Q&A for Readers, Teachers, Writers

#LoveOzYA Spotlight with: Holden Sheppard

  • · 2 months ago
#LoveOzYA Spotlight with: Holden Sheppard

In our latest spotlight conversation, #LoveOzYA's A.B Endacott sat down with lauded Australian YA writer Holden Sheppard to talk all things INVISIBLE BOYS adaptation, why it's misleading to throw around terms like 'overnight success', and what readers can expect next . . . 

You can read their conversation below, or check out clips on the LoveOzYA YouTube channel.

A.B Endacott: Congratulations on the INVISIBLE BOYS adaptation, which I saw recently got funding from Screen Australia. That's so cool. Firstly, I wanted to check what you could share with us about it?

Yeah, it's so exciting, right? I think it was, World War Z by Max Brooks that got optioned and made into a movie . . .

Very different, very different movie to the book, from what I understand.

Totally. And, you know, the book is like an oral history of a fictional zombie war. And it's so clever - the shifting points of view and the way it tells a story globally. Then you just have this movie, which is just this really, like, uninspired Even Max Brooks said the only thing in common with the book is the title. So that's like the horror story.

(But) I feel like I've really lucked out here. Because Nick (Verso) and Tanya (Chambers) both get it.

Wow, that's wonderful. So you're obviously quite closely involved in the project, including writing some of the episodes, part of the episodes?

Yeah. So basically, I'll be like a key creative on the project, so I'm in the writers room. That was an amazing experience. I can't really talk too much kind of who was in the writers room, but we had a whole bunch of basically gay men writing, and so we all spoke the same language. We didn't have to kind of justify why a character would do X or Y, or Z, because we all know what what a gay teenage boy would be doing.

What's interesting is that you're getting the exposure of the experience of writing for TV, which is a different medium to, you know, long form fiction, or even just normal fiction. I’m also thinking about INVISIBLE BOYS which has these heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of the environment. Obviously, when you get to TV, that's nice to have in your head, but like not really the point. So the writing for TV is a new arrow in your quiver, I guess?

Yeah, thank you, that's really nice to hear. I do like to write relatively sparsely. Like, when I was a teenager, I used to, you know, write with a lot of adverbs, and a lot of heavy description of like, ‘the cerulean sea was glittering’. I loved the thesaurus.

As I've grown and honed my skills, I tried to pare things back a lot more, so I'm glad that comes through. But yeah, (TV) is a different medium. It'll be interesting to learn it. In that writers room for that week, it was, you know, (things like) hearing things described as “beats”. That's different to me, because I didn't really think of my writing in terms of how a moment lands, I probably think in terms of tension, in terms of in terms of scenes.

But yeah, it'll be interesting to see how that develops, working on that project, and how it will change my writing going forward as well.

Yeah, I imagine it would have a significant effect on your dialogue.

Yeah, I'd say so. And because I mean, dialogue is the thing that's gonna drive a script forward. I mean, that's what a script is. So hopefully. That's one of the things that Nick and Tanya have said, that what drew them to the project was that the dialogue was so strong.

So hopefully that's a strong point that I can bring, because if I'm crap at dialogue, I'm going to really struggle to write a script.

Fingers crossed. As a quick aside, I am so profoundly glad that you said that when people started talking beats, you had that moment. Because then I started doing like a series of in-person author interviews, and I'm an author myself. And so they're all talking like this technical stuff, and I was like, ‘Oh, geez, man, like, yeah, I guess that's what I do’. But it was really interesting, but also intimidating to have that moment when you're like, there's so much I don't know.

Oh, God. Yeah. Like, there's always the first time you hear something mentioned, and you sit in that room of like, five or 10 people (being like) ‘Yes, yes. Yes. I know.’

That is profoundly profoundly soothing. I did have a total crisis, I was like, I know nothing.

Oh, no, no. That's just imposter syndrome.

It's such a healthy thing to have in the right way. And I saw your blog post on it.

