Writing NON-romantic Love for Teens
Lisa Williamson was born and grew up in Nottingham. She studied drama at Middlesex University and since graduating has worked as an actor on stage and TV. Between acting jobs Lisa temped in offices across London, typing stories when no one was looking, one of which eventually became The Art of Being Normal, which took the YA book world by storm, becoming the bestselling YA debut in hardback of 2015.
Her second novel, All About Mia is a story about sisters, discovering and accepting your strengths and weaknesses and learning to forgive the people you love. Full of truthful, and sometimes painfully honest takes on growing up close (and far apart) from your siblings, Lisa captures the heartache of finding yourself, and forging an identity which might be at odds with family expectations - and that very strange feeling that those closest to you can sometimes feel the furthest apart.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Lisa explains her desire to write specifically NON-romantic love for teens.
Find her @lisa_letters
I can sum up my teenage love life in a single word: non-existent. These days I'm pretty upfront when it comes to matters of the heart but as a shy fifteen year-old, I'd have rather taken a bullet than admitted who I fancied. My terror of rejection meant that every single crush I had remained a closely guarded secret. I had my first kiss shortly before my nineteenth birthday and my first boyfriend at twenty. Growing up though, romance was constantly on my mind. For months I fixated on a boy who lived down the road, peeking at him from behind my bedroom curtains as he did his paper round. In my head we were madly in love. In reality, the one time I found myself behind him in the queue at the newsagents, I was so overwhelmed by his nearness all I could do was scuttle away, my cheeks so hot you could have probably fried an egg on each one. Unable to act on any of my crushes, I relied on books (and the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice) to satisfy my romantic cravings.
As a teenager in the nineties, the range of young adult books available was limited, glossy American titles dominating the teen fiction shelves of my local library. As a result, I spent my evenings and weekends devouring the Sweet Valley High series, thoroughly seduced by the exploits of beautiful blonde twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. They certainly weren't peeking at boys from behind their curtains; they were going to proms with them, on dates with them, kissing them. It was the kissing that got me the most. God, I wanted someone to kiss me. Despite my obsession with their adventures, I never seriously compared myself to the twins and their equally beautiful friends. Although they were supposed to be the same age as me, their glamorous and eventful lives in California were so far removed from mine in Nottingham, I flat-out forgot we were even the same species. At the same time, I never truly invested in their romantic relationships. Even then, I got the feeling their chiselled boyfriends were just too good to be true. What I wanted was a love story I could imagine inserting myself into. The closest I found featured in a book called After The Rain by Norma Fox Mazer. Its heroine was a shy girl called Rachel, her suitor, an awkward boy called Lewis. When they finally kissed (by a waterfall, tres romantic), I was beside myself with joy; this I could aspire to! I re-read this scene so often (experiencing full-on butterflies every single time) I can still recite bits of it from memory. I was fourteen at the time and certain if someone wanted to kiss mousy Rachel, surely one of these days someone would want to kiss mousy Lisa too. Alas, I had another four and a half years to wait, unaware that even Rachel and Lewis's awkward and tentative union remained an unrealistic goal for me to aspire to.
I enjoy a good love story as much as the next person. I recently raced through Nicola Yoon's gorgeous Everything Everything and was utterly swept up in the romance between Maddy and Olly, rooting for them to very last page. Reading it though, I couldn't help but wonder how teenage me would have felt about it, whether Maddy and Olly’s electrified kisses and bold and beautiful declarations of love would have been inspiring or intimidating. At 36 years old I now know firsthand how wonderful and painful and fun and messy and confusing love can be, what it feels like to have my heart broken and to break someone else's, and how incredible a first kiss with the right person can feel (the books don't lie!). I'm certain it's this experience that allows me to emotionally invest in a love story without the same sense of longing and inadequacy I felt as a teenager. Of course, many people are lucky enough to experience true love as teenagers (my Mum and Dad for example, who have been together since they were fifteen years old), but the vast majority of us have to be a bit more patient. Although I adored reading them, teenage love stories often made me feel incredibly insecure. 'What's wrong with me?' I used to ask the mirror. 'When will it be my turn?' I've recently wondered if this is why I've so far shied away from really exploring romantic love in the young adult fiction I write.
All About Mia was originally a love story. Unfortunately, every time I got to the bit in the story where Mia was supposed to fall for a certain character, I got stuck. With my editor's blessing I removed that element from the story and looked at what I had left. That was when I realised I hadn't been writing a love story all along, at least not of the romantic variety. Although romance dominated my daydreams growing up, the real relationships that shaped my identity were those I had with my family and friends, and twenty years later this had filtered through to my writing. All About Mia is ultimately a story about the complicated bonds between sisters and best friends. It's still a love story, just not quite the one I had in mind.