HONEST TRUTHS AND SHADOW WORK: an interview with Holden Sheppard

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

Some writers plug away for years, if not decades, slowly building a body of work, maybe growing a readership, perhaps even gathering an accolade here and there. And then theres Holden Sheppard, who burst out of the WA blocks in the last twelve months — or so it may seem. Spend even just a bit of time with Sheppard and you will find a hardworking and deeply thoughtful man, who for many years has not only been committed to becoming the best writer he can be but the best possible human being. Sheppards first novel, Invisible Boys (Fremantle Press 2019), was shortlisted in the 2020 Victorian Premiers Literary Awards, listed as a 2020 notable book by the Childrens Book Council of Australia, and long-listed in the 2020 Indie Book Awards, among others. According to The Saturday Age, in Invisible Boys The characters leap off the page, warts and all’. Known also for his distinctive social media presence, Sheppard was born in Geraldton, Western Australia, and currently lives in Perth with his husband.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

What was the first piece of fiction you wrote and what how did you feel writing it?

SHEPPARD

The first time I wrote something that wasn’t true was in Year 1 at school, when each week we were asked to write what we did on the weekend. I grew up in a Sicilian-Australian family of eight where our weekend activities were generally (a) stay at home or (b) go visiting extended family. Compared to the typical Midwest kids who would go swimming, surfing, riding bikes, doing outdoorsy stuff, I felt boring. Usually I wrote the truth, but a couple of times I’d write, I went to the beach. It was fun’. Which sounds innocuous and boring, but I hadn’t been to the beach. I just wanted to sound cool and halfway normal. Given I was a perfectionistic and anxious boy, this manipulation of the truth — this minor reinvention of my life on the page — felt like misbehaviour, but the kind I could get away with without being told off. Evidently my rebellious streak had a soft start.

The first piece of legit fiction I ever wrote, though, was in 1996, when I was in Year 3. I was reading a lot of Enid Blyton: The Magic Faraway Tree series was a gateway drug to the St Clare’s and Malory Towers books — great stories, but they were about British girls going to boarding school and I really wanted to read a story like this, but about Australian boys. And on a road trip one night, returning to my hometown of Geraldton from a family trip to Perth (after visiting extended family, naturally), I was looking up at the full moon and it just struck me. It was the lightning bolt moment of my whole career. If I wanted a boarding school story about Australian boys, I could write it myself. For the rest of that four-hour car ride my limbs felt alive and full of energy: I remember feeling so excited and restless to get started. I felt this flower of possibility blossoming inside me. I can still feel into that sense now, even — it left a permanent mark on me. It was one of the best moments of my life because in one fell swoop, I’d realised I could create something all of my own and I knew, with certainty, what I’d been put on the planet to do.

That week, I got a four-coloured pen and an exercise book from our local Dewsons supermarket and started writing a book called First Form at Clifton Towers. It was about a twelve-year-old Australian boy named Jake who was off to boarding school (surprise!). I thought twelve was a big boy age. I wrote 56 pages in the A5 exercise book before moving on to a different story. The writing was not artistic or prodigious, but the mechanics were pretty solid for a seven-year-old. Most of the tension came from kids almost falling off cliffs and being saved, but there was also stuff about friendship and schoolyard bullying. At one point, Jake and his friends converted a cave into a hideout — like a clubhouse — away from the school. In this story, and in those that followed, my main characters had lots of real, secure, loyal, uncomplicated friendships, which, upon reflection now, was inversely true for my own life. My protagonists were always part of a group or a team. I had a desire to feel like I belonged, and being a shy, bookish kid at school, I never felt like I fit — but in fiction, when I made things up, I could do whatever I wanted. It wasn’t solely the events that were fictionalised: my main character was always a more confident and outspoken version of me, and always the leader of the pack. I felt incredibly free when I wrote that first story — I could do anything I wanted, and there were no rules, nobody to diminish or ridicule me, nobody to tell me off, nobody to tell me I couldn’t. Again, in stark contrast to my real life.

It makes sense, now, why I kept my writing completely secret: no friends or family were ever allowed to read it.

 INTERVIEWER

At what point did you decide to go public with your intention to be a writer?

