Review & Author Interview: The Long Distance Playlist by Tara Eglington

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Long Distance Playlist by Tara Eglington 
Released: 30th December 2019
Published by: HarperCollins Publishers Australia
Genre: YA Contemporary
Pages: 424
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Told primarily in instant messenger conversations, Skype, emails and texts, this is Jaclyn Moriarty's Feeling Sorry for Celia for the modern teen.

Taylor and Isolde used to be best friends - before THAT FIGHT, 18 months ago. It's been radio silence ever since - until Taylor contacts Isolde to sympathise with her breakup: the breakup that she never saw coming; the breakup that destroyed her confidence and ended her dreams of joining the National Ballet School. Taylor's had his own share of challenges, including a life-altering accident that has brought his hopes of competing at the Winter Olympics to a halt. Isolde responds to Taylor, to be polite. But what starts out as heartbreak-themed Spotify playlists and shared stories of exes quickly becomes something more. And as Taylor and Isolde start to lean on each other, the distance between them begins to feel not so distant after all ...

A boy. A girl. A one-of-a-kind friendship. Cross-country convos and middle-of-the-night playlists. With big dreams come even bigger challenges.
I've been a fan of Tara Eglington's work since her first book, and it's been such a joy to see her work grow since then. In The Long Distance Playlist, there is the same sense of realism and exploring what it is to be a teenager with hopes and dreams, tempered with a multi-modal narrative style and storyline that is so much fun to read!

It can be difficult to balance the activities of the main characters within the wider scope of their lives to create a holistic plot, but here it is achieved with ease. There is so much to learn about not only Isolde and Taylor as they navigate recent challenges and rekindling their friendship, but their families moving through different phases as well. Friendship is also a dominant theme here, which brings some hilarious banter into the mix and great examples of support networks that can make all the difference in an adolescent's life.

The feelings of self-doubt and questioning whether Isolde's dreams of pursuing ballet are worth the effort are definitely ideas teens will relate to. Looking back on all our pasts it's inevitable that we've all gone through these sorts of growth phases which shape us into the people we are today. Taylor's own challenges in his personal life and recovery from injury also highlight the qualities of resilience and courage while still showing that there are times where the 'light at the end of the tunnel' seems far away. It's these balanced and multifaceted characters that are brought to life on the page as their whole selves, which makes this book shine. I also really love the part where Taylor describes some of the golden moments of joy in a family, speaking of seeing his mum where 'the smile goes right up to her eyes'. The message of appreciating the small moments in life that reach right to the heart of our connections with friends and family is something really special in The Long Distance Playlist.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Tara Eglington's unique narrative style depicting realistic and entertaining dialogue alongside themes which are always relevant to teens, is sure to make this book a hit with all YA audiences. Full of heart, hope and a central theme of appreciating those close to us - this is going to be a favourite on my shelf for years to come!



Author Interview with Tara Eglington

Firstly, congratulations on releasing your fourth novel! What were the similarities and differences between writing The Long Distance Playlist and previous works?

Thank you! Of my four books, The Long Distance Playlist is the one that is closest to my heart – probably because I had carried the idea for it around in my mind ever since I was fifteen years old!
In terms of process, and similarities in process when it comes to my books - each one of my novels has been inspired by something personal, but this one – a story about a boy and a girl who are oceans apart, but closer than anything – was especially close to home!

Twenty years ago, there was a boy on the other side of the world, who sent me letters and emails across a four-year period. He was the first boy to call me beautiful, to make me jewellery, to read my short stories and songs, and to MSN Messenger chat (2000 much?) with me for hours about my hopes, dreams and fears. What started out as pen-pals - a boy from a land of frozen lakes and snowy skies, and a girl, from the beaches of Byron Bay – became something much more, as we navigated our way through a myriad of experiences in our late teen years.

