Can you tell us what you’ve been up to since you completed Bright Lights, No City with Centre for Stories?
For sure! I’ve had a pretty hectic year since the project finished. I wrote two very personal pieces: a novella called ‘Poster Boy’, which got published, and a piece of memoir called ‘Territory’, which didn’t. My novel, Invisible Boys, won the Hungerford Award, which I am stoked about. I’ve been busy doing the edits on that novel, finishing the first draft of my second novel, and attending my first ever writers’ festivals as a guest author.
I’ve also just taken on some new roles, as Deputy Chair on the board of WritingWA and as an Ambassador for Lifeline WA. Apparently I just compulsively join organisations with ‘WA’ in their name. The opportunity with Lifeline WA is hell exciting because they’ve asked me to help with a new project for LGBTQI+ people in rural and regional communities—dream job!
I also just got married, which was the best day of my life, so now I’m a husband, and I have a husband, too. It’s all very homosexual. It’s been a big year!
As a writer, storytelling must be like breathing, but did you find it difficult to train in, and perform, as an oral storyteller—and did you gain something because of it?
I had the option of writing or oral storytelling, and I wanted to push myself way out of my comfort zone. Oral storytelling is a totally different beast and I was nervous as hell. Firstly, because the story is only stored in your head—you never write any of it down, so it’s daunting that your story is dependent on your memory and that it will change every time you tell it. Secondly, you have to stand up and perform it, so it’s a challenge to infuse the emotion into the right places. It’s also a bit full on having everyone staring at you.
On the plus side, oral storytelling is bloody exhilarating and I love it. The day we recorded our stories in audio form, I felt this weight I’d carried my whole life—years of self-loathing and internalised homophobia—just lift off my shoulders. It was incredible. I wound up pretty much swaggering down the street because I just felt like the fucking man, you know? I hope it looked more like Brandon Flowers in the video for The Killers’ song The Man, and less like Tobey Maguire in Spiderman 3.
There are threads that connect your recent work: from the personal story that you shared during Bright Lights, No City; to ‘Poster Boy’, which won the Griffith Review’s 2018 Novella Project competition; and your novel, Invisible Boys. Can you tell us what motivates you to write about LGTBQ+ experiences?
I write about gay male characters because I’m a gay bloke and it’s what I know. It’s also what I’m interested in reading. When I see—or create—representations of gay men in art, it’s an opportunity to define myself in accordance with them. Am I like them? Am I different? Better or worse—and why? More masculine or less masculine—and why? Hotter or uglier? Why?
My main motivations for writing gay characters are: catharsis for myself (a bit self-centred, but if it didn’t make me feel something, or make me understand something about myself, I probably wouldn’t write it), representation (there are so many different types of gay people out there, and we only see a narrow range of stereotypes in most media, so I’d like to depict reality), and service (if my sharing stories of sexuality, masculinity, male vulnerability, mental health, suicide, and so on can offer something positive to a reader, my job is done).
It may seem like I’m being political with LGBT inclusion, but I tend to eschew politics in favour of just using art as a vehicle to express human emotion and truth. I’m not a political person. If my characters happen to be gay—which they often will be—then it’s an offering to the reader to interact with them however they want, whether that’s positive or negative.
We’ve had a number of conversations about the vulnerability in writing, especially for those sharing their own experiences through nonfiction or weaving them into their fiction. How do you manage this as you work?
When I sat down to write Invisible Boys in mid-2017, it was the first time in my life I wrote how I truly felt. My mantra was ‘there are no sacred cows’— there was nothing I was not allowed to say. Given I had spent my life up to that point trying to please others, this was revolutionary. I gave myself permission to write as if nobody would ever read the book and I said whatever I wanted—about family, friends, society, men, sex, culture, my hometown, even God. It was the most liberating process ever.
The flipside is that this freedom required me to be vulnerable. Some readers might love the book, others might detest it. There are two answers to that: cop the judgment, or don’t be vulnerable in the first place. I don’t accept the latter, because I believe vulnerability is essential to good art. That said, it wasn’t easy to let my guard down, especially since, as men, we are trained to rig ourselves out in layers of armour to be seen as macho. To write, I had to put the armour to one side for a while and be defenceless. Scary shit. I’m tough when I need to be, in my life, but when I make art, chain mail is of no use—in fact, it’s a hindrance. I think true bravery comes from tackling your demons without any shield at all.
As for the ramifications of writing from a real place, I’ve chosen fiction for that exact reason. Writing non-fiction would be riskier—people might hate the way they are represented—so I prefer the safety of blending emotional truths with imagined plots and characters.
There have also been a number of conversations in the literary community about the voices that are published, who gets to write who, and what efforts the publishing industry is taking to contend with systems of power that privilege some at the expense of others. What are your thoughts on this subject?
My two bob is this: I don’t think we have nearly enough stories about diverse characters written by diverse authors. So, the #ownvoices movement is a net positive as we are seeing some fresh perspectives that are long overdue. And this is nothing radical, really: it is the same people we see in our streets, our schools, our workplaces actually being reflected in literature. There’s nothing threatening about it and it’s very humanistic. In the LGBTQI+ space, in particular, I think it’s also been really heartening to so many projects springing up, like Bright Lights, No City; Griffith Review’s All Being Equal edition last year; Black Inc’s Growing Up Queer anthology; and Walker Books’ Kindred anthology, just to name a few.
My caveat is that I think #ownvoices should be inclusive and expansive, rather than exclusive and inhibitive. Some argue that, for instance, a straight author can’t write gay characters and vice versa. I disagree. I think part of writing is putting ourselves in others’ shoes; of seeking to understand people who are different to us; of building empathy and tolerance. Done respectfully, I personally don’t think it matters who or what the author is, as long as their intent is sound and their execution is nuanced.
Ultimately, I think it’s important that publishing makes space for stories by all authors, from the straightest, whitest male in the whole wide world to the most obscure and marginalised voices. We’re all human, we are all of equal value and we all have stories to tell. I reckon we’re entering a golden age of celebrating the full spectrum of human stories.
Holden Sheppard is an award-winning Young Adult author born and bred in Geraldton, WA. His debut novel, Invisible Boys, won the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award and will be published by Fremantle Press in October 2019. Holden’s writing has been published in Griffith Review, page seventeen, Indigo Journal, Ten Daily and The Huffington Post. Holden has always been a misfit: a gym junkie who has played Pokemon competitively; a sensitive geek who loves aggressive punk rock; and a bogan who learned to speak French. He serves as Deputy Chair of WritingWA and as an ambassador for Lifeline WA.