Interview with Lauren James

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Lauren James was born in 1992, and graduated in 2014 from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. She is the British Young Adult author of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, The Quiet at the End of the World and The Next Together series.

She started writing during secondary school English classes, because she couldn’t stop thinking about a couple who kept falling in love throughout history. She sold the rights to the novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her books have sold over fifty thousand copies in the UK alone, and been translated into five languages worldwide. She has been described as ‘Gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘A strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Her other novels include The Last Beginning, the epic conclusion to The Next Together which was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for kids and young adults by the Independent.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was inspired by a Physics calculation she was assigned at university. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and all of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. Her next novel, The Quiet at the End of the World, will be released in 2019, and considers the legacy and evolution of the human race into the far future. Lauren is published in the UK by Walker Books and in the US by HarperCollins. She lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for the Guardian, Buzzfeed, and The Toast, and wrote an article for the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2019. She is a creative writing tutor for the University of Cambridge, and also works with Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers program.

You can find her on Twitter at @Lauren_E_James, Tumblr at @laurenjames or her website http://www.laurenejames.co.uk, where you can subscribe to her newsletter to be kept up to date with her new releases and receive bonus content.

Eva Halvax: When writing The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, did you initially know you wanted to include a twist ending?

Lauren James: I had the twist in mind from the very start. The book for me, from the very beginning, was a psychological thriller. I wanted to write about the fear and confinement and constant stress of being alone on a small spaceship, where you’re completely responsible for running the ship. I remember telling the idea to my agent, and she said she got goose bumps just from the pitch, because the twist was so creepy even then!

EH: As a writer, how did you go about doing so? Was it difficult to create the storyline?

LJ: It was hard in that I wanted to make sure I represented Romy’s PTSD and anxiety accurately. I read a lot of therapy and mental health books about post-traumatic stress disorder, stress and young carers. I also read up on the experiments NASA did where they made people live in a pseudo-spaceship for a year on Earth, to see how that affected them mentally.

EH: How did you become inspired to write The Loneliest Girl in the Universe? What was the process like?

LJ: It started with a question from some Physics coursework at university! The question was about special relativity, and went something like this:

An astronaut travels in a spaceship to a new planet. After a few years, a newer faster ship is developed and launched, which overtakes the first ship. How old are the two astronauts when they each arrive on the planet?

I started thinking about what it would be like to be that first astronaut, and dedicate years to travelling alone in space, only for your ship to be overtaken by a faster one before you even arrive! What would that feel like? What kind of relationship would you have with the person on the faster ship? From that, the story of Romy Silvers was born.

EH: Your novel explores the overall feeling of loneliness. Was there a particular reason you chose that emotion to explore?

LJ: I’ve always loved stories of isolation – it’s a great way to really get to know a character. I knew that if I was writing a whole book where there was only really one person, I would need to create a character who would keep the reader’s attention and loyalty. It was a big challenge, but I fell totally in love with Romy while I was writing about her, and I hope everyone reading The Loneliest Girl in the Universe does too.

EH: What is a piece of advice you have for any young adults who feel alone?

LJ: I think with the internet, there isn’t as much need for a physically close social network, as you can connect with people with similar interests so easily. Growing up, online fandom was a hugely important way I learnt about sexuality, romance, and relationships. So I would tell young adults to find the community online who share your interests, and make friends that way. For example, for me, I was really into writing, and the NaNoWriMo website is a great network for making local writing friends.

EH: What elements do you think are important to include when writing a story for young adults? Do you think it is especially important to include feelings like love and loneliness?

LJ: Personally, I am attracted to YA because it gives me things that simply aren’t available in adult fiction. I joke that as a teenager I read adult fiction, and as an adult I read teenage fiction. That’s completely true, and I’ve spoken to many people with the same experiences. I want to read diverse, fresh, and socially conscious stories which represent the reality of the world I live in. I really wasn’t finding that in the literary fiction I was reading. It may be aimed at teenagers, but YA is on the cutting edge of fiction, taking risks to do new things which other areas of publishing have never done.

The YA reading community is so passionate and socially aware, and that demand online for better and more respectful diversity has encouraged more publishers to buy diverse books, meaning that YA books are on the forefront of change – one example being the huge increase in LGBT YA literature in recent years (like my second novel The Last Beginning, which has a lesbian relationship!). Things happen more rapidly and collaboratively here than anywhere else.

More than anything, I’m very aware that my readers are as young as twelve, and I have a responsibility to represent the struggles that young people go through accurately and compassionately.

While I’m delighted that adults read my books too, my main priority is getting the books to their intended readers. I wrote The Loneliest Girl in the Universe for girls who don’t feel brave or strong enough to be the hero in an adventure story. I wrote The Last Beginning for teenagers who have moved beyond the desire to read LGBT Coming Out stories, and are desperate to find a book about a girl who loves a girl, just having an adventure.

YA authors write things which children read, things which can shape their views for life. The authors of YA have a huge responsibility to their young readers, and I think being aware of that responsibility creates very well-crafted books.

EH: What was the inspiration for Romy Silvers? Were there any aspects of her character that you identify with? Or want to identity with?

LJ: Romy is powerless, easily influenced, subject to frequent panic attacks, sensitive, and lacks self confidence. She’s weak in almost every way you can name: emotionally, mentally, and physically. Despite that, she’s the strongest female character I’ve ever written because she’s the most realistic of all of my characters.

She’s probably the most similar to me out of all of my characters, as that’s exactly how I felt during my Masters degree in Physics – I was very good at the science, but I still felt an overwhelming responsibility and imposter syndrome in my research that I struggled to deal with. I really wanted to write a character like her, because it would have helped me a lot to read about someone going through the same things at that point in my life.

EH: What was it like to sell the rights to your first novel at 21? Do you think being a young adult writer in the world of writing has influenced the content you create?

LJ: It was very exciting and scary, and I still feel very lucky! When The Next Together was finished I left it for a few months, and when I came back to it, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as terrible as I remembered. It even made me laugh a few times. I decided to send it off to some literary agents, just to see if they could give me some useful feedback.

I had absolutely no idea how the publishing industry worked, and I think I read one “How To” article on query letters before writing one and blithely sending it off into the aether. I found an A to Z list of agents and started emailing with the Z’s, because I thought they’d have the least submissions. In the end, I found an agent on W, after I’d emailed only six agencies. It was a very naive way to apply, but I got very lucky – my agent is incredible, and last year she was shortlisted for the Bookseller’s Agent of the Year award.

We then submitted to publishers after a whole year of revisions (I was still at university so could only really work on it during the holidays) and within two weeks, two publishers had offered. Saying it now, that seems so easy and fast, but at the time it was the most stressful, delirious fortnight of my life. I’ve been through the submission process several times since then, and it does not get any easier.

EH: When writing science fiction do you find you stick to facts or do you create your own reality?

LJ: I always try to make the science in my books as accurate as possible. I studied Chemistry and Physics at university, so if I hadn’t become a writer, I would probably be a research scientist focusing on physical chemistry. I would love to go back to science one day – I really miss it!

I wanted to feel very real and possible – it’s simplified a lot in the book from how these things might actually work, but the grounding of the science is very plausible. I hope! [Crosses fingers no physicists immediately call me on my mistakes.] I did a lot of research into space travel and the theory of space travel behind NASA’s equipment when writing The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. I read a lot of non-fiction about space travel – NASA does a series of free eBooks explaining their science for beginners, so I had a great time diving into them. I also got to watch loads of sci-fi films like Moon, Gravity, and Interstellar – and that really helped with capturing the aesthetics and design of the ship.

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