“Hell. She went balls-to-the-mother-lovin’-wall on life, huh?”
This is how writer Laura Jane Williams wants people to remember her after she’s gone and, judging by her life so far, it’ll be an understatement.
When the man she thought she’d marry dumped her and married her friend, she began drinking too much, sleeping around, and moving from place-to-place for fear of putting down roots. She travelled the world and declared a year-long vow of celibacy that found her living in a Riviera convent.
Now she runs Superlatively Rude, and has since written for The Guardian, Grazia, Buzzfeed, and many more. Her story has been published in the form of BECOMING, her debut book. We caught up with Laura to talk travel, writing, and finding yourself.
Hi Laura! Congratulations on the book! First of all, can you tell us how you came to pack up everything to travel around the world?
On which occasion?! I first went backpacking when I was 18, a month after I left school. I went to work in Sri Lanka and had a horrific time. I got culture shock and came home early – I just hadn’t prepared myself for being that far away from home, in such different conditions. I had to take a few months to get my thoughts together, and then headed off again with a boyfriend. We spent five months or so trekking Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore, which was a great way to build my travelling confidence because it’s quite a well-worn backpacking route. The year after we went to India, which is quite similar to Sri Lanka, and I was much more prepared for the culture shock by then. I’ve had to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable!
When I graduated university I worked in Rome, teaching English, and not long after that decided to hit the road again to write my book. I needed to be away from all distractions to write – not to mention, London was proving a very expensive place to call home! So I lived in Bali for a while in 2015, where for £700 a month I lived in a beautiful homestay, did yoga every day, and had views of paradise over my laptop screen.
One of your reasons for travelling was to, as the Becoming tagline says, figure out who the hell you are. What is it about travelling that can help people take stock of their lives, and how did it help you figure stuff out?
For me, when I travel I reveal my truest self. It’s easy to be adventurous and confident when we’re comfortable and secure, but thrown into foreign lands where I don’t know the ropes, don’t speak the language, don’t have a reference point for how things are done there… it’s a real test of character. It forces me to stretch my comfort zone. When I travel I have to be vulnerable. Ask people for help, admit what I don’t know, talk to strangers and take advice. All the things I’m ashamed to say I’m less good at in my home country. It’s when I travel I have to “fake” my bravery, but it’s sort of like “fake it ‘til you make it” – I come home actually braver.
Were you an experienced traveller before you left on the journey detailed in the book?
The book isn’t about setting out on a specific travelling adventure – it’s more that because travelling is something I’ve done since I left school, when I got my heart broken it was the thing I knew would help me to heal. I might’ve been dumped, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t go and try on different parts of my personality for size on a solo adventure of my own making! I learn something new every time I travel, though. It wasn’t like “oh, I know how to do this solo travel thing now. I’m a pro.” I don’t ever want to be a “pro” traveller, because I think you can get a bit jaded that way. I want every trip to be as exciting as the last – to be a beginner every time.
You really have travelled all over the world, including the USA, Italy, Bali, India, and Siberia! Which destination was your favourite, and which had the biggest impact on you?
I sort of learned how to be most myself in Italy, but that’s probably because I’ve spent the most time there. I began learning the language, and stayed mostly with host families so got to see the “behind closed doors” of Italian culture that mere tourists don’t often get to experience. The food, the way the language is like a melody, the pace of life – it drove me mad when I lived there, but as a place to visit? There’s nowhere more restorative than bella Italia. I have to go back annually to get my Italy fix, but there’s a ton of other destinations it’ll be a long time before I go back to again.
Do you plan where you travel carefully, or do you just go where life takes you?
Nah, I’m not much a planner! I don’t sit down and see what TripAdvisor has got to say, plotting out days and routes and all that stuff. I’m very much a figure-it-out-as-we-go traveller, relying on recommendations from locals and, in a bind, Twitter. Twitter is great for people giving travel recs! I’ve made a ton of friends that way too – just seeing who is using the hashtag of a particular place and reaching out on Twitter or Instagram to see if maybe they wanna do something in the area together.
What advice would you give to young people – especially young women – who are thinking about going travelling, but might be feeling uncertain or intimidated?
Trust your gut. If you think that guy is looking at you funny, go the other way. If you can’t remember if you locked the hostel door, go check. Don’t listen to music when you’re walking somewhere new, avoid eye-contact because now isn’t the time to make a feminist or political point, and if in doubt ask another woman, foreign or local, for help. A woman has never turned me away when I’ve needed anything. I think it’s innate that we look out for each other.
Was it difficult bringing Becoming to life – writing, finding an agent, getting a deal, etc. – when you were frequently on the road?
Nah – it made it easier, actually! Living in London, asking for people’s attention, it got really old, really fast. Once I started travelling, living this bold, new life, people naturally started paying attention. Isn’t that funny? Once I stopped asking to get noticed is when I finally got the writing attention I’d been craving!
I FaceTimed with potential agents after a big publisher reached out to me and told me to get representation, and it was important to me to get an agent who thought my being on the road wasn’t a big deal. I needed somebody who’d understand my lifestyle, so I didn’t apologise for it. The right agent, sure enough, thought it was an ASSET that I travel, that I had this whole other adventurous life outside of writing. That’s how I knew she was the one.
Once we got the deal and the book was finished, though, I came to London and settled down for a bit. I wanted to be able to take full advantage of any press I could get, or any promo opportunities I might have, so it made sense to be back on terra firma for this phase of publication. And actually, I’ve really enjoyed being home.
What do you hope people take from the book?
That none of us is screwing up like we think we are. That the journey is the point, not the destination. That it’s okay to be uncertain, unsure, to want more for your life even if you can’t quite put your finger on what that is.
Do you have any advice for young people who are travelling in the hope of having sex and perhaps finding a romantic relationship?
Pack condoms. Don’t go home with strangers. Be realistic. A short-lived holiday romance doesn’t have to mean any less than a long-term love – we’re not meant to end up with everyone we connect with. And on the road, we connect with so many.
You’re now living in London, and your career and profile are going from strength-to-strength. Will travel continue to play an important role in your life?
Sure! I’m feeling pretty settled right now, but if the itch starts back up I’ve got no qualms packing up a bag and heading off. That said, I’m in my thirties, now, and my needs are a different. I want to continue seeing the world, but I also want to settle down and have children, and I’m realistic about how complicated it could be to do both. But I’ll find a way. That’s all part of the fun! And exciting to be a little uncertain about how this next phase of my becoming will unfold…
Finally, what’s next for you after Becoming?
I just want to keep writing. I’m working on a TV pitch, and ideas for book two. If travel has taught me anything, though, it’s that there’s only so much you can plan for. I’m happy to roll with the punches and see where this wild rides takes me next. And if that’s to foreign lands, so much the better.
Becoming by Laura Jane Williams is published by Hodder & Stoughton, and is available to buy now online and from all good bookshops.