We had a chat with Poppy about her book Taking Down Evelyn Tait, one of this year’s shortlisted titles for the Book of the Year Award.
Cordelia: Where did you get your inspiration from, and what was the most important thing you wanted to say with this story?
Poppy: It really came with the main character, I just I love this idea of writing a character who is maybe a lot to deal with, and who doesn’t really know where the line is, but I wanted readers to also really like her. And I felt like that was a writing challenge that I was interested in—I really enjoy writing characters and character focused stories. Particularly with these kinds of books, they’re not heavily plotted, so I feel like the character journey is the main point of the story. And it just went in its own direction, which happens to me a lot.
Cordelia: You introduced the concept of sonder in the book, at this point Lottie is realising that Evelyn is not just a two-dimensional villain, but a person with her own rich internal world. It speaks to this change in her character where she realises more of what’s going on around her and that it’s not just all about her. What was behind your decision to include that realisation, and that turning point as part of her character growth?
Poppy: As [a] teenager, you really do feel like you’re the centre of the world, you feel like everything’s happening to you, and you don’t really have that self-awareness that your just like, the tiniest speck of nothing in this huge world. I wanted to create [this] friendship for Lottie with her best friend, and one of the things they do is share unusual or interesting words with each other. And then of course, if you have a character that thinks they’re the centre of the world, it feels like it’s only the right thing to do to make her realise that she’s not. And then it was just one of those moments that I love the most when I’m writing, which is when you don’t plan something, but suddenly you’re like, oh, sonder, you know, of course, there’s this word that perfectly describes what I was trying to do with her character.
Cordelia: I really resonated with the poignant tension between adolescence and adulthood that you’ve conveyed in this story, and I think it speaks to young readers especially. What do you hope young readers take away from the book and this theme in particular?
Poppy: My favourite thing about writing young adult fiction is that exact push and pull between being a teenager and being on the cusp of being an adult. They’re coming of age stories, basically, and I feel like coming of age is a theme that I could write about forever because it’s so relatable and familiar to everybody. I think really, you continuously go through that phase your whole life, and I don’t think it stops because you become an adult.
I do think a lot about, if I’m writing something, making sure that it is right for that audience, but I don’t think I set out wanting to teach or impart lessons. What I’m probably more interested in is the idea of raising questions, like raising the idea of sonder, and then leaving them with readers.
Cordelia: With blended families becoming more and more common, it was great to see such an honest depiction of the family dynamics in Lottie’s family. How did you strike that balance between optimism and sincerity when constructing the Murphy/Tait family?
Poppy: I was really interested in the idea of these misunderstandings between people. It felt obvious to me that Lottie as the main character would not be on the same page as her new stepmum, but even though [her stepmum] is an adult and there’s this idea that the adult should know better or have more understanding, I wanted to show that it went both ways, that they both made mistakes, and they both misunderstood each other, or didn’t take the things that each other was passionate about seriously. I really wanted to make sure [that] was in there, because with these kinds of things it’s hard for teenagers, but also adults. No one really knows how to do the right thing, particularly if it’s your first time doing it. It was just something I really wanted to explore, breaking through those misunderstandings, but also that idea that love doesn’t need to be biological.
Cordelia: How was it working with Wakefield Press to publish this book?
Poppy: One of the things that I like the most about working in publishing, while also being a writer and publishing, is that I think it gives you a really good understanding of your place in the scheme of things. And you know, when you work behind the scenes at a publisher, you see all these people working so passionately to try and bring out these books. And I guess, in some ways, it’s a little bit humbling, and that was a really great thing to realise because it makes me really grateful for the opportunities that I’ve gotten with my book, like for instance, being shortlisted for [the BOTY award], it just feels like it’s incredible.
The 2021 Book of the Year award winner will be presented by the Wheeler Centre as part of its Next Big Thing series, via Instagram Live on 26 November 2021 from 6:30pm.
You can buy a copy of Taking Down Evelyn Tait, all the other BOTY-shortlisted books and books written or published by IPC2021 speakers at the special SPN bookstall powered by Readings, and use the code SPNTEN to get 10% off your purchase.