Alice Oseman Discusses 'Heartstopper', Romance, and Fandom
In 2019, Scholastic announced they would be publishing Alice Oseman’s graphic novel, Heartstopper in the United States. Since then, three volumes of the queer-friendly work have been published, with the forth slated to launch in December of this year. Given the series’ success, and Netflix’s announcement they’re adapting the graphic novel for television, I wanted to revisit my interview with Oseman from 2019 about the series, romance, and fandom.
How would you introduce Heartstopper for new audiences?
Heartstopper tells the story of Charlie, an openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a soft-hearted rugby player. The two boys meet at an all-boys grammar school (a type of selective single-sex high school we have here in the south-east of England!) and quickly become friends, despite their many differences. When Charlie starts falling for Nick, he doesn’t think he has a chance. But love works in surprising ways, and Nick’s a little more interested in Charlie than Charlie thinks…
The comic follows characters from your first novel, Solitaire. How does the comic relate to the novel?
Nick and Charlie, the stars of Heartstopper, are secondary characters in Solitaire, which focuses on Charlie’s older sister Tori. In Solitaire, Nick and Charlie are in a loving, supportive relationship. Heartstopper is currently set in the year before the events of Solitaire and is telling the story of Nick and Charlie pre-Solitaire.
What inspired you to do a spin-off from the original novel? And why did you choose create a comic, instead of another novel?
Solitaire was my first published novel – it came out in 2014. I wrote it when I was seventeen and it was the first set of my own characters that I truly fell in love with, including Nick and Charlie. But I didn’t get to tell their full story in Solitaire. As they were only supporting characters, I didn’t get the room to delve into their backstory, such as how they got together!
I’ve always loved thinking about the lives of my characters beyond the stories that I write them in. I love chatting to my readers about what happens outside of the text, and I also grew to love drawing my characters – I started posting my own character art on Tumblr in (I think) 2013 as a way to share my love for my characters with my readers. I became particularly interested in Nick and Charlie’s story – there was so much that I hadn’t explored in Solitaire. I soon realized I had to tell their story somehow.
I initially attempted to plan out their story as a novel, since that’s what I had experience in. But I couldn’t get it to work. The story I had in mind just didn’t have a good structure for a novel – there was no big climax at the end, no traditional plot arc. Nick and Charlie’s story, I realized, was episodic. It was a series of little moments in an ongoing journey where Nick and Charlie face the challenges in their lives together.
I’d been a reader of webcomics and graphic novels for years, and I’d always had a passion for drawing. I’d always had ambitions of starting a webcomic of my own… and Nick and Charlie’s story was perfect for that. And so Heartstopper was born!
Your works have been praised for their diverse cast of characters, and for exploring sexual orientation. Heartstopper focuses on the gay relationship between Nick and Charlie, and it’s charming, handled respectfully, and felt remarkably realistic and genuine. When telling a story with queer characters, how do you, as an author, ensure your depictions are respectful?
Often for me it’s taking elements of my personal experience as a queer person. Much of Heartstopper comes from my own life – I too went to a single-sex grammar school in a conservative town in the south-east of England, and the world of Heartstopper and the people in it are all inspired by what life was like there.
But it’s also important that when I’m writing about topics that are wildly outside of my own experience – in any of my works – I do seek out advice from others who know better! Sensitivity readers are a great example of that, and I’ve had really positive experiences with people I’ve hired to read over my work. Research is important too – following people online, watching YouTube videos of people talking about their experiences, reading firsthand accounts and articles. There’s so much information out there that can help you! And knowing when it’s simply not your place to explore a topic is important too.
Aside from that, one good thing about Heartstopper being a webcomic is that I get ongoing feedback firstly from my Patreon supporters (who see it first), and then from commenters as I upload it online. If anything I was doing was harmful or inaccurate, my commenters will be the first people to tell me, for sure! Thankfully I haven’t been in that situation thus far, but if I was, I would then have the power to change the story before the pages were finalized for the physical books.
I was impressed by the points you made when chatting with Patrick Sproull at The Guardian about authors taking advantage of shipping culture, specifically how some creators place queer subtext between male friends to provide fodder for shippers, while not actually depicting queer people. How do you think shipping culture has affected actual LGBT depictions in our media, if at all?
‘Queerbaiting’ is such a pet peeve of mine. It infuriates me seeing writers – whether they’re of books, TV, film, or anything else – deliberately hint at queer subtext without ever having the intention of following through, purely for publicity purposes. It’s lazy and disrespectful and honestly disappointing!
I’m not sure I really know how shipping culture has affected actual LGBTQ+ representation in media – I think it’s probably quite a complicated issue! On the one hand, perhaps it has encouraged some writers to include more canonical LGBTQ+ characters and relationships in their stories in more recent years (though not nearly enough!). But on the other hand, it has also probably encouraged more queerbaiting, while also encouraging a culture of fetishizing or eroticizing queer characters, particularly queer men.
