Independence And Neurodiversity Drive Tracey Garvis Graves's Heartwarming New Romance
Best-selling author Tracey Garvis Graves talks with romance editor Katie O'Connor about her new book, 'The Girl He Used To Know,' and why she wanted to tell the story of an amazing young woman living with Autism and the romance she discovers.By Katie O'ConnorApr 2, 2019 2:48 PM
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One of the best things about romance over the last few years has been the broadening inclusion of different kinds of leading characters. We're talking a diversity of ethnicities, body types, and viewpoints. And that includes those of the neurodiverse. Best-selling author Tracey Garvis Graves has spent a career telling multi-layered stories about women, starting with her debut, On The Island. Her latest work, The Girl He Used To Know, puts an amazing young woman living with autism front and center in a wholly engaging and romantic story.
Listen in as Graves talks with romance editor Katie O'Connor about why she wanted to tell this story, how she went about doing so thoughtful of real-life experiences in the community, and how it flows into the rest of her books.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Katie O'Connor: Hi listeners, it's your Audible editor Katie here and today I'm so excited to be talking to Tracey Garvis-Graves, author of The Girl He Used To Know. Hi Tracey.
Tracey Garvis Graves: Hi, thanks so much for having me.
KO: Thanks for joining us, I'm so excited to talk to you today. I loved listening to your book.
TGG: Oh, that's wonderful, thank you so much.
KO: As readers and listeners we've really appreciated seeing more and more writers feature a diverse array of characters and actually our best romance of 2018 was The Kiss Quotient, which had a neurodiverse character, or I should say female lead similar to your protagonist, Annika. What inspired you to write a neurodiverse character?
TGG: When I was outlining the story and figuring out in my head what I wanted to say and just going through some plot things, I started to think about the female lead and what would drive her character arc. And it just appeared to me one day that what if she can't change the things she does because she simply can't? What if that's just, it's not a personal choice, what if that's just the way her brain is wired?
And then some of the issues that I was having in plotting the story and figuring out the direction I wanted it to go, suddenly became so much clearer to me. Because I thought, this would just be a fantastic way to give a character like Annika a voice and to let her live her life and show that to the reader according to her own terms. And to show the special gifts that she's able to bring to all of her relationships because of it and not despite it. So I really liked it.
KO: Yeah, you did that really beautifully too.
TGG: Thank you.
KO: What type of research did you do when creating Annika?
TGG: I did a lot of research. I am probably already known as a research-heavy author but I read so many nonfiction books about being on the spectrum. I tried to read a lot of personal accounts. I read blogs and I googled extensively because I really wanted to know. The thing that I was most excited to read about was the special gifts that characters on the spectrum brought to their relationships.
Recreating personal accounts from not only the people themselves but their spouses in some cases, was just eye-opening to me because it really showed the ways that enhanced the relationships. I think I ended up buying six nonfiction books and reading them cover to cover, I had countless articles. I had a three-ring binder that was completely full.
I mean I would find something and print even if it was just a couple of sentences in the article or the blog post or whatever I came across that I thought would help. Because I was really, really terrified of not doing it justice and not portraying Annika the way I felt she should be portrayed. I was afraid about not portraying it authentically enough, and so I really wanted to make sure that I had a large amount of knowledge to draw from that I had been able to come across to teach myself. I hope it worked out okay, I think it did.
KO: It did, it was great, I mean she's very much a fully formed character and I think that as a listener I really got to understand so much of both what motivated her but also the struggles that she had. Not only her relationship with Jonathan but just in the day-to-day navigation of her world, particularly as a college student and just what you're up against every single day.
TGG: Absolutely, yup.
KO: Your novel jumps back and forth between 1991 and 2001, and dating obviously was very different in 2001 but especially in 1991. And I was wondering if that was challenging for you or was there actually something freeing about writing about love in the pre-cell-phone era?
TGG: It was very freeing. I have typically tried to stay away from having too many pop culture markers in my books, things that would date a manuscript potentially. It's not that I absolutely won't reference social media or things like that. I can and I will but it was nice not to have to. It was nice to show a time pre-cell phone when we didn't have to worry about texting being part of the dating landscape and of course no dating apps and things like that.
