Today we have Australian author Alyssa Brugman joining us. Her 12 Young Adult fiction books, including Finding Grace, Walking Naked, Being Bindy, Alex as Well and the Shelby series, starting with For Sale or Swap have been shortlisted for numerous literature and children’s choice awards in Australia and overseas, and have been translated into nine languages. She holds a PhD in Narratology from Canberra University and currently lives in the Hunter Valley in Australia. Alyssa is an important voice in YA fiction around the world, and we are so excited that she was able to join us today!
James: Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to us! Alex as Well was recently named one of the 21 Best Transgender Books For Kids. Congratulations! When it was published in 2013, Alex As Well was one of the first young adult books to feature an intersex main character. Why was it important to you to bring intersex characters to the young adult scene?
Alyssa: I read a book by Jane McCredie called "Making Girls and Boys: Inside the science of sex" in which she talks about gender as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, which I found very illuminating. It occurred to me that even in books that feature transition from one gender to another, they still discussed gender as either/or, rather than a spectrum. I felt it would be good to have an intersex character in a YA book, since I had never read about one before, and yet gender diversity is quite common in the population.
James: How did you prepare for writing this moments?
Alyssa: I wrote this manuscript for my PhD in which was about narrative structure. Initially the novel was an exercise in applying a series of narrative strategies that I had discussed in my exegesis, and it therefore wasn’t really intended for commercial publication, so I was surprised and delighted when Text Publishing in Australia picked it up.
James: Alex has moments throughout the novel where she struggles with her "boyish" side. Did you ever consider making Alex gender fluid?
Alyssa: Many of the times that the male Alex is more dominant than the female Alex occur when Alex’s mother is tampering with her hormone levels without her knowledge. I included them to demonstrate aspects of the relationship between mother and child, and how decisions that Alex’s mother makes impact on Alex in ways neither of them can anticipate, but also to raise questions about consent and parental responsibility.
James: Which scene in the novel do you consider to be the most powerful?
Alyssa: Alex chooses two adults as parental roles for herself - Lien the model manager and Crockett the lawyer. Neither of the adults give a hoot about Alex’s gender. They are much more interested in her being responsible and respectful and punctual and all of those types of qualities that have to do with her character rather than her gender. I find most touching the scenes where Alex reaches out to them and they respond in manner which is in equal measures affectionate and tough.
James: What message would you share with LGBTQIA+ students who, like Alex, are struggling to find acceptance?
Alyssa: Alex is an average teenager who likes pop songs and has a crush, who fights with her parents, and can be bratty, but also at times melancholy. She is searching for identity, separating herself from her parents and questioning their ideas – like all adolescents. I am hoping that readers find more in common with her than they find different. But also I hope teens will learn that you can find family in people who support and love you just or you. Their love for you is not dependent on you changing something about yourself, or meeting certain requirements. That doesn't mean that they will accept bad behaviour either, but that your gender is not relevant to their interaction with you.
James: Alex is one of the only vegetarian characters I've seen in young adult literature. Are you a vegetarian as well?
Alyssa: I am not vegetarian, but I do try to buy meat directly from the farmers, where they are free range and processed on the same property where they were born. I am lucky because my other job as an equine nutritionist means I spend a lot of time on farms, and can buy all kinds of produce from them, including fresh vegetables, eggs, oils and sometimes wine.
James: In a recent article on Stella, you mentioned your hope that books like Alex As Well will one day be "common enough to be unremarkable." What did you mean by that?
Alyssa: Most of the interviews I have done about this book have been about intersex - what it is, what research I did and why I chose it. Many people have never heard of it, and yet a significant proportion of the population do not experience their own gender as one or the other, but some combination of both or even neither. How can it be that there are so few books about this in YA, which so often explores identity and sexuality?
James: What's the most meaningful compliment you've ever received from one of your readers?
Alyssa: Once an eight year old girl wrote to me to say that one of my pony books (I did a series of five for Random House) was the first chapter book that she had read, and it was the best one she'd ever read. That was pretty cute. I also received fan mail many years ago from a woman who was studying writing in Ohio, and we continued to correspond. Now she is one of my dearest friends, who has written books of her own - Colleen Clayton, author of "What Happens Next."
James: You are the only Australian author we've featured on PickMyYA. What are some other Australian young adult books that you'd recommend to our readers?
Alyssa: We have a vibrant, innovative YA publishing industry here in Australia. Margo Lanagan is probably the stand out Australian YA writer. Ursula Dubosarsky, Nicole Hayes, Casandra Golds, Ellie Marney, Kate Gordon, Michael Gerard Bauer, Vikki Wakefield, Fleur Ferris, Will Kostakis, Lili Wilkinson, Joanne Horniman, Kirsty Murray, Isobelle Carmody are all writers that spring to mind.
There is a website called Love OzYA, which is a great resource for exploring books from Australia. We have a very supportive and close knit YA community here - not just of writers, but publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, editors, book bloggers and festival organisers.
James: What's your favorite place to read?
Alyssa: Sometimes I go to a coffee shop and read a book on my phone. Not as often as I would like though.
That's it for today's interview with Alyssa. But if you have any questions for Alyssa or want to let her know how Alex As Well or one of her other books has impacted you, be sure to check out her website and follow her on Twitter. And be sure to come back again next week, when we'll be talking to a special guest from the UK: Marcus Sedgwick, author of Midwinterblood!