Every teenager experiences some form of angst, but in Justin Warren’s case, it’s so ongoing that he’s gotten used to it. His would-be grandparents died in a fire decades ago, a loss that impacted his mother’s life so traumatically she’s never been able to be there for her son, turning to alcohol for solace. Stan – who claims to be his dead grandfather’s cousin – says he cares about Justin and seems to do what he can to help out his mother. So why does Justin feel like Stan hates him? Needless to say, Justin’s life is complicated. And that’s before Justin meets Rose, who lives in 1985 when his grandparents are still alive. Rose’s unwavering optimism takes them down a path from which there might literally be no return. Only time will tell – as always, pun intended!
We’re truly delighted debut author Lauren Thoman was able to chat with us a bit about I’ll Stop the World.
Amy Wilhelm: The fiction of I’ll Stop the World offers the opportunity to change the past so that the future may be positively affected. Have you ever dreamed of doing this yourself? Where do we draw the line between acceptance and regret when it comes to viewing our past?
Lauren Thoman: I don’t know that anyone could say that they’ve never considered going back into their past and fixing a mistake if given the opportunity. Obviously, we’ve all got pieces of our past that we wish had gone differently. But as I tried to show with I’ll Stop the World, I don’t know that we can ever comprehend the impact our choices, even the seemingly small ones, have on the trajectory of our lives. Without those “mistakes” of the past, would we even have the things we value now? There’s a time travel movie called About Time in which the main character goes back in time to fix a perceived mistake that feels fairly inconsequential at the time, but when he returns to his present, he realizes that somehow, he’s caused his child to never be born. He didn’t think those two things were related, yet somehow, they were. So are there elements of the past I wish hadn’t happened that way? Absolutely. Would I necessarily change them if I could? I don’t know. It’s just so hard to know the impact of those decisions until they’ve been made, and by then, it’s too late. It’s a hard question.
I think that if you take time travel off the table—I mean, I certainly don’t know how to do it, and to my knowledge, neither does anyone else—I feel like there is perhaps a third option outside of acceptance and regret when looking at our poor decisions of the past. Regret doesn’t feel constructive enough, and acceptance doesn’t feel active enough. So I think maybe… introspection might be where I’d land there. Being able to look at past missteps and learn from them so that you do better in the future. That’s what I hope to take from the past. I may not be able to revisit it, but I can always learn from it.
AW: Your novel demonstrates quite vividly how intensely children are affected by both the choices and the fates of their parents. You flip the script and empower the kids. What inspired you to make your main characters teenagers?
LT: I think the teenage years are particularly interesting to explore in fiction because it’s a brief time in life when you are straddling this line between adulthood and childhood. You’ve got this broad awareness of the vast complexity of the world and the societies and identities within it, and you know enough to have opinions about it all, but at the same time, you’ve got this malleable brain that isn’t finished developing and hasn’t yet gotten a solid hold on things like impulse control and perspective. It’s an age where you may feel like you have it all figured out, and yet there are still endless possibilities in front of you.
I wanted to explore the idea of characters who are at a point in their life where they could truly be just about anything, and that’s scary because they’re extremely aware of that and are so afraid of messing it up. And yet, as teenagers, our world is very self-focused, and we don’t yet have the life experience to put what we’re going through into any sort of larger perspective. I think that’s why teenagers make such compelling protagonists in fiction. It’s possibility and innocence and self-awareness and intelligence all intersecting at a point where everything feels new and unique and high-stakes. It’s a very dramatic age, and I don’t mean that in a condescending “teenagers are so dramatic” sort of way. I mean, it’s dramatic in that every decision can feel like it has the power to shape your whole future in a way that I don’t think adulthood does. I think, as adults, it’s harder for us to see any of the choices we face as truly pivotal, whereas, for a teenager, it all feels monumental. Because it is.
AW: Did Back to the Future influence you or other similar stories or films?
