Saturday, April 1, 2023

Q&A with Lauren Thoman




Lauren Thoman is the author of the new novel I'll Stop the World. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Parade and Vulture, and she lives outside of Nashville, Tennessee.


Q: What inspired you to write I'll Stop the World, and how did you create your characters Justin and Rose?

A: The idea for I'll Stop the World came to me when I realized that most of the time travel stories I loved involved the main character either knowing exactly why they were traveling through time, or what they had to do while they were there, or both.


I started wondering what a time travel story might look like where the protagonist had no idea what the answer was to either of those questions. What would happen if a character just spontaneously traveled through time, and had no idea how or why? How would they go about dealing with that scenario, and what would they do to try to get back?


Probably the premise that comes closest is Groundhog Day, but I wanted to take my character in a different direction, one where they'd truly never know what was coming next, even though they're from the future. 


From there, it became a matter of what sort of character would be interesting to watch deal with this impossible scenario? I knew immediately I didn't want it to be someone who studies quantum physics for fun, or is a giant sci-fi nerd, or is used to really applying themselves to solve complex problems. That all felt a little too convenient.


I wanted my protagonist to initially feel like they had absolutely zero advantages in this situation, because I thought it would feel more satisfying to see them rise to the challenge. Of course, Justin does have a few advantages--he's a reasonably attractive, able-bodied, cis-gendered white boy, after all, even if he's also neuro-divergent and totally outside of his proper timeline--but he can't see them because all he's aware of is how heavily the odds are stacked against him.


But it's something I wanted the reader to be aware of in subtle ways through the other characters; characters like Noah or Lisa or Rose would have a number of additional challenges to deal with if they found themselves in Justin's position. 


That’s kind of where Rose came from. I realized relatively early in the writing process that this wasn't actually a single-protagonist story, and would actually need two protagonists in order to work. I needed an '80s foil for Justin, someone who would push him in all the ways he's not used to being pushed, while also going through her own growth arc. So she kind of originally came about as the anti-Justin, a character whose life experience was totally different than his, yet would see him in a way few others ever had.


On the surface, of course, Rose immediately looks very different from Justin; she's a biracial Chinese girl, raised by her dad while Justin is raised by his mom, and has a stable and supportive family whereas Justin has always been on his own. She has a solid friend group, good grades, and a bright future, all things Justin has never had. 


But on a deeper level, Rose has this certainty to her that Justin doesn't understand. And I liked that dynamic, of these two characters who are coming from diametrically opposed existential places, both tossed into this situation that resists both certainty and uncertainty.


Rose can't get the definitive answers she wants. But Justin also can't just coast through it the way he always has. I really enjoyed pushing each of them outside their comfort zones, philosophically speaking--which ultimately pushed them toward each other, somewhere in the middle. 

Q: The author David Arnold said of the book, “Thoman's sweeping debut defies categorization. A multigenerational mystery, a compulsively readable love story, an intricately woven sci-fi--whatever it is, I'll Stop the World is the mind-bendy time-travel '80s romp we all need right now.” What do you think of this description, and do you think the novel defies categorization?

A: I adore this description. I've always been a sucker for time travel stories, but I didn't want to write a story that felt just like Back to the Future or The Time Traveler's Wife or All Our Wrong Todays or any of my other genre favorites, because those have already been done so well.


Plus, none of those stories feel like each other in the first place; they barely have anything in common other than the time travel element. When you think about it, time travel is a pretty malleable genre. It can look like just about anything, which gave me a really big sandbox to play in.

So I just tried to approach this story in a way that felt specific to me and my interests, without worrying too much about trying to fit into any sort of pre-existing mold, because I'm not sure one even really exists. I just wrote something that I found interesting, and hoped others would too.

Of course, if you forensically analyze I'll Stop the World, you'll find traces of all sorts of other genres and stories woven through its fabric because I've taken inspiration from everywhere, from Interstellar to Stephen King to Riverdale. Not just time travel stories, but any story that snagged my imagination, since again, time travel can overlap with anything.


And I tried to sort of Frankenstein the bits I loved and found intriguing from all those different sources into a cohesive whole, one that isn't really beholden to any one thing, but is partially shaped by all of them.


So getting back to David's description, I love that he doesn't feel like I'll Stop the World slots neatly into any given category, because maybe that means I achieved my goal. And I hope that maybe someone else will see that description and think, "wow, that book sounds like a delicious and unexpected cornucopia of things I like," because that's definitely what it is for me. 

