It’s Not You, It’s Me by Gabrielle Williams

It’s Not You, It’s Me by Gabrielle Williams

Author Interview

“She wished she’d appreciated it more the first time around – when she was living her own sixteen-year-old life, rather than someone else’s.”

I am truly excited to interview Gabrielle Williams after being intrigued and indeed flabbergasted by her YA novels over the years. Gabrielle explores original ideas and takes us in the most unexpected directions. Her novels are Beatle Meets Destiny, The Reluctant Hallelujah, My Life as a Hashtag and The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex, about which I wrote in the Weekend Australian when it made my list of best YA novels of 2015: an “urban caper loosely based on the real-life theft of a Picasso painting. Books about the arts often rank highly with me, as do books with an interesting structure.”

And now Gabrielle has written the innovative, It’s Not You, It’s Me (Allen & Unwin).

Thanks for speaking with PaperbarkWords, Gabrielle.

How does your writing co-exist with your day job?

I have a number of different jobs, all of them related to writing (advertising copywriter/Readings Books Prize Manager/Readings Foundation Grants Officer). While each of those jobs have their super-busy periods (I’m currently smack-bang in the middle of a super-busy period with the Foundation, because we’ve just opened the 2022 grants round) they also have quieter weeks, where I can sit and settle into the headspace needed to do my own personal writing. It’s kind of the best of both worlds – time spent writing and going in deep, then time spent away from my writing. In quite a few ways the time away from my writing is as fertile for my imagination as the time spent with it.

Please tell us about the award/s you judge?

I’m the Prize Manager for Readings Bookshops in Melbourne. Each year we award 3 prizes to the best debut or second-time novelists of Children’s Literature, Young Adult, and New Australian Fiction. I wrangle all the books, check in on the judges, organise the shortlist meetings, arrange the guest judges, sit in on the deliberations, get to hear all about the best books in the Australian landscape, and spread the good news about the kickarse winners that are being published each year. For example, this year Penny Tangey won the Children’s Prize for her fabulous, ‘As Fast As I Can’, Asphyxia won the YA Prize with her incredible, multi-faceted, ‘Future Girl’, and Andrew Pippos has just been announced as the winner of the New Australian Fiction Prize for the charming and crushing ‘Lucky’s’. All of them amazing books that might have flown under the radar if it weren’t for the Readings Prize. [I’ve interviewed Penny and Asphyxia about these books at PaperbarkWords, and just so happen to be writing questions for Andrew about Lucky’s at the moment.]

What genre is It’s Not You, It’s Me and how does your title reflect what’s happening in the novel?

Hm. That’s a tricky question. I guess technically it’s fantasy, although it doesn’t feel to me like a fantasy novel. It feels more like a stretching-the-truth, imagine-if-this-really-could-happen book. And that’s the approach I took writing it. I didn’t write it as something fantastical – I wrote it as a real situation that could actually happen if you had a perfect storm of events conspiring to bring these two soulmates into each other’s lives because they both desperately needing saving from themselves.

Holly and Tiffany time-slip bodies. I like how Holly is sensitive about Tiffany’s life and respectful of her young body. How/why have you been careful in this situation?

Seeing as Trinity had no control over what was going on in her life (and by extension, with her body), respecting her personal space was very important. Setting the book in 1980 but with a character from 2020 meant that there was a clash between the carefree 80s with the sensibility of the #metoo movement. The influence of #metoo informed each of the relationships that Holly was thrown into, including the rights of Trinity’s own body (which is, after all, what #metoo is all about at its essence).

Could you tell us about Lewis and some of the other characters in this novel?

Lewis is the Australian neighbour of Trinity. He’s the first person Holly sees when she wakes up to find herself in a whole other body in a whole other world. I wanted Lewis to be Australian because of the familiarity that he provides for both Holly and Trinity in their respective soul-swapped lives. Holly feels instantly comfortable with Lewis because she is in fact Australian herself, and when Trinity wakes up to find herself thrown into Holly’s completely unfamiliar life, she at least has a small connection with Australia through Lewis. In addition, Holly is an art teacher and she studied Lewis’s work when she was a student (Lewis goes on to become an influential artist of the 80s and beyond).

