Lauren James is a scientist who is best known for who books The Next Together and The Last Beginning. Her latest novel, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is out now. We caught up with her to find out more.
STARBURST: What’s the elevator pitch for The Loneliest Girl in the Universe?
Lauren James: A girl alone on a spaceship finds a connection with another ship, just at the time she needs that the most.
How would you describe The Loneliest Girl in the Universe to an alien?
I’d probably start by trying to form a common communication method through sound or light and then establish a basic mutual understanding of the universe through mathematical and physical principles, before moving on to language-based nouns and verbs.
What inspired the story?
Funnily enough, 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. Is writing an essentially lonely profession?
Being an author involves spending a lot of time alone, staying up late at night to write, summoning the devil in exchange for book ideas… wait, what?
It’s very lonely, but that’s exactly why I like it. And probably why Twitter was invented.
Why do you think ‘realistic’ science fiction is so popular?
I always try to make the science in my books as accurate as possible, and 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 think there’s a danger of crossing over into fantasy instead of science fiction if you don’t base your technology in solid scientific concepts, and there’s never been as much appeal in writing Fantasy for me. As long as there’s some seed of truth, it’s very easy to make readers believe anything else. Why is Young Adult fiction doing so well?
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 that 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.
So it’s not really just Young Adults reading YA?
I think there are a lot of crossover these days, but 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 that children read, things that 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.
Is the sci-fi community as diverse as it thinks it is?
I think social media has done a lot for the diverse fiction movement, both good and bad. It’s brought a lot of attention to the issue and encouraged publishers to take strides to increase diversity on their list and in their offices, but at times it can feel quite forceful and angry.
I can completely understand why some authors have felt the need to include diversity in their fiction for fear of backlash. I’m sure that, on the other side, there are also authors who are afraid to write about minorities because social media is so vocal that they’re worried about the backlash if they got it wrong - or just not-quite-right.
I think, ultimately, you have to ignore all the chatter and just focus on what you, personally, think is right. Every book should be written primarily for the author, first and foremost. You have to look at the world around you and try to write about it as realistically as possible - or what’s the point of being a writer?
Is publishing more accessible these days? Is it easier to get published?
For me, the process was relatively straightforward - I found an agent after querying six, and after we submitted the draft to publishers we had two offers within a fortnight. However, it wasn’t easy - I worked on editing the draft for a year before submission. That isn’t something you can do unless you have the financial support to work speculatively without guarantee of income, which means writing isn’t an accessible industry for lower class demographics.
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. What authors are you reading? And why?
I love Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, Lirael by Garth Nix, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke and Far From You by Tess Sharpe.
I particularly love Neil Gaiman, Rainbow Rowell, Sarah Waters, P. G. Wodehouse, and Audrey Niffenegger… I could go on all day, I think! In particular, I’m always making notes when I read books by Douglas Adams - he’s the master of humorous sci-fi. I’ve adored his work since I was young.
You can find Lauren 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.