It’s always a great pleasure for me to feature debut authors and today, I welcome Holden Sheppard to Behind the Pen, talking about his new novel, writing in general, and living your best life.
How would you describe Invisible Boys if you could only use 5 words?
Raw muscular unfettered grunge exorcism.
What is the story behind the story when it comes to Invisible Boys?
The inspiration is drawn from my own life. I grew up as a gay boy in Geraldton, an isolated country town in the Midwest of Australia. I didn’t want to be gay and so as a teenager, I kept those thoughts and feelings completely secret: to the outside world, I was a straight guy – my sexuality was invisible. In private, I wrestled and was absolutely tortured by the idea that I might be gay, so I fought it, denied it, tried to undo it, tried to fix myself with religion, and when none of that worked, ended up wanting to kill myself. Eventually, when I was about nineteen, I accepted that I had no control over my sexuality and life got a lot better after that.
Invisible Boys is a completely fictionalised exploration of this time in my life: it centres on three very different sixteen-year-old boys – Zeke (the geek), Charlie (the punk) and Hammer (the jock) as they each tackle different elements of their sexuality and their masculinity. It’s told from all three of their perspectives, and woven into this narrative are anonymous letters from one of the boys who isn’t coping and who is about to take their own lives. It’s heavy but also light: there’s lots of angst, plenty of rebellion, a fair bit of sex and loads of larrikin humour and banter. In the very succinct words of my mate Michael Trant, a fellow author, this book is “a story about coming of age, coming out, and cumming together.” I love that description.
As a manuscript, Invisible Boys has already won three awards. Has this in any way influenced your feelings about the novel, its release, and your hopes for it?
Yes, totally. It will not sound believable now, but I never expected to win writing awards, ever. For most of my career, it was genuinely not even an ambition of mine: my goal was always to be a commercially successful writer because my plan was to write action-packed YA adventure and fantasy novels. My visions of writing success were to be a Matthew Reilly type who sells truckloads of books but critical acclaim was never even on my radar because I just didn’t think my writing was particularly literary. Only a couple of years ago did I start to see the value in applying for everything I was eligible, just on the off chance, because you’ve gotta be in it to win it, right? So I got in it, and I won it. Luck is a huge part of this game. So I would recommend writers enter everything they can, because you just never know – you might surprise yourself with what your book – and you – are capable of.
In terms of how the awards influenced my feelings about Invisible Boys, when I found out about the first one (the 2017 Ray Koppe Award) I felt pure jubilation. I literally jumped around the room to Lady Gaga’s “Marry the Night” for five minutes of sheer triumphant bliss. It was the very first external validation I had for this novel, and it came after a long period of failure. When I won the 2018 Hungerford Award, I felt similar jubilation but this was tinged with major imposter syndrome, because the Hungerford was a more prestigious award and I just felt like I didn’t deserve it and that it was tremendous pressure to live up to. The 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award finally squashed that imposter syndrome, because that award, unlike the other two, wasn’t for unpublished manuscripts: it was for novels that were published already and/or contracted to be published within 2019. So that gave me this thrill that, actually, my novel did stand up against other published novels – that the other awards weren’t a fluke.
I feel very grateful and very seen for this book having won so many accolades. It’s helped the book – and me – get a lot more attention in terms of media and event bookings, and I’m stoked about that. My hopes for it are still that it sells truckloads of copies (because I’m fairly povo, and really badly need money to live off) but sales are as beyond my control as the awards, really. Moreover, I hope it finds the readers who need it most. There will be people out there – especially gay teenagers in the country, but all kinds of people – who I hope this book can help in some way. It would be very rewarding to know I’d helped someone like me.
When did you start writing and what was the catalyst?
I started writing when I was seven years old. I used to read Enid Blyton books at that time – I loved the boarding school stories like St Clare’s and Mallory Towers, but I was like, “They’re always only about girls – I want a story about a boy going to boarding school.” And on a road trip back from Perth to Gero one night, I was bored and staring out the car window at the moon, being a bit of a dreamy kid I guess, and I just had this absolute lightning bolt moment: I could write that story. I could write stories of my own! So I did.
