In Changers Book One: Drew, husband-and-wife team T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper introduce readers to Ethan, a boy who wakes up in a new body – that of a girl named Drew – on the first day of high school. Drew learns that she is part of a secret race known as Changers, and will spend each of the next four years experiencing different physical identities until finally selecting the one to stick with for the rest of her – or his – life. PW caught up with T, who has published novels and nonfiction for adults, and Allison, an author and a senior staff writer for ESPN, by phone to discuss the inspiration for this story, the nature of their collaboration, and their related Empathy Project.
In Changers, your protagonist will spend each of the four books living a different life – as publicity materials describe it, the cheerleader, the nerd, the jock, the freak. What inspired you to write this series?
T: It came out of a conversation we had one day in the park. We were talking about our own kids – they’re 12 and 13 – and how it seemed like they woke up with different personalities each day, minute to minute. You know how an idea is born. It just came to us: what about teenagers who literally change personalities for each year of school? What would that do to a soul?
This is your first work for teens for both of you. What was it like getting into the teenage mind?
A: It wasn’t that hard. We’re immersed in it every day. And we’re both really immature. (Laughs) That’s not true. I kid. It was fun to work together. It was fun to do something a little less fraught than a literary novel or serious journalism, and it was a project straight from our hearts that we cared about. It’s something we want our children to read.
What was it like collaborating with each other?
A: (Deadpan) It was a seamless, harmonious collaboration. (Laughs.)
Why do I doubt that?
T: I actually think it went far better than my wife does, but it wasn’t that bad. This is my sixth book, and her third, so we obviously have long histories of doing things exactly how and when we want them, and in what manner. We’re both very passionate, and we cared a lot about this world we created and the characters we were bringing to life, so naturally we had differences of opinion about what direction to take. It was much richer because of any conflicts we had. Ultimately we ended up in a better place.
You pretty much threw your main character into the deep end, sending her to school before she’s even received a full explanation of her new identity. Why do it that way?
T: Just like with life, we’re all just sort of flailing out there. But how prepared can you be, really? I think that’s kind of the point. The Changers mission is to try it out and see what happens. The lessons you learn are meant to teach you empathy and what it’s like to be a different person.
The Changers have that mission, but you also imbue them with a creepy, almost cultish vibe. Was it your intention to make them feel shady?
A: Yes! Absolutely. That will be developed as the series goes on. I think it’s pretty clear they’re not 100% the good guys. Whenever you have an authoritarian organization, all that power concentrated in one place, you’re going to get shadiness and some corruption, and the usual unsavory things. It’s not dystopian, but it is about what happens when power is consolidated, like with anything from politics to religion, even life philosophies.
T: Things can start off with very pure intentions. The Changers’ mission is pure; it’s the idea that if everybody could live as another person, that would change how everybody treats other people. So yeah, that’s a very pure, good well-motivated mission, but like many things, that can be bastardized very quickly.
One of the Changers’ primary rules is that they can’t return to their original selves. Why eliminate that possibility?
A: When you grow up, you can’t and shouldn’t go back to the child you were. Once you have knowledge, and experience, and see certain things, you can’t unsee them. You have to move forward with all of that carried inside of you.
T: You’ve been changed by life. To truly step into the life of an adult as a Changer, you need to pick one of these people you’ve experienced.
A: We also believe that who you choose to be is a choice. Experience happens to everyone, both shitty and wondrous. What you do with that information is up to you. We wanted kids to have that. It’s a real source of power, to know that if bad things are happening in my life, it’s not going to define me. Where I’m starting is not where I’m going to end up. I can choose to be this person or that person. That’s super important, not just for kids, but for everyone. We put each other and ourselves in boxes, and that’s damaging. We also wanted to create a love story that was about loving people who are changing.
I was pleasantly surprised by how flexible Drew turns out to be with regards to attraction, both physical and emotional.
A: We’ve been getting a lot of really nice feedback about that. I think it struck a chord with a lot of folks. It’s organic. You’re drawn to whoever you’re drawn to. It doesn’t manifest itself sexually in this book, but connection is connection.
T: It’s a combination internal and external, how you’re treated as you go through the world.
Did the story surprise you in any way as it unfolded?
T: This book is the one about gender, in a sense. It’s about a boy who’s now a girl and he gives up the power that you have as a boy. It’s hard when you want to delve into some of the harder stuff, such as girls being taken advantage of, and how they get treated. Some of that stuff, it took on a life of its own.
You say this book is about gender. Do the other books have different themes?
A: Not that rigidly, but in some ways, yes. We want to explore race, size, and body image, and we’d like to explore who gets power and who doesn’t. It’s all folded in there. It’s not that explicit like we’re working off a checklist, but those themes will be present. We know who the next three iterations are for Drew.
T: It’s a look at what it suddenly means to be a girl in this world. You take a body, and you take a brain that’s never experienced those things before, and boom, without preparation you’re dropped in the middle of this social world with its dynamics. Each year, we’re going to play with different stuff. She’ll have the life experience of being a girl, and you build on that with the next life experience. That’s why the Changers are meant to chronicle this period, so that they can go back and revisit what they experienced and learned as each person before they decide who they want to be.
A: We really do go through so many selves as we mature. We’re just making that literal and more fun.
You call Changers an empathy project. What can you tell us about that?
A: It sort of grew out of the book. We wanted to continue the conversation and we wanted a place for kids to talk about issues sparked by the content of the book. We were genuinely disturbed by the studies we’ve read about empathy decreasing in our population, and we wanted to create a safe place for those kids to talk to each other and explore these issues, and act as a resource. So when we go into schools, we plan to have reading groups, but not like a traditional presentation. It will be geared around the central message of imagining yourself as someone else. You act differently if you’re held accountable.
T: When you read about some of the horrible things, like bullying or the Steubenville case, it cracks your brain open, and you can’t believe that people would treat other people like that. In addition to being a resource, we want it to be a place to shine the light on good things. We have the Unselfies section on the website. We want kids to turn the camera around. It’s not healthy to constantly scrutinize yourself and ask for praise and be told how great you are. We want everyone to submit Unselfies, where they take a picture of what someone else is feeling or doing, to capture someone else’s emotions, or to capture what you’re feeling without taking a picture of yourself. We’re running a contest where the best one each month for the first year wins a copy of Drew. We want the book to be a fun piece of fiction, and the empathy message to take on a life of its own.
Your book bears some thematic resemblance to David Levithan’s Every Day, in which the protagonist has no fixed identity but wakes up every day in a different teenager’s body.
A: That’s what’s percolating in culture, so it makes sense. The books are very different and have their own strengths, but that’s part of the conversation now. Who we are, and who we choose to be as we move forward.
T: It’s about a post-gender and post-sexuality world. Maybe none of it matters. Maybe the externals don’t matter. Maybe there’s a world where they don’t have to matter.
Changers Book One: Drew by T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Akashic/Black Sheep, $11.95 trade paper Feb. ISBN 978-1-61775-195-0