Firsts, fiction, and fr-omances

News Review. Lunch with Gabrielle Tozer, young adult author. Photograph by Edwina Pickles. Taken on 8th March 2017. Photo: Edwina PicklesMany people are happy to leave the uncertainty of their teens behind. But award-winning young adult author Gabrielle Tozer – now about to publish her third and most difficult novel – keeps going back for more.

“It is such a messy exciting time,” she says. “One of the reasons I like young adult fiction so much is that it explores so many firsts.”

“Everything you feel, you feel a thousand times over, and I love that intensity.”

Tozer’s novels cover first jobs, new loves, big decisions, the agony of indecision and uncertainty (Should I stay or go? Does he like me?), peer pressure – and lots of kissing.

“I seem to choose things that I want teenagers to know on another level, without beating them over the head. Themes that let teenagers know who they are. They’re almost reassuring; ‘You are doing great, keep going’,” she says, over lunch at the new waterfront dining precinct at Barangaroo.

Since finishing her second novel, Faking It, Tozer has also opened up about her own problems with anxiety which was diagnosed two years ago.

“It is something that I have had to work on because there was a point after Faking It where I had got myself into such a muddle with anxiety, and my stress, and it was affecting every area of my life, my work, my marriage, and how often I was seeing my friends.”

Now 32, Tozer says she probably suffered from anxiety at high school, where she always pushed herself to do more than she needed. Since her early 20s, undiagnosed anxiety had manifested as stomach pains or a sore jaw, or bursting into tears at the doctor’s.

“It took me multiple times, going back, and nothing really changing for me to finally go, enough is enough … I had to decide: Is this worth it? I wanted to be a writer but at what cost?” she says.

“And I didn’t want to buy into the whole idea of being a tortured artist to create art. I knew many brilliant artists who had functioning work lives and happy marriages. I wanted that too.”

After two years of counselling, and trying different ways to reduce anxiety – such as planning her work ahead and using software to schedule work and play – she is happier, although she still has the occasional “tune-up”.

“I am completely transparent about it because people will see the numbers of books I have coming out, and think, ‘She has got this all under control’, but it has been quite difficult. And I am more than happy to share how I have been getting help,” she says.

Her third young adult book, a “fr-omance” called Remind Me How This Ends, will be in stores in March 27.

The novel is more emotional and darker than the The Intern, her Inky-award winning first novel released in 2014, which is a more tracky-dack daggy than Vogue version of The Devil Wears Prada, and the 2015 sequel, Faking it.

“[Remind Me] was tapping into such personal topics, such as grief and loss and that kind of blurry line between friendship and romance, and not really knowing where you stand.”

It was hard for her to shake the voices of her two characters, Milo and Layla, the two don’t-know-what-to-do-next teens who are stuck in a small country town.

“I was really feeling everything they were feeling,” says Tozer. “I am an emotional person. And I could feel it was getting harder and harder to leave them at the door at the end of a work day. I was finding they were lingering in my mind, one of those weird author things, they were having conversations in my brain and I would have to transcribe into my phone as I was walking to the gym, or at work.”

When we meet for lunch at Muum Maam at Barangaroo, she arrives looking as glamorous as Anne Hathaway’s character Andrea in the film adaption of The Devil Wears Prada, after her transformation from gawky to chic. Wearing a black midriff top and floating skirt (from a highly affordable chain store) with ankle-length books, she looks more glamorous than other office workers out to lunch.

We order crispy pork belly and fried noodles with little regard for the potential for embarrassing spills.

Like her characters, Tozer says she is always “spiling stuff down my front, I can’t make it out of the cinema without choc-top [on my clothes]”.

Tozer doesn’t see herself as a young adult author, but as a storyteller.

She is currently working on a children’s picture book, Peas and Quiet (one of many she has pitched) to be released in June, and a book for children in primary school.

Like many fiction writers, Tozer’s books make up an incomplete jigsaw puzzle of her life. Her protagonists come from rural . Tozer grew up in Wagga, and “loved the regional childhood” . She was a nerd with more enthusiasm than skill for dancing and drama.

Her first job was working in a video store. (She says she has a thing for industries including journalism, videos and books that have been forced by change to reinvent themselves.) Her sister worked in a chicken shop and came home reeking, like Layla in her latest book.

Her parents were “huge readers”, who were tucked up on the couch every night with a book. Like them, she was a voracious reader of anything she could get her hands on, from Roald Dahl, Morris Gleitzman and Margaret Clark.

“I loved the books with kissing,” she says.

The kissing – good, bad and its absence – is a theme in all three books: “Looks like my pash drought would probably continue forever,” says Josie, the intern in her first novel.

So is fashion. ???Tozer has spent most of her adult life working in lifestyle and fashion magazines, yet she claims to have missed the memo when it comes to fashion. Her younger sister was the fashionista. Her addiction was pop culture, and she spent her money buying books, CDs, DVDs including boxed sets of TV series. “I grew up reading Smash Hits and TV Hits, they were my bibles.”

Like her character Josie Browning, Tozer’s outfit for a Dolly job was styled by her younger sister, Jacqui. While she may look chic on the outside, she says she still feels like Josie on the inside.

While Remind Me How It Ends was hard to write, Peas and Quiet, her new children’s book to be published this year, was the most joyful creative process of her career.

“It came from a magical place. I would pitch it as the odd couple in a pea pod, Pip and Pop. They are struggling to get along, they both have annoying habits,” she says. “On reflection, this is my husband and I negotiating how to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Sydney,” she said, adding that the NSW housing crisis made an accidental appearance in the book.

“[The book] is funny and quite outrageous and warm, they drive each other mad. It is a story about friendship and accepting flaws and getting along.”

Remind Me How It Ends also started with friendship. “It started with Milo and Layla’s connection, mainly because it has always been my MO – I have always fallen in love with the boy who was a friend [including my husband],” says Tozer.

For Layla and Milo, the book ends with uncertainty. “It is not always the Disney ending, and that’s okay, because you are 17,” she says.

“I like exploring the idea that people can be perfect for you even if it is for a short period of time. That’s true for people of any age.”