A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I’m adamant that the less you know about THE LONELIEST GIRL IN THE UNIVERSE the better your reading experience will be, so this is set to be the most cagey Book Birthday Interview ever. Sorry about that. (Alternatively, go and read the book then come back and read it with a smug smile on your face.)
So, rather than get you to sum up your book in a sentence, Lauren… can you sum it up in a cartoon?
Something like that? I don’t know. I don’t have your mad skillz for doodling, Non.
Like your previous duology THE NEXT TOGETHER and THE LAST BEGINNING, THE LONELIEST GIRL IN THE UNIVERSE incorporates the concept of time travel into the narrative, albeit in relation to how information/emails would travel between Romy’s ship The Infinity back to Earth or The Eternity, the ship captained by Commander ‘J’ Shoreditch that has been sent to catch up with her. What is it about the mechanics of time that fascinates you so much?
As I write more and more books, I’ve noticed some consistent themes – time travel is definitely one of them. Absent parents and scientific artificial reproduction methods are some others. I try not to look too hard at these, in case it reveals things about my psyche I don’t want to know!
However, this particular story started with a question from some Physics coursework at university about special relativity, which 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.
Romy manages to capture the duality of so many teen girls – her vulnerability co-existing with an almost brutal kind of competence. How was this aspect of her character important to the story?
I knew that if I was writing a whole book where there was only really one person in isolation, 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. [Non: I DID!]
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.
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.
I really wanted to make a flawed character because every woman is worth reading about, as long as they are human: with whatever strengths and weaknesses that includes. They don’t have to be likeable and admirable and special to be deserving of attention.
Being an individual is all women need to do to be strong and respected. That’s it. Wear pink dresses or wear black combat trousers. Long for a relationship or spend your time fighting enemies (or both).
Girls don’t need to prove themselves as strong. They are already enough.
On a similar theme, the way Romy pours her heart out into fandom isn’t so dissimilar to the way that many teenagers seek comfort online when they feel alienated by the real world. Was this something you planned on doing?
Absolutely. Growing up, fandom was a hugely important way I learnt about sexuality, romance and relationships. I thought that a reliance on online resources would be even more amplified for a girl isolated from human contact. Romy uses fanfics to explore her own sexuality in a safe space at her own pace, in a way that I hope will resonate with a lot of teenagers today.
I also think online dating is something that teenagers today experience more and more, whether that’s apps like Tinder or just chatting on Facebook Messenger. The plotline with J came about because I wanted to explore.
Romy’s chosen fandom is a TV series about a crime fighting selkie/banshee duo called Loch & Ness – have you written any episodes that you’ll be sharing with your fans?
I’ve posted all of Romy’s fics about Loch & Ness on Wattpad here, including a lot which aren’t included in the book. I’d love the chance to write about the real Lyra and Jayden, in a Rainbow Rowell style spin-off, like her Fangirl/Carry On duology. The focus was mainly on Romy’s experiences being reflected in her writing, rather than Loch & Ness itself – so there’s a lot more to discuss in that world!
Your first two books were written in the third person, but here you’ve made the switch to first – why was that?
The plot is so character driven that I knew I was going to need to really get inside Romy’s head to make it work. The reader needed to really invest in her character, and I thought that feeling like the reader is there themselves by using first person would be the best way to do that. For the same reason, I tried not to describe Romy’s appearance, so the reader can really imagine themselves in her role.
Romy holds a lot back from the reader, how did you execute this during the drafting process?
Honestly, for a lot of the book, I didn’t know the backstory about Romy’s parents. In my pitch, there was a roughly sketched ‘event’ that happened, but I didn’t know what it was. So it was quite natural for Romy to reveal information to the reader slowly, because that’s how I developed the story myself.
There’s a particular scene in which Romy has to address some dental issues that provoked A Reaction in me. Were there any scenes you found especially taxing – or in deed enjoyable – to write?
I found the parts in the stores quite scary. The Infinity is a circular ship, and the living space is around the perimeter. The centre of the ship is used as storage for the supplies needed for the new planet, like building materials and food. Romy explores the dark, cramped storage area, which hasn’t been visited since the ship left Earth’s orbit. At times, it gets quite atmospheric.
