Congratulations on your latest young adult book HE MUST LIKE YOU, which comes out this month. HE MUST LIKE YOU is about teenager, Libby, who has more problems than one person should have to deal with. Was Libby based on anyone in particular? How about the situation of Libby’s home life?
A. I’m going to answer these first two questions together, as it’s kind of the same answer.
For me there are always elements from things I’ve either experienced or observed in life that go into my books. But once I combine those real life elements with fictional circumstances, the characters and story take on lives of their own. So, for example, I worked as a waitress in my early 20s, and I used that experience in writing about Libby’s job in HE MUST LIKE YOU. I have lived through times when my home life was tumultuous, so I know what that’s like too, and am able to channel some of that when I write.
I didn’t, however, give Libby the same family history as me – in fact our histories are almost nothing alike. By the same token, though I gave Libby a job that I had once, she is her own character with a very different personality from mine. So…the answer is that it’s always a mix – I take inspiration from life, then let the magic fiction do its thing.
Q. Why did you make a restaurant the location of some of Libby’s problems?
A. The short answer to this is that, as I mentioned above, I worked as a server in my early 20s. I knew this to be a working environment where sexual harassment is both pervasive and entrenched…and it was a subject I felt compelled to write about.
The longer answer is that back in 2015, the Canadian news was full of sexual harassment stories, in particular the accusations against Jian Ghomeshi. This really put the subject of workplace harassment at the front of my mind, and led me to thinking back to my own work experiences, especially to the time when I’d worked as a server.
In a restaurant environment, harassment can come from every direction, and it’s almost a baked in part of the job – particularly with customers. It didn’t take much research to discover that not much has changed in that industry in the intervening years.
Meanwhile, I had already been contemplating writing a book that addressed consent, but hadn’t figured out what the framework would be. All of a sudden I realized that these two issues I was mulling and brooding about could come together in one story, with the leading plotline being an incident in a restaurant.
Q. In addition to Libby being forced to endure this kind of behaviour from an adult, Libby also is dealing with some incidents involving boys her own age. Why is it important to tell this kind of story?
A. In addition to looking at workplace harassment, I wanted to explore the importance of consent. I particularly wanted to look at situations where consent is perhaps a bit murky – where the consent may be clear to one person and not the other, or unclear to both. These things can be hard to talk about, are complicated, and I think the more we open up the conversation, the easier it will be to navigate sexual consent, ideally before it becomes a problem.
Q. Libby goes through other problems such as bullying, trolling, threatening, in addition to her entire dysfunctional family. How come so much was thrown at Libby? Why do you think she handled it so well despite the lack of support from her parents?
A. Well…for one thing I find that life is like that – it’s never just one thing that goes wrong, it tends to be everything all at once. That’s when we’re really tested, and find out what we’re made of.
When I was a teenager, I definitely found life to be layer upon layer of complicated, with a lot of amazing and terrible and frustrating and dramatic things, often all happening at the same time. So for someone to have that much going on at once…to me that’s real.
As for the purpose of Libby having so much to deal with, a lot of it happened organically, but I also needed her to be in a difficult position. I needed her to have a variety of forces marshaled against her, such that when she’s experiencing sexual harassment at work, she can’t just shrug it off, quit, and go find another job. It’s not that easy, just like in life it’s sometimes not that easy.
Yet in those moments it’s worth it to give it your best, to try to persevere, and that was something I also wanted to show. I think Libby handles it so well for a few reasons – she is smart, she is stubborn, she is loved. She has had the fortune of getting a decent education, and having lived a mostly middle class life where she has always expected that she will get a higher education and have a good career, which means that even though all of that is in peril during this stage of her life, those expectations have given her a belief in herself and in that trajectory. She has dreams, and she has the will to fight for them. Finally, she has really excellent, smart, loyal, loving friends who show up for her in every way.
Q. The book also touches on LGBT issues, hate crimes and race, including Libby’s best friend Emma, who talks about how her family has been here for generations and yet they still gets ignorant comments. Why was it important to touch on all these topics?
A. The main reason I touched on these issues is that HE MUST LIKE YOU is realistic, contemporary fiction, and these are issues we’re grappling with as a society. We’re living in a world of systemic, historic injustices against black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ people, as well as against women of every description.
So while my focus for the book was sexual harassment, assault and consent, I felt it was important to acknowledge and reflect reality, and do it in a way that can hopefully be helpful. Libby herself is shown to have been unaware of the subtle racism her best friend has been experiencing her entire life in their small town.
