Alexandra Sheppard: 'I wanted the book to be escapist and joyous'
PUBLISHED: 12:56 12 February 2019
At first glance, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about Helen Thomas, the protagonist of Alexandra Sheppard’s debut book: Oh My Gods.
After the tragic loss of her mum at the age of 10, Helen relocates to north London to settle with her dad’s side of the family, adjusting to this new environment as she attempts to navigate her teenage years; with all their uncertainty and confusion and awkwardness.
The curve ball is that, on top of all this, her dad and his family are actually Greek Gods living incognito on Holloway Road.
“Helen is a bit apprehensive about living with a family who can control the weather, while she can barely turn her homework in on time,” explains 30-year-old Sheppard, who grew up in Holloway herself.
“Oh My Gods is also just about trying to be a normal teenager. It’s very light, funny, heart-warming and will appeal to lots of teenagers. The novel is for ages 11 plus, although anyone can enjoy it.”
Billed as ‘The Princess Diaries meets Geek Girl’, Sheppard’s first book features themes of family, feminism, mental health, race and identity.
Although Helen must find her way in a household featuring Zeus (her dad), Aphrodite (her sister, a Goddess of beauty) and Apollo (brother and God of music), there are links between the author and her main character.
“We’re similar in that we both have Jamaican mothers, and we both live in north London,” adds Sheppard.
“When I was a teenager, I had those questions: where do I fit in? Who are my people? How do I navigate the different parts of my identity?
“I’m a different person at home, when I’m with my bookish friends, when I’m with my grandparents and when I’m with friends who like hip-hop. I think it’s a universal theme.”
Sheppard, who also works part-time as a social media strategist, started writing Oh My Gods around four of five years ago. Her love of mythology stretches back to childhood (“Hercules was one of my favourite films and I made my dad take me to see it twice”) and she cites authors like Malorie Blackman, Louise Rennison and Zadie Smith – “she was the first person who wrote a character I could truly relate to” – as important writing influences.
At a time when many teenagers are confronted with images of seemingly flawless high-profile personalities online, is the impact of social media on mental health a running theme in Oh My Gods?
“There are references to Instagram and selfies, and Helen is surrounded by people who are appearance-obsessed, but she is actually okay with the way she looks,” Sheppard explains.
“I wanted to avoid talking about teenage appearance issues – it’s a thorny thing to wade in to. If you’re going to write about image issues for teenagers you have to do it seriously.
“A reader got in touch recently saying how she loved that Helen ate unapologetically; she didn’t dither about calories. It felt like most of my teenage years were spent feeling guilty about food – I wanted the book to be escapist and joyous.”
In terms of giving more Black British writers the platform to write fiction, Sheppard says “I think we are slowly getting there.”
“My sisters are 11 and 15, and they read black literature but it’s mainly from America. They are fantastic – but we are doing a disservice to our young people by not allowing them to see their own voices.”
Oh My Gods was published on January 3 and Sheppard told Black Ballad she “went to bed on release day with a headache from smiling so much.”
She adds: “There is nothing that can prepare you for how amazing it is to do school visits and workshops – that has been the best part of this whole process and it makes all the early starts and weekends spent working on the book worth it.
“I’ve run workshops centred on Greek mythology for children in years 7 and 8 – they’re so knowledgeable and imaginative. If you are boring they will slump back in their chairs but if you are engaging they are brimming with confidence, and everyone has their hand up ready to ask a question.”
As young readers take in Sheppard’s debut story about trying to find order in chaos, the author chuckles as she says she would “love to see Oh My Gods made in to a TV show – that would make my life.
“Getting the book in to the hands of girls – and boys – who perhaps come from London or another big UK city and don’t see themselves represented in books would be great.
“(It’s about telling them) they can write whatever story they want, and they don’t have to diminish their identity.”
Oh My Gods by Alexandra Shppard is out now. You can buy it here.