Holden Sheppard, author of Invisible Boys, says it was a long journey to accept his sexuality. (ABC Midwest Wheatbelt: Natasha Harradine)
It has been an emotional homecoming of sorts for Holden Sheppard.
The writer, who has just received the first printed copy of his multi-award-winning young adult novel Invisible Boys, has returned to his home town of Geraldton on WA’s mid-west coast as a guest presenter at its annual writing festival, and to talk about his life and writing to senior students at his former high school.
His former teachers came to have their photo taken with him and the school gardener, an old family friend, stopped to shake his hand and tell the young writer how proud he was.
Sheppard described the experience as “surreal” and said it highlighted the school’s progressiveness.
Life was not always easy for him and his novel’s theme of growing up gay in the country gives an insight.
“When I was here, especially as an older teenager, I was very depressed and very much struggling, and to be walking back here with my husband in tow, with my book in tow, that’s a very cool feeling,” he said.
The modern-day Sheppard is a gym junkie and a punk-music loving, sensitive geek with a green mohawk (the colour changes regularly).
As a student, he was very shy and reserved.
“I often feel so fraudulent when I’m asked about growing up gay in Gero because the reality is, and this is why the book is titled Invisible Boys, is I kept myself invisible, I didn’t talk about my sexuality so I hid it completely,” he said.
“So I was a straight boy when I was here. I didn’t come out until I left when I was 19, almost 20.”
Sheppard said other young men who were not able to hide their sexuality suffered in different ways, such as being bullied and tormented.
“But I suffered in my own way, which was that I projected a lot of the shame of being homosexual onto myself and blamed myself and tried to fix myself often with religion, which was incredibly traumatising.”
Sheppard puts his flamboyant exterior down to repressing not just his sexuality but his identity in the past.
“I was invisible for so long and I think this is a way of going, you know, ‘Stuff you, I’m here and I am going to be seen’.”
Journey to acceptance
He talks about the long journey to acceptance and the need to confront his personal demons, the multiple rejections by publishing companies, and his failure to fit in.
“Every tribe I … join, whether it’s writers or geeks or punks or the gym bros, whoever I’m around, I’m always partly in that world.
“But I also often feel like I’m an outsider and I feel like I’ve got to the point where maybe I’m okay with that,” he said.
“When we think about identity, we think about x, y or z but maybe we can be x, y and z depending on the time of the day and the day of the week.”
His novel is set in his home town and follows the journey of three teenagers struggling to accept their sexuality.
Publisher and award judge Georgia Richter said it was a valuable contribution for younger LGBTIQA people.
“This is a novel about a group of young men negotiating what it means to identify as gay, and the risks and issues of coming out in a small town,” she said.
Ahead of its publication, Invisible Boys has won the 2018 T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award and the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award.
But Sheppard said nothing could match the feeling of opening the first printed copy and holding it in his hands.
“Since I picked up the book a few days ago from my publisher … to be honest ever since I’ve been thrusting it into people’s faces and going, ‘Hey, I wrote a book and it’s real and it’s right here’, it’s [been] phenomenal.”
Invisible Boys has been published by Fremantle Press and will be available from October 1.