Q&A for Readers, Teachers, Writers

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Gabrielle Tozer

  • · 2 weeks ago
#LoveOzYA Q&A with Gabrielle Tozer

Gabrielle Tozer has written four YA novels: The Intern, which won The State Library of Victoria’s 2015 Gold Inky Award, Faking It, Remind Me How This Ends, and her latest, Can’t Say It Went To Plan, was released on 5 May 2021. She has also written a picture book (Peas and Quiet), a middle grade novel (Melody Trumpet) and a short story for Being, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology. When she’s not writing novels, Gabrielle is a journalist, copy editor, mentor and consultant.

Gabrielle chatted with #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith about her new book, Can’t Say it Went to Plan.

Read their conversation below, or check out clips on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel!

What is CAN'T SAY IT WENT TO PLAN about?

So, this book is a young adult, coming-of-age story that all goes down in a week, set up at Schoolies, which is a bit of a fun week that you do at the end of Year 12 once your exams are all wrapped up.

This story, in particular, follows three strangers who have just finished their exams are basically up for the week of their life, that they’ll never forget, for very different reasons.

They don’t know each other but their stories become a little overlapped. It becomes a special summer they’ll never forget

You wrote the story from three points of view: Samira, Zoe and Dahlia. When I was reading it, I thought it seems like three stories in one, and surely it would be easier to write one perspective. Did you actually have to write three books, in a way, when you wrote three points of view?

I love that you asked this. It was the book that I planned from the start. There was a very particular reason I didn’t write it from one point of view though and that’s because Schoolies is such a big, wide-ranging experience, that I thought if I just wrote it from one person’s perspective, it’s just giving this very limited idea of what it’s like. So I specifically wanted to do three to show all the options.

But in terms of actually writing it, like you said, I really broke it down which made it quite a fun writing process because on those days when you’re not sure what you feel like writing, you could really choose: “Whose head do I feel like being in today? Do I feel like writing a kissing scene, a party scene, a sad scene?” that type of thing because I had planned it out so extensively.

And as I mentioned, the story goes down over the course of this week and there’s a bit of a ticking clock aspect to it, so I really had to keep track of who was where doing what. Sometimes I’m writing scenes that take place at 2am, and then I need to write one that takes place at 2.31am in someone else’s storyline, so I had spreadsheets, I had post-it notes, I had index cards!

But it was actually a really enjoyable writing experience because I could dip in and out of different personalities depending on my mood, which is forever shifting.

That was going to be my next question: how do you write a book differently when there’s multiple points of view? The Intern was written just from Josie’s point of view and your other book, Remind Me How This Ends was written from two points of view, but this was three so you’re upping the ante, making it even more complicated. Do you write differently when you’re writing multiple points of view?

I think I write differently with every book that I write, no matter its point of view, how its formatted; it’s one of those jobs which in some ways gets easier because you’ve picked up all these skills and tools along the way to use in your next book, but you tend to choose something to challenge yourself with each book.

So, as you mentioned, over the years I have tried and experimented with new things. It was my first time with 3. The biggest thing I was mindful of when I first had the idea and started mapping it out was that, in this book, it’s from the perspective of three girls, as opposed to Remind Me How This Ends, which was from a boy and girl, so there was already that significant difference in how they might be talking.

I was really worried with this one that they’d all end up sounding the same or their stories would be too similar, which is why I planned it out so much. I wanted to make sure that they were from different worlds, had different flaws, different loves, different goals, all that kind of thing. I do a lot of my cleaning up in self-editing, after I’ve got the first draft done.

With every draft, I would dissect each person’s storyline to make sure that what they’re trying to achieve or what they’re afraid of or what their obstacles is, is just massively different in each one. I didn’t want three people who were nervous about the week, or three people who were just wanting to party the whole time. I wanted to make sure the three girls read really differently and hopefully I did that.

I think you definitely did because they each have their own journey. And that’s what I quite liked and think you captured well, is that there’s not one Schoolies story and I think there’s so much hype about it that it can be the case that if you’re approaching it and you’re not the party girl or whatever, that you can think: what’s it going to be like for me? Is this something I want to do?

I actually made a note to myself early in the process, that each person’s story must work as a standalone as well. If someone was to only flick through and read one of the character’s storylines, it would still roughly make sense.

