Home / World News / Invisible Boys author Holden Sheppard on his follow-up novel, The Brink

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

Bush chook, vodka cruisers and goon bags may have been order of the day among his mates but Holden Sheppard went for a different approach when packing for leavers week.

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

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

“It is the last hurrah and then things change and a lot of people move on,” he says. “I was always fascinated with what Leavers does, because it is the end of a lot of friendships being what they used to be.”

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

A Catholic schoolboy living in the country, he spent some time seeking solace in religion in his early teens, but his efforts to keep his sexuality hidden later saw him turn to alcohol as a way to push his feelings far down.

“I started drinking when I was about 16,” he recalls. “I’d always been this good little boy and at some point I cracked and wanted to get smashed and one of my friends made a comment asking when I grew a personality and I was really offended by it.

“But now I realised it was probably the first time I was letting myself show through the cracks of this very perfect persona and it probably was the first time I had my own personality in some ways.

“It represented for me a really long process of smashing the persona that you build to survive high school and it took me years to find that place to not only know who I am, but like myself too.”

The Brink.
Camera IconThe Brink. Credit: Text Publishing

It was this idea that sparked the inspiration for his latest young adult novel The Brink, the follow-up to 2019’s award-winning Invisible Boys.

The Brink begins with a group of school leavers from Perth heading up the coast and ready to party in Jurien Bay.

But a police road block sees them forced to turn around and leaves their plans in disarray until they manage to find somewhere to stay — on a remote island just off the coast with little phone reception, but also little in the way of adult supervision, exactly what they are seeking.

Told through the perspectives of three of the teenagers — shy and geeky Leonardo, high-achiever Kaiya and footy jock Mason — the celebrations kick off quickly, but when a man is found dead on the beach, the group starts to fall apart as they start to turn against each other.

“Finding this body makes it pretty clear that they’re no longer protected by adults or can ask for help, and they are then forced to confront what is going on between them, but also inside them,” Sheppard explains.

For Leonardo, who isn’t actually friends with any of the group, but has been brought along as a pity invite after the death of his mum not long before, being thrown into such a dicey situation does little to alleviate his anxieties.

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

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

“I was terrified and so scared of everything and overthought everything and how people saw me. I always felt like I was not doing something I was meant to or had missed a crucial lesson on how to be a normal person.”

Always one small step away from an anxiety attack, it’s clear Leonardo is struggling. At the same age, Sheppard was grappling with a similar panic disorder, but wasn’t diagnosed until years later, when he turned 30.

“Retrospectively it explains a lot and I did turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism, and I wanted to filter that all through him and show how alcohol is like medicine and it feels great, but it also comes at a cost and doesn’t fix everything.”

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

“Up until that point he has been a good kid and has been academically successful 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 happens,” Sheppard says.

As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that before she died, his mother had a toxic control over his life and worked hard to push down any expressions of masculinity in her son.

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

“It is something everyone goes through in different forms and something I have myself.”

Not unlike his first novel, Sheppard also introduces readers to a character in his latest book who is trying to understand his sexuality.

“In a lot of ways Mason is me but he is also wish fulfilment because he is a star footy player and better looking than me; he is the classic jock,” he laughs.

Exploring the unfolding understanding of the sexuality of a teenage boy was a way for Sheppard to also revisit points he made in his debut, but that he thinks may have been misinterpreted.

“I put that book (Invisible Boys) out about the different kinds of gay men and have spent three years being pretty misread in a lot of ways,” he shares. “Mason is my point to make clear that if you grow up as a masculine homosexual boy and that is what (I) identify with, it can be really confusing.

“Growing up I would see representations of gay men and I didn’t fit that mould and to me it meant maybe I didn’t like men. I found it so conflicting and I wasn’t sure if I was bisexual.

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

Geraldton author Holden Sheppard.
Camera IconGeraldton author Holden Sheppard. Credit: Supplied: Kimberley Writers Fest

Speaking out and sharing his opinions doesn’t faze the author, who says he’s particularly concerned about the rising wave of bans on books that speak to themes like LGBTQ identities.

“We are in a weird time for books right now, particularly in America with so many being banned,” he says.

Earlier this year, a study found that more than 1500 book bans had been instituted in US school districts in the past year, with many of the texts targeted written by non-white or LGBTQ authors.

While similar occurrences in Australia don’t appear to have been as overt, Sheppard says it does happen here, albeit in a much more subtle way.

“I’ve had schools book me for workshops but then ask me not to mention the themes of my book or the fact that I’m gay, and have spoken to principals who have expressed worries over parents complaining (about my books),” he says.

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

The success of his debut novel seems to attest to that.

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

Following up that success was “truly terrifying” for Sheppard.

“I had a debut that did well and had longevity but I felt that people might want me to do the exact same thing again and break hearts, but I didn’t want to do that,” he adds.

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

“I think some of the publicity around me for Invisible Boys was like ‘look here’s this gay author and let’s talk about that experience and trauma’, but I want to be an author who could tell another coming of age story about teenager’s full stop.”

Drawing upon his own experiences and bringing parts of himself to the page has been confronting at times, but cathartic.

“I think ‘cool what’s hurting’ and start writing. That’s where all my books come from and I’m just going to keep on repeating that process.

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

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

“I’ve previously split myself into three narrators, maybe to hide myself within them, but I am really unified in knowing who I am now and what I have to say, so there is just one narrator in this — his name is Dane, he is 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 television adaptation of his debut, which is being produced by Tania Chambers of Feisty Dame Productions (How to Please a Woman) and Nick Verso (Nowhere Boys) and is currently in development.

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

Ahead of the release of The Brink next week, Sheppard says getting to write for young adults is something he sees as a great responsibility.

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

His goal with The Brink was to encourage people, particularly teenagers, that living their true selves would open up so many more opportunities.

“I didn’t want people to finish this book and burst into tears,” he says. “I want people to finish it and stare in the mirror and know they can change who they want to be, or go to 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 really confidently out into the world as who you are and not give a f… If that’s a gift the book can give someone, I hope it does.”

The Brink is out on Tuesday.

About brandsauthority

Check Also

Hovland defends PGA title in the Bahamas

Viktor Hovland has become just the second player, after Tiger Woods, to successfully defend his …

%d bloggers like this: