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Holden Sheppard writes flawed, messy, imperfect people

With his honest and unflinching portrayals of adolesence and sexuality, Holden Sheppard is fast becoming one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors of young adult fiction. We speak to him about binge writing, an upcoming screen adaptation and his new novel The Brink.

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The period after high school ends can be incredibly formative and often emotionally charged. What was it about this time that made you want to focus on it as the setting for your new book The Brink?

In The Brink, one of the main characters Kaiya remarks on how the teenagers in the book pretended to be a certain version of themselves to survive high school, and I think that’s true for a lot of us. I survived high school by pretending to be the Catholic schoolboy I thought I was meant to be: mild-mannered, good and high-achieving, heterosexual. But when high school ends, then what? What happens when you’re still performing but there’s no audience left to watch your performance? You either cling to the persona or you face who you really are. For me, who I was inside was the opposite of the performance – I was fractious and angry, I was badly-behaved, I was aggressively homosexual – so that led to a years-long process of burning my old self down and committing to just being myself, no matter what. I explore this through Leonardo, Kaiya and Mason in The Brink, and for them, it all explodes in the space of a few days on their Schoolies trip, instead of years, which makes for a hell of a hectic ride.

You’re not afraid to venture into dark territory in The Brink, or your debut novel Invisible Boys, but you do it in a gentle, nuanced way. Why is it important to explore these complexities in young adult fiction?

My adolescence publicly appeared happy, but on the inside, it was horrifically dark and I was alone in trying to cope – I never told a soul – so, I’m just writing about what I know. I struggled with mental health, with substances, with my sexuality, with feeling deathly ashamed of my sexual dalliances. I’ve been getting messages from readers of Invisible Boys almost daily since it came out, so I know now that I am far from alone in those feelings. So, I explore this in my books because I really want to let young adults know they aren’t alone, and that the fears and insecurities they’re ashamed of, and isolated by, are normal and common, shared by many. I put my novels out there hoping that other people will feel seen, will have a way to safely exorcise their own demons and feel less shame for being human. And yes, I try to do it in a gentle, nuanced way because that’s what I feel literature does best: shows flawed, messy, imperfect people. Human beings are complex and we do young people a disservice if we don’t show them that.

Invisible Boys is currently in development as a 10-part television series funded by Stan, Screenwest and Screen Australia. What was the process of getting picked up for TV like? When can we expect to see it on our screens?

The process of having the film and TV rights picked up for Invisible Boys was wild. I had to hand over my book and let it become someone else’s baby. I had three things I felt passionately about if that novel was made into a TV show: that it was filmed on location in Geraldton; that it was just as sexual and gritty as the book; and that it represented these different, misfit, and masculine kinds of gay male identities – not the stereotypes. When I met with director Nicholas Verso and producer Tania Chambers, they presented their vision for the show and literally listed all three of those things off without me even saying them. I was like: bingo, these are the people to do it, they totally get it! Everyone working on the Invisible Boys TV show is extremely talented and perceptive and I feel very lucky. As for when it will hit screens, I can’t say just yet, but I can say it’s truly incredible seeing the show evolve in development – it works so friggin’ well as a TV series – and I’m keen to share more on that front when I can.

You’re currently writing your third novel, which will be your first book for adults. How is the writing going? Can you tell us anything about the characters you’re creating?

The drafting is going really well. I’m a binge writer, so the other day I sat down for twelve hours straight and churned out 10,000 words – which is nuts – followed by a rest day where I could barely write a tweet. Then, my batteries recharge and I get back into it. There are a couple of big differences for this third book. Firstly, it’s for adults, although Invisible Boys and The Brink are both so deep into upper YA I reckon you could almost call them straight-up contemporary fiction and nobody would blink. What’s different with this third book is that it’s firmly not YA and not about adolescence – the main characters are adults – so that’s new terrain for me. I feel off the leash in terms of being more graphic and unflinching with the man-on-man sex scenes. The second big difference is that, with my first two books, I had to split myself into three narrators each time to fully explore and process parts of my own identity. After doing that twice, I feel unified: I know who I am now. So, with my third book, I haven’t split myself into multiple characters: it’s all from the perspective of one narrator, a Sicilian-Australian gym junkie named Dane.

Lastly, what young adult authors are you reading at the moment?

I not long ago finished reading an advance copy of Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell by Tobias Madden, which is an excellent, fun and moving Aussie gay YA novel – definitely worth pre-ordering before it comes out in September. I just got an advance copy in the mail of Miranda Luby’s debut, Sadie Starr’s Guide to Starting Over, which comes out the same day as The Brink, and it sounds right up my alley – teenage perfectionism and reinvention – so I can’t wait to dive into that. And I recently met well-known YA author Scot Gardner at a conference in Darwin and we share a similar vibe, so I am really keen to read some of his works soon.

Holden Sheppard is speaking at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday, 4 August as part of Wheeler Education programme. Tickets are available now.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.