With the New Librarians’ Symposium fast approaching (29 July 2023), we caught up with keynote
speaker Holden Sheppard, author of The Brink – a coming-of-age story about a group of teenagers on
Schoolies who find themselves confronting life-changing tragedy head-on. The novel is also a powerful
exploration of masculinity, sexuality, mental health, drug and alcohol use, relationships and sex. Holden
spoke to us about being a coming-of-age writer, the complexities of adolescent identity, the role of
libraries in his life and work, and what attendees can expect from his keynote speech.
Originally published in the June edition of INCITE magazine.
Story by Liz Bradtke, Editor, INCITE
Thanks for talking to us Holden! Firstly,
I wanted to ask what attracts you to the
genre of young adult fiction and what
it allows you to do creatively that other
genres might not?
I’ve always been drawn to reading and writing coming-of-age stories. There is something empowering about the self-actualisation of those late teenage years. When I was that age, I was really finding my own self after having performed a bit of a perfectionistic persona most of my life, so in my psyche, those rebellious years are associated with freedom and being a bit of a punk. And lots of readers can relate – from teenagers through to adults.
But I don’t know if I have ever fully seen myself as a proper fit-inside-the-box YA author, to be honest, and that category doesn’t give me much creative freedom at all. My work is just depicting the reality of the older teenage years – which means sex, alcohol, partying, swearing, sexuality, all of it – and even though both books are clearly pitched at readers 15 and up, some moralistic kind of gatekeepers see that as too boundary-pushing and have often tried to get in the way of my books reaching teenage audiences (e.g. refusing to stock my books in bookshops, trying to get my books removed from libraries, telling teachers not to buy them, etc.).
YA as a category has been restrictive for me, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s largely because of the unabashedly homosexual content of my novels. Thankfully, the vast majority of readers, teachers, librarians, booksellers are overwhelmingly supportive of books like this. So, I think of myself as a writer of coming-of-age stories rather than YA specifically. Especially as so many of us actually come of age in our twenties and thirties, these days.
Whilst reading your latest book The Brink, I was compelled by the inclusion of the dead-body plot device and the idea of remoteness that is so effectively evoked by the beach setting. How do these particular elements help you to tease out the complexities of identity, self-image, social pressure, and the often painful process of coming-of-age?
A few years back, I was driving back home to Perth from a weekend in Geraldton, and my old Commodore conked out on the Indian Ocean Drive, smack bang between Lancelin and Cervantes. There’s absolutely nothing in either direction for 40 k’s, no phone signal, no help available in an emergency, just remote bushland stretching all along the coast. I remember thinking that would be an epic setting for a locked-room style thriller or mystery.
So I crafted Brink Island as a fictional representation of some of the off-grid shack settlements on the coast in that area. I figured dumping a bunch of troubled, misfit teenagers in a place like that – and taking away their phones and their ability to escape and then throwing a dead body into the mix – would ratchet up the stakes and be a catalyst for a very rapid coming-of-age. And I think it worked: the immediate drama of the sudden death on the island stokes a monumental transformation in the three main characters of anxious Leonardo, perfect Kaiya and boofheaded Mason. And it makes everything on the island go from The White Lotus to Lord of the Flies in the space of a day, which was fun to write.
The Brink demonstrates your ability to inhabit the adolescent mind and vernacular. Could you talk a little bit about how you achieve this?
I do remember being in year twelve and being extremely frustrated with how adults seemed to see me, and teenagers generally, compared to how it actually felt to be that age and to be riddled with angst and confusion and crap mental health. 17, I wrote a message to myself in my notebook to myself to “never, ever forget what it really feels like to be a teenager”. So maybe that angry memo to my future self worked? I never have forgotten it, and I guess I find it easy to channel into that teenage voice. To some extent I still feel that angst. It’s bubbling under the surface.
Beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I definitely don’t try to research too much to try to sound like the current generation of teenagers. I don’t think I could write in current 2020s teen slang without coming across like a try hard. I’d be like a middle-aged teacher trying to be cool to relate to the kids. Hard pass. I can’t manufacture that. I do research tons of facts to make sure I get things factually and geographically accurate – I always have – but I don’t construct a made-up teenage voice. I try to lean into the universalities of the adolescent experience – the constants that never change, unlike slang, or fashion, or culture. It’s a gut-driven, more organic process, and that’s what seems to work for me.
As INCITE is the flagship magazine for the library sector, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask - what role have libraries have played in your life and work?
I have loved libraries since I was a little kid. I was an avid reader from a very young age and I loved the library at my primary school, and especially the much bigger Geraldton Regional Library in the middle of town. It was a two-storey library with a mezzanine and a kind of curved staircase and what felt like thousands of shelves of books. I’d never seen anything like it when I was a kid. I spent hours in that library and my mother would take me and my little sister there pretty often to loan books out. Once I was at high school I loved sitting in there after school and just reading books without even hiring them out – tons of fiction but also non-fiction about astronomy or Ancient Rome or urban planning or war or puberty. Libraries are a place of wonder and freedom and I still love them for the free, unfettered and untimed space they give to curious introverts like myself. You’re allowed to just sit in a library and be fascinated by knowledge and stories, and nobody stops you or asks you to pay for anything. How brilliant is that. Maybe the coolest institution in our civilisation.
You are a keynote speaker at the upcoming ALIA New Librarians’ Symposium. Can you give us a little teaser of what attendees will be hearing from you?
I’m keen to lean into the current cultural moment we find ourselves in. There seems to be an odd resurgence of censorship and puritanism in the literary space. Free expression and being a writer seem to be under threat in multiple ways. We have far-right people pushing for book bans on LGBT+ content and more or less opposing anything by marginalised authors. We have commercial publishers sanitising old classics for maximum profit. We have a Goodreads culture that wants to demand that any book deemed even mildly problematic by the least-generous reader gets either it’s “bad parts” edited out, or pulped altogether. It's a weird time to be an author. So, I’m going to explore all this from a place of curiosity, through the prism of my books and my works – which have been caught up in some of these current flashpoints. It will be very honest and, hopefully, thought-provoking. Buckle up! :P
Finally, I understand you are working on a new project. Is there anything you can – or would like – to tell us about it, or any future directions your work might take?
I’ve begun 2023 with a brand new start on my third novel and I’m feeling pretty excited about it. It’s my first book that will be pitched at adults instead of YA. It’s a raw, confessional novel about a gym junkie with anger issues whose past trauma finally catches up with him and tears his life apart just as he hits his thirties. I’ll shut my mouth before I say too much more, but I am confident that readers of my first two books will like it and I’m hoping it will find new readers, too.
Holden’s latest novel The Brink is published by Text Publishing and is available at bookstores and online.
Want to hear more from Holden? Register today for the New Librarians' Symposium (NSLX) - 29 July, online. Holden's address is entitled 'What Makes a Book Bad? The Perils of Being an Author in 2023.