By Kaley Kiermayr
Today we’re pleased to welcome Alice Oseman to the WNDB blog to discuss her young adult novel Loveless, picked up by Scholastic for publication in the U.S.!
Georgia has never been in love, never kissed anyone, never even had a crush—but as a fanfic-obsessed romantic she’s sure she’ll find her person one day.
As she starts university with her best friends, Pip and Jason, in a whole new town far from home, Georgia’s ready to find romance, and with her outgoing roommate on her side and a place in the Shakespeare Society, her ‘teenage dream’ is in sight.
But when her romance plan wreaks havoc amongst her friends, Georgia ends up in her own comedy of errors, and she starts to question why love seems so easy for other people but not for her. With new terms thrown at her—asexual, aromantic—Georgia is more uncertain about her feelings than ever.
Is she destined to remain loveless? Or has she been looking for the wrong thing all along?
How was the “seed” for Loveless planted? How did that “seed” grow, and what nurtured it?
Loveless began with my desire to tell a story about platonic love. It was a theme I’d explored somewhat in my previous novels—platonic soulmates Aled and Frances in Radio Silence, internet friendship and boyband brotherhood in I Was Born for This—but I wanted to bring that theme to the front and centre in my next book. My idea was to tell a story that had the format of a romance—the meet cute, the relationship development, the third-act break-up—but about a platonic relationship, with the aim to show how magical and powerful platonic love could be.
Soon after I began planning it, I realised how closely this theme tied into asexual and aromantic experiences. And so my next desire for the book was to include an aro-ace coming out story. I’d read a lot of coming out stories—I did my university dissertation on them—but I’d never read a book which had an aro-ace coming out story as the focus, that explored all the confusion and doubt and exploration involved in figuring out your sexuality. Something like that would certainly have helped me a lot when I was younger, and I was very excited about exploring all that emotional turmoil!
After that initial “seed,” how did the story develop? What elements of it came to you first and how?
After that, it was chaos! I usually start with my themes, then develop my core cast of characters, then figure out the plot (my least favourite bit). It’s tricky to remember exactly how it all came together, as I started working on it in 2018!
I remember that I knew early on that I wanted it to be set at university, as I’ve always enjoyed YA set at university/college and I wanted to set a story at my university, Durham University.
I knew I wanted the narrator, Georgia, to be romance-obsessed but painfully shy; the sort of person to keep all her thoughts locked up in her brain. From there I soon created Rooney, who is the opposite of Georgia in many ways—she’s brazen, socially confident, and hates the idea of being in a romantic relationship. I quickly decided they would be university roommates. One of my favourite things to do in my books is put two very different personalities together and see what happens, and in Loveless, that was Georgia and Rooney!
I was excited by the idea of having three girls at the heart of the book, which inspired me to create Pip, one of Georgia’s best friends from home who comes with Georgia to attend Durham University. From there, I couldn’t stop thinking about the complex triangle of platonic, romantic, and sexual attraction between the three of them, and I knew I had a basis for a total disaster zone of drama.
As I created more characters, I realised that I wanted to explore how people feel about sex and romance through all of the protagonists, not just Georgia. As I developed Georgia’s story, I couldn’t help but think about how the forces affecting her—society’s dictation that romantic love is superior to everything—were also affecting Rooney, who opts for one-night-stands only, and Pip, who is unsure whether she’ll ever find the one, and Jason, who was stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship in his teenage years. They were all, I realised, dealing with the feeling of being ‘loveless’ in some shape or form, and from there, I knew what book I wanted to write.
Can you tell me about your favorite scenes to write? How about the most troublesome? (You can keep it spoiler-free.)
One of my favourite scenes to write involved pool noodles and a bouncy castle, which occurs after a lengthy build-up of sexual tension and everyone’s wearing really great outfits. It brings me much joy.
One of the most troublesome scenes was the opening of the book, which went through a huge number of revisions and rewrites. Loveless is partially, if not mostly, a coming out story, and Georgia’s journey is one that has been going on a lifetime. I struggled to know where to come into the story and how much insight of the past I needed to give the reader—because the realisations that Georgia has in the story are the result of experiences and feelings that she has been, or hasn’t been, having throughout her entire life.
Something I loved about Loveless is that I could feel a lot of specificity of experience in the portrayal of LGBTQIA+ experiences. But writing about this stuff when you’ve experienced it can also dig up some intense emotions and even be triggering! After Loveless was released in the UK, you mentioned during interviews that it was a difficult creative project, and that you felt it would take your mental health a while to recover from it. As a creative individual, what did you learn during this period about taking care of yourself during and after the creation and revising process? How do you begin to do this?
