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Lisa Williamson on writing The Art of Being Normal

Posted on 7th January 2016 by Lisa Williamson
Lisa Williamson's novel is an intimate portrait of a teenager struggling with their gender identity. Here she discusses how she began writing transgender Young Adult fiction.
I am not an economical writer. In the process of working on The Art of Being Normal, I wrote and then deleted at least another entire book’s worth of words, so when I was asked to supply some bonus content for the Waterstones Exclusive paperback edition, I knew I’d have plenty of material to choose from. 

The Art of Being Normal is told from the point of view of two teenage outsiders – Leo, the new kid at school with a secret, and David* who is struggling with his gender identity and finds himself drawn to Leo for reasons he can’t quite figure out. Having completed the book over eighteen months ago, sitting down at my computer and opening up files imaginatively titled things like ‘stuff I don’t know what to do with’ was an oddly surreal experience.

As I became reacquainted with characters I’d unceremoniously axed (Leo’s grandmother, a friend of David’s called Eve, Leo’s older half-sister Lorna, evil twin bullies Chloe and Marcus etc.), and read chapters I could barely remember writing, I was initially freaked out by the sheer volume of deleted material. Had I really wasted that much time and energy writing words destined never to be read by anyone but me? Technically, yes. But, looking back, the pros of my disjointed and slightly erratic writing process somehow outweigh the cons.

David’s obsession with silent films may have not made it into the final manuscript, but it definitely inspired the creation of the scrapbook he fills with pictures of the classic Hollywood movie stars he longs to resemble one day. Likewise, an overly dramatic scene in which Leo rescues David from a group of vicious bullies on his estate, was toned down and relocated to the school canteen, eventually becoming one of my favourite chapters in the book (chapter twelve in case you’re curious). Reading through my forgotten words, I quickly realized that every single one of them helped me to get to know my characters that bit better.

The Art of Being Normal was directly inspired by my job at the time – administrator at the Gender Identity Development Service, an NHS specialist service for under-eighteens struggling with their gender identity. Having met dozens of incredible young transgender people, I was keen to tell a story from the point of view of a UK teenager struggling with their gender identity.  

As a cisgender woman, I’m regularly asked how I got into the head of a transgender teenager and my answer is always three-fold:

  1. Research. In addition to the unique insight I had at work, I interviewed transgender adults about their teen experiences, observed group therapy sessions and pored over youtube videos and forums.
  2. I tapped into my own teenage experience of feeling like I didn’t fit in.  Although I’ve never questioned my gender identity, as a young person I spent a lot of time trying to work out who I was and the person I wanted to be. While working at the Gender Identity Development Service, I was regularly moved by the client stories I heard and related to the feelings of isolation and anxiety many young trans people reported.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, I wrote and wrote and wrote until I felt I knew my characters inside out and upside down.

The very first words I put on paper eventually became the very first chapter of the book, in which an eight year-old David is asked to write about what he wants to be when he grows up (answer: I want to be a girl). From there I continued to write scenes in which David explores his gender identity, from attempting to pick out a female name, to raiding his Mum’s wardrobe. Although very few of these scenes made it into the final draft, they were important rites of passage for David and through writing them I was able to experience them right alongside him. Like all the amazing teenagers I met who refused to be defined by their gender identity, I never wanted the book to be about just one thing. Allowing David to explore his gender identity both on and off the printed page meant character dictated the focus and direction of the story, instead of a single ‘issue’.

The Art of Being Normal is definitely a book about gender identity, but it’s also a book about friendship, family, first love, fitting in and discovering who you are. Writing over 200,000 words for a book less than half that length may sound obscene, but I don’t regret a single word, even the really rubbish ones (of which there were quite a lot). Throwing my characters into loads of different situations meant I got under their skin in ways I maybe wouldn’t have if I’d just stuck to a single plot. At least that’s what I’m telling myself…

*Please note I have used the name David and male pronouns because this is how David self identifies in the book. 

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson is available in paperback now.


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