#LoveOzYA Q&A with Sophie Gonzales
Sophie Gonzales is a Melbourne-based author of funny, warm-hearted young adult queer contemporary fiction such as The Law of Inertia, and Only Mostly Devastated.
In March, her new release, PERFECT ON PAPER, will hit the shelves, taking readers on another romantic (mis)adventure…
Check out Sophie’s chat with #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith below (light spoilers, so beware!), and clips from the interview on our YouTube channel.
PERFECT ON PAPER is coming out on 9 March. So Sophie, what’s it all about?
PERFECT ON PAPER is a YA rom com. And it follows a 16-year-old bisexual girl called Darcy Phillips, who runs an anonymous dating advice service out of an abandoned locker at school. And one day, one of the senior guys at her school, catches her in the act, and essentially blackmails her to be his personal dating coach to help him get his ex-girlfriend back. And high jinks ensue.
Fantastic. Now, this follows on from your really successful previous book, Only Mostly Devastated. And I guess the first question I had was, both of them are set in American high schools. So why did you choose to set them there instead of in Australia?
Hmm. I guess there’s probably a few reasons. The simple answer would be that, you know, a lot of our books and media do come from America. So even though I’ve read so many amazing Australian books set in Australia and TV shows and movies, and in a lot of ways, because me, and I think probably a lot of us, in Australia, are so used to seeing American stories, there is this aspect of it coming fairly naturally to write a story set in this place that you’ve seen so much about.
The other thing is that, for me, I have always really wanted to be able to get as much of an audience as I could, which, at the time, meant getting an American agent and an American publisher. Although, my agent is actually a London based now, so go figure!
I noticed a lot of my friends who were writing books set in Australia, were having a little bit of trouble selling those books to American publishers. So I thought, at least while I’m starting out, while I’m building an audience over in America, publishing in America, I’m going to try my hand at setting some books over there.
Luckily, I’ve had a lot of help from my friends in the writing community, a lot of whom are based in America, and they’re able to help me out with the odd word or phrase that you have no idea they don’t say over there. And you’re like, ‘Oh, I did not know that was specific to us’. And that has been very helpful.
I noticed PERFECT ON PAPER, you’ve got the character of Brougham, who is Australian, but he’s living over there. Did you end up going to America to do any research trips, pre-COVID, of course?
Pre-COVID, yes. I went over there in 2019. I spent quite a lot of time in California because I knew that I wanted to set my next book in California. I set aside a day to hit up Disneyland and see what was there. That was great fun to write! And I guess that’s the other thing: because I do choose to set my books in America, I’ve never really had that, like, wonderful experience of writing somewhere that you’ve been and being able to really get in there and introduce, like, the smells and the sights and the things that you wouldn’t get off a blog post if you were researching it. So that was really great fun.
But definitely adding in Brougham was, like, me going, ‘Look, I’m writing American characters, but I miss Australia. I want to talk about Australia. I am Australian’. This is how I’m going to get that in there. This is how I’m going to share some of myself and my country with you guys over there, the American readers and my American publisher.
Yes, I really liked that section where they were talking about America and Australian music and, just that lack of awareness. Also I recently I looked at the New York Times Public Library’s top 120 YA novels and I counted two non-American titles. So it’s a tough market to get into.
It is a tough market. And I don’t think it’s something that people necessarily want to talk about. But I think I’m a little bit more, like, factual, realistic. I like not beating around the bush. I would love for it to change, don’t get me wrong. Hopefully, maybe when I have a little bit more freedom to write things that might be seen as more niche, whereas now, I probably don’t have that freedom. Maybe in the future, I can start introducing some stories set in Australia, which would be lovely.
I think that one of the things about being Australian is that you consume so much media from so many different countries. It’s very, very normal to us, we will watch a British TV show, and then go watch an American movie and finish it off with an Australian documentary or news channel. And we’re just, you know, we’re taking it all in.
But I don’t think that that’s necessarily the same over in America, from how my friends describe it. Which, you know, I think, in some ways, it’s very nice to be able to, like, receive information and hear things about other cultures.
With Only Mostly Devastated and also with PERFECT ON PAPER, you’ve sort of got some characters in there, with Will and Brougham, that start out as a bit more prickly, and a bit jerky at times. How do you manage to make readers start to like a character that initially was, maybe, not so nice?