The other two main characters in the book (aside from Holly and Trinity) are Siouxsie Sioux and April. Together with Trinity they form the number 3, a triad – there is a lot of numerology and spiritual symbology in the book which people might not actually register, but on a subconsious level I think it comes through. Thematically the book looks at the significance of soul connections, destiny, and other spiritual phenomena. In numerology, the number 3 is considered by some as the perfect number representing harmony, wisdom and understanding. Trinity and her two best friends, Susie Sioux and April create a perfect, balanced number 3, each of them complementing the other. In Holly’s life, she also has been a part of a triad with her two best friends, Zoe and Evie. However, in 2020, Zoe (who has an energy vibration on the same level as Susie Sioux) has recently died, which spins Holly off her axis and knocks out her soul connection with Evie, creating an opportunity for her soul to connect with Trinity through the typewriter.

Another key character is, of course, the typewriter itself. Brother Orange. Without him (and he’s a him, being a Brother), there would be no soul swap. Brother Orange is the last thing both Trinity and Holly touch before they swap souls. He works as the physical link, down through the decades, between the two of them. There is a whole spiritual story behind Brother Orange that didn’t make it into the book – it was superfluous to the flow of the novel, but important for me to know exactly how and why the typewriter was able to connect these two souls down through time. 

Time-travel and slips are notoriously difficult to pull off but you’ve succeeded brilliantly in It’s Not You, It’s Me. What were some of the narrative, technical or other challenges you had to solve? Could you tell us about one of your solutions?

Time travel will do your head in if you think about it too much. The complexities of the world turning back on itself, of people’s lives being impacted by shifts in time, the entire existential crisis of the people who are at the epicentre. Interestingly, I don’t generally believe in soulswaps or time travel – I feel like they’re often simply used as a device to explore the concept of a person being displaced. So as I was writing the book, the first person I had to convince was myself. I felt that if something as uncanny as a time-travelling, continent hopping, soul swap was going to happen, it could only be accounted for by a perfect storm that contained the elements of science and mysticism, so I immersed myself in both: I read a lot about numerology, symbology, Shinto religion, Ouija boards, as well as metaphysics and the fourth dimension of time. One of the things that was most helpful for me was when I came up with the diagram that is in the front of the book. It demonstrated the circularity, the inevitability of these two souls matched together, as well as the impact that the future can have on the past and the past can have on the future. Even thinking about it now … Brain. Exploded.

What are three features of American life that you enjoyed including in the novel?

We were lucky enough to go to LA in 2019, just before the entire world shut down. It sounds like a junket, saying you’re going to travel overseas to ‘research your novel’, but truly the book would have missed so much of the flavour and texture it has, if we hadn’t gone over there. Being on the streets of LA gave me an understanding of exactly how foreign you feel in a different land (never mind in a different body). I literally nearly got run over on a number of occasions because I couldn’t come to terms with the idea of the cars being on the wrong side of the road. I spent days in LA Central Library, reading the newspapers from the week that Holly and Trinity swap souls. We literally stayed in the apartment that I used for Trinity’s dad’s pad. We walked to John Marshall High School with all the school students one morning. I really enjoyed picking out the strangenesses that an Australian instinctively notices in America – the different spelling of words, Fahrenheit vs Celsius, miles vs kilometres. Half the time I didn’t know what the weather would be like, how much something cost, how far away we were from places, or whether it was safe to cross the road, because of all the small but very big differences in our countries. I enjoyed writing about the big cars of 1970s America, the décor, the clothes, the smoking, the hitchhiking. The 70s and early 80s were such a different time from how we live these days – to a degree I was writing historical fiction!

Your novel is both wistful and uplifting. Could you share an example of each?

It’s so lovely of you to say that, Joy, because that was definitely something I wanted to explore. The wistfulness of a life that hasn’t been lived to its fullest extent. The risks that we take when we’re young that might forever change us in ways that we can’t anticipate. Regret for things that never were, and for things that are no longer. But also, the power that comes when you recognise that you can still make changes to your life, that you can have agency over your own life, no matter how old you are. Holly, especially, is living a life with deep regrets. She’s engaged to a guy she doesn’t really like that much; her best friend has died; she didn’t live in a garret in Paris and hang out in jazz clubs and work on her art when she was in her twenties; she didn’t do any of the things she thought she’d do, because she lacked the confidence. I’m a big believer in the organic nature of life, that the universe presents us with opportunities, and we only have to recognise them and scoop them up in order for us to travel on the life path that’s set out for us. I think that’s where the novel is uplifting, because it has the sense that the universe has our best interests at heart. In fact, that organic nature of life played out in the story as well – it was only about draft 15 that the ending suddenly revealed itself. As soon as the idea came to me, it felt like the perfect uplifting finale.  

