I kicked off 2013 with Alyssa Brugman's deeply affecting YA novel, 'Alex As Well.' And when I finished reading the book, I had a million questions to ask the author; about minority representation in YA, flaws of parent characters and just what an emotional journey it must have been to write this very important book.
Q: How were you first published, agent or slush pile?
I submitted 'Finding Grace' to the Vogel, which is an unpublished manuscript competition. That seemed a sensible place to start because they had to at least consider it, and there was a defined time frame within which I would have an answer. Part of the rules of these competitions is that you can't send it anywhere else, but as it turned out I didn't have to, because Allen & Unwin offered me a contract for Grace. I realise now how incredibly lucky I have been in that respect.
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Alex As Well’, from first idea to final manuscript?
I started in March 2011, and I received the first editions from the publisher in December 2012.
Q: Are you a plotter or a ‘pantser’? – That is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
I'm probably more of a pantser. The times I have done more active plotting, I have changed my mind at the last minute because it all seemed too obvious. That said, it depends on the book. When I wrote the series for Random, there were elements that had to be in the earlier novels to contribute the story arc over the whole series. I had to have some idea of where I was heading. I did a synopsis of each of the novels before I wrote them.
Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
It can be anything. There's never any shortage of ideas, but they're not always good ones. I used to stop and write down every passing notion, but I've since discovered that the forgettable ones should be forgotten. You don't have an opportunity to forget the good ones. They gnaw at you.
Q: Why do you choose to write young adult fiction? What is it about this genre that you love?
I've published twelve novels now, and each of the different books cover a range of topics, but what they always have in common is young people renegotiating their relationship with their parents. There is a friction in that relationship which arises when the young adult seeks more autonomy. Parents and children need to emotionally (and physically in the case of the mother) extract themselves from one another over the course of twenty-odd years. It's often intensely painful. If children were charming and delightful all the time, parents wouldn't be so keen to kick them out the door, and similarly, if children could achieve all of their aspirations under the same roof they would never need to leave. There has to be conflict and friction to facilitate growth and change. I find that interesting.
Q: The American Young Adult Library Service Association recently posted a study which revealed that in 2012, only 55 LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex) YA novels were released. That’s 1.6% of all YA in 2012. That is pretty abysmal, and while I don’t have a study for the Australian market, I have to say that ‘Alex As Well’ is the first Aussie YA I’ve ever read that focuses on a transgendered character. Why were you moved to tell this story, and do you think Australia needs to start better representing the LGBTQI community in its YA fiction?
Hazel Edwards did one in 2011. I haven't had an opportunity to read it yet. That's the only one I know of. I agree that there is a gap here. I can see why it would be difficult for publishers to take on material that focuses on sex, whatever form that takes. With Alex I was much more interested in the identity part of transgender than the sex part, although it's unavoidable to at least mention it. I tried to approach the subject both bluntly and sensitively, if that makes sense. Hopefully Alex will be the beginning of Australian publishers feeling more confident accepting manuscripts with LGBTQI protagonists.
Q: Alex has such a strong voice in this novel, and she is talking directly to the audience a number of times so you do feel this instant connection to her. What sort of research did you do for this novel to so eloquently and powerfully express Alex’s mixed-up feelings and struggles with identity? Did you reach out to the transgendered community?
I did study transgender a little bit, but a bigger contributor to what it is you're seeing in the novel is that I have just completed a PhD in narratology at Canberra University. My topic was unreliable narration, and this novel was submitted to demonstrate the various narrative devices that I identified in the thesis as being useful to overcome unreliability. This novel is much more technical in terms of structure and the application of narrative strategy than anything I have done before.
Q: In researching this novel, was there anything you discovered that really surprised/moved you? Something you weren’t aware of before? What was the most powerful discovery you made in the course of researching ‘Alex As Well’?
I watched the BBC show "My Transsexual Summer". There were so many heartbreaking and inspiring scenes, but one that stood out for me was where Drew, who is one of the cast members talked about going for a job, and being told that she would make the customers 'uncomfortable'. She said something like, 'Wait a minute, I can go outside. They're my streets too." She was so hurt and offended by this assessment of her that had nothing to do with her skills or aptitude for the job. And so she should be! It's open prejudice, and it's unjust.
In a book that I read, "The Lazy Crossdresser" by Charles Anders, one of his first recommendations is taking a self defense course. It was horrifying to me that there are people out there who can anticipate being physically attacked for just leaving their house. How can this be endured? Why aren't more people outraged by this?
