Invisible Boys author Holden Sheppard on his follow-up novel, The Brink

Bush chook, vodka cruisers and goon bags might have been the order of the day among his friends, but Holden Sheppard took a different approach when packing for the week off.

“I remember bringing ouzo and scallops for some reason,” says the WA author. “Leaving was a really fun experience. My group of mates traveled from Geraldton to Jurien Bay and we just spent the week hanging out by the beach.”

What Sheppard also remembers about visiting the small fishing town with other graduates is that it marked the beginning of an end.

“It’s the last hurray and then things change and a lot of people move on,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by what Leavers does, because it’s the end of a lot of friendships that were what they used to be.”

Around the same time, Sheppard was also struggling to come to terms with his own identity as a young gay man in a traditional Italian family (his heritage clearly impacted his packing list).

A Catholic schoolboy living in the countryside, he spent time seeking solace in religion in his early teens, but his efforts to keep his sexuality hidden led him to later turn to alcohol to push his feelings away. .

“I started drinking when I was 16,” he recalls. “I’ve always been this good little boy and at one point I broke down and wanted to get fucked up and a friend of mine made a comment asking when I developed a personality and I did was really offended.

“But now I realized it was probably the first time I let myself be shown through the cracks of this very perfect character and it was probably the first time I had my own personality in some ways.

“It was a very long process for me of destroying the personality that you build to survive high school and it took me years to find this place to not only know who I am, but also to love myself.”

Camera iconThe Brink. Credit: Text publishing

It was this idea that inspired his latest young adult novel The Brink, the sequel to the 2019 award-winning Invisible Boys.

The Brink begins with a group of young graduates from Perth heading up the coast and ready to party at Jurien Bay.

But a police roadblock forces them to turn back and leaves their plans in disarray until they manage to find a place to stay – on a remote island just off the coast with little phone reception. , but also little adult supervision, exactly what they are looking for.

Told through the perspectives of three of the teens – shy and geeky Leonardo, high-achieving Kaiya and footy Jock Mason – the celebrations get off to a quick start, but when a man is found dead on the beach, the group begins to fall apart. turn against each other.

“Finding this body shows quite clearly that they are no longer protected by adults or can ask for help, and they are then forced to confront what is happening between them, but also inside them”, explains Sheppard.

For Leonardo, who isn’t actually friends with any of the group, but was brought in as an invitation for pity after his mother’s death not long before, being thrown into such a risky situation doesn’t do much. something to soothe his anxieties.

“What I’ve noticed in almost every book I write is that there’s always this kind of misfit Italian-Australian boy, and that’s always me,” Sheppard says.

“I follow all three characters from Invisible Boys and The Brink, but especially Zeke and Leonardo, who are each pretty much what I was as a teenager.

“I was terrified and so scared of everything and overthinking everything and how people saw me. I always felt like I wasn’t doing something that I was supposed to or was supposed to. missed a crucial lesson in how to be a normal person.

Still one small step away from a panic attack, it’s clear that Leonardo is in trouble. At the same age, Sheppard struggled with a similar panic disorder, but wasn’t diagnosed until years later, when he turned 30.

“In retrospect, that explains a lot and I turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, and I wanted to filter it all through him and show how alcohol is like medicine and he feels good, but it also has a cost and does not solve everything.”

As soon as that first drop hits his lips, life seems to change for Leonardo, and he becomes a new person, totally at odds with the gentle personality for which he has become known in his circles.

“So far he’s been a good boy and successful academically, but hasn’t found his place in the world, so throwing him in with the popular kids, I thought it would be great to see what would happen,” Sheppard said.

As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that before his death, his mother exercised toxic control over his life and worked hard to stifle any expression of masculinity in her son.

“There’s a line in the book where he says control can feel a lot like love if you’ve never felt it and I think that’s true for a lot of families with traditional parents who think that they express love by telling children to do things their own way and if they do, they are loved,” Sheppard says.

“It’s something everyone goes through in different forms and something that I have myself.”

Much like her first novel, Sheppard also introduces readers to a character from her latest book who tries to come to terms with her sexuality.

“In many ways Mason is me, but he is also wish-fulfillment because he is a star footy player and better looking than me; it’s the classic jock,” he laughs.

