#LoveOzYA Q&A with Jodi McAlister for LIBBY LAWRENCE IS GOOD AT PRETENDING
Jodi McAlister is the author of the Valentine series and a lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. Her research focuses on representations of love and romance in popular fiction and culture. Jodi recently chatted to #LoveOzYA's Julia Faragher about her recent contemporary novel, LIBBY LAWRENCE IS GOOD AT PRETENDING. This interview is also available to watch on our YouTube channel.
What is LIBBY LAWRENCE IS GOOD AT PRETENDING about?
It’s about theatre kids with too many emotions! It’s set in a university theatre group, and our heroine, Libby, has, for the first time, managed to get a lead role in one of their productions. But she’s struggling more and more to articulate her feelings – she’s good at acting, so that’s a handy skill, but her journey throughout the book is learning how to say what she wants and to admit the things she’s done that she’s not too proud of.
What made you decide to write a book about theatre kids?
I once was a theatre kid! I wrote the first draft of this book when I was a theatre kid, at twenty years old and at university. Obviously in the interim I have rewritten and redrafted this book a lot – I’ve rewritten it from the ground up four times. This is a story I have always wanted to be able to tell but perhaps didn’t know how to tell. I had to learn how to write a book and this one taught me how to. Being in theatre are some of my most beloved and intense memories. It's a real pressure cooker, where emotions are jacked up, so I always knew I wanted to write about theatre – I just had to learn to write first.
You published three fantasy novels in the meantime – the Valentine series – but LIBBY LAWRENCE is your contemporary debut. Why the genre switch?
Technically I started with contemporary and switched to fantasy with Valentine. Basically, the way my writing career has worked is like this: I drafted Libby, sat it aside, and wrote Valentine. And then I redrafted Libby… then redrafted Valentine… then redrafted Libby… then sold Valentine and had to write the other two books in the series. I foolishly thought writing contemporary meant I didn’t have to world build, but it was actually harder. I like fantasy because you can make the stakes life or death and it allows you to cheat on an emotional scale – the emotions are intense because everyone is about to die, so of course they’re making these grand proclamations. When the stakes are people putting on a play, that’s a little bit harder. You rely less on external motivators and situations and factors, and you have to really think about the psychology of the characters. And that’s one thing I’ve always loved about writing this book – how deeply I could think through Libby and the other characters and what makes them tick. A lot of the drama in this book comes from the internal rather than the external.
Speaking of those intense emotions, do you have any advice for writers about how character motivations and emotions?
The first trick I can give you is to not get intimidated by the word ‘motivation’. It’s used a lot in writing circles, and people think it has to be a grand scheme. But motivation is just what your character wants, and if you can figure that out, even if it’s only a little thing, then that will set you on track for a long piece of work. Also try to look at it scene by scene – maybe your character just wants a cup of coffee, it doesn’t have to be complicated, rather than having people mill around in that scene.
I really loved the interludes in the book. What was the process behind deciding to expand the character perspective?
Those interludes have been there from the very first draft. Originally I had the idea because I was being a bit wanky and wanted to give the book a five act structure like a Shakespeare play. But they’ve become some of my favourite parts of the book and some of my strongest writing, even though it is twenty-year-old-Jodi in many of those places. They just allow you this quick snapshot into what other people are thinking and feeling, and a lot of it is stuff Libby doesn’t know, so it’s a dramatic irony technique.
The book centres around the characters putting on a production of Much Ado About Nothing, why of all plays did you choose this one?
The simple answer is I love Much Ado About Nothing, it’s my favourite Shakespeare play. Beatrice was my dream role so it’s a bit of wish fulfillment. The complicated answer is that there’s this theory from feminist scholar Carla Kaplan called ‘The Erotics of Talk’ that argues that female consumers of text and the characters in these texts are on the hunt for the ideal listener – someone who hears what they’re saying, will take it on board, and react in an appropriate way. Within Much Ado About Nothing, that’s what Beatrice and Benedict are to each other. They fight all the time, but they love to fight, fighting is like sex to them. But when things get serious towards the end of the play, and when Beatrice really needs someone to listen to what she’s feeling and do something about it, it’s Benedict who does that. LIBBY LAWRENCE isn’t a retelling, but Libby and Will have that same dynamic. Libby finds that in Will when she doesn’t find it in anyone else.
The book features quite an ensemble of characters. How did you approach writing this world of characters?
It was always important to me that there be this sense of a large group of people – community theatre is about community. But within that group of people there are cliques, the kings and queens of the scene. Any community has this power dynamic. Because theatre kids are quite dramatic (who knew?) these dynamics are heightened. I wanted a sense of both the joys and the problems that go with that. While the idea that the show must go on isn’t unique to community theatre, it really comes out in community theatre, that persistence and inability to give up.
What would you like readers to take away from LIBBY LAWRENCE?
Readers don’t need to be a theatre kid to read this book. Even if you haven’t stepped foot in a theatre, there is something in the book for you. That idea of learning to articulate what you want is an experience everyone goes through, and that’s what I hope people get out of it – that there is value in being able to put into words what you want, and if you do that, you’ll probably find someone willing to listen.