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Not before I started writing it, but I knew the broad strokes of the ending very early in the process.


I wrote the first few chapters -- which originally were all from Justin's point-of-view, and also had him traveling to a totally different time period -- then I wrote the last chapter, which is the denouement, then I gradually filled in the middle. The first chapters changed quite a bit, but the last one is still very similar to how it began.


I also had a really solid idea of the climax very early in the process, once I finally landed on 1985 as the right time period for Justin to travel to. I didn't have every answer for how or why the events came to pass exactly as they did, but I knew what generally had to happen, and in what order, and where each character had to be in order for those things to take place.

However, I still made a ton of changes along the way. I knew the “what” and “when,” but I was very fuzzy on the “how” and “why.” As I figured out what brought each character to their final position in the story, that impacted a lot of how those last few chapters unfolded.


It turns out that the middle of a mystery is a lot harder to plot and write than the ending, and every time I tweaked the middle, it rippled out into the ending. So I both knew the ending very early on, and was also making changes to it right up until the book was finalized. 


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I am notoriously terrible at titles. I would rather write an entire book than title one, and for years this was just "The Time Travel Book," because I couldn't think of anything else to call it.


It didn't get its title until I was nearly finished polishing it and getting ready to send it to my agent. I knew she wasn't going to send it out on submission without at least a somewhat decent title, and I still had zero ideas.


I saw a tweet from an author whose book title was taken from a song lyric, which seemed like a neat idea, so I started looking at lists of songs that would've played on the radio in 1985, just to see if any jumped out at me as thematically appropriate for the book. When I came across Modern English's "I Melt With You," that felt like there might be something there.

I read through the lyrics, and then started looking into the meaning behind the lyrics, and was just like, yes, this is perfect. It seems like this peppy love song, but actually the lyrics are pretty dark, and I liked the two contrasting interpretations because it felt like that perfectly encapsulated Justin and Rose's contrasting worldviews.


And really, what they're trying to do--change the past, rewrite the future--is in a way sort of like stopping the world. Actually, in the 1978 Superman, that's even how the time travel works, through Superman stopping the rotation of the Earth and reversing it.


So in addition to just being a good thematic fit for the book that also immediately evoked the '80s setting, it was also a subtle little nod to time travel.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm in that blissfully/terrifyingly free period between being completely finished with edits for I'll Stop the World and publication, and it was just a one-book deal, so right now I'm completely untethered creatively, which is both awesome and deeply intimidating.


I've got a proposal with my agent for a book that I think works as a great companion to I'll Stop the World--another speculative ensemble mystery, although in this one the speculative element is superheroes instead of time travel. We'll see if that goes anywhere. I really hope it does; I'm a big fan of those characters. 

And then in the meantime, I'm working on my first horror novel, which is just a load of fun. It's still very me--an ensemble cast, multiple points of view, a mystery, a speculative element--but also very different than anything I've ever written before in that it's darker and scarier and written for an adult audience (although I was reading Stephen King at 14, and I know I'm not unique in that regard, so who knows who might pick it up?).


I'm calling it the Post-Apocalyptic Haunted House Book for now--or, considering how bad I am at coming up with titles, maybe forever. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'll Stop the World was not the book that got me my agent, and it was not the first book we tried to sell together. Or the second. There were a number of years when I doubted that I would ever cross the finish line to publication (and I mean, as of the day I'm answering these interview questions, the book still hasn't been released yet, so you can bet I'm knocking on every bit of wood I can find).


In hindsight, I'm glad that this is the book I'm debuting with, and that it's happening at this point in my life, but if I traveled back a few years to tell my past self that, I'd have had a hard time believing it. 

I think, in a way, that's what a lot of my characters go through in I'll Stop the World. They know where they want to wind up, but can't see how they'll ever get there based on where they are, and a lot of the story is about what you do when there is no clear path from where you are to where you want to be. That's not necessarily what I was thinking about when I was writing it, but of course it worked its way in anyway. Subconsciouses can be tricky like that. 


I know that not everyone will like my book. That's totally fine; nothing is for everyone. But I hope that for some people, at least in a small way, it gives them the fuel they need to keep going, even if the ending is uncertain. To keep taking that next step even when the path is unclear.


This story and these characters saw me through a lot of really hard twists and bumps in my own road. If they could do that for someone else, now that the book is out in the world, that would be amazing.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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