Interview: Author Lisa Williamson on fitting in and standing out
Contemporary author Lisa Williamson proved her worth with her 2015 release The Art of Being Normal, which became the bestselling young adult hardback debut of the year and Waterstones Children’s Book Prize winner for 2016. Since then she has not been sitting idly, and has created another emotionally haunting and hard-hitting young adult book in the form of 2017 release, All About Mia.
Both books feature a diverse set of characters and charter dark and turbulent waters, proving that young adult books don’t have to be synonymous with light and unimpactful reading. We got chatting with Lisa and discovered how her love of acting and her home city of London has affected her writing, and why she thinks every reader should find themselves represented within the pages of a book.
The Art of Being Normal was an emotional read touching on some tough subject matters. What can we expect from ‘All About Mia’?
Your review described AAM as ‘deceptively deep’ and I think that’s a pretty spot on summary! Regardless of subject matter, I always want my books to be emotionally engaging and for readers to reach the final page with a smile on their face. At the same time, I want to explore important issues and challenge and stimulate. Unlike TAOBN, AAM does not have a solid ‘issue’ at its centre. It’s primarily a book about relationships and out of that, all sorts of themes have emerged – societal pressures on teenage girls, sibling rivalry, identity… It’s funny and fast-paced, but not without its serious moments.
Would you say there are any tropes or themes that are similar or link this to ‘The Art of Being Normal’?
Without realising it, I think I’ve written another novel about identity and fitting in. In terms of tropes though, I don’t think there are all that many similarities. AAM is reminiscent of TAOBN in terms of style and tone, but Mia is a very different protagonist to David and Leo and there’s a different energy as a result. I was conscious of not being a one trick pony and keeping my readers guessing about where the story and characters were going next. Mia is a chaotic character and I wanted the plot to reflect this! I’m aware that not everyone who liked TAOBN will take to AAM. Equally, readers who really enjoy AMM might not be into TAOBN. I’ve been trying my best not to compare the two but it’s hard. For a while I really struggled to leave David and Leo from TAOBN behind and fully commit to Mia’s story. This struggle definitely faded though and these days I love Mia like she’s a (very naughty) younger sister. It was always important to me that what ever I wrote after TAOBN had its own unique identity.
‘The Art of Being Normal’ features a male protagonist who wishes to be female and ‘All About Mia’ features a mixed race family. Is diversity in literature important to you? And why did you chose to represent specifically transgender and mixed race characters?
It’s hugely important to me. I’m proud to live in London, an incredibly diverse city, and I want the characters and situations I write to be similarly diverse and reflect the world I see around me. Having said this, it’s not a case of just ticking boxes; my priority is always to write a book that’s fun to read, and for me it feels natural to include a diverse cast of characters as part of that process. With The Art of Being Normal, my main motivation for writing a transgender main character was because not enough people were doing it. At the time I was working as an administrator at the Gender Identity Development Service (the NHS service for under-eighteens struggling with their gender identity) and was struck by the discrepancy between the numbers of referrals we were receiving every week (a lot!) and the representation of young trans people in the arts and media (hardly anything at all). According to the shelves of bookshops and libraries, they pretty much didn’t exist, and I wanted to change that.
With All About Mia, there was no real decision process with regards to the ethnicity of Mia’s family; I just always knew that Mia’s mum was white and her dad was black. A few months into writing the book I met a reader at an event who told me how much she adored Juno Dawson’s All Of The Above, and how happy she was that the protagonist was mixed race, like her. Her joy was an important reminder of just how necessary it is for all young people to be able to see themselves in a book. As a white teenager, I grew up seeing myself in books all the time, totally unaware I was privileged. The only way to change this is to keep publishing books featuring and written by people of all different ethnicities, gender identities, social and economic backgrounds etc so that all readers experience the same representation I took for granted growing up.
All About Mia is not a book about race. Mia’s ethnicity is referenced and entirely clear but it is incidental to the story. This is not to say that there haven’t been moments in Mia’s life where her racial identity has fed more prominently into her narrative; it’s simply not part of this story on this occasion. Above all, AAM is about family and friendship and working out where you fit in, themes I think every single one of us can relate to.
Where did the idea behind All About Mia stem from?
It all started with Mia herself. Before I started writing the book, I was working on several other projects (all since abandoned!). All of them featured a secondary character called Mia. She was mouthy and unapologetic and I loved her, but none of the projects she was in were quite working. Then one day I was wandering around Brent Cross shopping centre when I suddenly thought about writing a book from the point of view of a middle child. My original vision for this character was someone quite downtrodden and quiet who was completely outshone by her sisters. It didn’t quite feel dynamic enough though, so I had a go at recasting Mia in the role. The moment I did, I knew I had a story worth telling.