The years that I spent writing to this boy, became part of my story, and I always knew that one day, I was going to write a book about a boy and a girl, who lived miles apart, but had a very special connection.*

The difference in process between my previous novels and this one, was probably how I approached the form of the novel. I knew I wanted to write a semi-epistolary novel (a novel traditionally composed of letters or documents) but I also wanted the story to feel very modern – so instead of communicating via physical letters, my protagonists Isolde and Taylor use text, email, skype, IM’s, playlists, and Instagram DM’s to connect with each other. This allowed me to explore how these particular ways of bonding with each other online, can feel just as real, meaningful, and poignant as any in-person interaction or catch-up 

*Note from Eugenia: Tara just posted on her blog about this real-life inspiration here!

One thing I always find shines through in your books is how realistic the dialogue and narrative voices are for your teen characters. How do you go about developing what your main characters will 'sound' like? Does this come before your idea for how the plot will play out or do they run together from the start?

Thank you so much – that’s the ultimate compliment for a YA writer! The process of developing a character’s voice is a really interesting one, and it actually varies for me, with each book.

Taylor’s voice was so strong and clear from very early on in the process. Even before I started to write the novel, I could hear him talking in my mind – whole pieces of narrative would come to me whilst I was brushing my teeth or doing the dishes. Taylor has a real intensity about him – which is probably tied in with being an elite-athlete – but he’s also got this lovely playfulness, and a terrific sense of humour too. So that dynamic was already there, even in the initial sample chapters I wrote for my publisher in early 2018. And as the novel progressed, Taylor became even more real to me. When I was living in Queenstown, I often felt as if I might just to bump into him down on the shoreline, or while skiing at Cardrona!

It’s a funny thing to try and explain – you know, the whole, characters talk to me! quirk that is part of being a writer. Or even trying to pinpoint the sense of say - whilst writing a scene, knowing with full certainty that ‘No, Taylor wouldn’t say that!’ But I guess that’s how characters can drive plot – at a certain point, they kind of take over and start telling their story to you, rather than the other way around!

Sometimes it takes time to work characters out. Isolde was a little bit of a mystery to me for a while – and in that scenario, I often find that the best approach is to work on building up a profile of the character – their unique interests, their family dynamics, their backstory –  and this usually helps me to ‘work out’ who they are. Then the voice will start to trickle through more and more. 

In terms of how I plot my novels, my first book – How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You – was really heavily pre-plotted. When I sat down at the computer every morning, I had a detailed outline I was working to for each chapter.

With my other books, it’s been a bit more of an organic process. Usually I know the beginnings of a book, and some of the major plot points I’m writing to, but there’s also a great deal I’m uncovering and discovering as I go, which is really fun!

The influence of arts and culture are another unique element of your books which I really love! Your first book How to Keep a Boy From Kissing You featured a production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' in the storyline, and here there is Isolde's evolving dream of being accepted into the National Ballet School. What drives you to include these kinds of ideas in your works?

I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy these elements – I love weaving things like art, theatre, and music into my novels because these forms of creativity bring me so much joy! I was very lucky to attend a creative arts high school whilst in my teen years, and I think the way that we learnt, and the things we learnt, have had a big impact on my writing. Our lessons – even things like biology, mathematics, and history – were taught in such an engaging way – for example, say we were learning about medieval history – we would learn the facts and dates of course, but our teachers would be reading us Arthurian legends in English class in the middle of the day, and then in the afternoon, we might be learning metalwork, and making our own copper chalices, or swords. It was really immersive way to learn – I remember my sister’s class built an actual Viking ship!

So during those years, I performed in Shakespeare productions (which of course, found it’s way into How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You), learnt about Dante, Renaissance art and mythology (which you’ll find in My Best Friend is a Goddess) and got to attend the ballet and some opera performances (which forms part of The Long Distance Playlist)!

My family – who are all creatives – have also had a big impact on my books. My father (like Emily’s mum in Goddess) is an artist, and my sister was the youngest student (at the time) to be accepted into a full-time dance school. 

Aside from the slowly-blossoming romance, friendships, family structures and the relationships between teens and their parents are other areas explored really well in The Long Distance Playlist. It's great to see that the parents of Isolde and Taylor also have a role in this book. Did you always imagine the story being much more than a series of interactions between the two main characters?