SHEPPARD

I literally told my whole class the day after I started writing! Most didn’t care, some thought it cool, some thought it nerdy, and some wanted to tell me what to write. One even strong-armed his way into illustrating an early page. It was against my will, but I was shy and used to having boundaries crossed — I had no idea how to stand up for myself or say no — so I let him do it. I still feel angry about that: I did not know how to defend my boundaries. At home, when I told my mother I was writing, she decided this was actually a business opportunity to create a publishing company of stories for kids, by kids, and she really tried to talk me into that. Even as a little kid, I could tell that such a venture would have nothing to do with me or what I wanted. It was not about me. And in any case, that didn’t interest me. I just wanted to tell my own stories.  

These early experiences of telling people about my ambitions were not positive. I felt invaded and pressured. If I shared parts of myself publicly, people seemed to only want to use it to their own advantage. So, I stopped talking about it. If people asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I deflected and said town planner instead, because I loved maps (that’s another story). As a writer, I locked myself down, spending weekends and holidays writing in silence and solitude, and in that I found freedom. My parents pestered me to play footy (AFL) or soccer, and though deep down I did want to play team sports (and would play both as an adult), I fobbed them off. Sports would reduce my precious weekend writing time.

When I was twelve, I took my writing very public. I was a Pokémon geek, and I joined some online fan forums which had subforums for fanfiction. I had already been privately writing Pokémon stories and now here were dozens of others doing the same. I began posting my stories online, and that experience made me the author I am today in many ways. Primarily, for the first time ever, I had people — lots of them — reading my work, telling me it was good and they couldn’t wait for the next chapter. Receiving feedback was gloriously helpful. I loved the praise, but the constructive criticism was priceless. Readers would tell me what didn’t work, and it helped me get better. I had one grammarian reader who taught me so much about grammar and syntax. And early on, being told that my characterisation was weak made me work harder to construct fleshed out characters.

Secondly, due to intellectual property legalities, I knew fanfiction stories could never become real books. This took any pressure off me to perform well, the way I was expected to perform at school. I decided fanfiction would be my training ground — just as the footy boys spent time training each week, hoping to one day play at AFL level, I would spend hours training, too, hoping to one day be a published novelist. I dedicated myself to honing my writing skills.

Thirdly, in that forum I found my tribe of fellow geeky writers from all over the world. I can’t tell you how much that meant. I learned to interact as an equal with people much older than me, and it was amazing to have conversations about writing — something I’d never talked to others about. Finding your tribe, as an author, is beneficial for both craft and soul.

Fourthly, I found my own identity in that online space. It was anonymous, so nobody had a preconception of me as being shy, or smart, or a loser. I used a different name and I could act however I wanted; I could just be myself. Those forums quickly became my favourite way to pass time. I felt authentically me when I was there — more authentic than I ever was in real life, at the time.

On those forums, I told others I wanted to be a real, published novelist one day. That declaration was met only with kindness, enthusiasm and selfless encouragement. 

INTERVIEWER

I understand that you would go on to study writing at tertiary level. What was that experience like for you?

SHEPPARD

Studying creative writing was disorientating. I started uni at eighteen, having already written two books of fanfiction. I thought I’d just be learning mechanical stuff, like in a writing workshop, but I also found myself thrown into units about literary theory. I was horrified. Uni students seemed like hipster wankers. Keep in mind I was a country kid, fresh from a job as a labourer. I’d never held a conversation about art in my life, and I didn’t know how to. My classmates were alien to me: they hung out at hipster Perth joints like The Moon; they read highbrow literature; they watched Twin Peaks and experimental indie films, while I watched Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother. I was a bogan swigging from my longneck of Carlton Draught in a soy latte world.

That said, my discomfort wasn’t just an issue of class, but one of temperament. It seemed my classmates wanted to discuss art in a practically onanistic way, but never do any of it. I wasn’t into that. I liked talking aesthetics in an instinctive, gut-driven way, but pondering theories of taste and intellectualising never gave me a boner like it did them. I was more into story and craft: I wanted to learn sharp, clever mechanics, and how to write something powerful, honest and beautiful.

