By Gianna Macchia
Today we’re thrilled to welcome Femi Fadugba to the WNDB blog to discuss The Upper World, out December 7, 2021!
If you had the chance to change your future, would you take it?
Perfect for fans of Neal Shusterman and Jason Reynolds, this powerhouse, mind-bending YA debut follows two teens, a generation apart, whose fates collide across time—and outside of it.
During arguably the worst week of Esso’s life, an accident knocks him into an incredible world—a place beyond space or time, where he can see glimpses of the past and future. But if what he sees there is true, he might not have much longer to live, unless he can use his new gift to change the course of history.
Rhia’s past is filled with questions, none of which she expects a new physics tutor to answer. But Dr. Esso’s not here to help Rhia. He’s here because he needs her help—to unravel a tragedy that happened fifteen years ago. One that holds the key not only to Rhia’s past, but to a future worth fighting for.
First and foremost, for the publication of this interview, how would you like to be identified? What are your pronouns?
What was your approach to crafting The Upper World? Where did you garner inspiration for your dynamic characters? In general, are you a plotter or a pantser?
I didn’t plot my first draft at all. I’d never written before and quickly realised that self-doubt was my main enemy. So, I focused on getting to the only two words that matter in a first draft: The End. For later drafts. though, I applied a few different plotting frameworks—e.g. Save the Cat, Story Grid—and picked what worked from each. I guess that makes me both a plotter and a pantser!
In terms of character inspiration, the book is based in Peckham, London, where I’ve lived on and off since I was around ten. You see all sorts in Peckham—it’s an amazing and hilarious place—and I knew I had to set my debut here. That, combined with wanting to make physics attractive to people who might not otherwise have a look was what inspired me to write the story. We live in a mysterious and miraculous universe and it was fun portraying that on the page.
The story is told from the dual perspectives of Esso and Rhia. It focuses on the concept of time travel and physics. You do a beautiful job blending storytelling and science. What life experiences prepared you to develop this type of narrative?
Throughout my life, I’ve navigated mismatched worlds, living in places like Kigali, Somerset, and Peckham, and now Boston. One question that’s always been on my mind is how do I reconcile all these places with one another? How do I make the tougher questions in life “add up” the way they do in physics? I struggled with science and maths as a kid, but was lucky enough to have a couple individuals who stepped in and got me curious and confident in my ability. I went onto become a ‘quantum mechanic’ at Oxford and published in quantum computing while there. That transition—from being terrified of physics to loving it—is something I want to pass on where I can.
Could you provide one of your favorite lines or excerpts from the novel and discuss why it holds special value?
My favourite scene is probably when young Esso enters The Upper World for the first time. You go on the mind-bending journey with him and feel his uncertainty, fear, and most importantly, that sense of awe and wonder. He’s just a normal kid, having a really rubbish day, then this mind-bending thing happens to him in the middle of it. I think life is constantly inviting all of us to look deeper, within ourselves and within reality, since there’s so much that’s hidden under the skin.
Sometimes music can represent and express emotions when words cannot. Since the novel is about the convergence of two stories, tell me what would be on Esso’s playlist, Rhia’s playlist and which song would appear on both.
I love music and was determined to have it be central in the audiobook experience. I worked with two incredible musicians (Lazzro, a drill and afrobeat producer, and James Maloney, a classical composer and Music Director at the Globe) to produce three instrumentals. It came out mad in the audiobook and the playlist is up on Spotify, so that would definitely be my pick for Esso and Rhia!
In terms of what I listened to while writing The Upper World… mostly UK drill and rap. Unknown T, C.S and Nines on repeat, basically.
I am all about making classic texts more accessible and engaging for teenagers by pairing them with YA lit. If you were going to thematically pair The Upper World with a “classic” piece of canonical literature, which one would it be and why?
Probably Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The prologue of The Upper World is my quick re-telling of it!
Inclusion and visibility can be powerful for students who are struggling with the intersections of identity. What is one thing you hope students discover about themselves, each other and the world after reading this novel?
I believe that everyone, particularly young adults, deserve the opportunity to explore every part of their brains. The Upper World is a story about love, violence, and the physics of time travel, so you can kinda pick your own mental/emotional adventure while reading/listening to it.
An adaptation of your novel has been picked up by Netflix—congrats! What are you most excited about?
Thank you! It’s been an awesome, terrifying, and exciting experience. Daniel Kaluuya is one of my all-time favourite actors (and one of the most talented humans of our generation) so having him on board is a dream come true. I’m also gassed to be working with the two screen-writers, Dan Fajemisin-Duncan and Marlon Smith, as well as co-producer Eric Newman, whose production company made classics like Narcos and Bright. It’s gonna be mad seeing it all on screen.
What’s next? The young adult world wants more Femi Fadugba!
I’m currently writing book 2! The sequel sees Esso and Rhia mastering the secrets of the time-defying Upper World. But their future isn’t the only thing in the balance – the past now haunts them in the form of a dangerous stranger whose vision and ambition spans the quantum multiverse.
I have an executive producer role on the film adaptation with Netflix and just finished writing something with a couple of mates in Peckham that looks at a dystopian technological future set against the backdrop of the UK prison system. We’ll see what comes of it all.
Femi Fadugba has a Master’s degree from Oxford University, where he published in Quantum Physics and subsequently studied as a Thouron Scholar at University of Pennsylvania. Femi has worked as a science tutor as well as in solar energy and consulting. He currently lives between Peckham, London and Baltimore, USA. The Upper World is his first book.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.