There might be a few little things towards the end when their storylines overlap a little more that don’t make quite as much sense, but on the whole, I kind of had the overarching arc, but then I needed to make sure each person had their own specific arc going on because as you said, not everyone’s going to pick this up and go “I’m the party girl, I’m going to be like Samira” who just wants to have the best week of her life. They might be more like Dahlia, who’s just dreading the whole thing.

One of the things I really liked about CAN'T SAY IT WENT TO PLAN is that it’s a light book, it’s a fun book, but it’s about friendship and personal growth, more so than being a holiday romance. There’s a teeny tiny bit of romance in one of the stories, but a lot of it is about friendship. Was that a bit different for you, writing about friendship as one of the big themes?

I think friendship has come into play in some aspect with all my books, from The Intern. I think the power and importance of friendship has really come through with this one, for sure. I had fun playing around with it with The Intern faking it and with Melody Trumpet, which is more middle grade.

However, I can never resist a bit of romance either, but I wanted to make sure, in terms of the romance side for one of the characters, that I didn’t write a love story that I’d already written. I wanted to capture something that felt really true to me, but was also different for my readers. When I say I plan books out, I plan out plot and characters and feelings I want to capture, but I don’t always know everything I’m doing until I re-read the first draft or two and then go “Oh, that’s what’s happening for me with this book” and the themes start to jump out at you.

I did see that power of friendship and fading friendships and new friendships. I like to reflect on “I wonder what’s happening for me that brought all that to the surface”. I’ve touched on this with other people, but I’ve recently, in the last couple of years, gone through a bit of transition in terms of moving out of the city I lived in for 13 years and friends are scattered all about Australia and the globe, and I’m still tight with them, but it’s harder to get to each other with COVID.

So I think I’ve gone through this period myself of trying to make some friendships work that may not want to work anymore, and of meeting new people that kind of light a spark in you and you think, “how has this person not been in my life for 10 years, we’ve only known each other for a week”. I like to channel feelings into my books and come up with fictional scenarios of course.

So I think there was a lot going on for me with reflecting about friendships and weighing up who am I still connecting with in that deeper way and I remember what it’s like in high school and uni and in your 20s where you’re meeting new people and you’re letting your friends down and they’re letting you down and it continues to happen through life. It’s one of those authentic, universal, timeless themes I think that affects us forever.

Yeah, I don’t think we necessarily talk about it enough. I particularly loved Tillie and the Peachies and this very strange, organic friendship that just arose out of that moment. I was hoping they’d stay in touch, but even if they didn’t, that there was still something so magical and perfect and nourishing about that friendship.

I think they will stay in touch, in my heart. I think that they have that genuine, not Insta-friendship, they have that something special that long time friendships have where it’s just like your souls know each other. I’ve been lucky enough to have that, because it is something to be grateful for, I’ve been lucky enough to have that multiple times in my life.

Finding friends as an adult in a new town is so hard, but I’ve had it happen in my new town with a woman on a bus, and I sometimes think, "Wow, we were really sent to each other for a few different reasons, so I think that was all happening at the same time." She’s completely different to Tillie, but that feeling of remembering you can have these sparks, these platonic sparks, with people that can be more beautiful in some ways because they’re not complicated by other things.|

It was actually a really joyous book to write, even though there are some heavy themes in there with grief and anxiety and mental health. I think the friendship side of things really buoyed it for me as the writer, otherwise I can get weighed down and too method and too angsty. I’m fond of Tillie too, she was a real sweetheart.

That was the other thing that really stood out for me: grief. That’s one of the points of view, is Dahlia, and Kiko and Florence mourning the loss of their friend Stevie and going to Schoolies because she can’t and trying to do the things that they know she’d want them to do. This is the second time you’ve written about grief because you wrote about it in Remind Me How This Ends. Why do you like exploring that topic?

It caught me by surprise with Remind Me How This Ends, to be honest. I pitched that story as a will-they-won’t-they, slow burning romance and it wasn’t until I was writing it that that grief sub-plot ended up becoming a huge part of it, not overtook it, but just underpinned it.

But that one very much caught me by surprise and I think I was in a place in my life where there had been some losses within family and friendship as well, and I do mean death, not just fading friendships and things like that, that I was still working out. I now know, as someone who’s been writing books for about 10 years, that words are my way of unpacking feelings, whether they end up in a book or not.

