The first thing that struck me about author Sophie Gonzales was how approachable and bubbly she is. Interviewing her felt like I was talking to a cool older sister who had just released her new book. And who doesn’t want a published author as their older sister?
Sophie is a young adult (YA) author based in Melbourne, Victoria. She’s been writing since she could hold a pencil and tried her hand at both original fiction and fanfiction. How did she end up writing YA fiction? Whilst Sophie grew up, her characters never did.
“I think my characters aged up with me until I hit seventeen. And then I kept getting older and my characters didn’t. And I don’t know, I just kept on writing about high school!”
Sophie’s newest book, Perfect on Paper, came out on the 9th of March. I sat down with her to chat about her newest novel and also how she’s representing queer people within the YA genre.
Writing Queer Characters
The entries in her fiction portfolio all have one thing in common; they all feature queer protagonists. This was intentional for a number of reasons.
“The first couple books that I wrote were queer books. And once you sell a book, you’re kind of expected to keep doing similar stuff. Because you’ve got your audience and you’ve got the people who read your first book, so you want your second and third and fourth books to appeal to that audience.” To a certain extent, Sophie admits that her publishers would prefer her to remain in the same genre. However, even if it weren’t for that, she still believes she would be writing queer characters anyway.
For Sophie, representing the queer community is crucial to her identity as a writer.
“It was really important to me to put their representation down on the page and write stories to people who, historically, haven’t seen ourselves in books. I would say that it’s a lot better these days, and I’m really glad that I get to be part of that.”
It’s not just the LGBT+ group that are underrepresented. There are still meagre representations of other minority groups in fiction, such as people of colour and people with disabilities. For Sophie, improving the statistics of queer representation in books is a must.
“I think we need to be consciously buying books with representation. If you want to see more queer books, the best thing that you can do—and this goes for any group or community—is to support it. Financial support is fantastic. If you can go out and buy the book or gift the book to people that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t have to be financial. You can request it from your library, you can shout about the book online, you can take photos… because, whatever it is, publishing will always meet demand.”
Sophie urges any aspiring writers who want to write queer characters to begin now.
She tells us that the more queer fiction we see, “the more reps [book and publishing representatives] will see because that tends to snowball. I think some people maybe have a little bit of a misconception…especially within author circles, there is a misconception that ‘if you do well, that means I won’t do well, because only one of us can do well.’ When actually, it’s more of a ‘if you do well, that gives me a better chance to do well’.”
Writing a Female and Bisexual Character for the First Time
Although writing queer characters comes naturally to her, writing a female character didn’t. Darcy, the protagonist of Perfect on Paper, is the first female character that Sophie’s ever written. She describes it first and foremost as odd and then laughs at the irony.
“It wasn’t as strange as I guess I expected it to be, but it still felt…” she pauses to chuckle before continuing. “This is going to sound so strange, and it shouldn’t be the case, but it felt like I was writing something unfamiliar. I was having to think a little bit more about the character rather than feeling like I was writing naturally. Whereas, usually, when I write everything else disappears, and I’m just going for it.”
Despite the strangeness of it all, writing a bisexual female character was important for Sophie for representation’s sake.
“It was really important to me to write a character that had experienced some of the things that I’ve experienced. And Darcy was a really great way for me to explore biphobia and the effects that internalised and externalised biphobia can have on a person, which surfaced when I was writing Only Mostly Devastated.”
In Only Mostly Devastated, a female character goes through a journey of discovering her sexual orientation and the novel ends in her being in a relationship with a male. This narrative decision led to some criticism from a publishing professional.
“[This] publishing professional wasn’t part of my publishing team …but he said, ‘Oh, it’s very disappointing to see that this character went through this whole journey of discovering that she’s bisexual, only to settle for a guy’.”
His criticism shocked Sophie, who had to stop and ask herself, ‘have I done something wrong?’ But she soon came to the firm conclusion that she had not.
“I eventually decided that no, I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. Which then made me think: why is it culturally okay to say to someone ‘this bisexual character should have ended up with this gender? And it wasn’t based on the fact that these characters had more chemistry—that’s perfectly acceptable to say! And, why did I feel so guilty [about my choice to have this female character end up with a man]?
Perfect on Paper provided Sophie with the chance to further explore these questions she had internalised from her previous novel, allowing her the opportunity to unearth stereotypes and create a general discourse surrounding people who identify as bisexual.
Her Advice for Hopeful Aussie YA Writers
As an Australian author, Sophie has plenty of advice for aspiring Aussie YA writers. Her first tip: figure out where you want to be published (Australia, UK, USA, etc).
When she was looking to publish her first novel, Sophie struggled to find an agent in Australia who would represent a young adult book. That prompted her to go straight to the US, where she realised how limited she truly was.
She recommends understanding the publishing industry in both Australia and North America. “Get to know what kind of books, especially YA books, get published in Australia versus overseas. For example, a lot of Aussie YA tends to have quiet serious plots, whereas the US tends to really, really favour those that are high concept (with a lot of plot action).”
Living in a different country to where she published her books might seem like a disadvantage. However, the biggest setback Sophie was met with when writing for an American audience was when she used the word ‘schadenfreude’.
“I said this word to one of my American friends and she didn’t know what I was talking about.” Sophie pauses to put on a nasally, Californian accent. “This friend said to me ‘including other languages is a barrier for readers. I’m really supportive of other cultures, but I don’t want them thrown in my face’.”
Sophie and I both can’t help but laugh at her friend’s reaction.
“I love talking to Aussies,” she adds.
“Because I get you right?” I asked her.
“Yeah, you just get me!”
Sophie’s book Perfect on Paper came out on the 9th of March. You can follow her on both Instagram and Twitter at: @sgonzalesauthor
She is currently reading:
‘The City Beautiful’ by Aden Polydoros and
‘We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This’ by Rachel Lynn Solomon