Alice Oseman has just had the haircut she’s been thinking about for three years. Her trademark red curls have been chopped to just above the ears, framing her face in corkscrew curtains. ‘I can’t believe I finally did it,’ she tells me via Zoom, sitting in front of a faux brick wallpaper in the flat she bought last year. As usual, she’s sipping Diet Coke and wearing a striped tee-shirt. ‘It’s crazy how much it changes the way you see yourself. Every time I look in the mirror, I do a double-take. I think, “Who is that?”’
It’s a question that has plagued the 26-year-old since her teens, when her traditional all-girls school ushered the introverted teen down an academic path. ‘I was a really high achiever at school, so my teachers all wanted me to go to Oxbridge. I’d spent my whole life being praised for how academic I was, so I tried to get into Cambridge, but failed. I ended up at Durham studying English Literature and hated it. I didn’t care about anything I was reading, and struggled to connect with anyone on a deep level.’
But Oseman was no ordinary disenchanted student. Because by the time she landed in student halls, she’d already signed a six-figure, two-book deal with HarperCollins. She wrote her debut novel Solitaire – described by a Times reviewer as ‘the Catcher in the Rye for the digital age’ – while she was still in sixth form, at the ripe old age of 17.
‘I was a teenager during the first YA boom, which is when I discovered John Green. While I loved reading books like that, I couldn’t find any that really represented my world, which was a British all-girl school. So I started writing Solitaire just for fun, to make myself happy. It was only towards the end that I realised how much I wanted to be an author, and how much I believed in that book. And I just thought, “What have I got to lose?”’
Her youthful gumption paid off. Oseman nabbed an agent and a lucrative book deal within months, and Solitaire came out during her first year of university. While still at Durham, she also wrote and published her second, Radio Silence, as well as two novellas set in the same universe. She also started working on the project that would launch her ship in earnest: Heartstopper.
Heartstopper began life as a free-to-read webcomic, which Oseman writes and illustrates herself. It’s a gay love story, featuring rugby-playing Nick and angst-ridden Charlie, two schoolboy characters from Solitaire, whom she felt deserved more air time. ‘I tried to plan it as a prose novel but I couldn’t make it work, because the story in my head didn’t have a novel structure. There wasn’t a beginning, middle and end; it was ongoing. So I realised it would perfectly suit the format of a webcomic.’
Where do you even start with such a project? ‘I’d already been drawing my fictional characters for years, so when I realised the story would only work as a comic, I felt confident enough in my art abilities to go for it. I had so much fun experimenting with the panels and frames and angles. I was happy with what I was making so I decided to put it out there.’
After producing around 30 pages of the story during the summer of 2016, she launched Heartstopper on free platforms like Tumblr and Tapas in September. It wasn’t an overnight sensation, but fans steadily increased until her readership was in the tens of thousands by the end of 2017.
‘At this point I wanted to see Nick and Charlie in print, but I didn’t think it could be a traditionally published book, and my agent agreed. There wasn’t a market for YA contemporary graphic novels in the UK.’ She decided to crowdfund a self-published edition. When I ask about this, she smiles coyly. ‘Yeah, the Kickstarter did better than I expected.’
This is a massive understatement. Her original goal of £9,000 was met in less than two hours, and the fundraising page ultimately brought in £58,925. The project was such a runaway success it made the news.
As members of the close-knit YA circuit, Alice and I have been in each other’s orbits for a while, and I remember seeing pictures of her parents’ house being taken over by self-publishing paraphernalia: bubble wrap and envelopes, pens and postage labels, as well as 2,000 shiny new volumes of her freshly-printed graphic novel. She laughs at the memory. ‘That took up so much of my time. I’m glad that period of my life is over.’
Hachette went on to snap up the rights to Heartstopper – four volumes of the story are now in print, and the latest won an incredibly competitive Goodreads Choice Award.
Throughout all of this, Oseman also published two more YA novels: I Was Born for This (2018), about a teenage rock band, and Loveless (2020), about sexual identity. The latter won last year’s YA Book Prize, but it was an incredibly fraught writing experience. ‘When I started writing, I knew what theme I wanted to explore – the idea that friendship can be as powerful as romance. But I just couldn’t plot it. I could not figure out what needed to happen.
‘It was the second book in a two-book deal, so there was time pressure – I can’t remember how many times I had to push my deadline. Plus Heartstopper was taking off, and my other books were doing well, so the idea of someone tweeting something like, “I quite enjoyed Loveless, but Radio Silence was way better” really scared me.
‘Eventually I just had to take the plunge so I wrote 60,000 words – but still had no idea how to end it. And I was really unhappy with what I’d written. So I had a really long talk with Lauren James, who is queen of plotting, and she said, “I think you have to start again”. So that’s what I did. I don’t know how my publishing team put up with me.’
The book ended up being a year late. ‘But the story was really personal to me, so anything less than perfection wasn’t going to be good enough. It explores asexuality and aromanticism – which is what I am. I’m an asexual aromantic. It was kind of a coming-out journey, a deep dive into something that had affected me throughout my life.’
That was one reason why it was so difficult to finish. ‘Writing that story forced me to dig up some dark personal feelings, which is not really what you want to sit down at your desk to do every day.’