When I returned home at the end of my first year, I told my parents I was quitting uni. I would be a full-time labourer and write in my spare time. This bitterness spilled into my end-of-semester journal. I called the writers pretentious and railed against the texts as wank. In one poem, I described myself how I thought my classmates and teacher saw me: exhibits no appreciation of art; if anything, he inhibits it. It was arrogant and self-loathing, but it was how I felt.

The breakthrough came when my lecturer, Dr Marcella Polain, commented on my journal. I was waiting to be told I was petulant, anti-art, dense, ignorant, obnoxious. But Marcella didn’t say any of those things. She said, It’s fine not to like this, but could you interrogate why you feel so angry? What a light-bulb moment! Until then, I thought I had to agree with everything we were taught. I felt pressure to follow the herd until I, too, was dissecting Twin Peaks while nursing my soy latte at The Moon. It had never occurred to me that I was allowed to disagree. I had felt like the course was moulding me into a type of writer I was not. In contrast, my lecturer’s approach gave me permission to have my own artistic opinions, and moreover, to articulate and analyse and justify them. I think many writing students feel backed into a corner in tertiary programs, but the point of learning new things is not to agree with them, rather just to be curious and understand them.  

This was revolutionary. I returned to uni and, knowing I had my own discretion, I became less angry, more curious. I learned much more this way. Just because postmodernism didn’t grab me, didn’t mean I couldn’t grow from understanding it. And every now and then I’d come across something that fascinated me. The anti-art rebellion of the Dada movement. Stream-of-consciousness. Uncensored poetry and prose. Anything that embraced the taboo and the subaltern and the sexual and the grungy. And I found stories more in the style I liked. The first time I read Misery by Anton Chekhov, I remember thinking that was how I wanted to write. Clean, crisp prose, with inner tension, and raw emotion downplayed in the language, so that small acts and thoughts loomed enormous on the page. Much of the literature we studied seemed to obfuscate meaning with dense and overwrought language, intent on making readers work hard to decipher it. By being open to that, I realised it wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do. I wanted to be more like Chekhov.

That semester, I wrote a crisp, realist short story that was simple, but playful with form: a melange of my own voice and what I’d learned at uni. It was about a labourer from Geraldton: the first time I’d put myself on the page in an honest way. On Marcellas urging, I submitted it to a literary journal, and that story — A Man — went on to be published in Indigo Journal: my first ever published piece of writing.

INTERVIEWER

I think quite a few writers will find comfort in your account of feeling on the outer of literary discussions. Did that experience of being an outsider become a motivation for the writing of your novel Invisible Boys?

SHEPPARD

I agree many writers might relate, but you know what’s funny? The more I’ve seen of the literary world, the more I think the ‘inner circle’ is an illusion. I could be wrong: maybe they’re having cliquey poker nights and I’m just not invited! But after Invisible Boys won some accolades, a fellow writer commented that I was part of the in-crowd, and I instantly refuted it, because I’ve never felt like that, still don’t, but from the outside it apparently looked like that. There are many writers whom I, in turn, had assumed were like those hipster uni writers, except they, too, have said they feel on the outer. I don’t know anyone who feels like they are part of the literary in-crowd. Maybe there isn’t one and it just looks like there is? I wonder if we’re all outsiders: some high-brow literary types, some low-brow popular fiction types, each group looking with mistrust at the other, thinking, in a gruff New Yorker accent, What, ya think ya better than me? I like to hope we’re getting closer to understanding there are many valid ways of being a writer.

As for the sense of being an outsider serving as a motivation for writing Invisible Boys: yep, dead on. The common thread in my life and my writing is the sense of being a misfit, of not knowing or having a real, solid identity, nor having people around who got me. I would look for versions of myself in books, TV shows, movies, music, but never found a character just like me, who could articulate quite what I felt. I’m hardly the only misunderstood artist in the world — it’s practically in our DNA — but it still hurts to feel like you don’t belong.

