Alice Oseman | 'It’s more of an episodic story, so I decided a comic would be a better format'

Alice Oseman | 'It’s more of an episodic story, so I decided a comic would be a better format'

Nick and Charlie, the lead characters in graphic novel series Heartstopper, first appeared in Alice Oseman’s début Young Adult novel Solitaire. The pair were fairly minor characters, but almost as soon as she finished writing the book, she knew she wanted to expand on their story. “They have this balance of having such a loving, wonderful relationship, while also the realism of dealing with serious issues,” Oseman tells me, speaking over the phone from her Kent home ahead of the release of Heartstopper Volume 4 in May. “I wanted to understand how they got to that point and where they would go from there.”

In Heartstopper, Nick and Charlie meet at a boys’ grammar school and the story follows their relationship as they first become friends, and then fall in love. As the series progresses, we see the pair navigate all the joy and awkwardness of first love against the backdrop of school, friends and family; a wide, inclusive cast of supporting characters adding considerable charm. Oseman describes her prose novels as being about “teenage disasters” but the tone of Heartstopper is quite different: uplifting and hopeful, much more of a comfort read. As Volume 4 begins, the pair are officially boyfriends, Nick is thinking about coming out to his dad and Charlie is struggling with an eating disorder. Oseman doesn’t avoid difficult topics, but she does approaches them with great care. “One thing people do like about Heartstopper is that when it does tackle very serious issues like this, I try my very hardest to keep it as safe to read as possible. It’s not going to be intensely triggering for people who have experienced eating disorders.”

Oseman initially imagined Heartstopper as a novel, but soon realised the story she had in mind wouldn’t be a natural fit. “It didn’t have the structure, it’s more of an episodic story, so I decided a comic would be a better format.” She was already in the habit of drawing her characters and posting illustrations online, so it felt like a natural progression. She launched the webcomic in September 2016 and it quickly built up a devoted fanbase. “I’d always hoped it would get popular enough to warrant a physical edition, but didn’t think there was any chance of traditional publication,” she recalls. In 2018, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish. The demand was huge, so much so that Hachette offered her a deal for the series.

“A different, magical form of storytelling” is how Oseman describes graphic novels. “The thing I really love most about making comics is being able to express emotions in a story without having to use any words. My favourite scenes in Heartstopper are the ones where there is no dialogue, you completely understand how everyone is feeling just from the images.” The episodic feel also suits the pace of Heartstopper, which doesn’t have the intense structure and plot of a novel.

Heartstopper is much more about the everyday, which is one of the reasons it is so relatable. “It’s the little moments of Nick and Charlie’s lives,” Oseman says. Despite the success of Heartstopper, very few YA graphic novels are published in the UK, particularly from mainstream publishers. Why does Oseman think there is such resistance? “Perhaps because people in traditional publishing haven’t seen it done before, or haven’t seen any success of it,” she suggests. She is encouraged by the developing market for YA graphic novels in the US, and hopes the success of her series will encourage publishers here. “I think teens, and especially teens who do struggle with reading prose fiction, can absolutely fall in love with graphic novels.”

Young at heart
Oseman has been drawing and writing stories her whole life. “I grew up in the first boom of YA,” she says, when Twilight and the Hunger Games were at peak popularity. Then she discovered John Green. “I realised people were writing these quite serious, contemporary teen stories and that switched my interest into writing something like that, but about the world I knew.” She began working on her own longer fiction, and wrote Solitaire during her time in sixth-form. HarperCollins published it in 2014, when she was just 19. The early work of most authors is safely tucked away from view, but the evolution of Oseman’s writing has been very public. “It’s a bit scary for that change to have happened in front of thousands of people,” she admits, laughing.

She sees a definite improvement in her writing over the years, and in the progression of her art style from the early Heartstopper comics. Her relationship with readers has also impacted on her work; through her website and social media, she has far more direct contact and feedback than most creators. “I still upload Heartstopper online and if I feel that people are having certain reactions, I might tweak a bit of dialogue. It almost feels like I’m being edited a bit as I go along. It is helpful to see how people are interpreting the story, where they think it might be going. It definitely influences my writing process.” Nick and Charlie’s story will come to a close in Volume 5 of Heartstopper, but this is far from the end for the series. Netflix has signed an eight-part live action series, due to begin filming later this year, Covid-permitting. Oseman is working closely with production company See-Saw Films, writing the script under the mentorship of executive producer Patrick Walters.

“The first thing I did was to go away and read [the scripts of] lots of shows that I liked to understand the format,” she explains. Screenwriting has presented a new challenge, but it is, she believes, one that plays to her strengths. “I’ve always felt that dialogue is one of the things I’m best at in my writing. I am so excited to share it not only with Heartstopper’s existing readership, but also a whole new audience around the world.”