Laura Steven is an author, journalist and screenwriter from the northernmost town in England. She is basically Leslie Knope.
Before taking the plunge into full-time writerhood, Laura worked for a glossy lifestyle magazine, then spent three years at Mslexia, a non-profit organisation supporting women writers. She has an MA in Creative Writing, and her TV pilot Clickbait reached the final eight in British Comedy’s 2016 Sitcom Mission.
Laura’s journalism has been featured in The i Paper, Buzzfeed, The Guardian and Living North. She won a Northern Writers Award in 2018 for her work-in-progress – a piece of speculative fiction exploring creativity as protest.
Hi, Laura! Can you tell us 3 random things about you?
I’m obsessed with Sid Meier’s Civilization V, I make amazing nachos, and I once went skydiving for a magazine article. 0/10 do not recommend. Anyone who voluntarily jumps out of a plane is unhinged.
Tell us about your writing journey with The Exact Opposite of Okay. What were some of your biggest challenges?
I wrote TEOOO at a time when I genuinely thought my career was dead. I’d written and published two books under a pen name, which sold barely any copies, and the YA fantasy I’d spent years working on didn’t find a publisher at all. I was 25 and really believed that was the end of the road.
Fortunately, because I was midway through a two-year Master’s degree in Creative Writing, I couldn’t just quit altogether. I wrote 10,000 words of another fantasy novel, but there was no passion behind it. I started a virtual reality YA sci-fi inspired by Pokémon Go; that didn’t get past the first chapter. Nothing was working, nothing was sticking. Nothing made me want to write. But still, the MA. I had to see it through. Because I felt so utterly done with books, I ended up writing a comedic radio play for a compulsory module on scriptwriting. It was completely nuts. Bonkers. It was called “Ten-Years of Pasta Sauce”, to give you some indication of how ludicrous the entire thing was. I wrote it in an afternoon and submitted it to a read-through workshop. At this point, my hopes were not high. It was just a box I had to tick to keep the MA tutors off my back. So I went to the workshop, still obsessing over my failed fantasy manuscript, barely registering what was going on around me. When my script’s turn came around and the tutor cast my classmates in the lead parts, I wasn’t even properly in the room. Not until the first laugh.
It was like being jolted awake from a rejection-induced haze I’d been wading through for months. People laughed at my words. One person laughed so much she couldn’t read the lines aloud. My tutor gasped at a particularly rude turn-of-phrase, but she was laughing too. Everyone was. And suddenly, so was I. “But… I’m not a funny person,” I thought, bemused. “I can’t write comedy. Can I?”
To test my comedy mettle, I decided to try and write a sitcom pilot. I was still in a bad place with novel-writing, and script had offered a welcome release in the form of radio comedy, so I thought, why not? I came up with a fun concept, drafted a pilot, entered it into a few competitions I’d heard about through the MA, and promptly forgot all about it. Then I didn’t write for two months; the longest I’d ever gone, since the first draft of my first book, without putting pen to paper. That unofficial sabbatical was shattered into oblivion one Friday afternoon in July 2016, when I was mid-singalong on a road trip with my boyfriend. An email pinged through on my phone. I read it. (Calm down, he was driving.) I’d reached the final eight of one of the competitions I’d entered. And it was a much, much bigger deal than I thought. I was invited to London for a read-through with professional actors, in front of a live audience and TV producers from the comedy industry.
The read-through was a few months away, but just like that, my fire was reignited. A week later, the hilarious voice of a snarky teenage girl popped into my head fully formed. She was sarcastic, witty, bright but not conventionally so, and something really shitty had happened to her. So shitty that she wanted to write a blog about it. That’s all I had, but I knew. I knew. This voice was gold. Still in bed, I wrote the short introduction to the book on my iPhone notes, laughing merrily as I did so. That voice was Izzy O’Neill. That book was The Exact Opposite of Okay. Those opening words haven’t changed since I wrote them in my bed one morning last summer, when all my faith in the world had been restored by one single email.
I didn’t win the sitcom competition, but TEOOO was the book that would launch my ship for real.
What can you tell us about Izzy O’Neill?
Izzy is loud-mouthed, and sarcastic, and clever but not in the traditional way. She’s an aspiring comedian, and she uses humor as a coping mechanism. She drinks, swears, has sex, eats a lot of junk food, and generally behaves in all the ways young women “shouldn’t.” She lives with her kooky grandma, Betty, and her wiener dog named Dumbledore. She’s completely ridiculous, and I love her with all my heart. Which is a bit narcissistic, considering she’s basically an extension of me.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Izzy finds herself at the heart of a national scandal when a photo of her having sex with a senator’s son is leaked online. It explores sexual freedom, victim-blaming, body-shaming, and a lot of other zeitgeisty feminist issues. I also don’t shy away from politics. I’m often asked what these big themes are doing in teen fiction, but when the President of the United States can openly brag about grabbing girls by the pussy and still win an election, we have to acknowledge that something is deeply wrong with our society – and we have to address it at its root. Ultimately, I really want to inspire young women to speak up and fight back against the never-ending stream of misogyny and body shame they have to face on a daily basis. This stuff isn’t just teenage melodrama. It really matters.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on my middle grade comedy series about sarcastic mermaids, which has been crazy amounts of fun, and some more YA – hopefully I’ll be able to announce more details soon! I’m also working on a few screenplays, and a graphic novel based on that YA fantasy novel that didn’t sell, because I still think the concept is gold.
What are some of your must-read recommendations?
I recently devoured This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay. It’s a hilarious, political and life-affirming diary of a junior doctor working in the UK’s National Health Service. It’s such a cliché, but I laughed as hard as I cried. I literally honked like a goose. It scared my dog.
And finally, what books are up next on your Want to Read shelf?
There’s so many amazing releases hitting shelves in the next year! I’m most looking forward to Francina Simone’s debut Smash It, Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian, Kingdom Of Souls by Namina Forna, and of course whatever Angie Thomas comes up with next.
INTERVIEW : YA SH3LF