I hope I’m able to do that! I think because the way that I approach my writing is similar to the the lessons that I’ve learned throughout my life. There was a really formative moment for me when I was in my late teens. I went on a big retreat with a whole bunch of the other Year 12s. And, you know, you’re in a big group, it’s the last year of school, everyone just starts opening up to each other, you’ve been in the same class with these people since you were five, it got very deep, it got very emotional, but what I took away from it was, wow, there are so many events or interactions that I’ve had with these people that I interpreted completely wrong, because I was looking at it through my eyes, my experience, and now they’ve explained what they were going through at the time, and these were people who weren’t necessarily my close friends, so I didn’t know what they were going through. It changed how I viewed every interaction I’ve had with them. So that was quite a big moment for me.
And I think that I tend to take that into my writing. I don’t really tend to have villains so much. For any character, I think, why are they doing this? If I were to write them as the protagonist, them as the main character, would the reader still identify with them? I need to know for a fact, as a writer, that they have a good reason for acting like they act and then I guess, as the main character and therefore the reader through the main character’s eyes gets to know them, they start to see that side of them that I, as the author, always knew was there.
With PERFECT ON PAPER, there’s a lot of, I guess, misunderstandings and discoveries that characters make about each other through the process.
Yeah, absolutely. And you know, for both Darcy in PERFECT ON PAPER and Ollie in Only Mostly Devastated, they’re both, to an extent, quite unreliable narrators. Ollie is very, very, very obsessed with romance and you know, he takes everything quite personally, he tends to jump to the worst conclusion as well, until he’s proven wrong. And Darcy considers herself a relationship expert. She knows all the theories in the world. So she approaches life like, well, if I apply this theory to it, therefore, I now know what is going on and I know everything. I guess part of her character arc is realising, okay, sometimes you need more than a theory to apply to a situation, sometimes you just don’t have all the information and that can change everything.
Do you have any storytelling principles that you use to create absorbing romances, having written a couple now?
I’ve been writing romances since I was 11. I’m one of those people who’s, personally, a hopeless romantic. A lot of the time when I’m creating a love interest, I will think back to people in my past and think, what made me like them? So I’m not necessarily taking an ex and planting them in the story, but I am thinking, ‘Okay, what was it about that person that really captured me?’
For any two characters who end up together, there’s there’s got to be a reason, they can’t just say, “Well, that person is really good looking and they’re quite nice, I’m in love with them now.’ You know, it’s got to be more than that. There’s got to be some real compatibility there.
Maybe that character challenges them, maybe that character gets their humor in a way that other characters don’t, maybe this person has, like a specific wound. So I think, along the lines of Brougham, I don’t think this is too spoilery to say that he has some serious abandonment issues. And for Darcy, she’s the kind of person who’s able to recognize that and not be put off by that and say, well, I can adjust my behavior so that you don’t feel threatened in that aspect. Why these two characters make each other better, I guess, is always the question that I ask to begin with, to answer your question.
I believe that Only Mostly Devastated was somewhat inspired by Grease. And I know reading PERFECT ON PAPER, I was thinking about 10 Things I Hate About You. Was that also one of the inspirations?
Oh, I’d love to say yes and sound really smart, but I hadn’t actually thought about that. I’d love to hear what the parallels that you saw were, because I might, when you bring them up, might be like, ‘Oh, yeah’.
Well, I just thought they’re two characters that initially don’t really like each other terribly much, but they’re sort of thrown together in this blackmail sort of situation, which did remind me a little bit of 10 Things I Hate About You, which, I think is, in turn inspired by The Taming of the Shrew, so Shakespeare. With those characters, one is initially paid to go out with the other one, so I guess I just saw some of that in the prickliness of their initial interactions and how they gradually start to reinterpret some of the comments that the other one has made and look at it through new lenses?
Yeah, I think that’s a perfect comparison. Actually, I might start using that when I’m pitching!
When I was in Year 10, my English teacher made us watch that movie for, like, a solid term, like over and over and over again. Maybe I’ve just got it living in my mind now.
With the books that you’ve written, you’ve also written two books and the new ones coming out this year, they feature gay romances. Then PERFECT ON PAPER has a bisexual main character in Darcy, and just a whole rainbow of gender diverse characters within there, with Ainsley, Darcy’s sister and the Q club that they’re a part of.
