We love dark academia reads, as you can tell from our recommendation list. We love Laura Steven, as you can tell from our interview with her on her last book, The Society for Soulless Girls. And so, imagine our excitement when we learned that Laura Steven wrote another dark academia book, this time it is inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray. We are incredibly honoured to have her here today to chat about her newest book, Every Exquisite Thing.
In Every Exquisite Thing, one can get a portrait done by a Masked Painted and be forever frozen like that. If you were to be painted, how would you prepare and/or what would you wear to feel the most ‘you’?
Aesthetically, I’d go for my black leather jacket, black skinny jeans (you can prise them from my cold dead hands) and stompy black boots with gold buckles, plus a chunky autumnal sweatshirt, winged eyeliner and red lipstick.
But as Penny so tragically learns, your mental and emotional states are also frozen in time, so I’d do everything in my power to go into the situation relaxed and happy. I am physiologically incapable of meditation due to the myriad gremlins who live in my mind, so I’d do some yoga, play Stardew Valley, listen to my favourite music, drink good coffee and eat a good donut for maximum serotonin.
Both Every Exquisite Thing and your last book, The Society For Soulless Girls, are dark academia books. Which school would you rather attend, Dorian Drama School or Carvell?
Carvell, one million percent. I cannot emphasise this enough: I would rather perish than perform the exercises the students are forced into at Dorian. I squirmed in my seat writing the master/servant game. Penny is basically me, and I used to think I wanted to act, but I realise now that I acted wanted other things I felt were sorely lacking in my life—social status (I was extremely uncool), admiration, respect, love. I thought obsessing over my looks and achieving stardom as an actor would fix all those things. With everything I know now, I’d far rather study philosophy or literature at Carvell, ghosts of malevolent nuns be damned.
With the dark academia trend being so hyped, was it daunting to write another book with dark academia vibes? And in fact, does it make it easier or more difficult this time around?
I really believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, so the soaring demand for dark academia feels exciting to me, as opposed to daunting. The thing I care about most is improving my own craft, my own storytelling, and so the challenge was not ‘how can I make Every Exquisite Thing better than all the other dark academia books?’ but rather ‘how can I make Every Exquisite Thing better than The Society for Soulless Girls?’ Truthfully, I think I’ve done that. I’m so proud of this book.
Every Exquisite Thing is inspired by the Picture of the Dorian Gray. When did you decide you wanted to write a feminist retelling of that? And what was the biggest challenge in balancing the book so that it has an original story, a meaningful and refreshing message, and yet still be inspired by Dorian Gray?
When I first read The Picture of Dorian Gray in high school, I was impressed not by the erudite explorations of aestheticism and amorality, but rather by the image of a tormented portrait subject destroying his own painting and in turn unaliving himself. My first thought was not, wow, what a poignant allegory, but instead: cool murder weapon.
That scene has sort of lived rent-free in my head ever since, and it spawned so many questions. What kind of person would willingly have such a dangerous portrait painted, and why? The answer seemed obvious—a young woman obsessed with preserving her beauty and body size—and everything grew organically from there.
The why was the aspect I agonised over most, because it really required me to dig deep into my own demons. Why does seeing an unflattering photo of myself send me into such a tailspin? Why do I ascribe such importance to my looks? Why does the failure to fit a certain beauty standard make me feel so ashamed? These are all questions posed in the original text, so it was just a case of exploring them with a fresh set of eyes.
Drama school provides the perfect setting for the story. How did you come up with that?
Again, while thinking about who would be most likely to enter into a portrait bargain like this, I realised that it would be someone who saw their looks as the key to their future success—a model felt too on-the-nose, whereas drama offered up that delicious dark academia setting, plus plentiful allegories for masking, which Penny so often does (she’s neurodivergent).
And what did you have to research most about for this book?
Actual drama school! I interviewed a drama school professor and several people who’d attended an elite institution like LAMDA or RADA, and read countless articles about the culture, the exercises, the rivalries. Both the master/servant game and the zoo animal exercise were pulled from real-life accounts.
Finally, for those of us who struggle with body image and beauty standards – any advice?
The only thing that has ever truly helped me is to connect with my inner child. Look at photos of your younger self beaming with happiness, doing something you loved—reading or board games or sports or art or whatever lit you up inside.
Now imagine telling that version of you that they’re not good enough or pretty enough or thin enough, and so you’re going to punish them horribly until they conform to an arbitrary set of beauty standards. Imagine that child’s face falling, their shoulders slumping, the light disappearing from their eyes. Does that not just break your heart?
You were so perfect until the world told you otherwise.
We are now offering 5 of you a chance to win a copy. To enter, simply follow the instructions in the tweet below:
Win 1 of 5 copies of EVERY EXQUISITE THING! This latest dark academia book by @laurasteven is inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray. @EMTeenFiction
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— United By Books (@unitedbybks) September 14, 2023