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SA Partridge

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

An interview with a librarian

I’m an internet addict, so much so that it comes across in my writing. Would you say that’s life imitating art or art imitating life? Whatever the case, my new novel, Dark Poppy’s Demise, is about a teenage girl that meets the love of her life online, or so she thinks…

Like my protagonist Jenna, I also spend a lot of time chatting to people online, especially Twitter. (Follow me at @Sapartridge)

Recently I’ve been talking to Rudi Wicomb, a Cape Town librarian (@Floorlibrarian), who had some questions after reading the novel. He raised some interesting points, put me on the spot with others, and even made me think about the novel in a different way.

I decided to set the discussion out as a Q&A. Think of it as Dark Poppy’s Demise – the extra features.

**Warning: spoilers ahead**

Is it a fable? I ask because you have these archetypes, like Robert (Fox- whose clearly too slick to be good) and Jenna (Henny Penny -the victim whose vulnerability is her undoing) and then you have the ‘jaws’ tightening at the end, and the Fox has Henny Penny. Was that what you were aiming for, a cautionary tale?

I think that it goes without saying that Dark Poppy’s Demise is a cautionary tale. It’s interesting that you see it as a fable. It wasn’t intentional on my part but it’s nice as it comes across as one. In essence Robert Rose is the Fox. He’s an Internet predator – an older man that preys on young girls online, so yes, in that sense he is the conniving fox that tries to lure Henny Penny Jenna to her demise (har har)

What’s with using the run down broken buildings in both Poppy and Fuse? I don’t know if you noticed, in Fuse when the boys are on the run at their cousin’s place, it was basically run down, and then the house that freaks Jenna out (and the site of her impending death), is also dilapidated and broken down. Once is a coincidence, twice is a pattern. What gives?

For me, the broken buildings represent the harsh, ugly reality of the real world. Teenagers exist in their own mini-universes (home, school, the mall, friend’s homes) so I wanted to create a tangible manifestation of the world outside their comfort zones. It made sense at the time.

Why the hell did you let them get away? Seriously, when Robert turned evil, even though I was expecting it to happen, it was still sooo creepy and scary and then…They get away!

I wanted to leave Dark Poppy’s Demise open ended. Life is hard. Sometimes the bad guys get away. This open-endedness lends weight to the cautionary aspect of the novel. I don’t write fantasy, or even paint a romanticized picture about being young. My novels are all set in the real world, with real dangers lurking around the corner, and real villains that sometimes don’t look like villains – they look like you and me. I wanted it to feel real.

Did you ever consider killing Jenna off? I ask, because if I take the cues that this is in fact a cautionary tale, a fable, the main character dies to illustrate the lesson.

When I started Dark Poppy’s Demise I knew that there was going to be a sequel. It never once crossed my mind to kill Jenna off. Jenna is an incredibly strong character and I don’t think her whole story has been told yet. I want to further explore the relationship between Jenna and her brother Ian. Someone on Twitter actually Tweeted me to say she wishes she had a brother like Ian. I feel the same way about them, and I’d love to put them both in a position of danger to see how they handle it from their different perspectives.

Is Robert based on a real person, or a composite? Jenna’s seduction, the words and the rhythms of his speech sound so familiar. His words have a weight to them that makes me think that this guy is real and out there somewhere.

Robert was half real, half fiction. I’ve been on the receiving end of smooth talkers on the net and I’ve also met some genuinely scary people over the years, notably a guy I met at a party in Pretoria. (I’ve also met some lovely people in Pretoria so please don’t read too much into my statement) Basically, you could see the evil in this guy’s eyes, as if there was no emotion behind them. It gave me goosebumps. He was the inspiration for Ivan. As for the dialogue, that was all me, except for that one line where Robert tells Jenna to dye her hair black because “he likes dark things”. Someone actually said that to me once (and yes I met him over the internet).

This is where the original discussion ended, but after a few weeks Rudi got back to me with some more questions and the talks resumed. These were a little harder to answer, and really got me thinking. (Think of this as Disc 2)

In this book there is absent parental figure that contributes significantly to the emotional state of the main characters. Is this how you see SA teens or was it just a case of creating an environment to justify the behaviour?

This was very interesting for me as it made me realize just how unintentional this was. When I write a book I usually start with strong characterization and frame the plot around them. I suppose it makes sense to separate the teenage protagonists from the adults in their lives as this leaves more room for them to grow and make their own decisions unhindered by adult influence. What’s important for a YA novel is for it to be entirely about the teenage characters – their perspective, their experience, their story. I suppose death and divorce are handy ways of getting the parents out of the picture in order to do this.

Back to the crumbling buildings; it’s a Goth thing isn’t it? Isolated characters wandering through crumbling façade’s and a slick sinister presence overpowering everything. Are you aiming for a re-interpretation of classic gothy-ness in a new/different context (South Africa) or am I just seeing Peake in strange places?

The Goblet Club was actually described as a Gothic novel, and I really like the description, not only because I spent a good few years of my life traipsing around in fishnet stockings and black nail polish but because I adore Gothic fiction. I love the idea of weaving in an undercurrent of darkness and dark romanticism in to my stories. Dark Poppy’s Demise is set during the winter time so already in that sense it has that element of cold, gloominess that gives it that gothic feel.

Why was Jenna’s recovery shown in two pages, while her victimization and ‘fall’ was depicted in almost the whole book?

The ‘victimization’ aspect had to dominate. Robert’s manipulation of Jenna is subtle, and takes place over time. It’s a trap that is set early on but getting Jenna to “fall” as it were is a gradual process. That said, the short span of Jenna’s recovery was also intentional. I wanted to emphasize the resilience of teenagers which is what makes writing YA fiction such a joy. You can put them in the direst circumstances, but they’ll always bounce back with that hopeful, resilient spirit. I think the fact that Jenna springs back at the end makes it quite a happy ending. Yes, this terrible thing happened to her, but she’s not going to let it ruin her life.

I didn’t like: “Life is hard. Sometimes the bad guys get away. It lends weight to the cautionary aspect.” A cautionary tale is all well and good: bad behaviour essentially gets punished. But don’t these guys getting away just add to the sense of hopelessness we feel when we think about crime, corruption, police idiocy etc. It’s pretty nihilistic. Good things happen but we don’t focus on that because it is easier to focus on the bad. Is it easier to write them getting away?

As I mentioned above I believe the novel ended on a happy note. Jenna has her whole life ahead of her, a new love interest on the horizon, and a stronger relationship with her family. It’s the epilogue that gives the novel that lovely sting in the tail that lets the reader know that the bad guys are still out there, but I don’t think that it’s nihilistic at all. Think of it as a horror movie where the kids think they’ve seen the last of the demented killer, but just as the credits are about to roll he appears behind them with his chainsaw raised….