Exploring the ongoing understanding of teenage sexuality was a way for Sheppard to also revisit points he made early on but felt were misinterpreted.

“I published this book (Invisible Boys) about different types of gay men and spent three years being misread in many ways,” he shares. “Mason is my take to clarify that if you grow up as a gay male boy and that’s what (I) identify with, it can be really confusing.

“Growing up I saw portrayals of gay men and I didn’t fit that mold and for me maybe that meant I didn’t like men. I found that so contradictory and I wasn’t sure to be bisexual.

“I wanted to show that he (Mason), me and other men can still be attracted to men and can still identify as masculine. I don’t think that’s represented enough.

The author of Geraldton Holden Sheppard.
Camera iconThe author of Geraldton Holden Sheppard. Credit: Provided: Kimberley Writers Festival

Speaking out and sharing his opinions doesn’t bother the author, who says he’s particularly concerned about the growing wave of book bans that deal with themes such as LGBTQ identities.

“We are living in a strange time for books right now, especially in America, where so many of them are banned,” he says.

Earlier this year, a study found that more than 1,500 book bans had been instituted in US school districts over the past year, with many targeted texts written by non-white or LGBTQ authors.

Although similar events in Australia don’t seem to have been so overt, Sheppard says it’s happening here, albeit in a much more subtle way.

“Schools booked me for workshops, but then asked me not to mention the themes of my book or the fact that I was gay, and I spoke to directors who expressed concern about the complaints from parents (about my books),” he says.

“I think it’s now more important than ever for the books to fly in the face of this. If my work can do anything, teens need to know about gender, mental health, and identity.

The success of his first novel seems to testify to this.

When released three years ago, Invisible Boys had already won the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award and in 2019 Sheppard won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Prize for an Emerging Writer.

Following that success was “really terrifying” for Sheppard.

“I had a start that worked well and lasted, but I felt like people might want me to do the exact same thing and break hearts, but I didn’t want to do that,” he adds. .

“The Brink doesn’t have the same heartbreaking ending as Invisible Boys, but quite deliberately, because I wanted to show that I could write a book.

“I think some of the publicity around me for Invisible Boys was like ‘look at this gay author and let’s talk about this experience and this trauma’, but I want to be an author who could tell a different coming-of-age story. adulthood on the final point of a teenager.”

Drawing on his own experiences and bringing parts of himself to the page was sometimes confronting, but cathartic.

“I think ‘cool what hurts’ and start writing. This is where all my books come from and I will keep repeating this process.

Sheppard is currently working on his third book, which he reveals is aimed at adults, and what he calls a “shift in gear.”

“This one is well and truly for adults and dealing with that. My last two books felt like I was processing trauma, but I feel like I am writing in real time about my experiences right now.

“I’ve split into three storytellers before, maybe to hide in them, but I’m really unified knowing who I am now and what I have to say, so there’s only one storyteller. in all of this – his name is Dane, he’s a gym junkie, and he has a lot to say.

Invisible boys.
Camera iconInvisible boys. Credit: Fremantle Press

In recent months, Sheppard has also been working on the TV adaptation of her debut, which is produced by Feisty Dame Productions’ Tania Chambers (How to Please a Woman) and Nick Verso (Nowhere Boys) and is currently in development.

“Seeing the book evolve into a series is really cool, but that’s about all I can say,” he laughs.

Ahead of The Brink’s release next week, Sheppard says teaching young adults to write is something he sees as a big responsibility.

“Through adulthood, we feel shame about things like our bodies, our sexuality, our mental health and our identity, and I like to dig into that time and explore the idea that it’s okay to own exactly who you are,” he says.

His goal with The Brink was to encourage people, especially teenagers, to believe that living their true selves would open up so much more opportunity.

“I didn’t want people to finish this book and burst into tears,” he says. “I want people to finish it and look in the mirror and know they can change who they want to be, or go to the next family dinner and stand up to someone or a bully at school.

“I want them to feel that sense of empowerment that you can stand up and walk confidently in the world as who you are and not worry…If that’s a gift the book can give to someone, I hope it is.”

The Brink comes out on Tuesday.

Irene B. Bowles