When I sat down in 2017 to start a new novel, my idea was to write about what hurt. I discovered it wasn’t just being an outsider that had fucked me up: there were extra layers of trauma. Hating myself for being weird. Wishing I wasn’t so different. Trying to make myself normal. Realising that no matter how much I bent and squished myself to fit particular situations or people, it was never enough to find acceptance or validation. And within all this, I was particularly interested in the idea of trauma and pain that goes unacknowledged and what that can do to a person. There is a line in the song Notebook, by my favourite band Killing Heidi, that talks about damage unseen, and that idea fascinated me for years. All the damage I had accumulated — struggles with mental health issues, suicidal ideation, sexuality, masculinity, addiction, identity, belonging — loomed large over my psyche, but only internally. Almost nobody knew what I had been through and I never talked about it — again, I was trying to seem normal. My damage was all unseen, but it ruled my life and kept me locked inside myself. So, I thought, wouldn’t it be powerful to shine a massive spotlight on all my damage, and let the world see it? Wouldn’t it feel great to just let the world see me as I am, unfettered and unabashed, rather than pretending that I, in any way, had my shit together?

Writing Invisible Boys in this way was powerful — and transformative. I wrote from the heart about practically everything that hurt me, filtered through the voices of three teenage male characters: Zeke (the nerd), Charlie (the punk) and Hammer (the jock). These boys are growing up gay in country WA and dealing with it in various ways — basically, they are three versions of myself. Writing that book is how I found my voice: not just as an author, but as a man. I shed so much sunlight on nearly three decades of pain and damage — and ultraviolet light is a powerful bleach. Telling this story blasted away years of psychic rust: I emerged from the process feeling scrubbed clean and able to simply be my core self without shame. True liberation.

I still feel like an outsider, and in my author bio I even refer to myself as a misfit, but I don’t feel bad about it anymore.

INTERVIEWER

Thank you for such an open response. Wanting to shine a massive spotlight on all my damage and let the world see it must have been a powerful mission for a novelist. Can you tell us about the writing process? For example, did you write Invisible Boys in one storm of typing, or was it a matter of piecing it together over an extended period of time? And how did you approach editing?

SHEPPARD

I love that phrasing: a storm of typing. That’s spot on. I’m a binge writer: it’s all balls-to-the-wall, locking myself in my den for weeks or months at a time until a manuscript is done.

I started this novel under the spectre of past failure. Failure is maybe too harsh: I’d written a gay story at uni in 2012, and it scored me first-class honours. But the cost to my health made it a pyrrhic victory: I had to self-medicate to finish it, and it affected me so badly that I abandoned the idea of writing from real life. In early 2017, I decided to dip my toe back into those waters with a short story, but when I sat down to write it, something possessed me. I couldn’t stop. After two days of binge writing, I had finished a 20,000word novella titled Damage Control about a gay teenager named Kade. Most of Hammer’s later scenes in Invisible Boys — from chapter 18 on — are ripped straight from this novella, though they were edited.

This will sound absurd now, but because Damage Control was too long for literary magazines and too short for publishers, I initially planned to self-publish it as a free e-book. I very nearly went through with this; I even designed a cover for it on Canva. This would have been an extraordinary career misstep, but I was urgent to get some writing into the world. I wanted to prove myself. But building a career requires patience, and I’m glad I stopped and reflected, as my desperation would have sabotaged me. The more I looked at the novella, the more I realised I had barely scratched the surface with Kade. I had more to say. And there were two other characters in the novella who had piqued my curiosity: John (Charlie in the final novel), a muso who was outed in the first scene, and a waiter at the wedding, named Zeke.

To test the waters, I wrote a scene from Zeke’s perspective. That is the masturbation scene in the book’s second chapter. And that was where it all clicked for me. I had always been saddled with residual Roman Catholic guilt about my sexuality. Writing boldly in defiance of this shame was transcendent. I showed the scene to my husband and his reaction was, You need to write this book. So, from March through June, I plotted ideas and characters in a Word document, then mapped each scene into an Excel spreadsheet — which became the blueprint for the novel.

And then came the storm of typing. I wrote Invisible Boys for Camp NaNoWriMo, an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month, where participants write 50,000 words of a project in 30 days. NaNo offers an arbitrary hard deadline with no expectation of quality — the most fertile garden in which to grow a first draft. I wrote the whole first draft in two months, July through August. I wrote obsessively —  sometimes all day, sometimes through the night until the sun came up. I had waited my entire life to tell this story: I was beyond ready to share it, so it roared out of me with the force of a V8 engine. I had rock music blaring as I wrote. It was sublime.

