By this point I was working for the Gender Identity Development Service as an administrator. The young people using the service (under-eighteens exploring their gender identity) inspired me to have a go at writing from the point of view of a transgender teenager. As soon as I started to write, I knew it was going to be a YA novel and now I can’t imagine writing for any other audience. I love that teenagers are very often experiencing things for the very first time, and what’s more exciting and interesting than writing about that? I wrote TAOBN with my school and hometown of Nottingham in mind. When I wrote the horrible scene in the canteen where Harry and his mates are ganging up on David, I totally pictured my school canteen, in quite scary detail. The same goes for most of the locations in the book. Cloverdale, for example, the estate where Leo lives is based on the estate where my dad grew up and where my grandparents used to live. A lot of my teenage memories bled into the words I wrote, whether I intended them to or not. 

When you were younger, did you ever believe you’d become a bestselling author? 

Not for one second. I’ve always loved reading and making up stories in my head but I rarely wrote them down. Although I was good at English at school, creative writing was a really tiny part of that and I didn’t feel like it was particularly encouraged or explored as part of the syllabus. I went to a very ordinary school and the range of career options presented to us were quite narrow. When I was about ten I decided I wanted to be an actor and that kind of dominated everything going forward, even though I was too shy to actually tell anyone that was what I wanted to do until I was about fourteen. Although I continued to love reading, I didn’t write (apart from what was required for school) for years. It was only in my late twenties, when I was temping in offices between acting jobs that I started writing again (and loving it) and even then I had no clue I’d ever get published. 

For any aspiring authors such as myself, what would your one piece of epic advice be? 

Don’t write thinking about publication. Just write the story only you can tell and see where that takes you. 

How do you convince yourself to keep writing if you ever reach any dead ends?

I’m not a planner. I try to plan but when it comes to actually sitting down to write, my characters all too often don’t seem to want to do what I want them to! This means I have to go down loads of dead ends and end up with tons of deleted stuff. When I’m stuck, I do one of two things. I either try to write through the block in the hope something decent will come out of it, or I give up and go for a walk, or do a really boring domestic task, or go to the cinema, and more often than not the break acts as a reset. I think the main thing is to not stress out over certain scenes not working out. Trial and error is all part of the process.

-Do you have any kind of ritual that you like to do before starting to write?

Not really. I like to work out first thing in the morning, mainly because writing is so sedentary, but that’s about it. I’m not very superstitious in general. No special pens or anything like that. 

I know you worked as an administrator at the Gender Identity Development Service in North London, did this therefore inspire ‘The Art of being Normal’ and if so, how did it? 

It totally inspired the book. As part of my job, I typed up notes from all the individual therapy sessions and heard all these incredible stories – happy, sad, painful, triumphant – all of them nuanced and moving and completely different. I was writing something else at the time so it took a while for it to dawn on me that I had some really rich source material at my finger tips and should perhaps be writing about these young people instead. I set about looking for fiction featuring trans protagonists and found very little, particularly from a UK perspective, which didn’t seem to make sense when our referral rates were shooting up and it was clear there were kids and teenagers struggling with their gender identity up and down the country. I was a bit cautious at first (I’m cis-gender and have never questioned my gender identity) but the characters came to me really quickly and I just knew I had to give telling their stories a go. On top of the knowledge I’d gained whilst on the job, I did a ton of research, interviewing trans adults about their teen experiences, sitting in on group therapy sessions, and spending hours online visiting forums and watching YouTube videos.

Random question: What is one thing (not a person) that you can’t live without?

My bed. I’m a big fan of comfort. I wish I was one of those people who can fall asleep on planes and trains and stuff, but I’m not. I need a mattress and pillows and preferably a mattress topper. I’m terrible at camping.

– Do you believe that there is a lack of transgender based YA novels and if so, would you like that to change?

Yes and yes. I think the next step is for there to be more novels with trans characters that don’t necessarily feature a coming out narrative. Although the coming out narrative is only a small part of TAOBN, I still felt, that as one of only a few YA novels to explore gender identity, I had to include it. Going forwards, it would be lovely to see trans characters exploring issues entirely separate and irrelevant to their gender identity. 

After writing ‘The Art of being Normal’, did you feel a particular attachment to your characters David and Leo? 

Big time! I spent two years writing them, and two years on, I’m still taking about them. They’re both pretty vulnerable beneath their cheerful (David) and grumpy (Leo) facades and I’m really protective over them and often think about what they might be up to now and find myself hoping they’re ok! I get asked about a possible sequel a lot but I’m hesitant about it. If I did revisit the characters, it would be a few years down the line, perhaps when they’re on the cusp of embarking on adult life. All I will say is that I think David and Leo will be friends for life, no matter what.

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