YA Author Lisa Williamson on The Art of Being Normal

28th Jan 2015

Lisa Williamson
Lisa Williamson’s debut YA novel The Art of Being Normal has been described as ‘sensational, heart-warming and life-affirming.’ We spoke to Lisa Williamson about writing, embarrassing teenage diaries, and all things YA...

The Art of Being Normal is the story of two boys, with two different secrets. David Piper is an outsider at his school, labeled a freak by the school bully. Only his two best friends know the 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…

So, how did you get the idea for the novel?

“I first started to think about it after working in an NHS gender identity and development service, working with teenagers who were struggling with their gender identity.

I realised it was an interesting subject and I thought – someone should be writing about this. And maybe I could be writing about this! I often typed up the notes from sessions with young people, so I got to hear a lot of people’s stories that way.”

It’s an unusual subject. Trans teenagers aren’t exactly common characters in young adult fiction…

“A lot of the novels with trans characters are from the States. But often they’re from the point of the view of the friend, or the sister – someone outside the experience, observing it. I wanted the trans characters’ experiences to be at the centre of it.”

The Art of Being Normal is told in first person, moving between its two main characters, Leo and David. You can’t help getting drawn into the world of these two characters – their lives, their families, and their secrets. It feels very real, and authentic, and obviously it’s about a very specific experience. But – particularly with David’s story – a lot of people could relate to the way he feels.

“Exactly. I think what these characters go through is like a heightened, more intense version of what a lot of young people go through. It’s about things everyone can relate to.

I recently re-read my own, embarrassing teenage diaries, and I would write things like: Who am I? Everyone has a point in their lives when they don’t quite fit in.

A lot of teenagers go through that stage where perhaps they don’t quite fit into their families, where they’re trying to work out their own identity. Everyone’s been bullied at some point – I haven’t met anyone who’s said to me: ‘I’ve never been bullied.’”

There are some vivid scenes of bullying in the novel. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Without giving too much away, there’s an exciting adventure in the book, when the two characters set out to escape for a weekend.

“Kids can be mean, but they can also be very kind. And there is pain and loneliness in the book, but I also wanted to capture the excitement of being a teenager: those moments of euphoria, of intense excitement and possibility.”

The novel is full of twists and revelations. Did you know all the secrets before you began? Did you plot out the story, and know how it was going to end?

“When I started writing, I didn’t know where it was going at all. I was working in offices, between acting jobs, and I started by writing vignettes and character sketches. I began with one of the main characters, David.

But I didn’t write it in order. At all. It was such a jigsaw trying to fit it all together. It was a mish-mash process which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone!

But it was an adventure to sit down and write it, because I had no idea what my characters were going to do that day.

I wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote. There were possibly 100,000 words that didn’t make it into the book, getting to know the characters, going down different avenues – making absolutely sure that those were the wrong avenues! But I’m brutal. I love cutting.”

Were there any particular writers that inspired you along the way?

“I read about 50% adult, and 50% young adult books, and it all feeds in. There are some brilliant American young adult authors writing at the moment, like John Green and Rainbow Rowell.

But also a there’s a real surge at the moment in British young adult fiction, writers like Cat Clarke, for example – and that feels very exciting.

I wanted to create a very British voice. There’s something comforting and exciting about reading a book and thinking – that could happen in my school, in my town, that’s how my mates talk.”

Were there any editorial tips along the way that really helped?

“I enjoyed writing the painful bits. I like being mean to my characters. My editor said to me: ‘Make it worse’. That was fun, being given that permission to make it worse for the characters.”

And what about David and Leo. Will we be able to follow their story?

“I deliberately left the ending quite open, and I’m not writing a sequel. But I do think about them, and about what might happen to them as they grow up. Perhaps one day I’ll go back and pick up the story a few years down the line. I’d like to see what they get up to as adults.”

So, what’s next – are you working on another novel?

“Yes! I’m writing another contemporary young adult novel. It’s from the point of view of a seventeen year old boy. He has one week to live – before the world ends.

So he has one week to do everything that he’s always wanted to do. And he’s spent a lot of his teenage years being unwell, so there are lot of experiences that he hasn’t had yet. It’s a busy week.”

The Art of Being Normal, published by David Fickling Books, is available now.

Interview by Sarah Courtauld