Lauren James: 'I could never have anticipated that the situation in my book would come true'

Lauren James: 'I could never have anticipated that the situation in my book would come true'

Lauren James answers our questions about her novel set in a future version of London where humanity has been almost wiped out by a pandemic, The Quiet at the End of the World (Walker Books), which has been shortlisted for the YA Book Prize 2020.

1. Can you sum up The Quiet at the End of the World in one sentence?

As the youngest people on the planet, Lowrie and Shen have grown up knowing that they are going to watch the human race face extinction, and spend their time exploring the crumbling remains of civilisation, treasure-hunting for things their ancestors have left behind.

2. What inspired the book?

I’m very worried about what we’re doing to this planet through climate change, and I’m scared that there’s going to be nothing left for future generations. With every year that passes, the probability that the human race will go extinct increases. What is that going to be like for the younger generations, who will inherit the earth?

I wanted to explore life in that distant time, when humans are dying out and there is only a small community left. Particularly, I wanted to write an uplifting version of the apocalypse, where we come together to find a solution to a problem that has no real answer. What would humans really do if we stopped being able to have biological children? Well, I think we’d find a way to evolve beyond that. I don’t think we’d ever give up hope. We’re too creative for that.

I started the story with a virus spreading across the world, giving everyone nose bleeds. Once the pandemic was over, doctors started to notice that no women were becoming pregnant - everyone had become infertile because of the virus.

As I’m writing this, the coronavirus pandemic is growing worse by the day. I could never have anticipated that the situation in The Quiet at the End of the World would really come true. It’s been an eerie experience, watching the news unveil through social media in the same way I wrote last year in the novel. I’m not sure I’m enjoying it. Hopefully the story provides some comfort to people who are self-isolating or have contracted the virus.

I think in times of crisis, art and media become more important than ever, and I’m happy to have written a novel that helps people cope. Especially because our real-world virus is definitely not going to stop people having babies, like in the book!

3. Which character in the book is your favourite?

Mitch, the lifeguard robot. He stole my heart from the very first scene. He’s a very old moss-covered robot that patrols the shoreline of the river Thames in London, and Lowrie and Shen take him home with them. His communication device is broken, so he can only talk through flashing lights. Every scene which he is in makes me laugh.

4. What does being on this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist mean to you?

Oh, it’s been a top-secret goal of mine to be shortlisted ever since I started writing! The YA Book Prize was established in 2014, the same year I was offered a book contract with Walker Books. So I’ve watched the prize develop alongside my own career. It’s a real UK community award that feels very personal to me, and to have been shortlisted alongside so many of my friends is the best feeling in the world.

5. What's the best thing about writing for young adults?

I love being able to take a high concept scenario - like being one of the last people to ever exist - and making that relatable for teenagers today. What do you do with your time, knowing that every second of your life is the culmination of the entire history of your ancestors? What kind of person should you be? How can you be an individual without looking ahead or behind you? Should you even try?

Those questions are especially relevant to YA fiction – every teenager is wondering who they are, what kind of person they want to grow up to be, and how they can make a difference to the world.

The best science fiction uses imaginary scenarios to highlight the issues we face today. Giving teenagers an escape from real life, while also providing some element of comfort and relatability, is the best part of writing YA.

6. What was your favourite book as a teenager?

So, I used to go to my local library every week and get out dozens of books. Usually I’d choose new ones each time, but there were a few books which I couldn’t resist rereading whenever I spotted them back on the shelves. My favourite UKYA books were Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (Sephy and Callum! My heart!), City of Masks by Mary Hoffman (time-travel in 16th century Venice), Blind Beauty by K.M. Peyton (angst and horses – the perfect combo), The Starlight Barking by Dodie Smith (an overlooked sequel to 101 Dalmatians), Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (immoral kid genius) and Exodus by Julie Bertagna (a future dystopia about rising sea levels and living online).
I can never give just one book recommendation, sorry!

7. What is your top writing tip?

Writing advice is always “write every day”. I think that’s wrong. The real trick is to read every day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. You need to be constantly filling your brain with sentences and plots, to fill up your mental bank of ideas. Then you’ll have something to write about, by stealing all the best bits of your favourite books. That’s the real secret to writing.

8. What songs would be on a playlist for your book?

The Quiet at the End of the World is a fun, cheerful, happy book, for the most part. These songs reflect the tone and affection in this book.

  • Last Party by MIKA
  • What’s Up? by 4 Non Blondes
  • Dance Apocalyptic by Janelle Monae
  • Girls Chase Boys by Ingrid Michaelson
  • Stop the World I Want to Get Off by Arctic Monkeys
  • Remember Me from the Coco soundtrack

9. Who would you cast in a film version of The Quiet at the End of the World?

Lowrie is Aubrey Peeples – a suit-wearing, treasure-hunting tomboy, she constantly has a chisel and screwdriver on hand.
Shen is Justin H. Min – an alien enthusiast, night owl and history buff.
Maya is Tessa Thompson – a self-confident, chatty blogger who lived years before Lowrie and Shen were born.
Riz is Oscar Isaac – Maya’s fun and laidback husband.

10. Which book, film or TV show would you recommend to someone who enjoyed The Quiet at the End of the World?

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and Children of Men (2006) were both really big inspirations for me. 

Find out more about The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James and read the first chapter of the book on the YA Book Prize website.