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

My review of The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams in The Weekend Australian, May 16, 2015 (and 3 other novels)

Young adult fiction that’s smart, sassy and steals the show

Supplied Editorial YA novels
  • 12:00AM MAY 16, 2015

Four new young-adult novels delve into theft and its unlikely bedfellows of conscience and compassion. These books feature clever, hardworking girls and boys with diverse, often shady, skills. The girls can also hold their own in the heist stakes.

The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex (Allen & Unwin, 256pp, $17.99) by bookseller Gabrielle Williams is set atmospherically in Melbourne, with scenes coloured by its quintessential roads, restaurants and workers’ cottages. The novel is cleverly structured, following the four voices silhouetted in the title. Time moves forwards and backwards. The pace slows and quickens like the Yarra River itself to create tension, suspense and release.

Guy lacks marketable talent although he is good at kicking a hacky sack. He’s failing school, has doctored his Year 11 report and is facing the consequences of his parents finding out. He holds a party, which inevitably gets out of control, but his lucky break may be accidentally elbowing an unknown, gorgeous girl in the nose. He is so interested he drives her home even though he doesn’t yet have his licence. Guy’s troubles spiral exponentially on his return trip.

Rafi’s Columbian mother is obsessed by La Llorona, South America’s legendary horse-headed woman. She believes this creature drowned her baby boy. Since his death, Rafi has been diligent and responsible, keeping “the lines straight, the colours coded”, but she makes a terrible mistake while babysitting for her neighbour.

The other two major characters are in their 20s. Luke is a young, successful artist. He gets his ex, Penny, a cool rock chick, pregnant and avoids responsibility for his baby son. All these characters’ lives become entwined.

The plot is loosely based on the true theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman by the so-called Australian Cultural Terrorists in 1986. Luke, his mate Dipper and the ironically named “Real” steal the painting, and Luke paints a forgery.

Julep, in American author Mary Elizabeth Summer’s debut novel Trust Me, I’m Lying (Random House, 336pp, $19.99), also becomes a forger. After spending her youth mastering disguises and scams, she needs to make more money to pay her rent and school fees, so she starts a successful sideline forging IDs.

Life is complicated by the disappearance of her father. Julep fears he has been taken by the mob. She finds the first of a trail of clues in the rubbish bin of their trashed apartment. In a padded envelope are a gun and a cryptic note, “Beware the field of miracles”. This sets her off on a scavenger hunt, including a Chaucerian set piece where she wears an orange wig and overalls that cover a waiter’s suit, to a private club to locate a locker. The disguises and decoys escalate as she escapes.

Sam, son of the wealthiest African-American in Chicago and a technophile who is capable of hacking into the FBI, helps Julep. He is one of two love interests. Minor characters, particularly those who Julep’s scams or “fixes”, are interesting. Murphy wants to take Bryn to the formal and, once transformed with a geek-chic makeover, strikes “while the irony’s hot” and later becomes a useful ally.

The author expertly jostles humour, anger, fear and compassion to build the plot as well
as the characters. Julep is an unusual grifter. Even though she has a smart voice, isn’t demonstrative and needs personal space, she wants to be “real” and cares for others more than herself. Despite being a liar, Julep is a girl to be trusted.

Chester in Melbourne author Skye Melki-Wegner’s first stand-alone novel, The Hush (Random House, 448pp, $19.99), is reluctant to trust the gang who saves him from beheading in the town of Hamelin. He is on a mission to find his missing father and chafes at being seconded as an unlicensed Songshaper to help them pull off a heist.

They are also unsure of him even without knowing he is inadvertently connecting to the “Song” when he plays his fiddle or flute. This is blasphemy in a place where the Song is the heartbeat of the world and holds it together.

When the story begins, Chester sees the world as a treble clef. “A hill curved high on the horizon. A swirl of ink. A symbol on a song sheet.” Dot, whose female lover has also vanished, is a Songshaper-mechanic in the Nightfall Gang, a notorious band that steals from the rich to feed the poor. The gang travels in an echoship, a steampunk boat with masts and flapping sails, which hovers above the ground. It is jump-started by the music of trains. When the engine dangerously runs a semitone off-key, the group resets it by playing from a manual of sheet music. Music is the essence of this world, the core of its original composition and accompaniments.

Athletic, red-haired burglar Susannah is the captain of the gang. She is a fugitive from the Conservatorium of Music and needs Chester to complete her team for their most audacious theft yet, stealing from the Conservatorium. They travel through the parallel world of the Hush to evade capture. The Hush is a secret place. It is dark and foggy, with rain that falls as shadow rather than water. Its air is musically contaminated and it conceals dangerous, tainted creatures called Echoes.

Another imagined world where song is pivotal is Magonia, created by Maria Dahvana Headley (HarperCollins, 320pp, $19.99), who has co-edited an anthology with Neil Gaiman. The story is established securely in the real world where Aza’s “history is hospitals” because she has a rare lung disease. There’s a rumour at school that she resembles “a hungry, murdery girl ghost from a Japanese horror movie” because of her pale face and blue lips but she’s actually matter-of-fact and sardonic. Her best friend, and dual narrator, is genius Jason, who has suddenly become hot even though he wears mismatched clothes and pyjama tops and deals with his anxiety through philosophy, pills and reciting pi.

They share an appreciation of EE Cummings’s poetry, which inspires them to write important messages with brackets and parentheses, “(I { } you more than [[[{{{ }}}]]].)”. They also draw lines through words they need to use but that have too much baggage, such as love.

When Aza dies but wakes in an airship in the sky-country of Magonia, the feather in her lung becomes a yellow bird that passes through a door in her chest. Aza is the saviour of Magonia who was “born to sing the elements into submission” and steal Earth’s food crops with her lungsinger bird and handsome, arrogant first mate, Dai. Magonia seems to be a glorious place with squallwhales, which make camouflage storms, and batsails, sails of giant tethered bats, but there are also stormsharks, pirates, food shortages and impending war with Earth.

Both speculative and realist literature can help young readers deal with difficult issues such as living with loss and death in compelling and relevant ways. These books have characters who are trying to improve their worlds. As Jason tells Aza: “Even people who’ve never seen the light, people who’ve been kept in the dark … people who’ve never seen a miracle can believe in miracles.”

(Link to the review)

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