Oh, I think it's essential. I just saw a writer the other day, she's a friend and she posted that she's had, like, I don't know, 16 books out best-selling — she's a big deal. And she kind of posted (about) the fear that ‘I'm never gonna have another good idea. I'm full of self doubt all the time’.

I think it's just always gonna be there no matter what kind of external validation you get.

Yeah. Someone said to me the other day, fear is really important because it drives you forward.

I like that. I think something that one of my mentors said to me once — an editor — ‘feel the fear, and do it anyway’. No one had ever said that to me before.

There is no point you get to where you're like, ‘I'm good enough’.

I think also what I love it as a craft is that you are constantly improving. There's something so awesome about the fact that you are just constantly doing better than you were before.
Holden Sheppard

Yeah, it because it's constant practice, the more you write, the more you grind, the better you will get. Especially if you have you know, someone else's eyes over your work and giving you feedback.

It's constant learning. I think I have a brain that loves to continuously learn. So writing is like crack.

Absolutely. All right, my next question — I saw your Instagram post that you are contributing or you were interviewed for Person of Interest: The Outsiders.

Yeah, so this is a book by a consumer psychologist called Glennys Marsdon, and it will be available on Kindle. Glennys is actually like, she's been a consumer psychologist for something like 25 years. And she does a lot of branding for big companies, so she does like this marketing kind of research stuff.

It was really cool to be interviewed for that and share whatever I know, which is, like, not much more than just my own experience, really. But I like to think that the choices I've made and the way I've committed to pursuing a dream is something that anyone can replicate if they want to. Like, if someone's watching this, or they want to be a writer, or they want to be literally anything that's beyond the standard, you know, nine-to-five thing.

Those qualities are kind of the things you need to reach for. And you can then make that dream happen.

No, I think that's really true. And speaking from a similar position — so I'm an indie author, I went indie, because I got really sick of just chasing applications, and I (was) getting a lot of rejection. And by that point in time, I had six manuscripts written and ready to go. I was like, why not do something different? Why not differentiate myself? Obviously at some point, I would like to get a trad pub deal, purely because I just want someone to do some of the stuff for me. But I was like, by that point in time, I'll have a differentiator. I'm like, this is what I've done by myself. This is actually something to make me stand out.

But it's such a tangled forest with no clear path. But you start by building your brand. You start by refining your pitch. You make sure that you have those things clearly stated out, staked out, rather, and then you work towards it.

You've clearly worked across a number of years to get to the stage where you are now, it's not like you just loved writing and wrote a manuscript, and it happened to get published. You've had a plan in place for a number of years.

Yeah, this has been like a really long time coming. And the funny thing is, when I when things did finally click into place for me, it looks to the rest of the world as you'd like it, it looked like I came out of nowhere.

I've won the Ray Koppe Residency, which is at Varuna (in) 2017. That was the first thing I won that really, suddenly (made) people notice me. My agent contacted me and signed for me, and things started to pick up momentum from there.

But at the time, I remember people being like, ‘Where the hell did you come from?’, and I was like, ‘I have been here the whole time’.

I've been going to the Perth Writers Festival. I've been going to workshops, I did a degree in creative writing. I've been writing since I was seven. Like I've been there the whole time.

I also think what people really don't know, or are confused by, is just because you think your writing is good, and that you've got a good story doesn't mean that you can't improve doesn't mean that you don't have scope to improve. Just because you improve as you get better, doesn't mean that the first product isn't fundamentally a good one.

You know, I can't read INVISIBLE BOYS. Like, I love it. I'm so proud of it, and it's connected with so many people, but anytime I have to read from it, I'm like, uh, no. . .

I think partly you get sick of it, because you've edited it so many times. But I think as well, like if I do a live reading from the book, like as I'm reading it, I'm changing words as I go.