In terms of editing, I sent the first draft to a manuscript appraisal service and the editor there was tremendously helpful. I implemented almost all her suggestions. The editor is right about nearly everything, but never everything. There are always a few suggestions that you know, as the author, don’t sit right in your bones. But regardless, this process whipped my novel into much stronger shape. When I signed to my agent, Haylee Nash, in November that year, she gave me some notes for a third edit. Most of the changes from both edits were around making the voices stronger and more distinct, and fleshing the boys’ individual stories out more, plus continuity issues and making sure everything weaved together well. Then, once my agent was happy with it, it was off to find a home!

INTERVIEWER

Is there a part of prose-writing that you struggle with? If so, how have you overcome it?

SHEPPARD

Historically, I’ve struggled with characterisation. My earlier writing, including the YA Fantasy novel I wrote in 2014-2016, often focused on plot at the cost of character. My main concern was following the three-arc narrative structure: was there an inciting incident, were there continuity errors or problems with the internal logic of the narrative, did the action ebb and flow, was the climax satisfying (ha!), was the denouement abridged enough? When it came to characters, I cared about making their hair colour and clothing consistent, or that, if they were injured in chapter seven, they were still limping in chapter nine. A slavish attention to plot robbed me of meaningful character development.

The plot/character dichotomy is, of course, false — you can do both well, and good books do — but during the writing process I often privilege one over the other. It takes a conscious effort to give both the attention they deserve. An agent who rejected that fantasy manuscript labelled my writing competent, which is eternally imprinted on my memory, because it hurt so badly. Basically, he meant I could write well, but he didn’t feel anything. That was the biggest shake up I ever had: it made me fundamentally change my writing style. For Invisible Boys and everything after, I focused on character first: what do they feel and why do they feel it? I interrogated my characters the same way my lecturer once told me to interrogate myself. I also stopped treating my characters like they were separate from me. Prior to Invisible Boys, I would create characters methodically before starting a draft, using character profile templates to list their every facet in a bloodless and routine way. Nowadays, I barely know my characters until I start writing them, and they come alive on the page. I am less deliberate, more intuitive: I breathe myself into these characters; their voices are always elements of my own voice. I can only create a convincing character if I bring myself to the table and put myself on display through the prism they offer. I hope that makes sense.

If I assess my own skills, I think I’m decent at voice, dialogue, tension and plot. I think my characterisation has improved, but I struggle with structure and tone. Structurally, I am daunted by the prospect of putting together 80,000 words in sequential order without a tangible framework. I need support around my novel structure the way a construction worker needs scaffolding around a building. I break the manuscript down as much as I can: often into acts or arcs, then chapters, then scenes, so it becomes bite-sized and manageable. Invisible Boys was originally divided into three acts — like a play: chapters 1-9, 10-18 and 19-27. My publisher didn’t like this device and cut it. I acquiesced because it didn’t matter to the finished product, much as a building doesn’t need scaffolding once it’s completed. Perhaps this means I still struggle with structure, but I prefer to think that the devices I’ve implemented to overcome that weakness are effective.

In terms of tone, I suspect my writing, especially in first drafts, can at times come across too earnest, overblown or melodramatic (like me), particularly when it comes to overextending a metaphor or veering into cliché. I’ve learned to rein in the emotion in my language to keep things sparse. Less is more when it comes to making an audience feel, as Chekhov’s writing taught me.

I also don’t think I am very capable as a literary writer, in that I’m not one of those writers who delights with playing with language itself. I’m not dissing that style. It’s just not something I’m interested in and I confess I don’t think I am any good at it. So, I play to my strengths: clean, sharp, straightforward prose. I get a lot of messages telling me how easy Invisible Boys was to read. If it’s from a literary type, I sometimes read this as veiled criticism of my style as simplistic, but more often than not it’s from someone who says they haven’t read a book since they left school, and this book being so readable is what made it possible to finish. I’m proud of that.

