Earlier this year I attended the launch for fellow Adelaide author Poppy Nwosu’s delightful #LoveOzYA debut, Making Friends with Alice Dyson (Wakefield Press, 2019). The story is a wonderful, heartwarming tale of friendship and first love, and Poppy was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about her writing and where the story came from.
First, a huge congratulations on your debut, Making Friends with Alice Dyson. It’s a wonderful read: warm, funny and refreshing. Can you share a bit about the story?
Oh thank you Margot 🙂
To me, I think ALICE is a story with friendship at its core, but definitely also a romance too!
Mainly I wanted to explore the different kinds of friendships we have and the different things we want to get out of those friendships (especially during those tumultuous teen years). But I also adore romantic stories so wanted to write the kind of quiet friendship based romance that I personally find moving, something a little more based in real life.
I got the idea for the story from a really cute caught-on-video moment that went viral a few years back, of a boy and girl walking home from school who, thinking no one is watching, start doing really goofy dances at each other in the street. I kept wondering what kind of friendship the two teens must have to be able to act so silly in front of each other without feeling embarrassed. And that of course morphed into the love story that became Making Friends with Alice Dyson!
Alice is an intriguing protagonist. All through high school she’s been so focused on her studies that she hasn’t made room for anything else and is in some ways still the kid she was in primary school, but now on the eve of adulthood she’s having her first teen experiences. Where did she come from and did you have fun writing her character?
Yes, I loved writing Alice! She is quite uptight and inexperienced, and it was really fun dragging her out of her comfort zone throughout the novel, and getting the opportunity to explore all the different ways she grows and changes. She is so set in her ways, so certain of the pathway laid out in front of her, and that was a really interesting quality for me to write about, simply because in a way she isn’t someone I fully understand. I guess by writing her I was able to figure out what makes her tick, and that was definitely a lot of fun for me!
I’m a bit of an ice queen, but Teddy Taualai melted my cold, cold heart. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that I was drawn to him because he likes Alice for who she is and is open about his feelings from the start and you allow him to be vulnerable. In fact, his sensitivity and emotional intelligence are his great strengths. It’s refreshing. Was this a conscious choice?
Not exactly I think. Ha! I always wish I could say I made prior decisions on who my characters would be, but in truth I am a bit of a make it up as I go along kind of writer, especially when it comes to character development. Usually I begin to understand who the characters are simply by writing them, so a lot of their personality or growth is not really a conscious decision.
I suppose with Teddy though, I did have this idea that I would really like to explore someone who has become so wrapped up in bad rumours and reputation, that it takes a lot to unpeel those layers and understand who he really is. Yet at the same time I didn’t want him to be a typical bad boy either, who was stony cold or mean on the outside to hide his inner feelings. I really liked the idea of a boy who projects himself to the world as he is, as a nice person, yet is still constantly misunderstood anyway, not even really through anything he ever says or does, just through people’s previous misconceptions.
Ha! But I also must admit, turning Teddy into a very direct and confident kind of boy, who is sometimes uncomfortably transparent about what he feels, was also a great way to clash opposites with my protagonist, Alice, who is just about the opposite, stuffing all her feelings deep down inside. It was a really fun relationship dynamic to write!
Making Friends with Alice Dyson is a story of first love, but the friendships in the book feel even more important than the romance. Can you tell us a bit about these relationships and why you chose to make them a focus?
The story is definitely a romance, but I feel so strongly about the idea of romance built on friendship, that this was the dynamic I most wanted to touch on in the novel and explore. So I focused on a slow build-up of friendship first between Alice and Teddy, before that ever blossomed into anything else.
The other main friendship in the book is between Alice and her best friend May, and it definitely was never my intention to make it such a focus of the book if I’m honest! Their whole storyline just grew and grew as I was writing until eventually it became quite a major plot point. But it was definitely not pre-planned!
Basically when I first started writing, I created May simply so Alice would have someone to talk to and bounce off, but I quickly realised I didn’t want May to only exist as a foil to Alice, and I really wanted her to have her own complicated highschool experience going on, which kind of weaves in and out of the novel’s focus as it impacts Alice and her close friendship with May. The more I wrote about their friendship, the more I realised that I wanted it be a bigger focus of the story overall.
I’m not sure if you explicitly name it, but Making Friends with Alice Dyson is set (or the setting is at least inspired by) Port Adelaide and its surrounds. (Have I got this right? If not, let me know!) What made you choose this location? Does it have personal significance for you?
Yes! The setting of the book is very definitely set in the Port Adelaide region here in Adelaide, which is where I live. I just love it so much, even though it is a strange area, a real mish-mash of old and new, flashy and dilapidated, with all this river industrial stuff thrown in, huge cargo ships and factories, shipping containers and big scrubby empty plots.
I find it very beautiful in its own way, and am constantly inspired by the area I live in!