I think it’s also really interesting, the changing landscape of authors at the moment, since like the 1980s — the myth that we still hold on to, which is that authors are a reclusive folk, and they go away into their author cave, and they do their thing. And then there's a lovely book at the end of it. It's not true anymore, like authors need to, you need to almost have like, an entire extra books' worth of insight and anecdote and conversation because people want the ancillary material around the story. And that's, that's, that's lovely in some ways. But it is also like, I mean, I am an introvert. I do like my author cave.

It's interesting that you said the 80s (because) I've heard other authors from that era talk. Somewhere around that era was the turning point where you know, before that you could be a Stephen King and get your debut novel. And it's a $400,000 advance fee debut, and off you go, and you don't really need to do promo.

It's not like that at all now, like, like the author, especially with social media.

I think people come to a lot of appearances and interviews and in conversations, sometimes to ask about the book. But often they just want to find out about the author and find out about the process.

So it's unavoidable. I think, I mean, the truth is, you can just not do it. But I think your book will not sell as well.

Yeah, exactly. It's an interesting phenomenon for sure. Another question: I really enjoyed your contributions to HOW TO BE AN AUTHOR. I'm currently reviewing it not for LoveOzYA but for the Nerd Daily and I really enjoyed (the point about) finding your voice in particular and sort of identifying your audience. So you said you remain interested in YA and — well, actually side question: What is it about YA that interested you, given that this is for LoveOzYA?

Ah, great. Um, so because I often wonder why I come back to teenagers and teenage characters, and why that fascinates me so much. I think we often return to it as readers or writers because it's something that always can feel unresolved from our past. It's the primary time when we really form our identity as really separate adults — people who are so separate from our family and our upbringing. It's the whole coming of age thing.

I think what draws me to it the most is that, for me, whether I'm reading YA, or whether I'm writing it, the most exciting thing is that that shift from belonging to someone else to that sense of self determination to go: ‘I belong to me, I'm mine, and this is who I am’.

I reckon you focus back on it, almost like: ‘What if I knew then what if I knew then what I know now?’ Like how instead of like, you almost, you're most likely trying to remediate it through YA in like a good way.

I think it's a healthy way. There's more disruptive ways to process trauma than seeking books that reflect your journey, or writing them. But yeah, and even INVISIBLE BOYS was almost a reimagining of like, well, what could my teenage years have been? Like, if I had been able to have sex? Or if I had had a boyfriend? It was, yeah, this part of it that was imagining myself into existence as a teenager. So, you know, that was pretty healing.

I referenced INVISIBLE BOYS in my Mini (MIRROR, MIRROR, Debut Books) when I was talking about why stories are so powerful, because they allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of other people and places. First of all, like you feel seen, but second of all, it's actually really important for an empathy building project.

That's one of the biggest functions of literature, I think, is that empathy building.

Yep, absolutely. So the next thing that you said (in HOW TO BE AN AUTHOR) was that you tend to be a realist. It leads me to my final question, which is, what's next for you? Will it be realist contemporary fiction with a raw, gritty edge?

Look, yes. I'm glad I delivered on what I said in that book, which I probably wrote, I don't know, a year ago. But I'm glad I stayed true to it. Yeah, so my second novel, in a lot of ways it's similar to INVISIBLE BOYS in terms of being really raw (and) honest.

It's not as much of a dark book or anything, but it goes deeper, in some ways into the kind of psychological stuff going on. So there's three points of view. And it's upper YA again.

I'm really interested to see what will happen in terms of the gatekeeper stuff. Because my sense is that the objections that were there for INVISIBLE BOYS in terms of graphic content, maybe won't be there in the same way. I don't know. Like, it's still raw, it's still real. But I'm curious to see what happens. There's a couple of straight characters and a gay character in narrating that particular story. And it's got a little bit of a mystery twist to it. So that there's a suspense-y kind of thing. I'm being so cagey not telling you the plot at all. But hopefully, I'll be able to talk a little bit more quite soon.

It would be something like next year that that book reaches the world, but I don't have enough to say yet.

All right. Look, I think that's a good scoop. I think I'm happy with that as a scoop.