Out of three sisters, are there any that you identify or have an affinity with, especially?
Not really! But that’s what I love most about writing I think, the opportunity to invent and put yourself in the shoes of people who are nothing like you. I was quite academic at school, but unlike Grace (Mia’s older sister), I sort of flew under the radar. I certainly didn’t have her poise or confidence. I was also pretty quiet like Audrey (Mia’s younger sister) and very focused on what I wanted to do when I was older (act), but unlike her, I wasn’t much of a homebody. I was constantly dreaming of the future and the glamorous life I hoped to lead one day, whereas Audrey loves being at home with her parents and sisters. The sister I’m probably most opposite to though, is Mia herself, especially when I compare her to me when I was her age. Mia is daring and impulsive and constantly getting into trouble, whereas I was shy and cautious and always stuck to the rules. Having said that, I think Mia’s cool girl act hides a lot of insecurities. Although perhaps intimidating, she has a good heart behind all that bravado. I think Mia is the sort of girl that doesn’t get to be the main character in books very often. A lot of writers were (like I was) quite shy and bookish growing up so naturally end up writing characters similar to their teenage selves. Girls like Mia are often relegated to secondary characters and we never get to find out why they behave the way they do. I reckon that’s what made her so fun and fascinating to write about.
Is Mia’s chaotic family life similar to your own in any way?
Again, no! My mum and dad’s house is freakishly neat and tidy. They thrive on order, and growing up life was very regimented and predictable. I was always really envious of my friend Sarah who lived in a crumbling converted stable with loads of dogs and mismatched furniture and exotic food in the fridge. I was obsessed with big noisy families and used to wish my mum would have more children (I have just one older sister) so I’d have more people to play with.
Mia can be a little dramatic and over the top. Did your job as an actress influence you to create her character in this way, at all?
Interesting question! Not consciously. I’m certainly used to dramatic people though so it’s not a total impossibility. As a teenager my moods were a lot more extreme than they are now. I ricocheted from total joy one minute to utter doom the next, and I think Mia is similar, although she tends to verbalise her moods whereas I used to either bottle them up or scribble them down. Mia’s world is still relatively small (home and school) so I think it’s sort of natural her reactions to the events that unfold over the course of the book are quite full on. One of Mia’s trademarks is her ability to make a fuss!
Teenagers struggling to find themselves feature predominantly in both of your books. What draws you to this theme?
Probably because I struggled with this constantly as a teenager and I continue to give my place in the world a lot of thought as an adult. I think every single one of us has grappled with where we fit in at some point in our life; it’s one of those universal struggles you just can’t escape. When I was a teenager I was torn between wanting to blend in and not be noticed, at the same time as wanting to be special. For Mia, the struggle is a bit different. She’s very popular and in so many ways incredibly sure of who she is as a person, but the second she compares herself to her sisters, she loses sight of all her strengths and sort of crumbles. She’s very aware of her lack of direction in life and this impacts hugely on her self-esteem.
If this book was to be made in to a movie, have you thought about who you would like to play your characters?
It’s probably a really boring answer, but I’d love unknown actors to play all the roles. As a former actor, I know how frustrating it is to see the same clutch of actors nabbing all the good roles. It would thrill me to find some fresh new talent to play Mia and her family and friends. Mia in particular is so raw and such a work in progress as a character, I think it would make perfect sense to give it to a complete newcomer.
Are there any books you have read that inspired the creation of this story, or your writing in general?
I’ve always loved books featuring sibling relationships. Books like I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith, ‘The Bluebell Gadsby‘ series by Natasha Farrant and The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford are all favourites of mine. One thing all these books have in common is their warmth, humour and hint of chaos. They all inspired me to create a similar atmosphere in AAM. In more general terms, I’m inspired by anyone who can write the sort of messy, flawed, funny, teenage characters I desperately wanted to read about when I was growing up. Non Pratt, Holly Bourne, Juno Dawson, CJ Skuse, Jess Vallance and Tom Ellen & Lucy Ivison are all brilliant at creating teenagers who feel utterly real and are hilarious to boot.
And so is Williamson herself! Share your thoughts about Williamson’s books, characters and views with us in the comment section, down below.
‘The Art of Being Normal’ is available in the UK and the US.