The setting is also very industrial—beautiful too, but it’s a harsh beauty. By contrast, the story is warm and endearing, but with some deep-cutting, painful moments, and I wondered if you could speak to this juxtaposition of setting and story.
Oh, this is an interesting question!
More and more, setting and atmosphere have become SO important to me when I think of stories. Usually they are the elements that stick in my head the longest after I have read or watched something, and I think with this book, I really wanted to try and create a strong atmosphere too.
I really felt that an interesting way to do that, might be to set a really familiar warm and sweet story in a place where I might not have imagined it. I also like that the setting gives the book (hopefully!) a bit more of a slice of real life feel, instead of a feeling like a fantasy high school romance, set in shiny hallways of a flash school where everyone drives expensive cars and lives in mansions like they always do on tv.
I think setting and atmosphere is so important when creating a story, as it can almost become another character itself, just as important as the plot or the protagonists.
I’m always keen to learn how other writers work, and I was wondering: where does a story start for you, is it with a character, a scene, a theme, or something else? And how do you know when you have an idea worth pursuing?
Another great question!
Well this is going to make me sound cheesy, but usually for me it begins with the love story. Probably just a single scene I start thinking about, and then I work the characters and the plot outward from there. Once I figure out how the novel will begin I usually just get started (though I am trying to plot a bit better these days …and struggling with it! Ha!). The rest of the story tends to sort itself out as I go along.
In saying that though, atmosphere is becoming increasingly important to me, and I am finding myself wanting to choose a striking place or time of year (like summer of winter) to try and create the atmosphere I want before I begin working on the story.
To be honest, I don’t think I ever know if it is an idea worth pursuing, I constantly doubt what I am working on, but I do try to ignore that nasty voice and just focus on how I feel (easier said than done. Ha!). I write a story that I like, and hope that if it is an idea that I love, maybe (hopefully!) someone else out there will too!
Here in Adelaide we have a really strong community of YA readers and writers and I was wondering if you could share what that community means to you?
Actually it has been really special!
Established amazing authors (like yourself Margot!) here in Adelaide have just been so kind to me, giving me their time, encouragement and advice, as well as attending my launch and cheering me on. It was extraordinary to have Vikki Wakefield hosting my book launch, as well as giving me lovely book endorsements along with Allayne Webster! Just the absolute kindness from the whole #LoveOzYA community has been quite overwhelming.
I have also been lucky enough to meet other local YA debut authors whose first books came out around the same time as mine, and it has been wonderful to get to know them (S.J Morgan who wrote the excellent moving contemporary Heaven Sent and Kristy Fairlamb whose fantastic suspenseful supernatural romance Lucid just came out). It is great to have the opportunity to share all my irrational fears with people going through the exact same process as me. Ha!
And the readers and booksellers have just blown me away! I was so nervous in the leadup to my book launch, worrying if people would come. And they did come! Everyone came, and I met so many wonderful readers and was hosted by the amazing ladies of the YA Circle at Dymocks Adelaide. The whole experience has been pretty extraordinary!
Who are your writing inspirations?
I love so many books and writers (SO MANY) but I am constantly inspired by the work and careers of Jay Kristoff, Ellie Marney, Vikki Wakefield, Alison Goodman and Helen Scheuerer.
I also am very inspired by overseas authors Yangsze Choo, Ryan Graudin, Rebecca Roanhorse and Brigid Kemmerer.
What advice would you offer to aspiring authors?
This always sounds so cheesy, but the honest truth is that if you love it, just do not ever give it up. I truly think that if you keep trying, keep working hard and learning new skills about your craft and just do not ever give up, no matter how many thousands of rejections you get (I got millions!) than you can do it. But I also think you have to be crazy passionate about it too. You have to absolute love it!
So if you do, just keep going.
Finally, what three books would you recommend to readers who enjoy Making Friends with Alice Dyson?
Oooh, this is a fun one!
Okay, I think I will go with Finding Cassie Crazy by Jaclyn Moriarty (which my debut was recently compared to in an article within the Age, which just made me want to faint with happiness because I LOVE this book!).
I will also choose Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil, which is just such a gorgeous and amusing tale of growing up and first love in Australia.
And finally I will pick Valentine by Jodi McAlister, which is actually a creepy faerie story set in Australia, so is a little different, but has just the best relationship dynamic between the protagonist and her love interest, with a lot of banter and tension. It is just such a fun book!
Poppy, thank you again for being so generous with your time and responses. If Making Friends with Alice Dyson sounds like your kind of book, take a moment to add it on Goodreads and pick up a copy at your local bookstore or library. You can also learn more about Poppy and her work on her blog, Tall Tales with Poppy Nwosu.
Are you interested in writing YA? I’ve teamed up with Kill Your Darlings to produce ‘Introduction to Writing Young Adult Fiction’, an online writing workshop designed to equip aspiring YA writers with the skills and support to hone their craft and get to work.
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