I love fandom and think shipping is great, but I think people – mainly straight women – need to stay vigilant about how they are talking about queer media and queer ships. Fandom and shipping should be about having fun, enjoying character chemistry, creativity, (for some people) exploring sexuality, and so much more good stuff. Not simply putting two male characters together and wanting them to bang because you find it hot. Thankfully I think those attitudes are lessening in fandom spaces nowadays!
In that same interview, you discussed the importance of not anchoring a young adult story with a romance, and instead allowing a platonic relationship to be the core of the story. Why do you think that’s so uncommon in the genre? As you mentioned, quite correctly, most of us don’t find our soulmate when we’re in our teen years – why do you think so much YA fiction uses romances so extensively? And, related to that, why did you decide to then write a romance (Heartstopper)?
People like happy endings, and a very easy way to write a happy ending is to have the protagonist end up in a relationship. This used to anger me so much – because how many people actually find their soulmate in their teens! But I think nowadays I’m much more relaxed about it. A lot of the time we do just want a happy story about people falling in love, especially when it’s a queer romance story – it’s not like there are many of them around!
I think it’s harder to write a happy ending without a romance because of the sheer number of stories we experience growing up that feature romance. We’re raised on romance! It’s all around us, all the time, and a part of everything we see and experience. Stories where the protagonist doesn’t fall in love are much fewer and further between. It’s no wonder, in my opinion, that people prefer to include romance in their stories – often people don’t know how to make a story exciting without it!
Having been writing YA novels where the protagonist doesn’t fall in love and still gets a happy ending, I’ve certainly found it harder to craft a plot without including much romance – Heartstopper has been a breeze to plot in comparison to my novels. But it’s been very important to me to show in my YA novels that platonic and familial love can be just as powerful and meaningful as romance. That’s just something that’s very close to my heart and is a part of everything I write!
Heartstopper is definitely very different to my YA novels – mainly because it does focus on a romance. I think this was just how the story had to be and how I wanted it to be – I wanted to tell Nick and Charlie’s backstory, namely how they got together as a couple! I think that when it comes to queer relationships, there’s no need to hold back the romance. I used to think I’d never feature a big romance in my works because it’s been ‘overdone’, but I grew to learn that romance hasn’t been overdone if you’re a marginalized person. There are so, so many romances out there that are cis, straight, white, and able-bodied. But outside of that, there still isn’t much variety. So in Heartstopper I do give romance the limelight – and in doing so shine the light not only on a gay relationship, but also a lesbian relationship through Tara and Darcy, and an m/f relationship between a cis guy and a trans girl through Tao and Elle (If you haven’t met them yet, they appear more in volumes 2 and 3!). It makes me so happy to see so many YA novels now giving the spotlight to LGBTQ+ romances and how LGBTQ+ YA has been growing and flourishing over the past few years. LGBTQ+ teenagers need and deserve to see that romance, so they can believe that they too could have that sparkly romance one day, just as cis and straight people can.
As a reporter that also writes about fandom (and has been an active member of it for years), I’d like to touch briefly on your third book, I was Born for This. The book discusses how fans can become obsessive, and how fandom can both be positive, and negative (for both the fans, and the subject of their affection). Can you discuss your own interactions with fandom (both as a fan, and having fans of your work)?
I genuinely love fandom. While I’ve never been an active member of a fandom, I’m what people like to call a ‘lurker’ – I follow a lot of blogs and accounts and just enjoy the content, without really posting or interacting. And while I love it, I can see that there are bad parts of fandom culture, just as there are good parts, and that’s what I wanted to explore in I Was Born for This. That book shows how fandom can save you but also break you, depending on your situation!
I absolutely adore my fandom – the readers of the ‘Osemanverse’ as they call it! I feel incredibly blessed to have such a committed and passionate community of readers across my works. They’re so active and create such wonderful art, graphics, fanfic (even though I don’t read any of it, I promise!), and, most importantly, memes. I think a lot of the reason my books have been able to stay in print and are continuing to be discovered and read is because of the fandom. It’s so easy for books to fall into obscurity, but my readers keep them alive, and I feel so incredibly grateful for that.
What is, in your opinion, the best thing about Heartstopper, or thing you’re proudest of within the work?
I think for me it’s the artwork, particularly seeing the progression of my art! Comparing my art now to where it was when I started the comic makes me feel like I’ve really developed as an artist. It makes me excited to see where my art might be one year from now, or five years!
One final question – as a fellow lover of fountain pens, what is Nick’s favorite color of ink?
Definitely blue – Nick likes a classic!
Heartstopper is published in the United States by Graphix. Volumes 1-3 are out now, and Volume 4 will be available in December of 2021.
Alice Oseman’s novel Loveless is published by Scholastic, and will be available in November of 2021.