INTERVIEWER

I like the idea that you believe you can only create a convincing character if you bring yourself to the table and put yourself on display through the prism they offer. Turning to the most public side of being a writer: do you enjoy doing the publicity?

SHEPPARD

I love doing publicity, though it has ups and downs. On the plus side, my ego loves it. I’m an extrovert and an attention whore, so media interviews, book signings and author talks are like crack to me. Having people rock up to public appearances and want to hear what I have to say is validating and healing. I vibe off an audience’s energy: if they’ve made time to spend an evening with me, I want them to have fun, so I kick my own energy and humour up a notch.

On a less egoic note, connecting with readers at events feels purposeful. I love hearing how my book has resonated with people who are gay, straight, male, female, young, old. After I did Bad Diaries Salon, three young straight blokes told me how much they connected with my journal entries. They’d never heard a male artist speak about sex like that, and they wanted to hear more. Straight men and gay men have so much to talk about once we stop thinking we’re so different. (We aren’t.)

Hearing readers’ stories and how they connect with my own is truly rewarding. Many readers tell me their coming out stories, including older guys who came out when homosexuality was criminalised. I hear from loads of masc, non-scene homosexual men — especially country boys — who relate to me and my characters. I meet young LGBT people who have just come out, or are in the process of coming out, or are still closeted. There are tears and hugs. They tell me I am expressing feelings they hadn’t yet voiced. I get fan mail from guys who say this book helped them process old trauma. That’s overwhelming. As much as they feel seen by my book, I feel seen by their reactions. Putting my book out there, being authentic, showing up — this feels like artistic service.

But there are downsides. My book tour took a toll on my mental health. For two months, I rehashed my trauma daily: from replying to reader messages, to signings and interviews, to meetings and author events, every interaction involved me talking about when I wanted to kill myself. It was purposeful, but it fucked me up emotionally; and when the tour was done, I was burnt out. The day after I finished, I slept 17 hours. Next tour, I’m chucking in some rest days.

At times, I told audiences more than I wanted to. I felt my whole life was up for public consumption and that I had no private self; no details that were just for me. That’s not healthy. So now there’s a handful of topics I don’t talk about in public. I’m deliberately cagey about future books, too: I don’t give any info until I’m ready to.

Talking openly about taboos means I get loads of messages from people who relate. Mostly it’s people sharing their struggles, interspersed with guys complimenting my shirtless pics on Insta and sending me their unsolicited nudes which, while hot, won’t yield any return dick pics. (I’m married.) Some other messages are inappropriate, threatening or abusive: they get ignored. In general, most people are respectful of my time, but some try to talk daily. I won’t do that. I compartmentalise my life now. At events, in interviews, in my social media and blog posts, and in my art — I am 100% there for others, open and authentic. Readers can always join me for public stuff. But my downtime is for me: I need to preserve my mental health. I respond to fan mail once only: no back-and-forth. I’m not a therapist. If people need counselling, I refer them to appropriate services.

INTERVIEWER

As a writer, and perhaps as a person too, you come across as both confident and fragile. How do you juggle that, especially during the creative process? 

SHEPPARD

I lean into the juggling act. I can be both confident and fragile and as I’ve grown up, I’ve become more comfortable showing those sides of myself. Truth is, I’ve often felt inferior to other writers. I had full-blown imposter syndrome as I emerged onto the Aussie writing scene. Two years ago, I won a residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains. It was unreal, but I felt like a fraud. Who did I think I was, writing in a prestigious house with four serious writers? That same year, I had an ASA mentorship with an established Aussie author. We met for coffee to talk about my novel and he was generous and superhelpful. But the moment I got back in my car, I berated myself, called myself stupid, a fucking idiot. I felt I’d embarrassed myself by talking too much, that I’d come across like a noob in front of a proper’ author. Lifelong low self-esteem is a tough nut to crack.