To be perfectly honest with you, I am still trying to recover from writing Loveless, a year and a half later. I haven’t been able to spend much time on self-care as I’ve been hard at work on Heartstopper—the comic and the TV adaptation! I know this is bad. I know. If I had a pound for every time someone’s told me to ‘take a break’…
Loveless took more out of me emotionally and mentally than I anticipated. My novels have always tackled feelings and experiences that are close to my heart, so in that sense, I didn’t expect Loveless to be much different. But it was. It required me to take feelings and experiences that have caused me immense emotional pain for long periods of my life and put them into words, and to also make sure that those feelings had an optimistic spin and a resolution.
I’ve always used writing as a therapy of sorts, as it helps me to explore and make sense of feelings and experiences in my life. In this case, the feelings and experiences I explored were still affecting me in a big way, so the process of publishing a book was overwhelming and painful in a way it hadn’t been before. At times, I felt I was giving too much of myself away. Add that to the fact that Loveless was incredibly difficult to write—I found it excruciating to plot, restarted it several times, and extended the first draft deadline many times—and it was two years of writing hell.
In terms of taking care of myself… I suppose I’m still looking for an answer. I took small steps after Loveless was published—increasing my online boundaries (if only by a small bit!), stopping reading reviews entirely, forcing myself to say no to certain publicity requests. I’m incredibly proud of what I created, and more so given how difficult it was, but I think I still have a lot to learn about self-care, and I think publishing Loveless encouraged me to think about how much of myself I really need to harvest in the name of selling books, or even in the name of art.
Georgia as a character seems hugely impacted by the internet—mentally she reframes so much in online terms. It’s a kind of lens through which she looks at the world, and it can also be both a comfort blanket and defense mechanism. But when Georgia is Googling “aromanticism” and “asexuality” for the first time, she’s bombarded by information that she doesn’t quite feel equipped to deal with. Even though she’s glad to find the resource, for perhaps the first time, the internet seems a little scary to deal with. Can you talk a little about what you were thinking when you conceptualized Georgia’s relationship with online queer spaces and resources?
This is no doubt a result of my own upbringing, which was spent so much online. I have mixed feelings about that fact these days! And I think those mixed feelings are explored in Loveless. Like many teens, Georgia finds a lot of joy in the internet—she loves fanfiction, for example, and when she begins to question her identity, the first place she turns is the internet, which has some of the answers she’s looking for. But it’s a double-edged sword. The queer communities she finds online are overwhelming, confusing, and in many ways exacerbate Georgia’s anxieties about her sexuality. The people she finds online all think and feel different things, and somehow they all know exactly who they are and which words to use, and some of them interpret the words in different ways, and are arguing about it, and Georgia has no idea what to make of any of it.
I get a lot of questions from teens who are questioning whether they may be aro or ace, and I often see them being overwhelmed by the information that they find online. Because, like it or not, aro and ace identities can be quite complicated, and the range of experiences and feelings on these spectrums are vast. Young queer people often feel that they need to find their label, settle into it, and then they’re done—they have their answer for life. Though coming to terms with being gay has its own set of specific difficulties, ‘gay’ is a word that has a generally fixed meaning in today’s society and has done for decades. But in the online aro and ace communities, there are still debates going on about the meaning of the words themselves. Which is difficult when queer teenagers are growing up in the climate of traditional coming out narratives, feeling that they need to find their label as soon as possible, come out, and only then can they live their best life. So I have teenagers coming to me asking ‘am I asexual if I feel/think/do *this*?’ And my answer just has to be ‘I can’t make that decision for you.’ Because while it’s not a choice to be aro or ace, it has to be a choice to own the label, when there’s no fixed definition, and there may never be.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe the internet has done so much good for aro and ace people. But I also believe it can only get us so far, because until there is big-scale, widespread representation in TV, film, and the world of celebrity, I think the internet will create more confusion as we all go round in circles of debate about terminology. And it certainly inspires some confusion in Georgia.
When Georgia meets Sunil, the nonbinary and ace leader of the Pride Society at her university, it unlocks a lot of possibilities for self-discovery. So does joining up with her sociable roommate Rooney’s Shakespeare Society. Why are these in-person social groups such key experiences that propel her into self-discovery—and why Shakespeare?
Despite all her internet research, it’s Georgia’s real-life relationships and connections that help her the most in her journey towards self-acceptance. They teach her what the internet cannot—it’s okay for her to just exist, and feel what she feels or doesn’t feel, and whatever that is, it’s fine, and she’ll find (platonic) love regardless. Going to her university’s Pride Society is a big part of this, as it allows her to experience a queer space in the real world for the very first time, but also the simple act of her strengthening bond with Rooney, her long-time friendships with Pip and Jason, and the queer mentorship offered by Sunil, are enough to make her realise what’s truly important in her life.
Why Shakespeare? Honestly, amidst all the emotional pain I was digging up to write this book, I wanted to include something in the story that brought me a lot of joy. I’ve loved Shakespeare’s comedies (and some of the tragedies) since I was a kid—my parents would take me to see outdoor performances in the summer, and let me watch some of the movie adaptations (Emma Thompson’s Much Ado About Nothing superiority). I also had a vision that the relationship drama, banter, and confusion between the central characters of Loveless had somewhat of a Shakespearean comedy quality, though maybe that’s just my delusions of grandeur talking.
Asexuality and aromanticism are on spectrums with all kinds of possible axes and graphs. For this reason, it’s always important to have more positive representation of well-rounded characters in the media who are ace and/or aro! Have you seen the needle move at all between when you were drafting Loveless and now?
There are more and more stories about asexuality and aromanticism being created every year, which is wonderful to see. Particularly in YA fiction, which is often at the forefront of fighting for more queer representation. In 2020, there was a small asexuality storyline in one episode of immensely popular TV show Sex Education—it felt tokenistic, sure, but it was there, and it was well-researched and accurate representation. I honestly count that as a win. But there’s still nowhere near enough representation, and for me it’s moving too slowly. Most people, if you ask them, don’t know much—if anything—about asexuality or aromanticism.
I often ponder the fact that (to my current knowledge) there are no A-list celebrities who are openly ace or aro. I believe that TV, film, and celebrity are where big strides of awareness can occur, and there’s still hardly anything. Small steps such as Sex Education and Bojack Horseman do give me hope, and I’m sure literature has a part to play too. But we have a long way to go.
Georgia’s aro-ace experience is not the aro-ace experience. As a writer crafting her story, how do you go about presenting this idea of a “spectrum” for a YA reader through the eyes of a narrator who may not yet realize that a spectrum exists?
This was something I was incredibly aware of when writing Loveless. I’ve been frustrated in the past by stories that present being ace or aro as one very fixed set of feelings about sex and romance, because it’s misrepresenting a huge chunk of the community. It’s actually a big problem in the fight for more ace/aro awareness—for example, a worrying amount of people believe that being asexual is essentially being sex repulsed. But of course, it’s impossible to show every single experience of being ace/aro in one story, and therein lies the challenge when trying to write a book about being ace/aro.
In Loveless, there’s a scene where Georgia is researching asexuality and aromanticism online, and she learns about the hugely varied feelings and experiences of ace and aro people. I hoped that would express to readers that Georgia’s experience is just one of infinite different ways to experience being aro or ace. I also included several other characters in different places on the ace/aro spectrums, all of whom have a different experience of being ace and/or aro to Georgia.
For Loveless, you wanted to craft a story that had the structure of a romance but was about a friendship. Are there any other works you particularly enjoy/want to shout out that celebrate the theme?
Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman is amazing for this. It’s my go-to recommendation when discussing the topic of platonic vs. romantic vs. sexual attraction!
What are your next goals? What direction do you see your work taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
I’m taking a long break from writing prose novels at the moment! Until Loveless, I’d been writing novels consistently since I was seventeen. I hate what the term ‘burnout’ has become these days, but that is basically what I have been experiencing for the past several years. My brain is in no shape to write anything new anytime soon. I don’t know when it’ll be back to functioning and I don’t know what sorts of things I’ll make when that happens. I’m trying not to worry about the future!
But I am still very much working on my queer webcomic/graphic novel series Heartstopper! I’m currently working on the final volume, plus a couple of other Heartstopper-related projects. I’m also the writer and an executive producer for the Netflix TV adaptation of Heartstopper, which was filmed earlier this year and will hopefully come out in 2022, so I have been very busy with work related to that. And hopefully, at some point, maybe, I’ll ‘take a break’!
Alice Oseman was born in 1994 in Kent, England, and is a full-time writer and illustrator. She is the creator of the popular Heartstopper series, which will soon be streaming on Netflix as a live-action TV show. Alice is also the author of four YA novels: Solitaire, Radio Silence, I Was Born for This, and Loveless. Visit her online at aliceoseman.com.
Kaley Kiermayr is a Boston-based editor, freelance writer, and marketer. She is currently the Executive Affairs & Special Projects Officer at The Theater Offensive, a nonprofit that produces liberating art by, for, and about queer and trans people of color. Previously, she was Fiction Editor at F(r)iction literary anthology and Marketing Director at Brink Literacy Project. She received her Publishing MA at Emerson College. In her downtime, she enjoys getting involved with LGBTQ+ literature and writing projects.