How have you brought humour into the story?

Humour is one of the hardest things to write, especially if it’s going to come off effortlessly (which humour really needs to). For me, the humour only starts revealing itself quite a few drafts into the process. Once I’ve started relaxing into the story, once I feel confident that things are pulling together, I start to see the funny side of things. The quips and comments and lighthearted moments start appearing in the margins, and so long as I keep my eyes open, I can throw them in.

What is the importance of music and art in the novel?

Music and art and writing and other creative pursuits can reveal unexpected aspects of ourselves; in a way they almost serve as physical manifestations of our soul. The book is very much about soul mates, and I felt that there was a need for both Holly and Trinity to have creative outputs for their inner-soul-life. It’s no coincidence that Holly has a talent for painting but has never been able to expose herself to the vulnerabilities that are required when you take it to the world (there would be very few people in her life who have ever seen her art). Trinity, on the other hand, plays music for her own joyful experience and soultime, as well as being enough of a risk-taker to want to stand up in front of people and take it to the world. By living Trinity’s life, Holly is exposed to the sense of ‘flow’ that she used to feel as a young artist, the shock of being able to pick up an instrument and create beautiful music, a refuge for her soul, taking her away from everything that is so confusing and letting her simply be. So, I guess, the short answer is, music and art were important as expressions of Holly and Trinity’s souls, pinned down to the page.

Often an author’s favourite book is their most recent one. Apart from It’s Not You, It’s Me, which of your other novels are you particularly proud of, and why?

The Guy The Girl The Artist & His Ex made it onto your 2015 list of best YA books, and I must admit that (while, of course I love all my books), TGTGTA&HE is one of my absolute favourites. Even though they are both very different books, I feel there is a synergy with It’s Not You It’s Me. I feel like they couldn’t have been written by anyone else but me. They don’t follow the usual trajectory. They address difficult themes, but in a way that doesn’t feel threatening or heavy or dark. They were both incredibly challenging to write, and nearly did my head in on numerous occasions. Both of them have a complex structure that required diagrams in order for me to truly ‘see’ the story and how to set it out on the page. I really enjoy untangling a complicated themic idea in a way that makes it logical and easy for a reader to connect with. Even though I was hopeless at maths when I was at school, I always loved algebra – it felt very satisfying for me when the answer revealed itself. When you write a thematically and structurally complex novel, it has an algebraic quality that is infinitely satisfying. Also, I love the kookiness of this book and TGTGTA&HE. The idea for both of them came from left-field, and at certain times in the process I felt like I was simply transcribing an idea the universe had presented me with. An amazing experience.

What else are you reading and keen to recommend?

There are so many great books out there at the moment. I 100% recommend each of the books that have won the Readings Prize for this year. I’ve just finished reading The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey, which I really enjoyed. And I’d have to say that we’re fortunate to have an astonishingly talented array of YA authors in Australia: people like Nova Weetman, Emily Gale, Fiona Wood, Christine Keighery, Rebecca Lim, Simmone Howell, Mark Smith, Cath Crowley, Kirsty Eagar, Kim Kane, Lili Wilkinson, Ellie Marney, Erin Gough, I mean truly, the list goes on. I can highly recommend any or all of their books! [an incredible list, and many names here that appear on the blog, or whose books I have reviewed for The Weekend Australian or elsewhere.]

Gabrielle Williams (A&U)

How can your readers contact you?

It’s probably easiest to contact me through Instagram gabwilliamswrites. Or on Twitter gab_williams. Although I’d love it if people hand-typed letters to me c/- Allen & Unwin in East Melbourne, in keeping with the whole Brother Orange thing! [what a great idea!]

It’s Not You, It’s Me, is astonishing and assured. Reading it makes you both think and smile. It is highly satisfying.

Thank you for your generous and enlightening responses here, Gab and all the very best with this wonderful novel.

It’s Not You, It’s Me at Allen & Unwin

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