YA author Alice Oseman talks about the writing process and life as a professional author
Alice Oseman is one of the few YA authors who actually began her first novel before she was technically a young adult. After writing her debut novel, Solitaire, at 17, the book was published to wide acclaim, garnering praise from critics, one of whom described it as “The Catcher In The Rye for the digital age.”
Now 21, Alice Oseman recently published her second novel Radio Silence, which is already drawing attention for its stark contemporary realism and writing skill at deconstructing many YA tropes, including a strong emphasis on platonic relationships, diverse characters and, as Alice herself describes it, “sarcastic teenagers on the Internet.”
We were lucky enough to talk with Alice Oseman recently about writing her new book, her writing process, and life since becoming a popular author. Check out what she had to say!
HelloGiggles: Quite frequently, in literature, teenagers are portrayed as over-dramatic or teenage angst is used simply as a plot device. However, Tori’s feelings in Solitaire are clearly damaging her, even as adults around her too easily dismiss them. Have you witnessed this devaluation of teenager’s feelings by adults in your own experience?
Alice Oseman: I definitely have! Even once my book got published, adults would come up to me and chuckle about the ‘teenage angst’ I wrote about in my book. I gritted my teeth and tried not to snap back about how this ‘teenage angst’ is, actually, real human emotion.
I experienced it from all over the place during my teenage years. I felt sad for a lot of my teenage life, and so did a lot of people my age I encountered, and for many people this descended into full-blown mental illness. Adults would dismiss these feelings as a sort of phase that teenagers go through. I couldn’t understand how teenagers crying daily, having panic attacks, wishing to die, etc, was a ‘phase’. I have always hated the word ‘angst’. Just because a negative emotion might spring up from nowhere does not mean that it’s silly or stupid. Often it can be a sign of more complex mental health problems.
The fact of the matter is – many adults refuse to respect teenagers and refuse to try to understand their feelings. I’d never read a book that told me that it was okay and normal to feel sad all the time, but I saw it everywhere in the people around me. So I decided to write it myself.
HG: You posted a photo of your (eight!) previous drafts of Radio Silence, which is to be published in February 2016. When you’re revising your novels, do you ever find yourself removing scenes that you really love? Is it hard for you to let go of certain scenes/lines?
AO: It can feel a bit disheartening to cut scenes that you love. I’ve definitely had to do it with Radio Silence — it’s already a pretty long book, and I really needed to cut it down. I do know that it makes the book as a whole a lot better though, so I’m happy to do it where I and my editors feel it’s necessary. In Solitaire there used to be an entire chapter from Michael’s POV, which I loved, but in the later edits I realized that it really didn’t fit with the rest of the book, so I was happy to take it out.
HG: What really strikes me about both your blog/art blog is how attached you are to your characters. Is there a difference between how you see your Solitaire and Radio Silence characters? How do your characters come to mind and has there been any character that has come particularly naturally or been particularly difficult to write?
AO: I am extremely attached to my characters! Maybe it’s a bit weird. Oh well.
There is definitely a difference for me personally between my Solitaire characters and my Radio Silence characters – in lots of different ways! My Solitaire characters feel older, they are very much a part of me, and they feel like they have a slight element of wish-fulfillment about them, as that’s the sort of writer I was at the time. My Radio Silence characters, however, feel much more heavily realistic, and more rounded and less… hmm what’s the word… ‘obvious’. But I love them just as much.
My characters always start from one primary characteristic, e.g. Tori was a pessimist, Michael was an optimist, etc. Then I round them out a bit, make them a bit more complex. Tori and Michael were very easy to write, as they’re both very single-minded. Frances and Aled, the protagonists of Radio Silence, were much harder, because they’ve both got very complicated personalities, and their behavior rarely reflects what they’re feeling on the inside… but I don’t wanna get into spoiler territory. ?
HG: You’ve talked on your blog about how you regret the fact there were no mixed-race characters in Solitaire, and have mentioned how your Radio Silence protagonist is a bisexual POC. How aware were you of the need for diversity in YA literature as a teenager? Was there a specific moment that first opened your eyes to the need for more diversity or was it a gradual process over time? What would you say to the people who argue against white authors writing POC protagonists or vice versa?
AO: I had absolutely no idea that there was a need for diversity in YA literature as a teenager. It didn’t even cross my mind. As I’m white, I was blinded by white privilege – all the books and TV shows and films I consumed almost always had all white main characters, all of my school friends were white, and the need (for) diversity in the media was just not something that I’d even heard about. This was why Solitaire ended up having almost zero ethnic diversity. Nowadays, this is what I hate most about the book.
Learning about the need for diversity in literature was a gradual process of educating myself online, reading about campaigns like We Need Diverse Books, and talking to readers and other authors. After learning all about this, I wanted to do much better in Radio Silence, and consequently, made sure that there are characters of various ethnicities – because it’s important that all people are able to see themselves in literature.
I have heard that there is an argument that white authors should not attempt to write characters of other ethnic backgrounds. I don’t agree with this, because it assumes that the most important ethnicity in a book is that of the author. I’d argue that the characters are monumentally more important than the author – it is the characters the reader will see themselves in, after all.
HG: You’ve talked a bit about your own experiences with people who seem to think others are required to be in a relationship to be happy or fulfilled. Are you planning to address this issue yourself in any future work?
AO: Rare is the YA contemporary novel that does not contain a romance. Newsflash – most people do not find their life partner in their teens. Another newsflash – friendships are equally as important as romantic relationships. A third newsflash – I am very bored of predictable insta-love heterosexual romances in novels.
Some elements of this issue are addressed in Radio Silence, but I am planning to address this in more detail in future works – probably book 3, actually.
I don’t really know why the media values romantic relationships so much more than friendships. I guess people think that romantic relationships have a greater degree of closeness and exclusivity, which makes them more special. I’ve never understood this myself. All my greatest relationships in my life have been with my friends.
HG: Do you have any particular plans for the next few years? If you hadn’t been a writer, what other career would you have considered? Would you ever consider combining your love of writing and art in some way?
AO: I have a few plans! I’ll write my third book this year and I’m going to officially start a webcomic in the summer – which will indeed combine my love of writing and art! I’d love to one day publish a graphic novel but I think I need to improve my skills a bit more first. But… hopefully one day!
I have absolutely no idea what I’d do if I weren’t an author. I’m probably going to have to decide once I run out of money.