Your book cover is LUSH is there anything you can share about the design process?
It was actually a really simple design process, as far as I’m aware. The designers, Iree Pugh and Maria Soler, settled on the concept straight away and we didn’t even consider any other ideas.
The American cover, though… just you wait. It’s going to blow your mind.
There isn’t much sci-fi in YA, so have you any books or films you’d recommend to someone who enjoys Loneliest but doesn’t know where to go next?
Gravity, Moon, The Yellow Wallpaper, A Closed and Common Orbit, The Diary of a Young Girl, Kiss Me First and Lirael are all really excellent stories about isolated characters.
(Non: Lirael is my absolute favourite of the Garth Nix series!!!)
More to the point, since you’re a writer who’s going from strength to strength and I’ll follow wherever you lead where are you going next?
Same back atcha, Non. My next book (out with Walker in 2018) will involve mudlarking, time capsules, romance and – of course – more science. It’s kind of a sci-fi detective story about the extinction of humanity. You can add it on Goodreads here.
Quick fire round!
Fictional crime fighting selkie Jayden or J?
Jayden! How can you resist a SEAL? Mermaid dog!
Would you rather control space or time?
Unbelievably for a science fiction writer, I’ve never been asked this question before, and it kind of blew my mind. I think time, because if you go far enough into the future you can find a spaceship that will let you travel anywhere in space. Right? Don’t hold me to that answer.
You can either read only fanfic forever OR only canon?
FIC. Did not even have to think about it. It’s always, always better than the canon. If you want your mind blown, ask me for a rec in a fandom and I’ll change your life.
(Non: Lauren, if you’re reading your own interview, please recommend something from the Lockwood fandom, kthxs)
Writing or editing?
Editing! Drafting is like trying to paint in the dark. At least with editing, you’ve got the lights on and can see what you’ve already laid out.
Pick a liquorice allsort!
You will not believe the Wikipedia diving I just went into about Liquroice Allsorts. I now know more than I need to about sweet production. I’m gonna go with the pink dot-covered ones, though.
Which Alien movie?
Prometheus! I’m a massive fan of Naomi Rapace.
Recommend any three UKYA books you’ve read this year!
The Pearl Thief – I’m a huge fan of thirties detective novels like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, and this is my perfect spin on that – there’s murder, rich people living frivolously, dogs, Bronze age marine archaeology, bisexual characters exploring both sides of their sexuality, castles, cross-dressing Cabaret shows, TREASURE-HUNTING, pearls, buried treasure (did I mention the treasure?), river trawling and Harriet Vane mentions. I’m so into it in every way.
Girlhood – This is described as a queer boarding school book, which is the perfect description. It’s about toxic friendships in a very enclosed, inter-dependant environment, where your peer relationships are quite literally a matter of life or death.
Truth or Dare – You may have read this one, because you wrote it, Non. It’s one of the best books about teenagers using social media I’ve read, and has the best character development ever. I still think about the shock of the point of view switch-over.
(This last one is cheating and NOT ALLOWED!!!)
Thank you kindly to the inimitable Lauren James for a fab book birthday interview. This book is my top UKYA pick of 2017 (something I don’t say lightly) – whatever you think this book is going to be… it’s better. Go forth and panic read the last quarter sitting in a motorway service station car park because you can’t bear to drive without knowing how it ends… (like I did).
Lauren James was born in 1992, and graduated in 2014 from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics.
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.
The Next Together was described by The Bookseller as ‘funny, romantic and compulsively readable’ and Kirkus as ‘An ambitious, promising premise . . . James is one to watch’. It was longlisted for the Branford Boase Award, a prize given to recognise an outstanding novel by a first-time writer.
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. Two short stories set in the world of The Next Together series, Another Together and Another Beginning, are also available.
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 scientists in prominent roles.
Lauren is published in the UK by Walker Books, in the US by HarperCollins and in translation in five other countries around the world. She lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for the Guardian, Buzzfeed and The Toast. You can find her on Twitter at @Lauren_E_James, Tumblr at @laurenjames or her website 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.