An interview with Holden Sheppard

Interview by Samuel Elliott

How did the idea for Invisible Boys originally come about?

This book came about firstly from my own life, I tried to write about my own trauma from when I was a teenager. So, when I was at uni and writing an Honours thesis in 2012, I tried to kind of tackle that then. I was really keen to talk about growing up and being gay and all that sort of stuff. It didn’t work.

So, I put it aside for about five years, because it was actually too hard emotionally, it absolutely wrecked me and I ended up with a drinking problem.

When it came around to about 2017, I saw a really cool quote from Ernest Hemingway on Twitter, it said ‘write hard and clear about what hurts’. I thought, that sounds fucking awesome. I made a list there and then of what hurts me and right at the top of it was my particular experience growing up, so I thought, I have to write about this. That was kind of the inception of it.

It was drawn from the emotional truth of my own journey. I wanted to represent the kind of person I am, the town I grew up in, all of that. I just didn’t feel like I’d seen that in a book before.

Invisible Boys never shies away from confronting and distressing subject matter, from self-harm, suicide, senseless violence, familial abuse, homophobic violence and bullying and so much more. What issues did you face writing this sort of story? How did you go about writing about balancing writing about such subjects earnestly but while ensuring it never became gratuitous?

This was a challenge. I had to dive into old wounds to write effectively about what I’d been through but without writing memoir. It was a strange line to walk. So, I wasn’t saying – here’s what’s happened in my life, I was interpreting how I’d felt and the stuff I’d gone through but in a fictional way. But what I really, really wanted to do, was not to flinch, I didn’t want to kind of go – well, this is a version that the public can consume or literary critics or publishers or readers will think it’s decent or restrained.

I didn’t want to think about any of that. What I cared about was how I feel and what I want to say. Without any thought about commercial viability, or anything like that. I just wanted to go, what was it like, how’d it feel, what have I not been allowed to talk about my whole life?

I’d been through most of this stuff and I’d grown up in a culture and a family where you don’t talk about this sort of stuff, to actually completely bust out and go ‘I’m going to say everything, I’m going to tell everything I’m not allowed to say’ – it was super, super freeing, it was incredibly liberating.

I can’t thank Fremantle Press enough. Without sounding like a wanker blowing smoke up their publisher’s arse – I’m not trying to do that. But they took a chance on this when I think a lot of other publishers would’ve asked me to tone down some elements, especially the sex. And they didn’t. I was so happy that they saw the value in it.

The responses I get – and I get a lot of responses daily – from adult gay men who have messaged me have said, ‘This is exactly the book I needed at this age, I needed to know this stuff, I needed to know what it looks like, I needed to hear about it in a way that wasn’t just porn. I needed to understand sex.’ I’m pretty proud of that and I’m pretty proud of Fremantle Press for backing the book in that way.

The novel is a commendable achievement in that it depicts scenes, very realistic scenes, that I’ve never read in a novel before, including earnest depictions of guys, guys bodies, sex, characters using hook-up apps and visiting beats – was that liberating to write without any sort of precedent? Or frightening?

These are some of my favourite things to write about actually. This kind of goes back to what I was saying about growing up in a world where you don’t talk about this. When you say that you haven’t read this in a novel before, that makes me really happy, because I really wanted to just show the world as it is and elements of gay culture. Or not even gay culture, of just being homosexual, men having sex with men, not made safe, or made gentrified for public consumption.

Something I noticed, especially during the same-sex marriage vote for example, very much the feeling was love is love, and then it became equal-marriage and not same-sex marriage, and there’s good reasons for that as well. But we very publicly moved away from ‘this is a sexual thing’ to ‘this is about love and romance and let’s not talk about sex ever’.

That bothered me. Because sex is one of the integral things that makes us different from the mainstream. So, if you’re a teenager and you’re a male teenager, you’ve got the male hormones flowing through your veins, you are horny, a lot. So, I wanted to show that sometimes you are horny, sometimes you’ll look at other guys’ dicks, sometimes you will go to a beat and that’s something I did growing up. I had a lot of sex at beats. It was very liberating to write about that, without feeling ashamed. Because I grew up in that really Catholic conservative environment, where you never talked about inappropriate things, ever.

I wouldn’t say that’s contradictory to how I am now, but it explains a lot of how I am now. Because I have so completely resisted that, that I’m like the opposite of that now – I can talk about anything now. I just don’t see the value in seeing shame in what you like or who you are. There’s no point.

