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Interview: June 14, 2016

Who am I? Who will I become? These are tough questions for any teen to answer.  In READ ME LIKE A BOOK, 17-year-old Ashleigh Walker’s life has become a whirlwind; from coping with her parents’ marital troubles, to navigating her first sort-of relationship, Ash’s future is daunting and uncertain. The answers to these questions become even less clear when Miss Murray --- the cool English teacher --- takes over Ash’s class...and her heart. Miss Murray becomes the one constant for Ash; forcing her to try a little harder, to care a little deeper, and to confront these difficult questions head on. In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Terrell Orr, author Liz Kessler discusses the social and political climate surrounding the novel, her thoughts about social media, and what she has in store for readers next!

Teenreads.com: I read that you wrote READ ME LIKE A BOOK over 10 years ago but that UK censorship laws prevented you from publishing it. When you wrote it originally, did you ever anticipate such difficulty in finding a publisher? What was that experience like for you as a queer woman?

Liz Kessler: Well, actually, that isn’t strictly accurate. It’s not that UK censorship laws prevented it from being published. I can’t say for sure what prevented it from being published. What I do know, though, is that at the time I was writing this book and trying to get it published, there was a law known as Section 28, which prohibited schools and local authorities from "promoting homosexuality." Many people in schools and libraries chose to censor themselves as they weren’t sure what they were or weren’t allowed to do. This was the climate when I wrote the book, and my guess is that the attitudes that went with this climate will have had something to do with it not being published.

My experience as a young woman coming out as lesbian at that time was that this law politicized me and made me aware of the power of fighting back against injustice!

TRC: Especially considering how drastically the social and political climate surrounding many of the topics in the book have changed in the past 10 years, did writing about them feel different for you the second time around? If so, in what way? And if not, why do you think that is?

LK: Working on the book second time around was extremely interesting. My editor and I had many discussions about things that needed changing in the book because of changing times. Not only attitudes. Language was different, clothes were different, the whole means of communication was different! I also realized that some of the scenes which felt quite threatening first time around needed toning down a little as it felt less likely --- and that was good to discover!

TRC: As this is a story that I’m sure has and will continue to give solace to young readers struggling with some of the same issues that Ash does, how much, if at all, was that on your mind while you were writing?

LK: As this was the first book I ever wrote, I was very inexperienced in terms of not only the craft of writing but the world of publishing. If I wrote it from scratch today, I would be far more aware of my potential readership. As it was, I just wrote the book that was in my heart and didn’t really think of a readership that might be waiting out there for it! But I’d love nothing more than to think of this book giving solace to young readers going through a similar situation.

TRC: One of my favorite things about the book was how you portrayed Ash’s inner thoughts. There are several times that she says or does something that doesn’t come across the way she intended, but you show how much over-analysis and second-guessing goes on in the mind of a teenage girl very well. Was it easy for you to return to that headspace? To remember what it’s like to be so uncertain of everything?

LK: Ha! Yes. Very easy. I’m still never all that certain of anything, so yeah, quite easy to get into that headspace!

TRC: On that note, how much or what part of yourself is in the characters, if at all?

LK: You know, I never really think that there is all that much of me in my characters. Ashleigh isn’t really like me at all. Or at least I don’t think she is. But I might be wrong. My dad once went through a list of Emily Windsnap’s characteristics and then turned to me and said, "Hmmm, who does she sound like?" And I only then realized that she was quite a lot like me! So perhaps the same is true of Ash!

TRC: Was there ever a time that you considered a different, maybe less ethical, conclusion to Ash and Mrs. Murray’s relationship? If so, what ultimately made you decide not to pursue it? What was navigating that relationship like from an ethical vs. artistic standpoint?

LK: The conclusion was always the same. Miss Murray always left. But yes, in the early days, she did cross over the boundary of professional behavior a little more than she ends up doing. I had many conversations with my publisher and editor in the process of figuring this out, and in the end I feet confident that the way it has ended up was the right way to go --- ethically, for the book, and for Ashleigh’s own journey.

TRC: I hope this doesn’t come off as disrespectful, but I was really impressed with how well-versed you are in the minor details of teenage life today. For example, in the opening scene you write about Ash checking her snapchat. How much and/or what kind of research went into making the story so accurate to the present day?

LK: I did quiz a lot of young friends about things like this, to try to ensure that I got these details right! Thank you for being impressed with this! :)

TRC: In a similar vein, at one point Mrs. Murray and Ash have a very brief conversation about social networks and iPhones, “how people are always looking for something more than they’ve got, looking to be somewhere other than where they are.” As someone who has studied and is very interest in questions like this, do these character’s opinions reflect your own? How do you think the addition of these things to, well, society, and then to the second draft, affected the story?

LK: I have a very two-sided relationship with social media. I am very rarely far from my iPhone and I use Facebook, Twitter and, to a lesser extent, apps like Instagram A LOT! But I also think that it’s important to be aware of using these things at the right time and in the right place. For me, that means that when you’re in company with other people, you spend time with the people you are with, rather than end up with all of you looking at your phones. So yes, I guess this does reflect my feelings on this. I find it all very fascinating though and could probably enjoy discussing it with you for hours!

TRC: What’s next for you? More young adult novels? Another series? Or are you heading in a completely new direction?

LK: I have just finished the (UK) proof edit for my second YA novel. It’s called HAUNT ME and is out in the UK in October and in the states next year. I’m extremely excited about this book. It’s a love story mixed with a ghost story and I can’t wait to get it out there!