I got the chance to interview Liz Kessler, author of the YA novel Read Me Like A Book, and the two middle-grade series Emily Windsnap and, Phillipa’s Fairy Godsister. Read Me Like A Book is, in Liz’s words, about “a girl going from her last boyfriend to her first girlfriend via a major crush on her English teacher.” We’re so excited this book is being published in the US!
Liz: Well so you’ve probably read that it was the first book that I wrote and it took about 15 years to come to publication. I had an English teacher who influenced me incredibly. And what happens with Ash goes a lot further than what I had with my English teacher. But it was a situation where she changed my life quite dramatically really. ’cause she was kind of the first teacher who’d ever really believed in me and seen something more than just a naughty child who got into trouble. And um, and she was massively influential in my life and so there’s a little bit of it that’s kind of paying homage to her . A little bit of my experiences of coming out, and then just a story that I wanted to tell really. I wanted to get kind of, that story out there.
Liz: When I wrote it there wasn’t really anything like it at the time. When it finally came out, well, you know there’s hundreds of them really. There’s a lot. There’s a lot out there now. Which is brilliant.
Vee: Yeah, no that’s awesome. So, like you said you first wrote it like 15 years ago and I was wondering… I read a couple interviews where you talk about some of the changes you had to make, since publishing it now, in terms of like the technology and some of the lingo that’s used. But I was wondering if there’s anything in regards to like the queer content that you had to change? Or like, I don’t know, if there’s any any adjustments to that that you had to make.
Liz: Sorry what did you say?
Vee: The queer content and like…
Liz: Oh, I’ve got an issue with “queer” but–
Vee: Oh do you? Ok.
Liz: We’ll come back to that another time. Um, not really no. The content itself didn’t really change much. To be honest with you there was, when I very first wrote it, there was um the lines were a bit more blurry with the teacher. And part of what I decided working with my editor and my publisher was that I didn’t really want to go there. When I’d first written it, it felt important to me that there was, not exactly a full on relationship, but the teacher did cross the boundaries a bit more than she should have. But in the end I thought actually that’s not what the book’s about, it’s about Ashley’s self discovery and development. And to go there could almost make it something that people focus on to the detriment of what I feel it really is about. So that changed. But it changed for the benefit of the story, of the character, not to do with anything beyond that.
The only other thing that changed really I suppose to do with it was there’s a scene when Ashley’s just come out to her best friend. They’re walking down the road and they get into this kerfuffle with these guys at the bus stop. When I first wrote it this scene was very threatening and quite aggressive and really frightening for Ash. And my editor said that when it came to it, it just didn’t feel that realistic anymore, it felt quite old fashioned. It felt like this was much more likely to be how it was, they were more like “I’ll sort you out” but in a jokey kind of way. So that changed. But you know since the book coming out things have changed again. This book came out in England a year ago. And, I don’t know, I feel like Orlando has changed everything since then. And there’s lots of other things that have changed things and made me think the world hasn’t moved on as much as…I don’t think it has. And, I think, it makes me think that the book is still needed. I hope it is still needed.
Liz: But I’d like to think it would be irrelevant in another 30 years.
Vee: [laughs] Yeah.
Liz: It’s a funny thing to say about your own book.
Vee: No, absolutely, I get it. So, speaking of Orlando. I saw that you’d chosen to come out on your Facebook author page after the Orlando shooting. And I was wondering about like what the response was like to that. And why you felt that was important to do in the wake of that.
Liz: Well, when I first got the deal for Read Me Like A Book in the UK, so this is about two years ago now, I did come out, in most places. I mean I’ve always been open with my friends, and there’s no issue. But I’d never been open on Twitter, or in public. And I, before the book came out I didn’t want there to be a focus on…”is this your story?” I didn’t want that, so I wrote a blog a couple of years ago coming out. I married my partner and I just felt like I wanted to be out there. But the one place where I’d never done this was on my author page on Facebook because the readership of that page I see as 8-year-old American girls and their mums. And I just think that, it didn’t quite, it didn’t feel right. And then I don’t know, it was just this feeling after the Orlando shootings that… there’s a responsibility almost for people to, who are in any way the public eye– which I am in a tiny tiny way– but to just, kind of use our position if you like to do whatever good we can do, I suppose is the way of putting it. I felt like this should never have happened. This, this should not be happening in this day and age and I just, I felt very emotional. I’m sure lots of people did, I’m sure you did, many people did.
Vee: Sure, of course.
Liz: And I just felt like I want people to know why I write the books I write and I don’t want to hide away. I want to stand up for who I am, I want to stand up for the people who died that night, I want to stand up for people who are struggling, I don’t want to hide who I am. And you know, what is there to fear? So do it.
Liz: And the response was lovely, the response was absolutely, you know I’ve not had any, at this moment I’ve not had any negative feedback from doing that.
Vee: That’s awesome.
Liz: Touch wood…ok, just finding some wood to touch.
Vee: [laughs] So you also wrote the Emily Windsnap and the Philippa’s Fairy Godsister series, and… when I realized you wrote the Emily Windsnap books I was like what! ‘Cause I read that when I was like 10.