What changed then? You just decided to take the plunge with Invisible Boys?

I had to have my own kind of personal, I hate to use the word journey but I’m going to, journey. I had to have my own personal growth, before I could have that growth in my art. I got sober in 2015 and that got me into therapy and that got me working through trauma on a personal level. Working through why I was such an angry guy, why I was always drinking, why I was the most unhappy person in the whole world and so once I’d tackled that for a couple of years, I was in a headspace where I was ready to go through that process with my writing, too. When you’re getting therapy, you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you can heal yourself and I realized that that’s the way you kind of get better.

So I thought, if I did that with my writing, it would be healing times ten, times a hundred. That public artistic expression would feel really good. I wrote the novel with the thinking of, I mean there were multiple motivations for writing it, but one of the big ones was – this will be cathartic for me. I will feel better when I write this and that’s why I wrote it.

Let’s talk about Zeke for a second. At one point early on in the novel, Zeke’s parents and Zeke discuss Charlie being outed. The way in which they phrase it, is almost as if being gay is a contagious disease – do you think that that is a fair description of small-town attitude towards being gay and has that changed at all in contemporary times or maybe since your upbringing?

The reaction that Zeke’s parents have to Charlie’s outing is pretty much how I imagined it would go down when I was a teenager, and it was pretty much what I saw. Because, there were occasionally gay people around town, famous people and stuff like that. And the way that people in town talked about them made it pretty clear that that was the attitude. They’re bad, they’re dirty, stay away from them. There was total contempt. Not usually to their face, I guess I grew up in a family that wasn’t violent or anything necessarily, so it wasn’t like confrontational either, like, let’s go bash the faggots, or anything like that. But there was the understanding that – we’re not going to talk about those people, those people are bad.

I internalised that. So, yes I believe that’s reflective of how things were when I was a teenager, let’s say 2005 when I was 16-17. It was still the same. Yes, it’s still exactly the same in a lot of places today. I think there’s really good progress though. I was in Albany recently and I know they’re doing Albany Pride. I know a lot of regional towns in W.A. and probably throughout Australia are doing their own versions of Pride Week, or have their own small organisations, which is pretty cool. So I’m heartened by that.

I’ve toured regional towns and tiny towns and I’ve had maybe one or two off comments, but that’s it. People don’t tend to say stuff to your face. But that’s me as an adult visiting, it’s much harder for a kid growing up.

I hear from 16-17-18 year olds who come to my events and they’ve said – it’s still like this, even in Perth. That really sucks, because you think those things have changed. Human beings have the capacity to be really nice, but we also have the capacity to be really shit to each other. And I think universally in high school, we tend to choose the shit option.

We’ve definitely progressed a massive amount. What I went through as a teenager is nowhere near as bad as what people, 10-20-30 years ago before me did and it’s getting better and better. But yes, there is still that attitude around.

A main theme addressed throughout – is the intransigence of homophobia in religious schools and religious communities in general. Has that changed at all in your experience? I think I saw a while ago that you had toured one of your old religious schools – does that mean that things are getting better in this sort of sense?

You are remembering correctly. I’ve been to a couple of Catholic schools now and one of them was my old High School in Geraldton, they actually invited me back to do a talk about my book. Honestly, I was completely stunned. The teachers and the people there have always been lovely to me. My old English teacher from Year 12, my old vice-principal, they were super supportive of me. So I knew them on a personal level. But I didn’t actually think the school itself would get me in.

When the invite came in, it came in via a festival that was hosting it. And I was like – they know what I’m about right? They know I’m gay and that this is what I’m going to talk about – homosexuality?

And they did and that’s what they wanted me to talk about. And that was incredible. That would never have happened 10-15 years ago. The fact that it’s happened now is pretty cool. I think a lot of schools are now realising that their kids need this kind of stuff and that it doesn’t really matter what kind of ethos the school has, or what the parents want, the fact is that 10% of your kids, roughly, are going to be some kind of LGBT+ person. The kids, their mental health, their pastoral care, matters just as much.

I was raised Catholic but I’m not religious now at all myself. But I do have a lot of respect for schools that, rather than sticking to that homophobic bible bashing stuff, kind of take on the whole ‘Jesus was out there loving and taking care of everyone’ ethos, they’ve expanded it out to include LGBT kids. I think that’s cool. I’m a fan of that.

