Today (1 June), a new book is hitting the stands. The debut middle-grade novel from Lizzie Huxley-Jones is inspired by Welsh myths and follows 12-year-old Vivi as she investigates a mystery and learns about the value of true friendship. Lizzie is an autistic author who was diagnosed when they were 26-years-old, and is based in South London. They grew up in North Wales exploring the real setting of this story. We caught up with Lizzie to go behind the scenes of creating the book.
What inspired you to write your first book?
In some ways I’ve always been telling stories. As a kid I was always writing, and as an adult after I left academia, I was doing communications at charities around fishing and the marine environment that was really a form of storytelling. After I had a bit of a career break from the science and became a bookseller, it made me think about writing again and how much I used to love it. When I got my autism diagnosis, and had spent months researching, I realised there were big gaps in good autism representation by autistic people in some genres, and that was a big motivator too.
Did you always set out to create a middle-grade novel?
Not originally! I was writing a huge YA war epic when I started writing, and the moment I wrote the words The End I realised it wasn’t actually the story I was trying to tell. I love The Owl House, She-Ra and Sailor Moon, cartoons that are aimed at tweens predominantly, and I realised that was the age range I was trying to write to with this story that eventually became Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend.
What was the process like of creating the book from when you started writing to now when it is about to come out?
I basically taught myself how to write a book from scratch, because it’s such a different thing from writing anything else I’d done. In the beginning I was definitely a lot more slap dash as I wanted the freedom to explore what I was doing and I wasn’t writing to a particular schedule because I was still learning. Now, I’m a total planner – pretty solid outlines, spreadsheets to track changes between versions, my own editorial letters to myself so I can think critically about the book as an in-progress piece of work before passing it on. My seizure disorder affects my memory so I have to document everything – the scientific training came in handy with this, as that’s the first thing you’re taught about research.
You grew up in Wales, exploring the real settings of mythical stories with your Dad. How did this influence the plot of the book?
It definitely influenced the setting. Essentially a lot of these myths make up the history and lore of the novel, whereas the plot that Vivi and her friends are going through is entirely new. They come across monsters that are plucked from these stories (though I usually mix them up a bit from how they are written in the original sources).
While writing and doing research, did you get the opportunity to learn even more about Welsh myths?
I did! I’m really lucky to live in South London which means I’m not far from the British Library who house an enormous collection of texts about Welsh myths that I have spent many hours reading in their big comfortable chairs!
Do you feel that the novel has an autobiographical element to it?
I’ve been asked this quite a lot and the answer is mostly no. Vivi is not me – for a start, she’s way more stubborn than I am. Sadly my childhood did not involve a ghost dog best friend, or magical powers. I did experience being bullied, and Vivi is autistic like me, but crucially I didn’t know I was when I was her age in the early 2000s, which is a huge difference in experience between us. As an author, there are always things you pocket for later without necessarily meaning to, so bits of you and your life can be peppered through there.
What role does intersectionality play in the novel?
I’ve always wanted my books to feel like the human characters could be real, and exist in the real world. All the kids are disabled and/or queer, though it might not be completely apparent from the first book because the kids are still growing and changing and learning about themselves. Chia and Stevie are both characters of colour. Dara is trans. And more broadly, their world is inhabited by people who fall into various intersections too. Their characters to some extent shape their characters and experiences – they have a conversation about how other people’s perceptions of them and their bodies affect their own self of self towards the end of the book.
Celebrating each other’s differences and friendship are key themes in the book. How are these themes important to you?
Well, I do like having friends. I joke, I joke. A lot of my friends are disabled – probably the majority to be honest. As an autistic kid who didn’t know they were autistic, I found friendships really tricky to navigate as a child, and that’s before you throw burgeoning queerness and some feelings about gender into the mix. I wanted to reach over to kids who are feeling confused and a little afraid now to tell them that there are people out there who are right for you as friends, but sometimes it can take a minute to find them. I wanted Vivi’s story of learning to trust in friendship again to be a hopeful, healing one.
It’s brilliant to see a novel with authentic representation as a priority, do you feel that representation of autistic people has been increasing in recent year?
I think that since I started thinking about writing eight years ago things have changed. The wonderful Elle McNicoll has undoubtedly been a key part of that driving force – seeing A Kind of Spark migrate from book to screen has been such a privilege for us all. I think some elements of publishing are more invested in authentic representation, but I don’t think we can rest happily yet. There’s so much more to do – the recent discourse about The Good Doctor is such a great example of autistic storytelling that feels dated, and don’t even get me started on Young Sheldon and the Big Bang Theory. I hope that the trend continues upwards, but good representation with fully fleshed out characters who have agency and desire are still shoulder-to-shoulder with 2D stereotypes.
Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend is published in paperback on 1 June by Knights Of, and available in all good bookstores, with a sequel to follow in May 2024.
Featured image credit: Jamie Drew