Poppy Nwosu has created a memorable character, Lottie, in her new YA novel Taking Down Evelyn Tait (Wakefield Press). Lottie is very funny and always in trouble. Her friendships and relationships are painted superbly and, told with humour, help contribute to her changing insights.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Poppy.
Thank you so much for having me, Joy!
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA book industry?
I grew up in a very small valley in lush central North Queensland but now live and work in Adelaide in South Australia, which is a place I really love.
Originally, I was involved in the YA industry as a passionate reader, interacting with the wonderful LoveOzYA community online and attending Adelaide’s biggest YA bookclub, Dymock’s YA Circle, before becoming a published YA author in early 2019.
After working with my publisher, the amazing Wakefield Press, for almost two years as an author, I recently also joined them as an employee, and now I am lucky enough to work part-time in publishing, which has been an incredible experience.
These days I get to spend all my time around books, which makes me very happy.
Do your books reflect your local setting? If so, how?
Yes! My local neighbourhood has a huge influence on my writing. I really care about creating atmosphere within a story through the description of setting and place. To me, that part of building a story and world feels really important, and if I am honest, I also find it really fun.
It felt natural that when I sat down to write my contemporary novels, that they would reflect the neighbourhoods around me that I so love. I didn’t so much care about describing my surroundings in a correct way, so I definitely took liberties with distances and building placements, but what I really wanted to convey through my writing, was the way that my neighbourhood makes me feel. It is a complicated place, a real mix of industrial desolate lots and empty spaces, as well as crumbling heritage homes and shiny sea-front mansions. I think it is very beautiful in a unique way, and that was the feeling I wanted to express within my work.
How important are chapter headings to you?
I absolutely LOVE having fun with chapter headings, I don’t know why, but they are one of my most favourite things to do. It feels like a very freeing and creative fun task, during the sometimes gruelling experience of getting words onto the page to form a full manuscript. I love to create chapter headings that invoke some kind of feeling in the reader, and it feels like a very low pressure way to be creative during the writing process.
In Taking Down Evelyn Tait your protagonist, 16-year-old Lottie, has a very distinctive voice. Could you introduce her to us and also explain how you created her voice?
It is an interesting thing for me to talk about character voice. I always find myself at a loss to explain what it means and how to write it. To be honest, Lottie’s voice came very naturally to me, without a lot of effort or thought. I am a bit of a ‘discovery’ writer (which means I like to make things up as I go along, ha!) and part of the fun of writing my first draft of this book, was learning about my main character and who she was.
Lottie is a girl with no filter. She says what she thinks, and she does what she wants, with no thought (or fear) of the consequences. I really loved writing about a character like Lottie, particularly because my personality in real life is so different from that. I am an over-thinker, who constantly worries about the impact of everything I say or do, so it felt very freeing and fun to write about a girl who really couldn’t care less about those things.
In saying that though, I don’t always have such an easy time creating a character voice. In fact, it is something that I have struggled with immensely on different manuscripts. I think each book I write is such a different experience, that it always feels like you are being taken back to the drawing board and must re-learn everything each time.
Could you explain the dynamics between Lottie, Evelyn, Grace, Jude and Sebastian?
In my book, I really wanted to write about a girl (Lottie) who everyone perceives to be ‘bad’ being driven to pretend to be good. But I needed something to instigate this change within Lottie, and make her want to go on that journey. That is how I came to introduce Lottie’s mortal enemy, the good-girl Evelyn Tait.
I really wanted to explore the idea of having an enemy. Lottie hates Evelyn Tait (and she has reason to) but she also doesn’t understand everything about Evelyn Tait’s life and inner world. And I think it is true to life, that it becomes very easy to make snap judgements about other people without ever truly stopping to wonder about their situation or circumstances. This is something I think about a lot in real life, so it felt natural for it to wind its way into my story.
As a flipside to hating someone without truly knowing them, it is also easy to love someone, and put them on a pedestal, without truly knowing them, and that was what I wanted to write about when it came to Lottie’s unrequited crush and the love triangle element. I loved exploring the differences between a ‘romantic love’ built on assumptions and a pretty face, as opposed to a love that grows from the base of a solid friendship. I always feel like it is good if people who are in love are also friends. It means you know someone truly and accept everything about them, and love them even more because of it.
Grace, Lottie’s best friend, was a character who really began because I wanted Lottie to have someone to bounce off. But in the end their relationship became much more complicated than I expected, as both girls struggle to discover who they are and what they want. I think it can be hard to be considerate of other people’s feelings when you are undergoing a massive change in your life, and I wanted to reflect that in the friendship between Lottie and Grace, who love each other and try to do the right thing for each other, but don’t always succeed.
How does Lottie relate to adults?
I think Lottie might not have the highest opinion of adults in general, but this more stems from her not taking the time to truly think about them as people. In a way, Lottie really believes the world revolves around her at the beginning of the novel, and it is part of her journey to open up and realise that adults are just people too. Sometimes they do the right thing. Sometimes they make mistakes.
