LoveOzYA Q&A with Holden Sheppard
Holden Sheppard is an award-winning YA author born and bred in Geraldton, Western Australia. At eighteen, he left home, abandoning a career as a fairly average earthmoving labourer to move to Perth and pursue his passion for writing. The gamble paid off. Holden’s debut YA novel Invisible Boys won the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award and the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award. Invisible Boys was published by Fremantle Press in October 2019.
Welcome to the LoveOzYA blog, we’re so happy to have you here!
Let’s go back to the beginning…have you been telling stories since you were a kid or was writing something you fell in love with as an adult?
I’ve been in love with writing and telling stories since I was seven years old. The first one I started was a boarding school story in the vein of Enid Blyton’s oeuvre, but with a male main character. It wasn’t profound (in fact, whatever the opposite of profound is, that’s what this was) but I have bulk affection for it. The first “book” I finished was when I was 11 – I use the scare quotes because it was about sixty handwritten pages in an exercise book! The story was (slightly embarrassingly) about aliens abducting pre-teens from a school disco to warn them about climate change. I feel like that one might be more in the zeitgeist now in 2019 than when I wrote it in 1999!
I was a really repressed kid in multiple ways, so writing was this totally free space where I could be, do and say whatever I wanted – I’ve always been drawn to that rebellious freedom.
Tell us about your new book. Did you have a favourite OzYA book when you were growing up?
Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. I read that series when I was fourteen or fifteen and it changed my world and my writing style. I became more interested in characters and their feelings. Prior to that – it’s maybe more OzMG actually – but I absolutely loved the Cairo Jim series by Geoffrey McSkimming.
Did you have anyone that encouraged your love of books, reading and writing when you were younger?
My mum read to me from a really young age, and I started reading independently from the age of three, which sounds insane, but I was an early reader. My family always supported my ambition of being a writer, but I credit my year 12 English teacher with being the first one to really “get” me. She read my work and saw the potential in my voice and told me I had a real talent, and it meant something different coming from her. Teachers can have an enormously positive impact on their students. I’ll never forget her encouragement.
What do you think sets Australian YA stories apart from those set internationally?
I don’t know if it’s an accurate observation, but I reckon our YA stories tend to be less afraid of exploring the grungy side of things. We’re not afraid of exploring the darker side of growing up and I think that’s reflected in a lot of our YA literature. That’s not to say it’s bleak: I think we’re just realistic and find beautiful ways of marrying up the light and the dark of life.
Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?
My favourite bookshop is my local, which is Dymocks Joondalup. I think it’s often the people who make a bookshop a welcoming place, and the crew there are fantastic and have built up an amazing community around their store. My favourite library was the Geraldton Library, which I used to hang out in after high school. I used to read books about politics, history, geography, religion … everything. I rarely actually loaned books out but just sat in the library and read them, which I think is one of the cool things about libraries – that you’re allowed to just spend time exploring and learning within their walls!
They demolished that particular library a few years back. Funnily enough – the new Geraldton Library is now housed in the same space where I had my first job at age fourteen as a storeman. Returning there to do author events is a real spinout, because I’m like “I remember stacking shelves here and dreaming of being an author one day, and now here I am, standing in literally the same spot, talking to an audience about my book.” Totally surreal.
What was the last book you read and enjoyed?
I read Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone while on honeymoon in May and it was probably one of, if not the, best books I’ve read in 2019. I also read Boy Erased by Garrard Conley on the same trip: it’s a powerful memoir about a gay man’s first-hand experience with conversion therapy in the US. In terms of OzYA, I recently read I Had Such Friends by Meg Gatland-Veness and it absolutely tore me to shreds – brilliant.
Aside from writing, what else do you like to do to explore your creativity?
I play guitar, but very badly. Hit me up if you’d like to hear either Otherside by Red Hot Chili Peppers or Louie, Louie by The Kingsmen played over and over again, in double the amount of time they ought to take.
What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?
Best advice – “write hard and clear about what hurts” (Ernest Hemingway) and “write from your scars, not your wounds” (Sisonke Msimang).
Worst advice – Anything that tells you to spend time developing 50-page character bios or endless plot outlines. In my experience, a total waste of time. Just get some damn words on the page and start writing your first draft. Your characters will organically come to life on the page and that’s where you’ll hear their voice. Characters can’t speak in an excel spreadsheet.
What do you love about OzYA?
Our authenticity and our ability to write light and dark without flinching. Also, I personally love it when characters are a bit bogan or ocker, because that’s what I grew up with, and it’s funny and larrikin and you can’t get that anywhere else in the world.