As a white person, she believes she’s living in a world where everyone knows racism is wrong, and that it’s therefore not happening anymore. She’s wrong. I also thought it was important to see Libby, in the midst of her own difficult situation, realizing that she’s not the only one having trouble, and that she needs to factor in more than herself when she chooses to take action.
Q. You dedicate this book to your two daughters “for reasons that should become obvious.” Can you tell people why you made this dedication. Why is it important for your girls – and all girls – to read this book?
A. I want to eradicate rape culture. I don’t want my daughters to have to deal with misogynist garbage their entire lives. I want their generation – all genders and sexualities – to be better educated and more comfortable talking about sex and consent, and for sexual harassment to stop being a thing. I want the world to be better for them, and this book is part of how I’m trying to effect that change.
Comment: One would argue it’s equally important for boys and men to read this book.
Response: I agree!
Q. What do you hope girls with boyfriends and girls who are dating share with the men in their lives about this book?
A. A thorough understanding of consent is important for everyone. I focused on boys and men in this story because so much of this behaviour comes from patriarchal culture.
But consent is important every sexual relationship, not just cis-gender, heterosexual relationships. I want all kinds of people to read this book, and I want everyone to get more comfortable talking about consent. I really do hope boys and men read the book, though, because I feel they urgently need to be having this conversation.
I set out very purposely to depict the two boys Libby has consent issues with as otherwise decent human beings who make mistakes. They’re not predators. They’re not the guy slipping someone a date rape drug, or jumping out of the bushes. They’re boys who haven’t got the message about consent, but who have the capacity to get that message, and to apply it in their future lives.
Truly evil predators are not going to change because they get educated about consent – they already know they’re doing something wrong. The best hope for them is that they might be deterred by the possible consequences.
But characters like Boris and Kyle are, I think, representative of an entire population of people who can get informed about consent, and do better. This is where I see so much potential for positive change.
Q. This is your third young adult book. What do you like about writing for this audience?
A. I love writing for teens, and about teens. It’s such an intense time of life, and a time where you’re really figuring out who you are, what your interests are, and you’re making huge decisions about your future. So it’s a naturally interesting and dramatic time to write about, which is fun. And teens are so smart, so deep, so full of energy and passion and hope…they’re amazing.
Q. Anything you don’t like?
Q. You have also written an adult book. How is the writing process different for these two audiences? The same?
A. It’s exactly the same, in terms of process. The difference is just that if you’re writing a teen character, you’re in their head, in their body, going at things from their point of view. If you’re faithful to that, and you’ve done your research, it should come across as authentic.
I don’t sanitize, or pull my punches, or use easier vocabulary or less complicated ideas than I do when writing an adult book. I go all in, and I trust my readers.
Obviously if you’re writing for younger children you need to write for their reading level, and consider your themes and content, but teens can read everything. My one caveat is that for HE MUST LIKE YOU I was very careful and determined about the subject matter. I did a ton of research, and was much more deliberate about what messages I wanted to convey. I wanted to be both sensitive and thorough, and lay it out in a way that would resonate with teens and promote discussion.
So for this book I really did think about that responsibility, and the age of my readers, in a different way than I have before.
Q. Yyou have also written a short story and a one-act play. Do you have a favourite way to tell a story? Is there any method you haven’t yet tried, but would like to try in the future?
A. I’d love to write more plays! In fact, I’d love to adapt HE MUST LIKE YOU for the theatre. I think I’d also enjoy writing for TV, because I love writing dialogue. But books are my first love, so that’s always going to be my primary focus.
Q. How do you know what type of method would work best for what you are writing.
A. It really depends on the book, and it changes every time. Basically, though, what you have to do is sit yourself down and do it. Sometimes the story comes out in a weird order, sometimes you’re writing without knowing what’s coming next, sometimes you plan and outline a lot, other times not. Each book has its own method, and I find out what it is as I write it.
Q. Where do you get your ideas?
A. From life! And I tend to write about issues that are nagging at me, or infuriating me, or sometimes it’s a question I need to answer.
Q. Are you working on anything right now?
A. Yes, in fits and starts. It’s hard to write while launching a book, and it’s been really hard to focus these past few months.
Q. Do you have a dream project?
A. I think each new project is a dream project. I do have a couple of ideas for books that I love, but doubt I have the ability to pull off, so I guess you could call those dream projects. Except they would probably end up as nightmares…