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Working with Words: Poppy Nwosu

Read Monday, 3 Jun 2019

Poppy Nwosu is an Adelaide-based YA novelist. She spoke with us about terrible teenage diaries, Captain Planet and what to do when you hit a writing wall.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of author Poppy Nwosu

When I was a kid, my family spent a lot of time at the library, which was about an hour drive away from where we lived in the countryside in Central North Queensland. I remember picking up a New Zealand YA novel that had a huge impact on me at a very young age. It was my first introduction to a book written in the first person (which is a point of view I love now, but at the time made me feel very unbalanced), and also a very quiet and moving love story between a girl with burn scars and a young Sri Lankan man. I remember it made me cry, and really stuck with me throughout the years – but the saddest thing is that after all this time, I am unable to remember the title or even the author. 

It is interesting how stories can stick with you throughout the years – or at least a deep impression of them can – even if you don’t fully remember the whole plot. I think that book was a little old for me at the time, but it introduced quite a few new ideas and complex themes that were different from the kinds of stories I had previously been reading. 

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I must admit, I am not really the kind of writer who knew what I wanted to do from a very early age. I loved books as a kid, but I also loved movies and music and basically everything else under the sun. It was only really as an adult that my lifelong obsession with stories turned into a passion for wanting to write them down. Prior to that, I imagined stories all the time, but it never really occurred to me that being an author was a possibility.

However, in hindsight, I can see that I did spend a ridiculous amount of time writing different endings and alternative plots to the movies and TV shows I loved. Captain Planet was a show that was very inspirational! Ha!

It is strange to think that I wasn’t always obsessed with writing, as these days it fills my mind 24/7. It’s hard to imagine there was ever a time before that, when it didn’t mean this much to me.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I imagined stories all the time, but it never really occurred to me that being an author was a possibility.

My previous job was with a NZ travel agency, organising large group travel and conferences to New Zealand (with the perks being a lot of free amazing trips all over that beautiful country!). This was the job when I first began to feel inspired about writing, as I also had the opportunity there to work on itineraries and magazine articles – all filled with descriptions of New Zealand’s beautiful landscapes, in order to inspire people to visit. I loved that role. 

My current job is as a tender writer, and I do think that having this new experience of writing to deadlines and producing written content every day (whether you feel inspired or not – it doesn’t matter, you just have to do it) has been very helpful in teaching me a lot about pushing through and getting words on the page.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I love to organise visual things, like my author website, so I think that if I wasn’t pouring all my free time into being a writer, I might be tempted to go back to uni and study graphic design so I could design properly. Either that, or do an art history course! That would be fun too. 

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best piece of advice I can think of right now is something I heard on Joanna Penn’s writing and publishing podcast very recently. It was this idea that stories in general have elements that appeal to most people across the board (things like beauty, danger, power etc) – but then there will also be a list of story elements that personally appeal most to you.

As a writer, if you list those elements that you most like to find in stories, you can then use them to kickstart yourself if you’ve hit a wall in your writing. For instance, if you feel like a scene isn’t working – or you are bored with how your story is developing (or something just doesn’t feel right) – maybe you can insert one of those elements you love into your scene, and perhaps that will spice things up or at least get you loving what you are writing again.

I tried this myself when I hit a wall in a story I was working on. This will sound cheesy, but something I enjoy reading is a well-crafted love triangle. I was a little afraid to put one in my work, because I know people can find them very off-putting. I was having terrible trouble with a book and had totally hit a wall. I needed to do something drastic to start loving what I was writing again, so I reframed the story and added a love triangle element (it’s not terrible or cheesy, I swear! Ha!) – and suddenly, I was having fun again. And once I’d remembered to love what I was working on, and enjoying the story myself, it became really easy to finish it.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? 

Oh yes I did! I kept one when I was a teenager, and it is absolutely terrible and just filled to the brim with super angsty stuff! I actually found it the other day and was reading passages out loud to my husband, which was both a hilarious and horrifying experience. Neither of us could stop laughing.

I find the diary quite embarrassing and kind of want to chuck it away – but at the same time, it was who I was at the time, and maybe it’s nice to have that record of my innermost thoughts.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I don’t think this book is truly unsung or undiscovered considering it did win a bunch of awards, but I still feel like it is a little underrated and should be shouted about more. Penni Russon’s beautiful novel Only Ever Always is something that just sort of blew me away.

I read a lot, so definitely you can get very familiar with story structure and the beats of conventional narrative, but this novel just really surprised me. It was moving and lyrical and I just couldn’t quite figure it out. I really loved it and wish everyone would read it. 🙂

… You probably have to draw a line in the sand somewhere and admit a book is finished … I’d rather have my work go out there, even if in the future I felt like I could have written it better, instead of keeping it in my desk and tinkering with it forever to create that ‘perfect’ piece.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

Not really, though I do prefer to write with music and headphones on. Mainly, that’s because I write in the mornings, and my husband is usually getting ready for work in the background (my writing desk is in our living room). He is very loud and loves to run around and sing and play with our cat (way too much energy for 5am!) and generally be extremely distracting in every way possible.

So yes, headphones are a must for me. 

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

This is an interesting question. I hadn’t published anything prior to my debut, Making Friends with Alice Dyson, but it makes me wonder how I would feel if I had. Alice is not the first book I ever wrote (in fact, it’s the fourth full-length book) and I know my earlier work ranges from absolutely terrible to sort of okay.

However, I hope I would feel proud of my past work if it had been published, even if I knew for a fact that it was terrible and that I have improved a lot since then, and therefore would do everything differently if I had to go through it again.

But I think it must be like that for all writers. I think writing is a journey and hopefully we are constantly improving in our storytelling. You probably have to draw a line in the sand somewhere and admit a book is finished and not have regrets or keep wanting to go back and change elements of it. I’ve heard a lot of people say that once your work goes out into the world, it no longer really belongs to you, and I feel like that is true. And I’d rather have my work go out there, even if in the future I felt like I could have written it better, instead of keeping it in my desk and tinkering with it forever to create that ‘perfect’ piece. I’m not sure anything I write can ever be ‘perfect’ anyway, so I think it is good to just let things go.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

Gosh, what a hard question. Actually I kind of hate the idea of meeting famous people, simply because if I really admire them I know I will find it very difficult to share a dinner and calmly chat with them without making a fool of myself!

Making Friends with Alice Dyson is published by Wakefield Press.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.