Interview with Laura Steven

The Exact Opposite of Okay follows the story of Izzy O’Neill in the wake of a revenge porn scandal. When photos involving her and a politician’s son emerge online, Izzy goes looking for the one responsible. She soon finds out that the way the world treats girls is not okay.

Reading books like The Exact Opposite of Okay, and authors like Louise O’Neill, it seems that YA fiction has taken a fresh, new direction since I was first reading it 10 years ago. Was this something that you thought about whilst writing the book? Did you feel that there were issues that were perhaps not being addressed in the genre?

I genuinely believe the roster of young adult authors working today are perhaps the most fearless in the whole industry when it comes to tackling difficult issues. I read both YA and adult books, and whenever I pick up a YA novel after finishing an adult title, I’m always struck by how much more progressive teen fiction is in terms of race, gender, sexuality, ableism, class… It makes me proud to sit on the YA shelf. (Not literally.)

Young adult authors like Holly Bourne and Louise O’Neill are currently carving out new paths and digging deep into complex feminist issues. When gender equality – or lack thereof – was first brought to the forefront of teen literature, it dealt largely in broad brushstrokes, introducing readers to the central ideas behind the movement. Now we’re dissecting some of the more nuanced manifestations of misogyny, with Bourne tackling the portrayal of toxic romance tropes in Hollywood movies, and O’Neill waging war against rape culture in the social media generation.

In The Exact Opposite of Okay, I really wanted to take down slut-shaming and revenge porn, but I also wanted to weave in some seemingly innocuous themes – like the concept of the ‘Friend Zone’, and the problem with men who consider themselves ‘Nice Guys’ – and unpack why they can be just as damaging as the more overt symptoms of sexism. Last week, I read a review of The Exact Opposite of Okay (yes, I know I’m not meant to do that) from a male reader who recognised some of this problematic behaviour in himself, and made him realise just how detrimental it can be to a woman’s livelihood. So for me, it’s already been worth it.

One of the things that I loved about The Exact Opposite of Okay was the amount of strong female characters other than Izzy, the protagonist. Whilst there are also flawed or problematic female characters (of course), I was really struck by the diverse range of women in the book who I was championing. Aside from Izzy, who is your favourite female character, and why?

Why thank you! Going into this project, I knew I wanted to write a cast of female characters with fully fleshed out flaws. Sometimes I think girls and women in literature aren’t afforded the same room to grow as male protagonists, so I consciously gave Izzy the space to make mistakes and some questionable decisions, then left her to navigate the aftermath and figure out her flaws for herself.

My favourite character? That’s such a difficult question. Curse you for making me choose a favourite brain child. While I absolutely adore kooky old Betty and her somewhat improper parenting skills, I think I’m going to have to go with Ajita. She’s strong, supportive, hilarious and fiercely loyal, but also not afraid to call Izzy out. I’m currently working on the sequel, and a bunch of readers have demanded an Ajita spin off. We’ll see!

Izzy’s brand of humour is so distinctive and I personally found her hilarious. How much of her voice, in that respect, came from you? Did you find it difficult to write such fast-paced, quip-heavy dialogue, or (without fear of blowing your own trumpet) is Izzy’s sense of humour very much your own?

It’s actually alarming how easy I found it to write in Izzy’s voice. While my novel ideas usually come to me through plot or world first, Izzy’s bold voice just popped into my head one morning. She was sarcastic, witty, bright but not conventionally so, and something terrible had happened to her. That’s all I had, but I knew the voice was gold. Still in bed, I wrote the short introduction to the book on my iPhone notes, laughing merrily as I did so. Those opening words haven’t changed since.

Izzy’s sense of humour is like a caricature of my own; I’ve taken my own sarcasm, weirdness, and gentle bullying of my best friends, and amplified it to create Izzy’s voice. I know it’s not going to be for everyone, and I’ve had some comments from readers who would rather I’d tackled revenge porn without all the jokes. But we live in quite an awful world at the moment, and above all, I really just wanted to make people laugh. We could all do with some endorphins right now. That was just as important to me as tackling a difficult subject.

In fact, I often think humour is the best way to make issues like this more accessible, and make them resonate far more than they otherwise would. In Amy Schumer’s book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, she describes her comedy sketch show as being like sweet potato brownies – tricking viewers into digesting goodness. She explores rape culture and female sexuality and misogyny, but she does it while also making people laugh, so they don’t realise they’re actually internalising the underlying messages. I like that analogy.

The novel certainly doesn’t shy away from the damage that social media can do. However, at the same time the whole thing is told through a series of blog posts, and I know you yourself have a pretty impressive twitter presence. How do you feel about the increasing impact of social media on our lives?

The problem with assigning blame to social media in discussions around revenge porn is that it removes blame from the perpetrator and absolves them of guilt. By saying ‘this would never have happened before social media’, we’re essentially giving the abuser an out; it’s like pleading diminished responsibility. Imagine if we tried to defend a murderer who stabbed his victim to death by arguing, ‘well, this would never have happened if cutlery wasn’t a thing’? It’s just bonkers. The individual who decided to leak the nude photo or sex tape should be held solely accountable.

When we use social media as a shield, it means the underlying issue – misogyny – remains unchallenged. That’s why I was careful not to critique social media in The Exact Opposite Of Okay, because I didn’t want to redirect the conversation from the real problem at hand. I wanted to unpack what would motivate a man (because it’s usually a man) to do that to a young woman, and just how harmful it is to the victim. My intention wasn’t to highlight the damage social media can do – it was to explore the damage male privilege and entitlement can do. Social media is just a vehicle.

Because the thing is, social media isn’t inherently bad, just like knives aren’t inherently bad. Human beings have been hurting each other since the dawn of time, irrespective of the tool we use to do so. Yes, the advancement of technology is providing us with new means to inflict harm, but instead of arguing ‘we should stop advancing technology’, we should be arguing, ‘we should stop inflicting harm’. It’s that simple.

The book tackles a lot of relevant debates, but is perhaps most powerful on the topic of Revenge Porn and slut-shaming. (The Revenge Porn laws in the UK are relatively new, and in America – where the book is set – still not comprehensive.) At certain points in the book I felt a real anger on Izzy’s behalf – is this something you experienced whilst writing it? How politically charged was the novel for you?

A bit of background for readers who might not be aware: revenge porn is now illegal in the UK, which is why I set the book in the US (I wanted to explore emotional aftermath, not legal aftermath), but there are still over a dozen States without any form of legislation against it. Which means that if you live in New York and your sex tape is leaked, the person who leaked it will face no consequences.

Yet the phenomenon is so widespread it’s practically a pandemic. A 2016 report from the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research found that one in 25 people in the U.S. have either been victims of revenge porn or been threatened with the posting of sensitive images. The number jumps to one in 10 for young women between the ages of 15-29. And yes, that makes me incredibly, incredibly angry.

So yes, the novel was incredibly politically charged, but I believe all good fiction is. In Why I Write, George Orwell wrote, ‘The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.’ (He also predicted an imminent pro-Hitler upswing within the left-wing intelligentsia, but I suppose nobody can get it right all the time.)

Activism in YA is something I’m incredibly passionate about, both as a reader and a writer. If you’d like to read more about the political impact of YA, I asked ‘Can YA swing an election?’ for The i Paper here.

The Exact Opposite of Okay was published by Egmont on 8 March 2018. Find out more about Laura Steven on her website or follow her on Twitter.