Out and proud in print and life

Francesca MannGeraldton Guardian
Holden Sheppard's manuscript, Invisible Boys, was inspired by his own experience growing up gay in Geraldton.
Camera IconHolden Sheppard's manuscript, Invisible Boys, was inspired by his own experience growing up gay in Geraldton. Credit: Supplied

When writer Holden Sheppard first realised he was gay, it was a typical day in the Sheppard household — the family had gathered round the TV to cheer on their favourite football team, Collingwood.

But as the game progressed and his family screamed and shouted, Sheppard — who was 14 at the time — realised he wasn’t thinking about the match.

“I realised I was going, ‘These guys are really hot’,” Sheppard said with a laugh.

Although Sheppard can now laugh about his discovery, the revelation forced him to withdraw and isolate himself from friends and family.

Growing up in Geraldton in a Catholic, working-class family, Sheppard said he felt “invisible”, unable to tell anyone who he really was and stuck pretending to be someone else.

For more than a decade the 29-year-old held on to these feelings, until his first young-adult manuscript, a fantasy novel, was rejected by dozens of agents.

Having dreamt of becoming a writer since he was seven, Sheppard wasn’t going to let the setback get in his way.

“It made me reassess that the story wasn’t good enough and I need to go from the heart,” he said.

“When I sat down after the first novel, I thought ‘what hurts?’ What do I want to write about?

“The first thing that came up was it was really hard growing up gay in the country.

“I was suicidal for a time and it’s something I’m really keen to talk about and work through.”

And thus, Invisible Boys was born, a fictional novel inspired by Sheppard’s own experience.

Sheppard said the story came “screaming out” of him, the first draft written within two months.

By the end of 2017 his manuscript was nearly good to go.

Invisible Boys is expected to hit book stores in October this year, after the former Nagle Catholic College student took out the City of Fremantle’s prestigious T.A.G. Hungerford Award.

“It’s completely overwhelming, I’m so happy,” he said.

“I don’t think I could have written Invisible Boys any earlier in my life — I had to have a certain distance from what happened ... to fictionalise and process what I went through.”

Invisible Boys won’t be Sheppard’s first piece of published work — his novella Poster Boy was published in Griffith Review Edition 62 earlier this year.

The author first became enamoured with books during road trips from Geraldton to Perth, stopping by a shopping centre to load up on books to read on the way home.

But reading books wasn’t enough for the literary lover — from a young age Sheppard knew he wanted to write the stories.

“Books can literally do anything, there was no limitations, no restrictions on what could be done,” he said.

“The word no didn’t exist with creating stuff as a writer and — maybe because I didn’t feel super free — it was super liberating.

“It was probably me wanting to put myself out there and say, ‘Here’s what I think’.”

After coming out to his family — who Sheppard said had always been supportive — the budding writer moved to Perth to study at Edith Cowan University.

Though Sheppard has lived in Perth for the past decade, he said if he could, he would move back to Geraldton in a heartbeat.

“I love Geraldton, if I could do a writing career from there and have the same network and opportunities I would (live there),” he said.

“Even now I still feel like a country boy; whenever I come home, I feel like I can relax.

“Geraldton has always been quite accepting, but there isn’t an overt campaign or signalling of it being a welcoming space.

“But I found very quickly you can hold hands in Geraldton and no one cares — all you’ll get is a smile or a nod, something quite supportive, and that was very healing.”

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