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Interview: Feana Tu'akoi talks about Lopini the Legend

Feana Tu‘akoi is a Kirikiriroa-based writer, with a strong background in educational publishing. Much of her work centres around Tongan–Pālangi families like her own. Eight of her books for children have been recognised in the junior fiction, non-fiction or picture book categories of various awards, and her work has been translated into several languages. Feana was the 2022 Massey University Writer in Residence and is a judge for the 2023 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Feana talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little bit about Lopini the Legend.

Lopini is great at everything he does. In fact, he’s a bit of a legend. He’s the best at schoolwork, sports and art. He’s the most popular kid in school and the teachers love him. But he’s a typical perfectionist, who freaks out when things go wrong.

Lopini enlists his best friend Fi, to help him practise failing so he can get better at it. Cue a crash course in epic fails – from performing onstage in tights that don’t cover his undies, to being maître d’ in a sushi shop and leading a viral flash mob. His humiliation seems complete, but his failures are about to go nationwide.

Can Lopini still be a legend if everyone knows he’s not perfect?

What inspired you to write this book?

I was thinking about the increasing anxiety levels in schools, especially since Covid, and how it’s made worse by the pressure people put on themselves – students trying to be perfect students and parents trying to be perfect parents. I wondered if there was a way to leave perfectionism behind – a way to learn to ride the wave, rather than trying to control it. I love a good what if question, so I asked myself – What if a perfectionist tried to succeed at failing?

What research was involved?

I spent a lot of time watching videos of The Brooklyn Hustle and various breakdancing moves. The tricky part was explaining it all in writing.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I did the same thing I do with every book – I just started. The first words of my first draft were: Something about someone who succeeds at everything, but misses out on something small and has a meltdown.’

I free-wrote until I had the shape of the story. Then I stopped to compile an outline. I looked for patterns and a throughline, so I’d know how to structure it.

I free-wrote the rest of book, with my internal editor TURNED OFF! I made sure to never stop writing at the end of a chapter or a scene, as I find it easier to start again if I’m in the middle. When I got to the end, I went back and wrote the beginning.

From then on, it was edit, edit, edit. I tried to make every word count. When I thought I was done, I read the whole book out loud and edited again. Then I put it away for a while, so I could look at it with new eyes. Then it was back to editing!

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would like to include.

Staying Alive by the BeeGees – it’s the song that Lopini’s flash mob dances to, at the retirement village.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

It was fun trying to come up with funny and outrageous things for Lopini to fail at. I made him do things I would never consider doing.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I did what I do with everything I write. I sent it off, forgot about it and got on with writing the next thing.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

This year, I’m a judge for the NZCYA Book Awards and I’ve really enjoyed reading a whole year’s worth of local publishing for children and young adults. There were so many great books entered, that it’s impossible to pick just one.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

At the moment, I’m finishing up my judging duties and getting ready for Lopini’s launch and a couple of presentations for Hamilton Book Month and the Waikato Picturebook Research Unit. After that, I’ll be back into writing.

Scholastic NZ


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