The excruciating process of mining your own trauma in order to sell books has been a prominent conversation in YA recently. How far do we have to go to prove we have the right to tell any given story? But for Alice, the very process of writing was key to understanding herself. ‘I think I use my books as therapy. Radio Silence has a demisexual character, who I really identified with at the time – that was my first exploration of those feelings. And looking back at Solitaire, the main character Tori heavily reads as being asexual.
‘That wasn’t intentional – I didn’t even know what asexuality was. As a creative person, writing is how I explore things that affect me. It’s just unfortunate that there’s money involved.’ I laugh in solidarity, and point out that usually you’d pay a therapist for this, not be paid for doing it yourself.
While Alice was slogging through Loveless, production companies had started sniffing around Heartstopper, but because her stories are so deeply personal, she insisted on a level of creative control that mere authors are not usually permitted during the adaptation process. Eventually the story was optioned by See-Saw Productions, with Oseman attached to adapt. ‘What drew me to See-Saw when they pitched for it was that they suggested that I try writing the scripts. That doesn’t happen very often.’
In typical overachiever fashion she took to screenwriting with relative ease, and ended up penning all of the scripts herself – although there was an early hiccup. ‘I really didn’t know what I was doing at the start, but I worked closely with the Executive Producer Patrick Walters, who guided me when I needed it. When I wrote the first draft, I didn’t realise there was a strict page limit – it’s supposed to be one page per minute of screen time, so I should have turned in a 30-page script for a half-hour show. I sent him 60! But I think it turned out well in the end.’
Over the course of our chat, I realise how understated Oseman is when talking about her achievements. Heartstopper didn’t just ‘turn out well’ – it was commissioned by Netflix and went into production this year. Oseman has been heavily involved in all parts of the process, from watching audition reels – ‘I found it quite hard to watch sometimes, because I can’t cope with hearing something I’ve written. I’ve never listened to any of my audiobooks’ – to spending every day on set.
‘The shoot was April to June, and it was surreal. Most of the time I was just watching, and if there was anything the director wasn’t sure about in terms of how a scene should feel, he would come and consult me. I talked a lot with costume and the art department about what felt truest to the original characters, and what the fanbase would enjoy seeing.’
Did it live up to her expectations? ‘I didn’t really have any expectations,’ she says. ‘I knew absolutely nothing about how TV shows are made. Everyone was so skilled and so busy all the time, and I had no idea what any of them were doing.’
It’s safe to say that Oseman’s career has exploded in the last few years, which digs up complicated feelings for the introverted wunderkind. ‘I’m so grateful that this is my job and what my life is. But it has created a lot of pressure. I’m at a point where I’m struggling to work on things because I know there are so many people reading what I write.’
And the internet, which was so instrumental in her meteoric rise, carries its own pressures. In a time of flaming pitchforks and cancellations, having a large audience (over 100,000 Instagram followers at time of writing) brings a fresh set of anxieties.
‘The way I’ve used the internet has really changed in the last couple of years. I used to post anything on Tumblr. It was my safe personal space to chat about what was going on in my life. But now people have an opinion on every tiny thing you post, so it’s a lot more intimidating to put yourself out there. I post a lot less now, and when I do it’s about work. I miss having that outlet.’
Which brings us back to this sense of identity and performance that Oseman has been grappling with for her whole adult life. Having a career launch at 17 leaves little time or space to figure out who you are, especially when your two most beloved hobbies – writing and drawing – have been so successfully and thoroughly monetised.
For this reason, Oseman has decided to put her prose novel writing on hold for a while. ‘I want to rediscover what I enjoy doing, because at the moment I really don’t know. 2020 was so intense that I didn’t have a life. My ambition for the next few years is to try and figure out who I am outside of my creative work.’
Does that mean she doesn’t have any more goals? With Netflix shows and bestseller lists, translation deals and a rabid readership where does she go from here? ‘I definitely have aspirations to write for adults. I love the idea of character-focused relationship books for people in their twenties. I’d also like to be involved in writing a narrative video game, because I’m obsessed with Life Is Strange – but that’s not a goal I’m working towards at the moment. It’s just a “that would be cool” idea. But who knows? I don’t know what the future will bring. For now, I’m chilling. If I was just doing what I’m doing now forever, that would suit me.’
ALICE OSEMAN is an author and illustrator and was born in 1994 in Kent, England. Her YA novel Loveless won the 2020 YA Book Prize and the Bookseller’s YA Book of the Year Award in 2021, while her webcomic Heartstopper, which is currently being adapted by Netflix, won a 2020 Goodreads Choice Award. Radio Silence won a Silver Inky Award for International Fiction in 2017; I Was Born for This won YA Books of the Year in the United by Pop Awards in 2018; Heartstopper (Volume 3) won the Goodreads Choice Award in 2020.
LAURA STEVEN is a journalist and award-winning author from northern England. She has published seven books for children and young adults; her debut novel The Exact Opposite of Okay won the inaugural Comedy Women In Print Prize in 2019. Her work has appeared in the i Paper, Guardian, Publishers Weekly and Buzzfeed.