I really wanted to mostly explore those feelings within Lottie’s complicated relationship with her stepmum. Neither Lottie or her new stepmother have truly taken the time to understand each other, and their dynamic was really interesting and fun for me to write.
How important is music to your characters?
Lottie is a metalhead who adores heavy metal music and I really wanted to wind that into her character on a deeper level. I based this love of music on my own husband, so I really grilled him about why he loves metal, about how it makes him feel, and about how other people perceive metalheads and metal culture.
It was a cool experience just to speak in depth with him about something he feels so passionate about, but it also got me thinking a lot about how some passions (or hobbies or vocations) can be viewed as more ‘worthy’ than others. And yet often they take the same level of dedication, hard work and resilience to succeed at. It was interesting to me, as I suppose as an author of young adult fiction I do sometimes come across that attitude myself, for instance, when I get asked if I will ever write an ‘adult’ book.
I personally like the idea that most people are passionate about a wide and strange variety of things, and I feel that as long as your passion isn’t hurting anyone, then it must a be a good and positive thing. Which is an idea I wanted to explore through Lottie’s love of metal music.
How do you incorporate humour into the story?
This is a hard one to answer, because the whole time I was writing this novel and Lottie’s dialogue, I was completely positive I wasn’t hitting the beats correctly and it wasn’t actually funny. I really had to wait until my agent had read the story and told me it was okay before I began to feel confident that it was achieving what I had hoped in terms of humour. Sometimes it is so hard to see anything clearly within your own work, and you just have to throw yourself in and not hold back. I suppose the worst that could have happened was my agent telling me it didn’t work and I’d have to re-write it. Which would have felt disappointing, but wouldn’t have been the end of the world. So I think it is good I just kept writing and tried my best to create what I hoped was a funny story!
Without giving too much away, what is an example of how Lottie changes during the narrative?
I think Lottie’s transformation, for me, is really centred around her relationship with her stepmum (although I didn’t want to make their difficult relationship solely Lottie’s fault, so her stepmum takes some blame as well). But I think as their relationship slowly improves and Lottie begins to view her stepmum in a different light, those ideas really extend into all other aspects of Lottie’s life. I really wanted Lottie’s journey to be less about changing the core of who she is, and more about changing the way she relates to other people and views the world.
I love how you have used the word “sonder”. What does it mean and how have you used it?
I had never heard of the word ‘sonder’ until the year I wrote this novel.
I attended a writing YA workshop run by Vikki Wakefield (one of my favourite authors, who I am lucky enough to have mentoring me on a manuscript this year). As a way for us to reconnect with the teenage ‘voice’ of our memories, Vikki asked us about a formative moment of our teen years.
I spoke about the first time I went overseas, travelling from cane-country rural Australia to chaotic Hanoi in Vietnam with my dad. It was overwhelming but also one of the most amazing experiences of my life and it definitely changed who I was. Not only did I catch the travel bug, but when I came home, I now realised the world was a huge, complex, massively populated place. I used to be very shy and quite awkward growing up, and social situations (especially in groups of people) were quite difficult for me to navigate. But the realisation that I wasn’t the centre of the universe, and that no one cared what I said or did because they were all too busy living their own lives and caring what they said or did, was really freeing.
I stopped worrying so much about people judging me for everything, and learned to be a bit more confident about myself. It is strange that only by realising I didn’t really matter, that I was able to learn to be brave enough to be myself.
Vikki Wakefield told me that my experience had a name. The moment I realised the world was huge and complex and filled with people living their own huge complex lives, is an experience described by the word ‘sonder’.
In my book, Lottie and her best friend Grace trade strange and wonderful words, so I knew at some point ‘sonder’ would have to be one of those words. I don’t think it was fully intentional, but it really ended up becoming the main theme of the whole story.
What are you working on now/next?
I have two projects on the go at the moment. One is another contemporary romance (which I am struggling with a little bit, ha!) and the other is a much darker and stranger (for me, anyway) manuscript. I am very grateful to have been awarded a grant by Arts SA for that darker manuscript, which also covers a mentorship with Vikki Wakefield, which I am very excited about. I feel like I will learn a huge amount from her and am hopeful that I can create an interesting story.
What else are you reading and would like to recommend at the moment?
I just finished reading Alison Goodman’s Lady Helen trilogy, which is set in regency England and about a young high-class Jane Austen type who also happens to be a monster slayer. I really adored the whole series (and also loved Alison’s earlier duology Eon, and Eona as well). I am a big fan, and would love to write something with a supernatural element one day!
How can readers contact you?
I love to talk to readers, and am very active on my Instagram account (talltales_poppynwosu). Readers can also contact me via my website and blog, either through the comments section or by sending me a contact email. I am always available for a chat! www.talltaleswithpoppynwosu.com
I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Lottie and her friends and family, Poppy and thank you for your honest and insightful responses. All the very best with Taking Down Evelyn Tait.
Thank you so very much for having me on your blog, Joy, and for your thoughtful and fun questions! I had an amazing time .