So how do you write characters with different genders and sexual orientations and really make them believable?
Hmm. Um, this is gonna sound funny, but I have been writing since I was very, very young and I have always written guys, and I don’t necessarily know why that is. I have some thoughts, but I could not tell you, firmly: all I know is that from when I started, I wrote through the guy’s perspective.
So actually, it was the biggest struggle, writing-wise, that I’ve ever been through to get into Darcy’s head, because that’s just not something that I’d ever done before: written a book through the eyes of a girl, no alternate point of view where the guy jumps in, and he’s also a main character.
You’d think that that would be the opposite, I suppose. Most people that I speak to will find it easiest to write about their own gender, but I think it was harder to write Darcy because, not only was I not used to it, I did get in my head a little bit sometimes. And also, I know that, from speaking to friends, that readers tend to have different expectations about how a female character is required to act versus say, a cis male character.
Sometimes traits that a male character would perform might be endearing whereas, you know, if a guy is quirky, it might be, all, that’s very cute, but if a girl is quirky, she’s trying a little bit hard or is, you know, a Mary Sue. Or if the guy is kind and generous and that’s really soft and lovely, but if a girl is kind and generous, she’s a weak character.
Yeah, so they were just extra layers that I had to be now navigating. I’d always known were there but I’d never had to navigate through my writing before because of this new lens that I was writing through. So that was definitely a challenge.
As for the different sexualities, I’m just trying to apply empathy as much as possible, speaking to as many people as possible. I’ve got multiple friends that I know very well, for, you know, anytime I write, say, a side character who has a sexuality that I myself don’t possess, I’m not just writing it, hoping for the best, I’m checking in with people and listening to their experiences.
And also PERFECT ON PAPER had a lot of sensitivity readers. I think, maybe the better term is authenticity readers now. That was very, very helpful. I think, overall, there was good feedback, but you know, there are always things that, especially for the trans rep, for example, whereas I’m looking at that through my lens, my eyes, and I’m having an authenticity reader saying, ‘Well, actually, you know, that’s coming across as a little bit patronising’.
And you might not think that because you haven’t experienced that, but they’re noticing it. So you’re like, ‘Okay, thank you so much, you know, and you just go ahead and take that advice’. And that really helps getting that authenticity across in your writing.
YouTube features heavily in this. One of the things that Darcy talks about is that she gets lots of theories and information from YouTube. Is that also something that you do to do a bit of research?
Yes, definitely. Definitely. I probably relate to Darcy more than a lot of other characters I’ve written, I really gave her this obsession with relationship theories that I used to have, probably still do have, to an extent, but I made her a lot better at it than I am.
Yeah, so you get to live through your characters sometimes like that. There are some really fantastic relationship coaches on YouTube. When I first started learning about attachment styles, I first came across it while studying because I’m a registered psychologist, so you know, I knew a little bit about it, but I hadn’t given much thought to how they affect your life as an adult. And then when I did start realising that, YouTube was one of the first places I went to, you know, I want to hear someone talk about this for an hour. Give me examples, give me scenarios, like, it helped me really understand this in a way that a blog post might not be able to cover.
What message would you like your readers to take away from PERFECT ON PAPER?
I think probably the key message that keeps coming up is that you don’t necessarily have all the information, all the time.
I think that’s something that comes up several times throughout the story and is part of Darcy’s main arc, both in providing advice and applying it to her own life. So I know it sounds a bit cliché to say, Don’t judge a book by its cover. But don’t necessarily assume that because you have interpreted something in a certain way, that that is the case.
Especially if you tend to be an anxious person, or a person who’s really hard on yourself. Don’t assume that because someone was short with you one day that it was something that you did, or that it means that they don’t like you. There’s a lot of different reasons for people’s behavior, there’s a lot of different things that they’re going through. And there’s a lot of things that affect the way that they interact with the world that have nothing to do with you. I think that, as a psychologist as well, you know, that’s something that we see all the time.
For every single one of us, we’re the main character in our own story, right? We go through life thinking, we are The Person. Everyone else who reacts to me is reacting to me because of something that I did. And that’s not always the case. Sometimes you are just a side character in someone else’s story, sometimes you’re a background extra. And the good thing about that is that it means that not every negative interaction that you have is your fault. And it does not necessarily say anything about you or your relationship with another person.