I’ve tackled these demons in recent years. Although getting my novel published validated me, the bigger change came from going easier on myself. Self-compassion vastly improved my confidence. Now, when I go to writing events, or have coffee with someone established, I feel I have as much right to be there as anyone else. I still feel like a wide-eyed country boy, but I no longer tell myself I’m inferior. Plus, despite feeling like a newbie, I’m not one. Writing has been my career since 1996, and I’ve always worked hard at it and taken it seriously, even as a kid. I’ve well and truly smashed my Gladwellian 10,000 hours of practice. If there’s anything I know how to do, this is it. And beyond the hard work element, I have the essential ingredient required: I have some level of talent as a writer. I’ve learned to own that. These days, I have much higher self-esteem — and I believe in myself.

This shows up in my creative process. I could never have written Invisible Boys if I hadn’t believed what I had to say mattered. Authors need confidence in our abilities, too, or we’d never write a word. Sometimes I leapfrog confidence and become cocky as hell. I’ll be writing or planning and my vibe will be, Fuck I’m good, just ask me.’ But those FIGJAM moments are one side of the coin. Other times I’ll think, God, this is shit, and I’m shit. I fluked Invisible Boys and Poster Boy. This next novel is prosaic rubbish and soon everyone will know I’m a crap writer. Despite being kinder to myself generally, I reserve the right to flip erratically between thinking I’m a good writer and a terrible one. I think this mercurial temperament makes artists apply ourselves and work harder.

Your observation about me seeming both confident and fragile is underpinned by the idea of wholeness, and wholeness is a deliberate and conscious influence on both me and my creative process. I’m fascinated with the Jungian concept of shadow work: integrating the perfectionistic persona with one’s darker side and being okay with all parts of oneself. I love crafting characters who go beyond flawed and can be actively unlikeable, but I want the reader to still see them as human and whole, and deserving of compassion and love. Author Laurie Steed once described this part of my writing as deeply humanistic. This approach shows up in characters like Tommo, the gay bogan in my novella Poster Boy. Several readers messaged me saying he was a bit of a dick, and when I told them Tommo was based on me, they replied, Oh no, you’re not like that!, which was just politeness. But I wrote Tommo like that deliberately. Same as Hammer in Invisible Boys. He’s full of himself and a bully; but he’s also soft and damaged. This is true for me: sometimes I’m gentle and empathetic, other times I’m a rude, selfish prick. I love giving myself and my characters permission to be both, because all humans have light and dark, whether we want to or not. I believe it’s my duty as an artist to explore honest truths about the world as it is, rather than to manufacture idealised good characters or good worlds. To my thinking, those things do not exist outside of fiction.

Wholeness motivates me to write what I write. I tell stories of imperfect humans in an imperfect world. I want my readers to see the integration of light and dark in my characters. I want readers to know their dark is as important as their light. I want them to know they are okay just as they are.

INTERVIEWER

Thank you again for such wonderfully generous and expansive answers. Its been a pleasure chatting with you.

SHEPPARD

Right back at ya. Thank you for such wide-ranging questions, and for giving me the permission and space to be unfettered. What a ride! 

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Invisible Boys can be purchased online from Fremantle Press


Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer who has been published widely. His war novel, BODIES OF MEN, was published by Hachette Australia in 2019 and shortlisted in the 2019 Queensland Literary Awards and received a Canberra Critics Circle Award. According to the Australian Book Review, the novel is ‘a thoroughly humanising depiction of Australians during World War Two’. Nigel’s other works include the story collection JOY (2000), his debut novel REMNANTS (2005), and THE BEACH VOLCANO (2014), which is the third in an award-winning series of novellas. He has also written over 120 creative non-fiction pieces published in various outlets such as The Sydney Morning Herald, The Canberra Times, Meanjin, Overland, and The Millions (US). In 2014 Nigel began writing for the stage. He wrote the libretto for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, a contemporary song cycle about an Australian soldier returning from Afghanistan; the work was commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium in Goulburn, produced by The Street Theatre in Canberra, and had its world premiere in 2018. Of this work, the Canberra Times said, ‘a gem of a piece, combining the performance rhythms of a song cycle with the force of theatre’ and according to ArtsHub it ‘fearlessly takes on some big issues — Featherstone’s libretto impressively balances narrative and contemplation’. His new play with songs, THE STORY OF THE OARS, recently underwent a 2-week creative development through The Street Theatre. Nigel has held residencies at Varuna, Bundanon, and UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. You can find out more about Nigel on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram