I meet Alexandra Sheppard on a sweltering September evening. She’s travelled down from North London by bus to meet me at the Southbank Centre. She’s dressed in denim dungarees, her hair is pulled into a top knot and she has that baby-faced youthfulness that probably gets her carded all the time.
We’ve met once before, at a Black Girls Book Club event where I got her to agree to a proper sit down so I could get all the dish on her highly anticipated debut novel, Oh My Gods.
The novel is aimed at teens and is the culmination of a decade of hard work. It’s being ushered out into the world by publishing juggernaut, Scholastic.
But before we get into the novel and the realisation of dreams, I take her back a little. How did she find her way to a career in social media? It’s underpinned her professional career for the last decade, it’s how I first discovered her and it’s where her publishing journey began.
“I dropped out of university in my first year.” She tells me. “I didn’t like Nottingham university. I didn’t like Nottingham, I wanted to come back to London.”
She managed to secure a spot on an English degree course at Queen Mary’s, but it would start the following year. To fill the time she got a web editor intern role. In those days, her ultimate dream was to work as a journalist….well, sort of-
“I always wanted to write. I wanted to be a journalist rather than an author, that’s where I thought the jobs would lie, and it’s easier to get work experience as a journalist than it is to write a book.”
Very pragmatic. In pursuit of that goal, she followed up the web editor position with internships at Timeout and Shortlist. She juggled the internships with paid social media roles and when the year was up she found herself at a crossroads.
She’d made a name for herself in the burgeoning world of social media, she had contacts and experience and she was writing for a captive audience. Meanwhile journalism was doing a death spiral.
“I’m going to go back to university for three years just to do some more unpaid internships and hopefully I’ll get a paid job that will pay the same as what I’m earning now?” She asked herself. It wasn’t logical, so she decided to stick with social media.
Social media was a different world. Tom still had friends on MySpace, Friends Reunited was worth millions, Facebook was a harmless way to stalk your ex and Twitter had just introduced the #hashtag. Online interaction was more collegial, kinder.
“8-9 years ago we’d do something called Tweet ups. I’ve met a lot of people from Twitter just from doing these random events every three months. That could never happen now, Twitter is just too aggressive.”
Twitter may not be the welcoming place it once was, but it’s still a place of discovery. It can bridge distances and make dreams come true.
“My agent was following me on Twitter. She noticed I was writing something. She said, ‘when you finish your next draft, send it to us’. So I did.”
The agent signed her, they did a redraft of her manuscript, and sent the work out to publishers.
It sounds so improbable and Hollywood, like Naomi getting stopped on the street by a modelling agent or Mary J Blige spinning a session in a karaoke booth into a recording contract. I ask her about the process of securing a publishing deal.
“There wasn’t really like one big defining moment.” She says. “My agent would send me comments she’d had from publishers. Some would say, ‘this isn’t for me’, some would say, ‘we like it but this needs to change, would you consider changing this?’ Stuff like that. And then Scholastic came back and said, ‘we’d like to meet you, are you interested?’”
When you have your work out circulating through publishers it’s called submission and it can be harrowing.
“You’ve just finished editing and polishing, you don’t have anything else to distract yourself with, you’ve just sent it off and you might hear something back that week, you might hear back in three months you don’t know.”
But let’s go back another step.
Alexandra grew up in North London with four sisters. Her family was split between her white English father’s side and her Jamaican mother’s. Her father’s side was creative. He works as a director of photography while his parents were painters and sculptors. Her mother’s side had that practical immigrant preference for traditional jobs. The kind of work that helps you put down roots and build a foundation. Alexandra jokes about how her maternal grandfather “only really understood I was writing something [as a job] when I got money for it.”
She’d grown up worrying that she wasn’t creative because there was so much creativity floating around in the family. “There’s this thing in the family- ‘the Sheppards are always bad at maths. Bad with money. Bad with organisation.’ And I was never bad with any of those things. I was always very organized so I thought I couldn’t be a creative.
Still, aged 20, she started writing a novel. Five years in, after repeatedly writing herself into brick walls and growing frustrated with the process, she signed up for the women’s writing course, Write Like a Grrrl. It was a huge turning point.
“It taught you to sit down for 15 minutes a day and just write. Break that barrier down. That’s what really got me into writing.”
It is this initial project that grew into her 2019 debut, Oh My Gods, a young adult novel inspired by Alexandra’s love of Greek mythology.
“I must have bought every Greek God on Earth book in the last five years just to make sure my idea hadn’t been done and see all the ways in which it has been done. I wanted to do it with someone who looked like me. So, someone who’s half Jamaican, who’s grown up in North London, someone who was a teenager – and just put my own spin on it.”
Helen Thomas has just moved in with her dorky dad and self-absorbed older siblings – who happen to be the ancient Greek gods, living incognito in London!
Between keeping her family’s true identities secret, trying to impress her new friends, and meeting an actually cute boy, Helen’s stress levels are higher than Mount Olympus.
She needs to rein in her chaotic family before they blow their cover AND her chances at a half-normal social life.
Or is Helen fated for an embarrassment of mythical proportions?
Alexandra talks excitedly about the people she’s worked with on the book. The editors: “They really elevated the story and made it into something special.” The cover illustrator: “I didn’t expect it to be anywhere near as bright and loud. Little details I didn’t expect, like the fact [they’ve used] gold foil for her earrings and the Greek patterns.”
She has clearly enjoyed the collaborative process of readying her book for publication. But equally, she doesn’t mince her words when I ask what she would like to see change in the publishing industry.
“More diversity across the board, not just the writers and illustrators but in the marketing team, the publicity team, the editorial side, the agents’ side.”
It must be a unique experience to be a writer of colour and have every publishing personnel you encounter along the road to publication be white.
“This year there were 11 YA novels published by British writers of colour. That is-” She searches for a palatable word. Gives up. “…kind of disgusting. That’s so wild to me. I don’t want my younger sisters who are 11 and 15 to be scrabbling around desperately trying to find books for people who look like them, because that’s what I was doing when I was a teenager.”
We agree that the work being done by American publishers to improve diversity has masked the lack of work being done by British publishers.
“I would love to see more British experiences with people of colour explored. I don’t want it to be a rare, magical thing that doesn’t happen very often. I want our young people to have choice.”
What does the future hold? Alexandra’s already at work on her next novel. “I’m planning that out right now. I’m doing some really intense character arc planning before I start writing. I don’t have the time to spend five years writing this book.”
Despite her love of writing, she has no plans to closet herself away and do it full time. “I think it’s quite a solitary role. It can be very draining to do just that. I’d always like to balance it out with social media work.”
For a woman who carved a niche in social media while it was still finding its feet, and tweeted her way to a publishing agent, I doubt Alexandra will have trouble crafting a portfolio career that works exactly as she wishes. She seems to have the Greek Gods fully on her side. What more do you need?
Oh My Gods is out January 3rd. Buy your copy now.