Q: You really strike a nerve in ‘Alex As Well’, for a lot of reasons. But something I loved in the book was Alex’s mum, Heather, posting her parenting anxieties on a website called Motherhood Shared – where she asks for help and advice in dealing with Alex’s transition from boy to girl and where she receives both fantastic and questionable/concerning guidance. In the age of ‘mommy bloggers’, and in 2012 especially there was lots of talk in the media about mothers being made to feel inadequate (TIME magazine ‘Are You Mom Enough?’) where did you get this idea to give Alex’s mum a narrative like this? It’s a very different and perhaps uncomfortably honest portrayal of how sometimes parents can just get it horribly wrong, for all the right reasons – why did you think it was important to represent a parental voice in ‘Alex As Well’?
This is one of the strategies that I studied in the PhD. In a nutshell, having more than one person telling the story encourages the reader to question the validity of the various versions of events that they are reading. Alex and Heather recount similar events in different ways, both coloured by their own experiences and emotions. Hopefully the reader will find reasons to be a little sceptical of each of them having heard them both.
In the past I have only ever given the parents in my novels a voice through dialogue, and through the actions that the protagonist chooses to draw to the reader's attention. When I heard the audio version of 'For Sale or Swap', for example, the reader had made Shelby's mum sound really mean! She's so snappy! I was mortified, because I hadn't written her that way at all. I had always thought of her as busy and tired, but mostly gentle.
You can imagine that if you only received Alex's version, Heather's actions would be completely incomprehensible. It was the most common criticism that I received for "Girl Next Door", and I did take heed of that weakness and try to address it in this novel.
Heather gives us her motives in her own words, and even if you don't agree with them, it makes more sense. Heather can also give us information about Alex that Alex does not have about herself.
Q: Your highly acclaimed 2001 novel ‘Finding Grace’ was about a brain-damaged woman called Grace and her new teenage carer, Rachel. The novel is about how Rachel slowly comes to see Grace not as ‘damaged’ or lesser in any way, but just a normal person. I found some connections between ‘Finding Grace’ and ‘Alex As Well’ – in that Alex’s parents treat her like she has a ‘condition’ and an ‘illness’ that needs to be cured with simple, black and white answers, likewise even strangers on the street feel the need to figure Alex out and label her. It seems that you really enjoy challenging and breaking down people’s misconceptions and stereotypes, and exploring characters considered to be on the ‘fringe’ of society. Why are such explorations important to you? And why do you think it’s important to present them to young readers to think about?
Wow, you ask really great questions.
I do wonder if sometimes people think of gender dysphoria as a choice - that someone chooses to change gender. With this novel I wanted to present an alternative to that view. I hope that all of the books give the reader an opportunity to examine their own perceptions, but without being finger-waggling and preachy, which is one of the most common criticism of YA in general.
The other thing is that initially they are not characters at all, but technical challenges that I set for myself. It takes a while for them to develop into people who shout at me from the page, and then I become very emotionally attached to them as individuals. They become real to me, and not necessarily representatives of a whole assembly of the misrepresented. Later, when I've finished, I have to start thinking about what it all means. It's less likely to be finger-waggly if I do it in that order.
Q: Favourite book(s) of all time
'Gould's Book of Fish' - Richard Flanagan. I heard this as an audiobook, and I had to put my whole life on hold to hear the whole thing. The minute that I finished I went online and bought a bunch of copies and had them sent to all my best friends.
I loved Rose Tremain 'Music and Silence' and Mordecai Richler's 'Barney's Version'. I could also read Terry Pratchett's 'Small Gods' over and over. It's funny and profound and beautifully put together.
Q: Favourite author(s)?
There are a million, but off the top of my head, I love Terry Pratchett, Margo Lanagan, Amy Tan, Jon Ronson, Ursula Le Guin, Bernard Beckett, Kirsty Murray and Cassandra Golds. There are two women who have just written their first YA novels that I have enjoyed - Colleen Clayton and Maggie Bolitho. I was lucky enough to see early drafts of their novels and I think they'll be ones to watch in the future.
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
Probably the most important thing to understand is that you might need to write a number of manuscripts before you write something that ends up being a novel. I don't begin any project thinking, "this is a Great Australian Novel", but instead thinking. "here is an interesting writing exercise", or "why isn't this story being told?". Often I will soon discover why it's a gap, and abandon that idea and start something else. One needs to accept the idea of refining skills, or rehearsing in this field, the same as any other creative enterprise.