Absolutely! For me, I loved the fact that Isolde and Taylor’s families have had a long-intertwined history – Isolde’s mum, and Taylor’s Dad dated once upon a time! The two families have spent a lot of time together over the years, and Taylor and Issy have been friends since they were tiny. I’ve always loved YA stories that incorporate family –so it was a delight to be able to explore this in the latest book.

I think sometimes there’s an assumption about parents in YA – i.e. their presence should be minimised because teens aren’t interested in anything outside of themselves etc (which is so wrong!). Our families – their dynamics and unique histories – are a huge part of our identities! When I look back on my teen years, I remember how much of an impact that family had on my life, and my friend’s lives – whether that was big stuff – like parents dying, divorcing, or remarrying – or the more subtle stuff, like the conversations we had with our Mums or Dads about our dreams, our identities, our futures – as we matured, and discovered who we were.

And it’s the same for Taylor and Isolde in the novel. Isolde’s life is hugely impacted by what’s happening to her parents. For Taylor, I really loved that he knew that he could go to his parents for support – as he says – The thing I love most about Mum and Dad is that they never make me feel like what I’m going through is ‘kid stuff’ – you know, less than, or not as valid as adult stuff. And they don’t jump in with ‘shoulds’ or ‘shouldn’ts.’ 

That’s what my Dad was like when I was growing up. I could go to him with anything and he would listen really intently, and try and help, without casting judgement. I know there’s a lot of kids who have that same dynamic with their parents, so I loved having a healthy example of that kind of teen-parent relationship in the novel.

Friendships also play a huge part in the book – and for me, that’s the heart of The Long Distance Playlist. Whether it’s Taylor and Isolde confiding in each other about their deepest fears, or most painful memories, or Finn and Taylor’s easy-going, no-judgement dynamic, or Ana cheering Isolde on with her dancing - these relationships are the place where the protagonists find strength, understanding and courage. 

The idea of including the email trails, messenger conversations (and of course the music playlists!) made the story even more vibrant. Is it more difficult to write in these different modes than just using prose?

Funnily enough I actually found these sections of the novel the easiest to write – I think because the forms (emails, texts, messenger conversations, DM’s, IM’s) are quite conversational in nature, and I’ve always found dialogue easier to write than prose!

I loved incorporating such modern forms of communication into the book. I think texts and DM’s and so forth have a real immediacy to them, and these types of interactions are such a part of our everyday lives – whether that’s texting a friend, skyping a family member, or DM’ing someone on Instagram. So for me, it felt like a really natural way to tell a love story that’s set in 2020.

I think the main challenge with the email and messenger conversations, was probably working out how to convey things like the characters backstories and histories, without falling into ‘telling’ – i.e. if Taylor and Finn are having a skype conversation about Ellie (the girl that Taylor had a crush on at the start of the novel) both boys already know who Ellie is, and are aware of all of the previous interactions Taylor has had with her, etc – whereas the reader doesn’t know any of this, and has kind of ‘dropped in’ mid-conversation! So you have to be quite clever in how you weave that essential information through each medium! 

Without giving too much away, is there a particular scene or quote from the book which is particularly special to you?

For me, the heart of the story, is in these words, by Taylor:


All I know is that there are no guarantees. Anything could change at any moment. The way I want to live is to grab on tight to the people that I love and things I love doing. I want to squeeze every bit of joy out of every moment I have with them. What will come will come. It’s how you live in the meantime that counts.

*Note from Eugenia: This is my favourite quote too!

What are some of the main messages you hope people will be thinking about after reading The Long Distance Playlist?

The Long Distance Playlist is for me, a celebration of friendship. Of the people in our lives, that we can call upon, in the middle of the night, in any time zone - and find understanding, empathy, comfort and love, waiting for us.  Issy and Taylor go through some tough stuff in this novel – but they are able to lean on each other for support. It was the same scenario for me in high school – it was my friends who helped me cope with a wide range of difficult and painful situations. I hope anyone who’s read the book and may be going through tough stuff of their own, is left with a feeling that they can reach out to someone who cares.