LT: It influenced me a lot! I like to say that I’ll Stop the World was originally conceived as Back to the Future without Doc Brown, which is true, albeit a very oversimplified version of the truth. It’s one of the first time travel stories I was ever exposed to, and I still love it. It really informed my sensibilities for what a time travel story looks like, and serious Back to the Future fans will notice a lot of little Easter eggs woven into I’ll Stop the World. But I think every time travel story I’ve watched and read—and I’ve watched and read a lot!—has influenced my own take on time travel. I considered the common themes in a lot of my favorite time travel stories and asked myself which elements of those stories were the most compelling to me. And then I considered what I might have to contribute to the time travel genre that hasn’t already been done, or at least hadn’t been done in the way I envisioned it. So the fingerprints of a wide variety of time travel stories are in this book, from Interstellar to Donnie Darko to Groundhog Day to Outlander to The Time Traveler’s Wife to Doctor Who to 12 Monkeys to Your Name. I don’t think it looks like any one of those stories, or at least I hope it doesn’t. But they all played a role in helping me think through how my own time travel story would work, what the rules would be, how the characters would navigate it, and what I wanted to say.
AW: It can be easy to think that we’ve made little progress as a country on subjects like racism. Yet, as your novel shows, there has been change, even if it’s slower than we want. Is this something you thought about as you were writing?
LT: Oh, absolutely! I thought about it. It informed every aspect of this novel, including the identities of the characters. There’s a reason that Justin presents as an able-bodied white male. Despite all the challenges he faces, including his own neurodivergence, I needed him to be someone who would be able to move through his new environment with an inherent degree of privilege. Without even really thinking about it, he’s able to navigate a time period he doesn’t belong in largely unchallenged, while we see some of the other characters who do belong there have to be constantly conscious of how they are perceived, and even then, they come up against a decent amount of opposition just for existing.
I wanted to show that while there has been change and progress in some areas, others have remained largely unchanged for a very long time. Mrs. Hanley’s character has lived through decades of social justice and civil rights movements and is able to educate Justin a little about just how much work goes into even a tiny bit of progress. And it’s through her personal experience with the police and her insurance company that he’s able to better understand what systemic inequality means on an emotional level. He was sort of conceptually aware of inequality in 2023, but he was largely complacent with the system that breeds it because he didn’t think it really affected him. Going back to the ’80s and seeing both the similarities and the differences to his own time, and especially how difficult it is for a person he cares about to attempt to navigate an inequitable system, is really eye-opening for him.
AW: I’ll Stop the World is your debut novel. Congratulations! What prepared you for this journey, and what did you have to learn along the way?
LT: Thank you! “Journey” is truly the right word to describe it because I worked toward the goal of publication for a very long time. I first started writing I’ll Stop the World in 2014 as a side project while I tried to get other novels published. They came close but never quite made it across the finish line. But that process of writing and editing and submitting and facing rejection really taught me a lot both about the writing process and the publishing industry, so I had a pretty solid familiarity with what I was in for once it was finally my turn to go through the debut process. I also made a lot of friends over that time who were also writers in various stages of publication and learned a tremendous amount about the industry from following their journeys. That said, there still have definitely been aspects of this process that have thrown me for a loop! I have asked my agent more questions since signing my book deal in 2022 than I probably have for the entirety of our eight-year relationship.
I think the biggest lessons I had to learn were patience, humility, and resilience. I expected that after getting an agent, it wouldn’t take long to sell a book. I was VERY wrong. It took years, and I had practically no control over any aspect of it except the books I was writing. What the market did, what editors liked, what sold, what readers were looking for, what other shows or movies or books came out that influenced the zeitgeist—none of that was remotely within my control, yet it all impacted me. It was very humbling to send out what I thought was my best work, only to have it repeatedly deemed good but not good enough. But that helped me develop a thicker skin, and it helped me realize that I enjoyed writing even if I never wrote anything that the publishing industry deemed publishable.
It took a long time, but I gradually learned to write for myself instead of for an industry I could not control or predict. I learned how to have fun again. For a long time, I was so frustrated by my inability to cross the finish line that I forgot why I started running the race in the first place. Also, I had to learn that it’s not a race! It’s not a competition. It’s not a zero-sum game. More people’s stories out in the world is a good thing, and learning to celebrate the accomplishments of others without feeling like they were taking anything away from me, even if we were both working toward the same goals, was a crucial lesson for me. I don’t think I could have kept going if I hadn’t learned to do that.
Lauren Thoman has written extensively about pop culture and time travel, specifically for media outlets including TheWrap, and she credits her love for and extensive knowledge of the movie Back to the Future as great inspiration. She paid homage to the beloved film by placing many Back to the Future Easter eggs in I’ll Stop the World. The title, of course, is from Modern English’s classic 1980’s hit, I Melt with You, another of her key influences. She lives in Nashville, TN.