The next day, back in Geraldton, I got an exercise book and a pen from the local supermarket, sat down at the melamine desk in our activity room in our house in Spalding, and started writing. My first (unfinished) book was about a twelve-year-old boy called Jake who went to a boarding school near a cliff. I wrote about fifty-odd pages of that story, and I still have it in the original notebook. It’s cringey – people keep almost falling off cliffs and it seems that cliff-related falling was the main plot device I had in my arsenal back then – but I have bulk affection for that story, too.
Are you balancing a different career with your writing?
Yep – I have to, in order to stave off starvation! I work as a project coordinator for a university, previously part-time and now on a casual basis, which helps me fit my writing career in. I only work a couple of days a week, which is about all I can handle, otherwise the balance tips out of equilibrium and thrust me into abject chaos. I have a great job with a truly supportive and outstanding boss and excellent workmates – it’s a sweet gig.
I don’t think time spent in a day job is wasted from a creative standpoint. When I reflect on my past jobs – storeman, fruit and veg boy, nightfiller, labourer, excavator operator, bank teller, sales consultant, call centre operator, university academic – they’ve all brought me into contact with people or situations or stories that have inspired me creatively. They’ve all also taught me skills that have helped me when it comes to running my writing career, so day jobs can be used to our advantage, I reckon.
Can you tell us about your role as an ambassador for Lifeline WA?
In 2018 I participated in a project at the Centre for Stories called Bright Lights, No City. This was a storytelling project for young LGBTQIA+ people from country WA, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it – a truly transformative project. The end result of that was that I developed a ten-minute oral story about my experience growing up gay in the country, including the mental health aspect. In March 2019, I was invited to tell that story on stage at a big fundraiser event for Lifeline WA run by Vince Garreffa. There were about 400 people at this event! The CEO of Lifeline was in the audience that day, and after I got off stage, she spoke to me and said she was moved by my story: she gave me her card and asked me about working together. I said yes before she even finished the sentence.
Lifeline WA is a well-known suicide prevention organisation, the best part of which is their 24/7 crisis support phone line which is 13 11 14. Anyone can call that number and instantly have someone to talk to when they are in crisis – it’s literally a life-saving service. I was compelled to help support them as an ambassador not just because of my experience with suicidal ideation when I was younger, but also because I reached out to a similar service when I was 19 and that is a big part of what saved my life. I want to spread the word about the work organisations like Lifeline WA do, and the extraordinary help they can give to people who are in a dark place. What I want to say to people is that reaching out for support when I was in crisis saved my life, and it could save yours, too. I particularly want to get this message across to boys and men, because the male suicide rate is triple that for females, and it breaks my heart. I want to be a part of reducing that horrifying statistic.
In terms of the role itself, it’s mostly a mix of speaking gigs – telling my story to donors and supporters to help raise funds for Lifeline WA – and media appearances in print and radio – to raise awareness.
How far has your writing career evolved from when you first began to write to what it is today? Is this in line with your initial expectations?
Well, I’m no longer writing boarding school stories with kids falling off cliffs left, right and centre, so there’s definitely been a shift, haha! If I think about my initial expectations as a kid or even as a teenager, they were way off. I genuinely thought I’d be a multi-published author by the age of 20, and I thought I’d only be writing fantasy. Neither of those expectations have been fulfilled. I’m 31 now and I only have one novel published, and I’m now writing contemporary YA. But I feel I’m right where I’m supposed to be, to be honest.
Once I learned to write more honestly with Invisible Boys, my writing evolved from being plot and action driven to being character and emotion driven, and this is, I think, what people are responding to. I personally think my writing is loads better now than it ever used to be in my youth: it has real stakes and real heart now. I make myself vulnerable in my art and I think that’s made all the difference.
Have you ever had to deal with a situation where someone feels they recognise traits of themselves in one of your characters?
Yes! This happened with my novella “Poster Boy” which was published in Griffith Review last year. “Poster Boy” is the most autobiographically I’ve ever written – still fiction, but a lot closer to reality than Invisible Boys. The main character Tommo is based on me, and his fiancé Frédéric is based on my husband, Raphael. When Raphael first read it, he came to me with this shocked face, part impressed and part horrified, saying, “It’s really good. But … you Dave Coulier’d me!” (Referring to singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette who wrote her highly confessional and no-holds-barred song You Oughta Know, allegedly about Dave Coulier.) He was totally okay with it, but kind of stunned that I’d been that open about him and about myself, because Tommo comes across as a total dickhead – which, if I’m to be frank, I was a bit of a dickhead – still am – but was especially so when I was younger.
