When Holden Sheppard answers my phone call on a Monday morning, I’m surprised he sounds so damn normal. Given his selfie-taking, extroverted style on social media, often shirtless or sporting a brightly coloured mohawk (now removed, but temporarily replaced by a Freddie Mercury-esque moustache, because as explained on Twitter he looks like a “HIDEOUS DEMON BABY TWINK BOY” without it), I expected something different, although I’m not sure exactly what. He has just left an early meeting and sounds warm and professional as he apologises for running five minutes late. When I reconcile this version of Holden with the other equally-real versions of himself, I am reminded of the young men in his book, Invisible Boys, and how each contain elements of his own personality, too unfettered to pin down except when redistributed amongst fictional characters.
This is one of the main reasons I wanted to chat with Holden. Sure, his debut novel won numerous accolades including the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, the 2019 Western Australian Premier’s Book Prize for an Emerging Writer, and it made me stay up till 2am laughing and crying like some sort of crazy woman despite having previously maintained that I “don’t really enjoy Young Adult Fiction” (I know, I know. What a nob). But what interests me most is his infectious self-confidence and his ability to be unapologetically authentic. Although, as Holden himself explains, this level of self-acceptance did not come quickly or easily, and at one point, during a very dark period where he decided he could not continue with his life, it almost didn’t come at all.
Invisible Boys contains many parallels to Holden’s life, with the genre of YA fiction giving him more freedom than memoir to explore alternate realities, and paint new truths with characters that are amalgamations of real-life people. It follows the high school experiences of three strikingly different young men who can be rudely oversimplified as follows: Zeke the nerd; Charlie the punk-rocker; and Hammer, the footy-loving meathead. Each struggle with their identities while coming to terms with their homosexuality in the small Western Australian town of Geraldton, where Holden himself grew up. “It was great to not write memoir,” Holden explains. “It gave me some leeway to make shit up where I wanted to make shit up, and tell the truth where I wanted to tell the truth.”
Unlike the characters, whose secrets start being revealed at the age of 16, Holden did not come out as a homosexual man until after he’d left school and was already in a serious relationship. This was many years after his sexuality had become abundantly clear at age 14. “I’d be enjoying the footy and then think, ‘Wow these guys are hot,’” he explains.
“The really interesting thing is from the ages 14 to 16, I didn’t really fight it. I read a puberty book that told me it would be a phase, and it was a hormonal thing. It made it seem very factual, like something that just happens: you have surges of hormones when you’re a teenager, you might be briefly attracted to the same sex, that’s normal, that’s OK, but it will go away when your hormones kick in properly.” I respond with an appropriate WTF, and Holden confirms that this is actually one of the real-life stories that was woven into the book. “I really believed it was just a phase, so for the first few years it didn’t really bother me until I got to about 16 and went ‘Oh. This isn’t going away. The proper hormones haven’t kicked in.’
That realisation took Holden to what he describes as “a dark place” of self-loathing and trying to be a different person. When it came to friends and family, Holden explains that it wasn’t a fear of bullying or physical violence that stopped him from speaking up (“although that definitely happens”), it was more to do with knowing that his life would fundamentally shift. “I knew that my relationships with people – with family, with friends – would change. I’d lose so much if I told the truth. So it just felt safer to protect myself by not saying anything, to be silent and invisible. I grew up in a very working-class background, very blue-collar, I was catholic, and [I had] the Sicilian stuff going on. Plus it was a small country town, so you don’t really see gay people around. So you have a lot of influences which, through osmosis, are sending you the message that this isn’t going to work out for you.”
The eventual reason for Holden sitting his parents down for “the chat” came when he was in a serious relationship at nearly 20 with his now-husband and fellow author Raphael Farmer, who he met in a writing class at university. “I was a bit of a seed,” he says with a laugh. “I had a scan around the room on the first day and went, ‘There’s the hottest guy in the room’. I joined his group for the group assignment, and we became mates for about 6 months, then hooked up after that. Eventually I thought, ‘I have a boyfriend now, this is a serious thing, I should probably tell my family’. Some people have terrible coming out experiences, but I actually lucked-out relatively. I sat my mum down and she thought I was going to say I got a girl pregnant, so she was fine. Dad was fine as well, I told him down at the sheds, I used to work with dad in earthmoving. I went down there and had a coffee and just kind of said, ‘Here’s the deal’. He completely surprised me, stood up and opened his arms and said, ‘You’re my son, I love you.’” Holden adds that his dad has even welcomed Raph into the family with a Collingwood beanie.
But that’s not to say everything went smoothly, and while Holden’s parents responded well, many friends were not as supportive; some of whom are fictionalised in the book. “I only had one person who disowned me,” Holden says, and I’m struck by the thought of being in a situation where having “only” one person disown you could be considered a positive thing. “But generally speaking most of my mates were fine. But there’s a big difference between fine and embracing, so the relationships kind of withered.”
Regardless of his “coming out” story being a mostly positive one, as a mental health advocate, Holden is quick to point out that despite making it through the darkness of his late teens, he still deals with mental health issues. “I’ve noticed that people who knew me at the time are like ‘oh I’m sorry you went through a dark time, but thank god everything’s fine now.’ You know, everything is much better now. I’m openly homosexual, I have a husband who’s amazing, I have a career that I love. Things are really good now. But my mental health is still a constant thing. I live with mental health issues, and that doesn’t just go away because you came out. So no, I’m not on the brink like I once was, but I still have mental health things going on.” He explains he has learned to manage these issues in a way that works for him. “I’ve got a pretty good system in place now, compared to a few years back. Self-care is really huge for me and it doesn’t really stop. I go to therapy, and I exercise, which really helps. I play footy. It’s for the physical exertion, it’s good for the endorphins, but it’s good for social connection as well. And just things like sobriety, and nutrition, all that stuff plays a huge role for me.”
On his social media, it is not uncommon for Holden to describe himself as ‘arrogant’, albeit in a light-hearted way. But I don’t think having a strong sense of self is arrogant, and I come back around to what drew me to Holden in the first place. I tell him: I love that you just know yourself, and own yourself, like, ‘This is me, I’m really happy with who I am, if you’re not, that’s cool’. Do you think that comes from overcoming some shit to find out who you are?
“Yeah absolutely, that’s exactly where it comes from. I have gone through the ringer in terms of my own self-esteem and my own self-worth, and I’ve taken that as far as I could take it without killing myself. I got very close to doing that but I thankfully didn’t. When you come out of something like that, and you go to therapy and you really work on yourself for a number of years, you rapidly lose patience with anyone trying to give you shit. That probably translates to that confidence.” He adds that his lack of patience for bullshit extends to himself, too. “I don’t have patience for it in myself, I don’t have patience for negative self-talk, and I know I’m OK as I am and that took a really long time to get to. So when people try to shame me I don’t have time for it. I don’t think I have any interest in being presentational about being a nice person.”
So you try to be a decent guy, but not in a performative way? I ask.
“Exactly. There’s a really performative version of ‘being a good person’, especially on social media. I don’t have time for that, it’s such a fake thing. I’d rather just be myself. Some people love it, some people hate it, and some people will absolutely never give a shit. And that’s fine. I just want to do what I do.”