British author Liz Kessler, best known for her middle-grade series about Emily Windsnap, a girl who finds out that she’s half mermaid, has 15 books under her belt. But Read Me Like a Book, which comes out in the U.S. next month, is different on several counts. There are no mermaids or time travel in the story of Ashleigh, whose encounter with an inspiring teacher makes her realize not only that she’s smart, but also that she’s gay; it’s Kessler’s first YA novel; and it’s highly personal, not least because it’s actually the first book she ever wrote. From her home in Cornwall on England’s Southwest coast, where, if it’s not too foggy, she can see the sea as she works, Liz Kessler spoke with PW about her 16th book, its long back story – both personal and political – and her complicated feelings about seeing the book come into the world.
How did Read Me Like a Book come to be?
I was out of school and had been working for a few years, and I wanted to write. They’d just started a novel writing course in Manchester, and I wrote this for my degree. The book definitely links to my life: I came out when I was younger, and I had an amazing English teacher who changed my life in a lot of ways. Beyond that, though, the book is nothing to do with my life, except of course that it’s what was in my head and my heart that I wanted to write about. So I wrote the book for the degree, did well, got a distinction, and no one wanted to publish it back then.
And that may have been related to a 1988 law called Section 28 that prohibited schools or government agencies from “promoting” homosexuality?
I’m not saying that’s why it was turned down, but those were different times, and that was part of the climate then. Not one case was ever brought under the law, but what was insidious about it was that librarians and others weren’t sure about what they could and couldn’t do, so they censored themselves.
When you wrote the book, were you aware of Section 28?
Oh, my gosh, yes. That law politicized me. It became law in 1988 and there was a campaign against it in 1987. I was in my early 20s and out, and here was a law being passed saying that who I was was something that people couldn’t talk about in school, and librarians couldn’t have books about it in schools. I was very involved in the campaign, but we didn’t succeed, and it stayed on the books for something like 15 years.
And I wrote the book, and I wanted to get it published, but I didn’t know anything about publishing. And in the middle of this, Emily Windsnap came along. So my agent took me on with Emily, and Emily took off, and the YA never sold. No one had the same issues with mermaids as they had with lesbians, although having said that, it has been suggested that that Emily Windsnap is a big metaphor for coming out.
Now, of course, there are many YA books with LGBT themes – what can Read Me Like a Book add to that conversation, do you think?
I would like to think that any book with these themes adds more voices that need to be heard. And as an author coming from a more mainstream and younger audience, I already have a profile and a bit of a following, so hopefully it makes it feel less niche. I don’t want it to be pigeonholed as a book about a girl coming out as a lesbian; I see it as a book about first love. Hopefully, whatever your sexuality, you’ll relate to those ideas of that unrequited and impossible first love that many of us go through.
I’ve had conversations with bloggers who say that we should be beyond coming out books, we should just have gay characters in the background, but I don’t think we’re there yet. When being gay isn’t illegal in any country in the world, when you can walk down the road holding hands even in this country, even in your country, without ever fearing being beaten up or spat on or called names, then I'll be happy to see LGBT characters as background characters – or main characters – without making an issue of their sexuality. But we're not there yet, and until we are, I believe we still need the issues at the forefront of some stories as well as these characters existing without an issue in others. Hopefully I’m just providing a few stitches in a rich tapestry that’s being built as we speak.
As you say, you have a following. Can you imagine a scenario where a 12-year-old Emily Windsnap fan picks up this book as the next Liz Kessler, and it speaks to her because of where she is?
This is a really interesting time for me. It’s felt like a risk personally and professionally – personally because I decided to come out publicly before the book was published because I didn’t want to get those questions. And professionally because I do have a following, particularly in America, where opinion is more divided – at least it seems like there are areas that are way ahead and areas that are not as comfortable with these issues. I’d like to think that there are some readers who will make that journey with me. I’ve gotten some letters from girls who have taken that journey, who do see that through-line, and that’s great, and it’s my biggest hope. My biggest fear, though, is that there are parents who will see there’s a new Liz Kessler book, buy it for their daughter without reading much about it, and then won’t like what they see. I’ll deal with that if and when it happens. But it’s more important to me that there will be girls who grow up and feel that this book speaks to them.
The main character, Ashleigh, is a fairly lackluster student, but when the new teacher, Miss Murray, takes over her class, Ash wakes up both to her sexuality and her intellectual potential. Do you see the two as related?
This is where my own experience comes in, I used to be a very naughty student at school; I wasn’t well-behaved, I didn’t always listen, I got caught smoking, I didn’t always go to my lessons. And I felt that my English teacher was the first teacher I ever had in my life who saw me. She said, “You’ve got something there, Liz. You’re putting all your creative energy into breaking school rules, but actually you’ve got something that’s worth more than that.”
She was the one who made me think that maybe I did have more to give. It was a complete awakening for me. Are they linked? I don’t know; love opens up all kinds of things, but I do know that one amazing teacher can change things. For Ash they are linked, but you can have one without the other.
When Ashley does become more open with her friends and her mother, they are more relieved than surprised. What are they seeing that she’s not?
I have seen this happen with people; I think it’s fairly common that people who haven’t come out, but there’s something about them that when they do the people who are really close to them recognize that as something that was there all along. It can be a kind of denial, of not being ready to admit it to yourself. It’s almost like the behavior and the outward actions can come before the realization, and that can come before this full acceptance and being ready to use the word.
If I were writing this fresh today – I did make a lot of changes, of course – I think there’d be more nuances around sexuality; it wouldn’t just be either you’re straight or you’re gay. But I still think that for her, what I was trying to do was show was that quite often, it’s easy to go along with what’s expected. Most of us do grow up just assuming we’re heterosexual, so it can come as a surprise, because we’ve never considered it as a possibility.
Will you be staying with YA books?
The book I’m working on right now is a second YA called Haunt Me. It’s a ghostly love triangle, and I’m very excited about it. It comes out in the U.K. in October and next year in the U.S. I’m not going to abandon the middle grade; my heart is very much there, but I’m enjoying the YA as well. I’d like to be able to do both.
And as this book that you started more than a decade ago comes out, what are you feeling?
I do have this combination of extreme excitement and a bit of trepidation about getting out there with this book, because it means so much to me. I’m not someone who really minds if everyone doesn’t love my books, but with this one, I really hope that American young adults will take it to their hearts like they did with Emily Windsnap when they were three or four years younger. I’m really looking forward to seeing that happen; it’s the next step on the journey. I’ll be watching slightly from behind my hands, but mostly nervously and proudly, to see what happens. And I love the American cover!
Read Me Like a Book by Liz Kessler. Candlewick, $16.99 June ISBN 978-0-7636-8131-9