Children’s Book Blog: Ask the author – Alyssa Brugman on Alex As Well
My interviewee this month is Australian YA author Alyssa Brugman. Alyssa has scooped up handfuls of awards since publishing her first book, Finding Grace, in 2001. Her latest novel, Alex As Well explores issues of gender identity from the point of view of a ‘sexually ambiguous’ teenager. I asked her about the challenges of taking on such an important and potentially sensitive subject…
Why did you decide to tackle the topic of gender identity?
The manuscript began as a technical exercise. I was looking for a way a character could be divided by two opposing views. Gender seemed to be a good match for that. But emotional development and sexual maturity generally is a mainstay for young adult fiction. All of my novels have dealt with adolescent characters forming their own identity in some way.
Did you have any reservations before you started?
I had no reservations at the time. I wrote the manuscript as an academic exercise. I had no expectation that it would be published, but once it was finished I felt that it was a strong enough manuscript to submit to a publisher.
My opinion is that there aren’t any topics that you can’t address. There might be some that I wouldn’t personally, but it’s the manner in which you approach it that is more critical.
What sort of research did you do for the book?
I was studying narratology at the time, so I did a great deal of research into the various narrative strategies that I applied in the book, but I also read about people who are transgender and intersex.
Whether or not the character is aware that there is a reader influences how reliable they are. If a character knows that they are being observed then they will put themselves in the best possible light (setting aside that they are a fictional construct). Having Alex address the reader directly lets the reader know that her testimony is not necessarily one hundred per cent consistent. She tells us the version that she wants us to hear.
Part of the story is told from the point of view of Alex’s mother, via her posts on an online messageboard. Why did you choose to include a parental voice and why in this way?
Alex is unreliable, partly because she is young, partly because she wants the reader to like her, but also there are parts of the story that she doesn’t know because she wasn’t there.
Alex’s mother was useful to fill those gaps, but she is unreliable too. Somewhere between their two accounts of what happened is the “truth”. It’s up to the reader to decide what that is.
Have you had any feedback on the book from the transgender community?
I have had a mixed response from the LGBTI community. Some people are really pleased to see an intersex character represented. Others have felt that I don’t have a right to tell this story since I am not intersex. Either way I welcome debate about the topic.
What message – if any – do you hope young readers will take away from this book?
Alex listens to pop tunes and likes fashion. She has a crush, and a group of friends she hangs out with. She fights with her parents and thinks they are unfair. Alex is a young person who happens to be intersex.
Do you have any tips for aspiring YA writers?
My own experience and what I have observed of other writers that I know is that once it has become part of what you do it’s harder not to write. It’s an energy that needs expending in some form. It’s probably marginally more productive to write manuscripts than to engage in wars on the internet or compose odes for unrequited lovers.
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and author and is currently working on a YA novel set in Hackney. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @RebeccaDavies__Tagged in: Alyssa Brugman
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