I’ve still had some religious schools reject me and when I say reject me, I mean that they’ve invited me, but then they’ve gone – oh, but you can’t talk about your book and I’ve said – what’s the point? Why would you want me for an author talk if I can’t talk about my book? It’s a bit contradictory.

Then when my publicist has pushed them and said – what’s the deal? They’ve responded with, well don’t talk about the controversial part. And I said, what was the controversial part? Is it the sex or is it the gayness? And they were like it’s both, so I said fuck off.

So, that still exists, but I’m really heartened by the schools that are inviting these kind of talks in. That’s a good sign.

Music is a character in itself in Invisible Boys, it serves as a pacifier, a source of identity and validation and even a dream to aspire to in order to get through the drudgery. How much does music impact on us and stabilizing ourselves? And was the positive impact of music lifted straight from your own youth?

Music is incredibly important, as you say, in the book. From the first scene, till the end, Charlie’s journey is linked to music in some way. For him, and I guess for me, music was a way of linking with the wider world. Because music is something that filters into a small town, that is actually you know, from America, or the U.K., or over East or wherever and it gets into the consciousness of a small town. So you can access it, even if you’re physically far away and so I think that’s why it’s so important for Charlie. Because it becomes this kind of dream where, he thinks if I can do this, if I can make music, then I could get out of here, I could make something of myself and connect with whatever else is out there that I’m not getting here in my home town. I don’t quite click the way I think I should click, so yes I can use music. So that’s kind of Charlie’s journey.

Music was pretty much what pulled me through all the hard times from that teenage era. I think of myself as being pretty much like Zeke then, I was pretty well behaved and reserved and repressed. When I listened to music I became like Charlie. It made me rebel. Music was a very powerful influence.

It’s this imagined community thing. When Charlie listens to music he can become a punk, that’s what he thinks of himself, but he also becomes something else. He doesn’t just belong to the people around him, he belongs to this wider world of people that he imagines are awaiting him somewhere. Maybe in San Francisco, maybe in New York. Somewhere, he can become one of these people.

What advice would you give to any writers?

My best advice would be to start writing, first of all. I spent years on the planning and thinking. And I thought that when I finally start writing this book, it has to be perfect, I’ve got to get all my ducks in a row. But you really don’t. That took me a long time. I thought for so long, I’m not doing it right, I’m not planning it right. That’s wrong. The best thing you can do is, start writing and in that, give yourself permission to write utter horseshit and accept that the first draft will be terrible. When you get that, you free yourself up so much.

Everyone’s process is different, but I know some writers who get stuck and they start editing as they are writing the first draft. That’s what used to hold me back, but it doesn’t anymore. I’ll just write whatever needs to come out and then I’ll fix it later. The second edit is where you do all the magic.

It may not work for everyone, but for me I write without any sacred cows, no-holds-barred. That’s important for the first draft, the vulnerability that comes with that. If you’re going to write a book, it needs to have a soul.

If there’s one thing that is going to make a publisher say ‘oh my god I need to publish that’ and a bookseller say ‘I need to have that in my shop’ and a buyer say ‘I need to buy this book and read it’ – it’s a soul. Heart, soul, vulnerability. Your story needs to have those feelings, it needs to inspire something. The best way to get there is to make yourself feel vulnerable on the page. Stop caring about what people will think about your writing. Stop caring about what your family, your friends, your boss, your publishers, agents, literary critics, will think. Ignore them. Focus on you. Nothing else matters. All that matters is – what do you want to say. Say what you want to say, in your voice. That’s the magic and that’s the thing that will get you published.

About Invisible Boys:
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?

Author Bio:
Holden Sheppard is an award-winning Young Adult author born and bred in Geraldton, Western Australia. His debut novel, Invisible Boys, won the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award and the Australia Council’s 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award, and was shortlisted for the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Holden’s novella ‘Poster Boy’ won the 2018 Novella Project competition and was published in Griffith Review. 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. 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 is available in all book stores and here:
https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/invisible-boys?fbclid=IwAR0EcDdVHevnXa6i13J7nF_HbwUJlm4oo_Jh1BsEKDCEmoVO065J4NOV_qU

About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, Milan Milton: Heiress in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at:
www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor

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