I talk a lot, but words are the things that help me make sense of it and find meaning in it. So with this book, as I was planning the characters and trying to work out what felt real to me, I’d always just been obsessed with this idea of bucket lists and I kind of liked the idea of having a list, I love lists, what’s a fun list they could be working their way through? It was also a bit of a gimmick, a fun way to get them doing all sorts of stuff, but I wanted it to have some heart to it.

And then once again, that little grief feeling just swooped in. There have been a couple of things that have happened in the last few years. There was a sudden death in our family, not a teenaged girl, but it still took the family by complete surprise and completely has shifted how I was approaching life and it’s just something that’s stuck with me and so I’ve always been someone who was a bit of a go-getter and that type of thing, but this just shook me up so I was like, I should be living life to the fullest all the time in this kind-of intense, almost too intense kind of way.

But there was something about seeing the world through that perspective that I am doing a little more myself I suppose, so I think I’ve channelled that through the girls. Its one of those things, I don’t know why it keeps capturing me. I feel like this book helped me work through a lot of stuff, but it’s never deliberate. You don’t realise until you’ve done it. It’s a helpful space and I think it helps me to capture some of the nuance with it. When you’re younger you think of grief as being sadness and now we know there’s so much more to it. So with Dahlia, because we’re inside her head, we get to see this nuanced spectrum of feelings and she’s grappling with everything from feeling angry with Stevie for not being there anymore, and then missing her desperately and wishing she was there the whole time, and not wanting to be around her friends, and guilt about things.

It certainly felt really real to me and it certainly helped the slow burn romance feel a lot more real to me because of course, when you fall in love, it’s not the only thing that’s happening in your life and there’s so many complicating things and that was part of that story too and in lots of ways helped to counterbalance the drama of Samira’s story where you have all these friends who are not being really friend-like to her and you’ve juxtaposed that with the new friendship with Tillie, and the bucket list with Stevie was almost the Tillie part of that story.

I was really mindful of making sure each person’s friendship set-up or the group that they’d gone to Schoolies with, were completely different in terms of dynamic and gender, sex, goals, everything, and I wanted Dahlia’s crew to be small, tight-knit, solid, and that’s the only way they were able to get through such a terrible time because they were genuine, life-long friends. But yeah, I loved writing the romance side of things because of the slow burn, when everything counts, whether it’s a glance or a grazing of the elbow or whatever, yeah, that was a really special one. I also wanted to show how grief impacts everyone differently too, that was something I was deliberately trying to do through the girls. They loved Stevie equally but were all impacted so differently or at least it seems like they were.

This is the fourth YA novel that you’ve written that’s about that period just after school, which I think is quite unusual for YA because so much of it is set in high school. What is it about that period just after high school that you like writing about?

I tend to follow my ideas as opposed to setting out to try to write a young adult novel with a 17 or 18-year-old protagonist. So, for me, an idea will come to me or I dig one up somewhere and I’ll then go, ok, what’s the best age to be setting this and go from there, as opposed to working the other way round.

Like there’s an idea I had recently for what I thought would be a really brilliant YA and I thought that for a while, but hadn’t actually put too much pen to paper, lots of brainstorming. And then it just hit me, this would be so much better dialled down as a middle grade and all of a sudden the words are flowing, so you just never know. You can’t squeeze ideas into categories they don’t want to be in.

But I do seem to have something about writing that period, you’re right, it is my fourth one.

Was there anything else you wanted to say about the book? I always like to give interviewees that option.

It’s great to have it out there. I’m really proud of this one and I have a soft spot for all the girls.

I feel like I’ve learnt a lot from them , which sounds strange, but I genuinely feel that working through their stories has kind of made me want to be a better person in some ways in my life, be braver in some ways, take more chances, so that’s kind of a strange outcome, but a lovely one. But mostly it’s just cool to see it out there in the shops and to hear from people who are reading it and connecting with it.

Definitely. For me, character is king. If I’m going to read a book and I can’t connect with the characters, I put it down, but I really feel I could meet these girls walking down the street, they felt really real and authentic and I think you really nailed that moment. It reminded me a lot of my Schoolies experience. It was a really good book to read, I really enjoyed it, so thank you.

It took you back to being 17?

It totally did.