The other thing I hope readers might take away from the novel is a sense of hope – the sense that even though life might throw incredibly painful and difficult stuff our way - stuff that might turn every plan we have had for ourselves, upside down – we have the strength inside ourselves to adapt, and to redefine our lives. 

The setting, particularly the New Zealand sections, are so vividly described. When did you realise that this was a place you wanted the story to feature? (Travel recommendations are also welcome!)

It was such a joy to set the majority of the novel in the Central Otago region of New Zealand. I was born in NZ (although I’ve spent the last 30 years in Australia), and I introduced my husband Greg to Queenstown in 2014. We both fell head over heels for the place – it’s the most breathtaking town that sits on the edge of a vast lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains everywhere you turn! Greg and I have visited every single year since to ski, and even spent 18 months living in QT from 2018-2020.

Each location in the book has a very special meaning to me. The Queenstown shoreline, where Finn and Taylor hang out at the start of the book, was where I would take my lunchtime walk. Jacks Point – where the boys played golf – was actually where my husband and I lived, right at the foothills of the mighty Remarkable Mountains. Cardrona ski-field, where Taylor, an up and coming snowboarder, trains daily, is a mountain I’ve spent winter after winter skiing. So it was such a joy to write about these places, and to bring them to life for my readers. I’ve had some reviewers say that the setting of The Long Distance Playlist is almost a character in itself, and I love that!

I also love the idea of my readers visiting Queenstown in the future! My tip would be to plan your trip for the end of August/beginning of September - the time of bluebird skies, when the mountains are at their most beautiful! Make sure you go for a stroll along the Queenstown shoreline, and up past the botanic gardens. Enjoy a famous fergburger, and then take a gondola ride up to the top of Bob’s Peak, to take in a sunset view of the entire town. Visit Arrowtown, an adorable little village with a fascinating gold-rush history. And a drive out to Glenorchy – just for the views – is something you shouldn’t miss.

I’d also suggest you try your hand at skiing or snowboarding – Cardrona skifield is amazing for beginners and the more advanced.

And if you can, spend a night or two in the Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park – it is absolutely breathtaking, especially from the air (try to do one of the scenic flights, you won’t regret it). 

What are some of your favourite things about writing in the YA genre? Are there any challenges related to writing for this audience?

I love writing YA. I love reading YA. I don’t think that will ever change, because that period of time – those teenage years - continues to be a fascination for me. There’s so much there to explore as a writer – whether that’s the intensity of the emotions, the magnetic force of those real ‘firsts’ – like the first time you fall in love, or have your heart broken, or lose a friendship, or realise your parents are just people, who sometimes make mistakes too – or the potent discoveries of that period  – working out who you are, and what you want to do with your life – it’s all amazing material.

Maybe my head and heart are still stuck there, in some way, because if I close my eyes, I can travel back to that period in a split second – and what I was feeling, thinking, or dreaming of back then, rises up again.

The challenges of the YA genre…. hmm. That’s a hard one. The only thing that comes to mind is that sometimes my characters want to swear, and that’s usually a no-no in YA! But it forces you to be more creative, which can only be a good thing! 

Could you give us a sneak peek as to what you might be working on next?

Ooh, I would love to share – right now I’m in the process of pitching a few different ideas (all YA) to my publisher. I know that’s a little vague (sorry about that!) but I’m hoping I will have some good news to announce in the near future (fingers crossed)!


About the author


Tara Eglington grew up in Byron Bay, New South Wales, wrote The Long Distance Playlist by the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, and now lives in Sydney. 

She is the author of four YA novels: How to Keep a Boy from Kissing YouHow to Convince a Boy to Kiss You (titled Kissing Games in the USA)My Best Friend is a Goddess and The Long Distance Playlist, the third of which was a top-ten bestselling Australian YA title in 2016 and a notable for the 2017 CBCA Older Readers Book of the Year. 

Tara’s hobbies, when she’s not writing, include watching endless cat videos on YouTube, planning pretend holidays to the Maldives, and daydreaming about who would play Hayden Paris in the film-adaption of How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You.

Tara loves to hear from readers, so please say hello via contact@taraeglington.com, or @taraeglington on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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