Vee: And I loved it. So do you I don’ t know like, I don’t know a whole lot of authors who write middle-grade and gay YA books I guess. So I was just wondering like do you see your younger readers growing up to read your young adult books?
Liz: I tell you what, I’ve had a few emails from like 15-year-old girls who’ve said “I’ve just read Read Me Like a Book and I used to read Emily Windsnap, and I’m so glad that you’re doing this now and that you’re still writing for my age group.” And that’s one of the things that’s made me the happiest because I know that you wouldn’t necessarily think that there’s a link, but to me there is a link. I mean I don’t know if you have ever thought this when you look back at the Emily Windsnap books but, and I never thought it at the time, I just write the stories. To me Emily’s a mermaid, she’s a bit of a tomboy mermaid, she goes out on adventures, she gets herself into trouble, you know, she’s great, I love hanging out with Emily Windsnap. I have fun writing the books. But actually underneath all that the books are about coming to terms with who you are and they’re about bringing together different communities and you know, there’s even… there’s this line. I saw someone who had quoted this line on tumblr from Emily Windsnap where she stands up in Neptune’s court and she says “you can’t pass a law telling people who they can love.” It’s something like that. You can’t stop people from loving who they love just because a law says it’s wrong. I was like oh my god that was Emily Windsnap saying that! It’s, there’s a through line I think with the books. So yeah, I really really hope that the Emily fans will grow up to read the YA books. I’ve got a second one that’s coming out in October in the UK called Hold Me, it doesn’t have any LGBT content in it but it is an unconventional romance in a different kind of way. She’s alive, he’s dead.
Liz: But yeah I really hope, it’s all me it’s all my writing I think there’s a through line between the books, do you?
Vee: Yeah I absolutely do. I can definitely see it.
Liz: Tell folk out there because I think so too.
Vee: Do you have a favorite scene in Read Me Like a Book?
Liz: Do I have a favorite scene? I haven’t been asked that yet so I haven’t got an answer prepared. Hmm. I don’t know. I have little moments that I really like. I mean, I love the coming out scene at the end. It’s not just all simple joy. It’s also awkward and difficult. And I think that that’s real. I don’t think that when you come out everybody always goes “oh that’s wonderful!” I mean I have been criticised by a few people because there’s about three different people in the book who say “oh yes I knew it all along, even before you.” And they’re like did everybody know she was gay? How did they know? But I think that does quite often happen that you’ve kind of, you’ve been giving off these vibes before you finally realise it yourself. But… her dad finds it really difficult and so it’s not just plain sailing. So yeah, I quite, I like that scene because it’s celebratory but at the same time it’s also realistic.
I don’t know why but I like the scene where they’re mucking about with the lads, with these guys at the bus stop. Because again it’s a really pivotal moment for her, and I remember things like that happen to me. There’s a line in that scene I remember thinking when I was at University. When a friend of mine had a housemate who poured beer in my face because he said I’d corrupted his friend because she was my girlfriend. And he blamed me, he was very homophobic. And I remember thinking this line that’s in the book which is “it’s all very well going round with two fingers stuck up at the world but when the world turns round and sticks it back up at you, you realize the world’s much bigger than you are.”
And then I love all the intense moments when she’s staring at Ms. Murrin she’s like oh my god what am I thinking? There’s just little favourite bits I don’t know. Do you have a favorite scene?
Vee: I’m not sure if I do… I do like that… like, what you’re saying about the coming out bit because I don’t know, it’s definitely like a big moment for her but I do like that it does have the awkwardness. And it’s not just like this one big triumphant thing.
Liz: Yeah, exactly.
Vee: So I appreciated that because I think some books can simplify that. And not to say that…I do think the feeling of triumph is an experience that people can have but there are other ones. So, yeah, I liked that. I’m not sure if I have any more questions, we’ve kind of covered everything I have. But, do you have anything else?
Liz: Just… I think something that I’ve been aware of since the book came out is it seems to have gone from you know, before it was published, no one wanted it. It was quite, a bit of a risky subject 15 years ago. And now it almost feels like that we’ve gone so far the other way that some people have said that, you know you shouldn’t be making an issue of coming out. It shouldn’t be the main focus of the book. You should just have… queer, I’ll say queer for you, I have issues with queer only because I… to me it still has negative conotations and I find it kind of hard to reclaim it in a very positive way.
Liz: But there are the people who say we should just have queer characters in the background, just being there not making an issue of it. And I suppose what I would want to say is that I think we’re still…that would be the aim eventually but I don’t think we’re there yet. And I think that at the moment when it still is an issue, when it’s still illegal in many countries, when people can go into a gay club and shoot dead 49 people simply because it’s a gay club etc etc., I think that it still is an issue and we do need some books that do prioritize it as an issue. But at the same time I think we need the other ones, too, where the characters are just going along being who they are in the background without making an issue of it. So I think, I feel like it’s very very interesting times in terms of the whole LGBT world.
Vee: Yeah. I definitely think like both sides are very important and I think there’s a lot more diversity within those experiences that need more room to be explored. It’s like everything is important, everything has its place.
Liz: I agree and I think you know, there’s so many, there’s opportunities to have so many books out there, lots of people that need to read them and lets just get them all out there.