Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Q&A with Poppy Alexander

Poppy Alexander, photo by Lydia Crabb
Poppy Alexander is the author of the new novel 25 Days 'Til Christmas. She also writes under the names Sarah Waights (her real name) and Rosie Howard. She lives in Sussex, UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for 25 Days 'Til Christmas, and for your characters Kate and Daniel?

A: Now, that’s an interesting one! It all came about in a way which is becoming increasingly common in publishing, from what I can gather: A commissioning editor at the British publisher, Orion, was chatting with my agent about the books she was buying, and she happened to mention that she was failing to find the kind of Christmas-themed novel she was after.

My agent then approached me to ask whether I would be prepared to look at an idea this editor had around a girl selling Christmas trees and a man who was grieving and the two characters being attracted to each other’s loneliness in the lead up to Christmas.

She had some really lovely examples of how Kate had loved Christmas in the old days but now she was a widow bringing up her son Jack on her own, she didn’t feel like doing all those things in the lead up to Christmas.

By the time I had given Daniel a bit more of a back story about losing his disabled sister and decided the framework of the book should be a 25-day countdown to Christmas with a chapter for each day, I was convinced I wanted to do it. I quickly wrote the first chapter for approval, and when I got offered the contract I was thrilled.

Q: You write under three different names. Why is that, and what differentiates one set of books from the others?

A: Ah, that’s a long story but I’ll try to stick to the point… My first book was published under my own name (Sarah Waights) because it really hadn’t occurred to me to do anything else.

I got my lucky publishing break when I was a prizewinner in the UK’s Orion/Good Housekeeping Magazine Novel Writing Competition back in 2014. The first prize was a contract with Orion but I was joint second prizewinner and was immediately offered a contract with a small, independent publisher.

The book sold respectably enough but I was looking for a bigger publisher for a series of novels I wanted to write, set in the fictional community of Havenbury. A writing name can be an important part of the whole “brand” and my second writing name – Rosie Howard – came about as part of those discussions about brand-building for my Havenbury world.

To write 25 Days… I needed a name that set it apart from my Havenbury books, so along came Poppy Alexander.

Suddenly, I find myself with a total of four books under three different writing names although any reader who enjoys one of my books is likely to enjoy the others. As things progress, we will have to say which writing name(s) I go forward with. My fourth published novel is set to be a Poppy Alexander book and after that we will see…

Q: The novel is set in Bristol, England. Why did you choose that setting, and how important is setting to you in your work?

A: The story was calling for my characters to be living in a city and I decided early on it should be somewhere like Bristol rather than a really big city like London.

Readers who know Bristol will see there are lots of real places mentioned; I use iconic landmarks like the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Brandon Tower at critical points in the story and I spent a couple of days in the city researching and taking photos.

Some of my discoveries during the trip were absolute gems; I especially wanted to use a little place I found called The Christmas Steps because of the Christmas theme and I got lucky because it’s such a charming place in real life it was the germ of my whole idea about there being a little community of shop-keepers who become Kate and Daniel’s friends.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make changes along the way?

A: I write what are commonly described at "up-lit" novels so I would never deprive the reader of the happy – or, at least – the hopeful ending. I love to explore all aspects of human relationships along the way such as friendship, loyalty, loss, family bonds… and – of course – romantic love.

I try to avoid going too much down the line of the poor, hapless girlie needing to be rescued by the hunky man as I am more interested in ideas around empowerment and supportive relationships that allow each of the characters to become the best version of themselves. There are heroics and snogging incidents too though, so true romantics will not be disappointed!

To answer your question properly, I do know where I want to end, and I know the broad arc of the emotional journey for each of my main characters.

I even have an inkling of the sort of “plot” activities I want to put them through so they can progress in that emotional journey (cue a whole dissertation on the difference between “plot” and “Plot”) but the details of the shenanigans along the way just evolve as I write.

That said, there is more to the structure of a novel in this category than just the beginning and the end… for example, I always make sure there is what I call the “darkest before the dawn” moment – that bit, quite near the end but not at the end, where hopefully the reader gets concerned that the happy ending can’t possibly happen. I like to keep my readers on their toes!

In all, I find I need enough structure to have confidence but little enough to allow for flexibility along the way.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently, I am finishing Poppy Alexander novel number two, which will be out during 2020. After that, I am straight into my next one which will be book number six overall. Exciting times.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: 25 Days ‘Til Christmas will be published by William Morrow on Oct. 8, 2019 (ISBN: 9780062958792). It is also available in e-book and audio (E-Book ISBN: 9780062958815| Audiobook ISBN: 9780062959188). 

To follow or chat with Poppy Alexander: Sarahwaights.com, @SarahWaights (Twitter), @PoppyAlexanderBooks (Facebook).

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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