I really liked that, even the Internet back then was not being utilized to the extent it is today. Just the fact that there were fewer places for them to be able to track each other down because of the dual timeline. It really, I thought, worked to my advantage and I thought it was hopeful to not clutter up the storyline with some of those things.
KO: And it's I mean we see it a little bit too in a later scene in the novel but just how that also meant that there was less opportunity if you were a friend of Annika's or dating Annika to do your own independent research and understand a little bit more about her. I just think people didn't have the words that they do in today's world or even in 2001, to talk about everything that she was dealing with.
TGG: Absolutely I agree.
KO: Annika has a lot of reasons for not ending up with Jonathan in 1991 but one overarching reason is her need for independence and to prove that she can live on her own. Without him yes, but also without her best friend Janice and to a certain extent her parents. And for Annika, it's really another level of achievement because she is on the autism spectrum. But how important do you think independence is in a relationship and how much of that factored into whether or not it can be a successful relationship?
TGG: I think it's incredibly important. I always try to write strong female characters. I really like watching female characters grow and find their independence and their strength, regardless of whoever might be helping them. Whether it's parents or friends or a significant other, it's definitely important to me. I just think that it is something that everybody should go through because until we can be independent and know what we want on our own and for ourselves, it's hard to be able to give that to somebody else.
KO: Yeah, absolutely and I think sometimes too, even if you start off that way, once you begin a relationship it can be hard to maintain that independence. And so making sure that you're still finding your own hobbies and getting out of the house without that other person.
TGG: And absolutely for somebody like Annika especially because it is so easy for her to try to gravitate toward people who have been her lifeline her whole life.
KO: Right and who can just take care of her. This book is many beautiful things but it's also a second chance love story, and I was wondering what your favorite romance trope is?
TGG: I really do like the second chance. I love the dual timeline where somebody can go back and see if they have another chance to give it a go and whether or not that chance will be successful. That's probably my favorite. I really like people reconnecting and now that seems to be happening more and more in real life as people connect via social media with their high school sweetheart or college sweetheart. Somebody they knew from their past that they're able to reach back out with and connect with. That's probably my favorite trope.
KO: Nice, well that worked out perfectly then.
TGG: Yeah, well I tend to write the things that I want to read, so that was a natural selection for me.
KO: Fred Berman and Kathleen McInerney did such a beautiful job with your words, I really loved their performance and I was just wondering what it was like for you to hear your book performed by them?
TGG: Something very odd about me is I have a really hard time listening to my own words and it's not necessarily just an audio thing. Once I'm done with a book and it's been through all of the editing stages and it's published, I don't go back and read it again.
KO: I understand that.
TGG: Because I will want to edit or change things and I have found that it's usually better for me to just immerse myself in the current manuscript that I try to start after I finish everything on one of them. But [Berman and McInerney's] voices are beautiful and I cannot wait for listeners to have this audiobook available to them because they just really, really did a fantastic job.
KO: They did, they were great and they were great together too, I think fans will really gravitate towards it.
TGG: Yes, they're wonderful together. It can be tricky.
KO: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Did you chat with them at all before they started recording?
TGG: I had their audio tapes to listen to and so I was given information about both of them but I have not been able to chat with them directly yet.
KO: I think fans will agree that they did a great job.
TGG: Yes, wholeheartedly agree.
KO: Yeah. Aside from Jonathan and Annika, my favorite character hands down was Janice. She's just the type of best friend that you personally hope for and the type of friend that you want for the people that you love in your life too. Would you ever consider telling her story?
TGG: I get asked that frequently about side characters in all of my books and the struggle with that is that sometimes even though the character themselves is a character that readers gravitate toward and want to know more about, it's really hard to have enough to build a whole book around them. I've done a couple of novellas for the same reason where somebody wanted to spend more time with a character and I didn't feel I had enough story to lend to a full-length novel but I'll have done a novella to spend a little more time with that character.
I loved, loved, loved Janice. I just felt like in life there's always that one person that comes to us that we desperately need and didn't expect. And whether that's somebody you meet as a child or as an adult or somewhere in between, I think we all have the opportunity for that. And for Annika to have that with Janice, to have somebody who became such a close friend to her and then the reveal later on, of how that friendship came to be.
