Heartstopper: An interview with Alice Oseman

Alice Oseman is a writer and illustrator, who was born in Kent. Her books include SOLITAIRE, which was published when she was nineteen, RADIO SILENCE and I WAS BORN FOR THIS. Here she talks about her new LGBT+ YA graphic novel, HEARTSTOPPER…

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Alice’s other books include Solitaire and Radio Silence

Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about your new graphic novel Heartstopper?

Heartstopper is an LGBT+ YA romance graphic novel about Charlie, an openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful rugby player.  They meet at school, quickly become friends, and soon Charlie is falling for Nick – but he doesn’t think he has a chance. But maybe Nick is more interested in Charlie than he thinks…

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Find out more about Heartstopper here!

Who inspired Nick and Charlie? I know they featured in your first novel Solitaire – why did you decide to return to these particular characters?

Nick and Charlie did indeed originate in my first book, Solitaire. In that novel, they’re in a secure, loving relationship, and because they’re not the main characters, that isn’t explored in much depth in the book. That sparked my curiosity. I wondered a lot about the backstory of Nick and Charlie – how did they get together? And where would their relationship go from there? Eventually I just had to write a whole story about it!

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Find out more about Solitaire here!

Nick and Charlie are obviously both quite different. What would you say they each bring to their relationship?

Charlie has a strong sense of independence. He knows who he is and he isn’t afraid to be that. And Nick has such incredible kindness. He’s willing to see the good in everybody.

This scene in the story really captured my heart. It’s so beautiful, gentle and quiet. Can you tell us a bit about what’s going on at this point in the story and what Nick and Charlie might be thinking and feeling?

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“Their relationship has such a strong foundation of friendship.”

I loved drawing this scene! Nick and Charlie are starting to feel so comfortable around each other and really enjoy being together. Their relationship isn’t even particularly romantic yet, but I wanted to show them becoming closer. Their relationship has such a strong foundation of friendship. Both of them are starting to feel just how much they love being around each other.

I was really intrigued by Charlie’s friend, Tao. Why do you think he is so dismissive of Nick? Could it be jealousy?

More will be revealed in Volume 2, but Tao’s just being protective of Charlie. Charlie’s been through some heavy stuff in the past and Tao doesn’t want to see him get hurt again.

What sort of research did you do for Heartstoppers? How much of your own school experiences have influenced the story?

Most of my research comes from personal experience – the setting is very similar to my own school experience (a same-sex school in Kent, just like Nick and Charlie’s school!). But I also turned to queer men’s experiences when writing certain aspects of Nick and Charlie’s experiences – books, articles, documentaries, YouTube videos, etc.

As a gay lad growing up in the 90s and attending an all-boys’ school, lots of the story resonated with me, especially the rugby storyline. I enjoyed your exploration of stereotypes here – Charlie feels he is too weak and small to play rugby and, as a strapping rugby player, Nick can’t possibly be gay! Can you tell us a little bit more about these decisions and what you were trying to say? 

I wanted to turn those stereotypes on their head! Even Charlie himself is a little guilty of judging people by stereotypes – he assumes that Nick couldn’t possibly be anything other than straight, purely because Nick is a masculine, sport-loving guy. Charlie feels that he’d be terrible at rugby because of his size, and Nick’s teammates question Charlie’s abilities because they know he’s gay. But Charlie ends up being pretty decent at it! I wanted to challenge the idea that a person’s sexuality is determined by their appearance or their interests, or vice versa. People can be complex and multi-faceted.

 Miss Singh is brilliant! She’s a relatively minor character in the story, but there’s a wonderful scene when she tells off the rugby team for speculating on people’s sexuality and making assumptions about them. I wondered if you had a teacher like Miss Singh at school?

I love her a lot! She’ll definitely be back in future volumes.

Unfortunately I didn’t have a teacher like her at my school. My school didn’t educate its students at all on LGBT+ issues and there weren’t any teachers that I knew of who were particularly looking out for LGBT+ kids. But I hope that there are teachers like Miss Singh out there somewhere!

Some of the story is told through text messages, email and social media. Why is this?

Because that’s the reality for teenagers today! Technology and the internet are an essential part of teenagers’ lives, so I always include them in my stories.

Why did you decide to tell Nick and Charlie’s love story as a graphic novel? What can a graphic novel allow you to do that a novel can’t?

I’ve always loved comics and graphic novels and decided a graphic would be the perfect way for me to explore Nick and Charlie’s story. Their story doesn’t work as a prose novel because it’s so episodic – it doesn’t have a huge overarching plotline like a novel does. With a graphic novel/webcomic, I can take my time with the smaller moments of Nick and Charlie’s story and explore a variety of topics and themes without having to worry too much about the story having a novel-length plot structure.

I love this double page spread from Heartstoppers. It brilliantly captures Nick’s confusion about his sexuality. Can you talk us through this double page spread a little more? What were you trying to achieve and how did you go about doing it in terms of layout?

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“I used a lot of broken up panels here to build the tension…”

This is the very moment where all of Nick’s thoughts and doubts are brought into reality; this is the moment where he really accepts the possibility that he might not be straight. I used a lot of broken up panels here to build the tension towards that moment where Nick presses ‘Enter’ – the moment where everything he knew about himself sort of explodes!

The story movingly deals with homophobic bullying. What advice would you give to anyone who is experiencing homophobic bullying in school?

Tell someone you trust – a teacher, a counsellor, a family member. Bullying is never, ever acceptable, and teachers should have measures in place to ensure that it stops happening. And having someone on your side can help so, so much.

How has your life changed since the publication of your debut YA novel Solitaire?

So much! I was just a first-year uni student back then. I feel incredibly grateful to be making my living doing what I love – creating stories.

People often talk about reading for pleasure, but as a young gay man I often remember trying to seek out books that reflected and mirrored my own experiences. What might we call this? Reading for empowerment possibly? How might Heartstopper empower young people?

I love that phrase! I’ve heard from some readers that Heartstopper has helped them along their journey of discovering and owning their identity, and I am forever honoured if Heartstopper has helped anyone in any way in doing that.

Do you think YA books that explore the lives of gay and transgender characters are still important and relevant?

Of course! As long as there are gay and transgender people, we well always need books that star gay and transgender characters. So, always!

This story is not just for the LGBT+ community. Do you agree with this statement? Why? Why not?

I think so! Anyone could read and enjoy Heartstopper. It’s first and foremost for LGBT+ teens, as it very much focuses on their experiences, but I think anyone outside that could read and enjoy the book, and maybe learn a little more about the lives of LGBT+ people.

Are there any other stories you’ve read recently that you’ve enjoyed that also deal with similar themes?

If you enjoyed Heartstopper you would undoubtedly enjoy ‘Openly Straight’ by Bill Konigsberg, ‘I Wish You All the Best’ by Mason Deaver, ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ by Becky Albertalli, and ‘Running With Lions’ by Julian Winters!

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Published by Hodder Children’s Books

The sequel to Heartstopper will be released in July 2019. Firstly, I can’t wait! Secondly, can you give us a clue about what’s in store for Charlie and Nick?

Volume 2 will focus quite heavily on Nick! He’s got a lot of big feelings to figure out…

Finally, can you describe Heartstoppers in three words?

Love, life, hope!

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