How many of us would classify ourselves as normal? Is there even such a thing? If there is do we even want to be normal?
Lisa Williamson’s talk at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Saturday 18th April 2015 was held in the Cambridge Union Blue Room. The proceedings were kicked off in very ebullient style by James Dawson, YA author, of several novels including: Say Her Name, Hollow Pike, Cruel Summer, and This Book is Gay. James eloquently set about reminding us that this talk wasn’t about himself but was in fact about Lisa Williamson, the debut author of The Art of Being Normal.
Lisa began her talk by reading the first chapter of her very well received YA novel: The Art of Being Normal. This chapter only consisted of one paragraph and three short lines, but that’s all she needed to capture the audience’s attention:
“One afternoon, when I was eight years old, my class was told to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Miss Box went round the class, asking each one of us to stand up and share what we had written. Zachary Olsen wanted to play in the Premier League. Lexi Taylor wanted to be an actress. Henry Beaumont planned on being Prime Minister. Simon Allen wanted to be Harry Potter, so badly that the previous term he had scratched a lightning bolt on to his forehead with a pair of craft scissors.
But I didn’t want to be any of these things.
This is what I wrote:
I want to be a girl.”
She went on to tell the audience about David, the fourteen year old boy in her novel who is going through puberty. Puberty is difficult enough if you are happy in your body, but if you are a boy who wants to be a girl can you even begin to imagine how difficult that must be? David befriends a new boy called Leo. They form an unlikely friendship. Leo is a bit rough around the edges, and his background is different from David’s, Leo lives in a council estate. This novel is principally about Transgender but it is also a novel about friendship. It sounds to me as if The Art of Being Normal would appeal to a wide range of young YA enthusiasts, and older people like myself who love to read YA, and appreciate a good story about friendship.
Lisa Williamson is not Transgender so how did she come to write about Transgender issues? She is an actress, acting under the name Lisa Cassidy, you may have seen her in the John Lewis commercial, playing Monty the penguin. Of course acting in this particular commercial didn’t inspire her to write about Transgender, this happened quite by chance. She worked a variety of temporary office jobs until she found herself temping in the NHS Tavistock, in the Gender Identity Department. This job was a lucky strike. She typed up notes about Transgender kids, and enjoyed it so much that she decided to work full time in this role. Through this process Lisa began to realise that Transgender kids are “normal,” that they are “just regular kids,” who are unrepresented in YA literature. This lack of representation is remarkable considering the fact that they are “more common than red hair,” as James Dawson puts it. Lisa was nervous about her workplace reaction, and didn’t tell them at the time that she was writing a book about Transgender.
Lisa didn’t use a real Transgender person’s story rather she assimilated various stories and came up with the character of David. Her writing process started with fleshing out the characters rather than focussing on the workings of the plot. James Dawson remarked that the gruff Leo was his “favourite” character!
Lisa is fascinated with “abandoned places,” and the “bleak seaside,” and this shows in the choice of some of the locations in The Art of Being Normal.
Without a doubt it has been an amazing experience for this debut author. From listening to her talk one gets the sense of her feeling responsible for the welfare of the Transgender community. She received a message from one reader who said, that I: ” Don’t feel like I need to hide away anymore.” How wonderful to have had that kind of a positive impact on a young person. She hopes that the book will “change your perception,” and that the “book will speak for itself.”
Of course considering the fact that she is not Transgender herself there were bound to be cries of: “What right does she have to write about this?” But James Dawson argued quite rightly that yes you, “Have to write about characters that are not you.” Who wants to read about themselves? Nobody!
Lisa Williamson’s book was published on the 1st January, so soon after all the excitement of the Christmas festivities. In fact it was such a stressful time that Lisa felt like her eyebrows were falling out, to which James Dawson quipped, that she “can put her eyebrows back on now!”
What about a second book? Somehow this is difficult, the second book is “hell,” there are many pressures, currently she is working on idea six or seven. James Dawson was quick to support her with the encouraging words, ‘Take your time, its fine.” By the time you get to the third book you can relax. No doubt by then, I reckon, Lisa’s eyebrows will have completely recovered their former glory.
An audience member asked about the impact of social media on Transgender kids. Overall both Lisa Williamson and James Dawson seemed to feel that social media is a positive force, and a brilliant resource. This kind of on-line help wasn’t available to young gay men when James Dawson was growing up. Now there is a wealth of on-line resources for authors to connect with and support each other, and for kids to get the help and advice that they need on all sorts of LBGT issues.
Lisa has chosen YA as a means of expression because she loves YA, she believes that YA allows the author to be right there, “pushing boundaries, exploring.” I agree. YA literature showcases a time when everything is fresh and new, but also a time when life is filled with many difficult decisions and issues for the young people she is writing about.
Would the novel have been such a success if it had not been about Transgender issues? Of course the Transgender was a hook, a definite way to get attention, people are fascinated by the unusual, the “unlikely gang,” as James Dawson puts it. There haven’t been many books on this topic, it is so unrepresented, this is also true of LBGT in general.
Lisa’s Williamson’s talk was thoroughly illuminating. I attended with my two teenage daughters, both of whom enjoyed it very much. At the end we went off to buy a copy of the book, and wondered what to ask Lisa Williamson to write at the book signing. Should we ask her to write all our individual names, or ask her to address it to the Mallon family? That sounded a bit ridiculous Addams family like, so we ended up giggling in YA fashion in the signing queue, and opted for all our names to be added individually. Lisa signed the book with a flourish, and in her black pen she highlighted the word normal in a black rectangular box. Some of us might prefer not to be thought of as “normal,” we might like to be a bit special and unique, but some amongst us are just longing to be “normal” as we can and to fit in. We are all a little different, and deserve to be respected for who we are, regardless of our sexual orientation, gender, transgender, race and religion, and long may it remain so.
About the author (via Goodreads)
Lisa was born in Nottingham in 1980. She spent most of her childhood drawing, daydreaming and making up stories in her head (but never getting round to writing them down). As a teenager she was bitten by the acting bug and at 19 moved to London to study drama at university.
Following graduation, Lisa adopted the stage name of Lisa Cassidy and spent several happy and chaotic years occasionally getting paid to pretend to be other people. Between acting roles she worked as an office temp and started making up stories all over again, only this time she had a go at writing them down.
Lisa lives near Hampstead Heath with her boyfriend Matt, where she is lucky enough to split her time between writing and acting. In her spare time she reads a lot of books, continues to daydream and eats way too much ice cream.
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