And to realize how that circled back to Annika's mother. And one of the things she was just trying to protect her daughter at a time where she couldn't physically be there. I love Janice. I mean it's absolutely one of my favorite characters because everything she stands for as a woman and female friendships is so important to me. But I don't think I'll be able to ever-
KO: To revisit her, yeah.
TGG: ... give her her own book.
KO: When Annika does come to learn the origins of their friendship, I did have a moment of worry about what her reaction was going to be.
TGG: Yup. Yeah, I did too.
KO: Well, I think it really spoke to her maturity, how she ultimately did handle it and demonstrated her own growth too in this storyline. I had just a sigh of relief.
TGG: Yeah, well I wasn't sure it would work because I wasn't sure she would be able to handle that and I don't think had that happened in the chapters in the past, early on when she first met Jonathan [that she would have]. It was only after what had happened that she was starting to gain that clarity and starting to take those little baby steps toward the person she would become in the present chapters.
KO: Yes. Jonathan and Janice I think both demonstrate an astounding level of maturity for their ages because as you display in the novel, Annika has seen a lot of cruelty because of who she is. And there are a lot of not-nice people in the world, who either through a lack of understanding are unkind or just in their nature to prey on a weaker person are unkind.
And both Jonathan and Janice are just exceptional in their unwavering loyalty and kindness to Annika. I was wondering, with that in mind, if there was a particular scene, not even from an emotional standpoint but that was just the most challenging for you to write?
TGG: Well, it's several scenes, actually. Jonathan's character was difficult because I had to show a natural enough progression in his arc to show why he would gravitate toward being Annika's protector. Even if at first he thought the way other people thought that, what is this girl? What is she doing? I don't really understand this. What I thought would work and what I hoped worked was tying into that competitive nature that they both have through their shared love of chess.
And so I thought that if Jonathan could be a little bit, I don't know what the word would be. She really wiped the floor with him when they first played chess the first time. And so where he might have been so apt to dismiss her, if he had won that round they would probably never have ended up where they ended up. I tried to think of something that would make sense.
I try that very hard in all of my books and it's one of the most difficult things about fiction writing because you are writing fiction. But you want things to try to make sense but you also need to have certain elements or you don't have a story. I mean if everything is absolutely the way it would be in real life and then it makes it hard to progress the plot.
But I thought if I gave him that competitive angle, which is one of the reasons that she loved chess so much when she played -- she lost herself in the competitiveness of it and the love of the game and she was able to tune out some of that other clutter. That first scene where they played together for the first time and she's so obviously distressed and nervous and does not want to be playing with him and then plays the second time with him. I really enjoyed having that as the progression in their relationship as the common thread but it was very difficult.
KO: That's so interesting but that makes absolute sense. What are you currently working on?
TGG: I am working on another novel. I can't say a whole lot about it right now because I haven't turned it in yet. What I really am trying to do with my brand is to write books that are classified as contemporary fiction but my tagline is "contemporary fiction with a happily ever after." I really, really love novels that are a blend of contemporary romance or another subset of romances.
It doesn't have to be contemporary but novels that are a subset of romance and also a blend of women's fiction. Because when I read women's fiction I'm often wishing that there was a happily ever after for the heroine at the end because a lot of times in women's fiction there isn't because it's dependent very strongly on the heroine's journey.
In romance, I often wish there was another storyline instead of just a romance. I want to know what else is going on with the woman. Is she at a crossroads in her life with her family or her career or has something happened to her? And what if there could also be a great guy at the end of the finish line standing there waiting for her? That's where I'm at right now on the things that I want to write going forward.
And the manuscript I'm working on right now definitely has all of those elements and female friendships are really important to me. And I've got one in almost everything I've written but The Girl He Used to Know really sparked that even more so for me. About showing how women can really be a huge source of strength for other women. That's what I'll be focusing on going forward.
I've written a couple of romcoms. I've written a book that has elements of suspense in it. I'm trying to give my readers a little bit more of an idea of what to expect going forward, without also writing the same book over and over and over again.
KO: Well, I look forward to listening to it.
TGG: I'm so excited. I can't wait.
KO: Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.
TGG: Well you're very welcome, thank you so much for having me. I'm just very excited about the publication of The Girl He Used To Know and hopefully subsequent novels after that because this is something I will probably be doing for quite some time.