Tommo’s parents in the novella are pure fiction, as are the rest of the characters. But when I first visited my parents after they read “Poster Boy”, my dad opened the door and introduced himself as “Rod” and my mum as “Cathy” (the names of the parents in the novella) and I was like, “Shit! They think the parents are based on them!” Thankfully, I can report that my parents are accepting of my sexuality, not homophobic like Tommo’s parents are in the novella.
What attributes do you think you need to remain sane as a writer? Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace?
This question assumes that I actually am remaining sane, and I reckon the jury’s kinda out on that at the moment. 😛 Jokes aside: yeah, self-care is huge for me now. My favourite way to maintain a good headspace is exercise – as anyone who has even glanced in the direction of my Instagram account will know, because I always post gym selfies. I work out five or six times a week – a mix of cardio and weightlifting. I joke about being a meathead, but I kinda mean it, because I use weightlifting as a way to get out of my head and into my body: I can just get in the zone and focus on lifting heavy things for an hour or two, and it’s hugely beneficial to my mood. I also play footy socially for the Perth Hornets, which is the first gay-inclusive amateur AFL team in WA. I love footy for the physical aspect – it’s the best cardio in the world – as well as the social aspect and camaraderie.
Beyond that, my strategies for maintain my mental health include regular counselling, massage, barefoot walks on the beach, watching the ocean, getting loads of sleep, and sometimes, bingeing on something like ice cream or lollies, because life without some cheat meals would be heinous! I really recommend therapy for writers – we tend to feel things on a deep level, and sometimes this leads us into dark places – so to have someone non-judgmental listen to us process our feelings and trauma is of immense benefit. I credit therapy with making me a better writer, because it stopped me being a numb, emotionally shut-down mess, and helped me feel again. Writers have to feel or we can’t write well.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
Here’s a curveball: even though I’m an angsty punk, I’m a huge fanboy of classic comedy movies, especially parodies from the 80s and 90s – they’re what I grew up watching with my family and they absolutely crack me up. When I laugh, I laugh absolutely hysterically. If I’m with friends and family you’ll basically just hear me quoting from movies like Spaceballs, Hercules Returns, Kung Pow, Wrongfully Accused and Flying High (aka Airplane!).
I know what you’re thinking: “Surely you can’t be serious?!”
I am serious … and don’t call me Shirley.
Now, to finish on something light and upbeat, if you were in a fight to the death, what would be your weapon of choice?
Probably a flamethrower. I’ve always felt like that would be a really satisfying weapon to use to destroy your enemies with, and after seeing one used in the latest Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I’m now convinced. So, in a fight to the death, I would just indiscriminately cut sick with a flamethrower, Charizard-style.
More about Holden:
Holden Sheppard is an award-winning Young Adult author born and bred in Geraldton, Western Australia. His debut novel, Invisible Boys, won the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award, the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award, and was Highly Commended in the 2018 ASA Emerging Writers’ Mentorship Prize.
Holden’s novella ‘Poster Boy’ won the 2018 Novella Project competition and was published in Griffith Review. His true story ‘Fight, Deny, Delete’ was published in the 2019 Margaret River Press anthology Bright Lights, No City. Holden’s short fiction has been published in page seventeen and Indigo, and he has also written for Ten Daily, Huffington Post, ABC, DNA Magazine and FasterLouder. He graduated with Honours from Edith Cowan University’s writing program and won a prestigious Australia Council ArtStart grant in 2015. Holden serves as the Deputy Chair of WritingWA, and as an ambassador for Lifeline WA.
Holden has always been a misfit: a gym junkie who has played Pokemon competitively, a sensitive geek who loves aggressive punk rock, and a bogan who learned to speak French.
Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard
In a small town, everyone thinks they know you: Charlie is a hardcore rocker, who’s not as tough as he looks. Hammer is a footy jock with big AFL dreams, and an even bigger ego. Zeke is a shy over-achiever, never macho enough for his family. But all three boys hide who they really are. When the truth is revealed, will it set them free or blow them apart?
2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award (Winner)
2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G.Hungerford Award (Winner)
2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award (Winner)
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Released: 1st October 2019