Thursday, December 15, 2016

The art of writing for the ‘normal’

British author Lisa Williamson speaks to Sapna Sarfare about her novel The Art of Being Normal which deals with youngster dealing with gender identity and need to get acceptability for who they really are.

Lisa Williamson

Some books just connect from the moment you read the first sentence. One such book has been The Art of Being Normal by British author Lisa Williamson which is a remarkable story of friendship. David Piper has a secret known to few – he wants to be girl. He meets Leo Denton who prefers being invisible to hide a secret. Their friendship begins when Leo saves David from a bully. But it also has to go through some fire. Will they know each other’s secret? What happens if others know about it? The story is about 2 people with dreams which others might not understand.
A native of Nottingham, Lisa trained as an actor before discovering the writer within. She also worked at London-based Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) which helps underage kids deal with gender identity. She speaks about her debut novel, the thought behind it and more.

I loved the book. It read like a page out of real life yet was fiction. How did that happen?             
I don’t know! I think my lack of planning actually perhaps works in my favour sometimes. I tend to start writing not necessarily knowing where the story will go. As a result, I think the action tends to unfold in quite an authentic and organic way. I also always remember something a creative writing once said, and that was to include lots of ‘strange but true’ details in your work. Life is weird, people are weird, even the ones to seem really ordinary. We all have our strange little quirks and habits so I always try to include as many of these as possible. I also always aim to end chapters on, not a cliffhanger, exactly, but with an unanswered question in the air. 

The story was different & touching. Was there any reason of picking it for your debut novel?
Yes. I was directly inspired by the young people I met through my job at the time – as administrator for the Gender Identity Development Service. I was struck by the lack of fiction featuring transgender characters, particularly aimed at a young adult audience. The books I did find tended to be quite gloomy so I set about writing an entertaining, engrossing book that explored gender identity in a way that I felt reflected some of the experiences the young trans people I’d met had had. I didn’t want it to be defined by one theme/issue. Above all, it’s a book about being a teenager and all the ups & downs this brings. 

While writing, what were the struggles you faced, as the theme is of one lead character wanting to be a girl and another hiding a secret?
I struggle with plotting. I don’t like to plot in advance because I feel it stifles me and often forces me down paths that don’t feel right. At the same time, it’s quite scary not knowing where your story is going! For ages, Leo and David lived in separate cities and I spend weeks and weeks trying to come up with realistic ways for them to meet. I then decided to have them attend the same school but again it took ages to work out how to make their lives collide without sacrificing the authenticity. On the other hand, I actually found keeping Leo’s secret very fun! I liked dropping in little clues along the way and building up to the reveal. 

I loved the fact that the topic dealt with issues like bullying, transgender people, school life, teenage issues and society in a sensitive yet light manner. How did the process go in your mind before writing?
I always wanted the book to be sensitive yet not weighed down by any one issue or theme. Life is full of light and shade so I wanted the book to reflect this. I also knew from the start that I wanted a happy, hopeful ending so even when I was writing a painful scene, at the back of my mind I knew things were ultimately going to be okay. 

How are the issues in your book seen in the west?
Things have changed a lot since I started writing the book (in 2012). There has been a huge increase in the coverage of trans issues in the arts and media and although prejudice remains, the response has been largely positive. By making trans people and issues relevant to them mainstream and visible, it’s helping to remove the sense of fear and the unknown that so many people base their prejudices on. I’ve had lots of lovely emails about the book. Equally, I’m aware I’m in a bit of a bubble. The majority of my friends are very open and liberal so it’s often shocking to me when I realise how prevalent trans phobia still is. Things are improving (slowly) but there is still a lot of prejudice and ignorance. We’ve come a long way in a short space of time but there’s still so much to do. 

How has the response been to the book? Any response which touched you or even made you think?
It's been really, really lovely! I’ve had lots of emails and tweets that have touched me deeply. I’ve had messages from young trans people saying it’s helped them come out to friends and family; others say it’s helped just knowing it exists and is sold in mainstream high street bookshops. I’ve also had messages from older trans people saying they wish they’d had a book like it when they were younger. 

What’s your next book going to be?  
My next book is called All About Mia and is out in February 2017. It’s about a girl called Mia who is a middle child, sandwiched between two very impressive sisters. 

BOOK: The Art of Being Normal
AUTHOR: Lisa Williamson
GENRE: Young Fiction
PUBLICATION: David Fickling Books
PAGES: 353 

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