London, baby: the time has come. Time to unplug and taste the mud. Time to decant my father’s blood. Ghosted concrete columns hold up the Hyde Park hostel. My Globe skate shoes stick to the Fosters-stained carpet, everything smells like Ramen, the chipped toilet door doesn’t lock. It’s perfect. My back is beaded in English summer sweat and unwashed Europeans consume me in the corridor. Come, they say. They know why I’m here. Their eyes are as hungry and wild as mine: one shared look and we all understand each other. We are here to live, not survive. We are here to party and die. Come along, come with us.
Of course I’ll come; why else am I in London?
The portal into our new world is the Queensway tube stop, bright posters for Lily Allen’s new single “Smile” beaming down on drab-faced office flops. We swagger into a street of three equidistant Tescos, the footpath an aroma of overcooked curries and compact car exhaust. We creep to Tony’s illegal late-night grog shop, lights off in case of a visit from the cops. We walk back singing and air-guitaring to The Darkness, yelling at gargoyles. We vodka and we beer in a giant concrete pipe; we soccer empty cans in the alley behind. We coronate each other’s heads with crumpled tins; on the lip of a dumpster we confess our sins. I am a teacher of deviance when I reveal the word ‘cunt’ to the Basque separatist kids, but a student when they teach me to make noise that riles the cops at 4am. Do you want to spend the night in jail? they say.
Of course I want to go to jail; why else am I in London?
Breathing in the hostel nightclub basement: shisha, hookah, weed. Agony leaks from my mouth in illicit plumes. The girls laugh and thrust their nipples in my face but I’m too busy trying to give his meat a taste. None of them know I spent the day in Covent Garden trawling for seed or that it was the first thing I ever did that made me feel free. How in that moment I was finally alive; and how in that moment I’ll remain until I die. I will forever be that boy trying to outrun himself on Tottenham Court Road. But that night, under flickering neon torus and throbbing DJ beats, I am weak. He’s Irish and Catholic and pale beef. He leaves the DF for the urinal and I bear-hug him while he pees. Do you want people to think you’re a homo? he says. Do you want people to think you’re a freak?
It’s all I fucking want, man; why else am I in London?
We’re all familiar enough with why 2020 was a giant tyre fire. Thankfully, it looks like the tide is turning. 2021 will hopefully (*touches wood repeatedly*) be a better year.
Every December, I reflect on the past year and plan for the one ahead. When I made my 2020 goals, I had no idea what was about to unfold. Consequently, many of my goals – like everyone’s – went to hell.
Weirdly, my career thrived in 2020. I don’t take that for granted. Invisible Boys landed a slew of accolades, culminating in winning the WA Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer in August. I also signed with a new agent for my next books, and sold the film and TV rights for Invisible Boys, which is now in development as a ten-episode TV series. This stuff was fucken awesome, especially against the backdrop of a heinous year.
That said, despite the luminosity of career highlights, this year was a bit of an annus horribilis for me personally. I started the year with an injury, dislocating my shoulder for a second time, which derailed my health and fitness for months. The gym and footy do a lot to keep my head above water, and losing both was a major struggle. After that was a two-month lockdown, financial strife as my income dried up for the year, the death of a family member, a car accident that injured my back, a house flood and insurance battles, then a very public legal quagmire. From January through to December, my mental health was the worst it’s been in ages. This stuff was fucken terrible, especially against the backdrop of a heinous year.
The mix of light and dark in 2020 was starker than in most years, and there was a chasm between people’s perceptions of how good my life must be and how shit I actually felt. But upon reflection after a strange year, I have my health, I have my husband, I have a career I love, and I live in a relatively safe part of the world. I am lucky.
And despite a year of thwarted dreams for many, people across the globe are arming themselves with the usual December hope that next year will be better. I share this hope. Setting goals helps me take stock of how far I’ve come and refocus my energies. Looking back and looking forward is how I stay motivated.
So, I set 10 goals for 2020, split between writing goals and personal life goals.
Here’s how I went:
2020 WRITING GOALS
1. Sign a contract for Book 2 and do edits for that.
Well, this didn’t happen. My first agent left the publishing business, and so I signed with a new agent mid-year: the brilliant Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary. Gaby requested edits to the manuscript, and this led to an extensive rewrite. Technically, I did sign a contract with my agent for Book 2, and I did do edits for it. But the goal was to sign a contract with a publisher, which hasn’t yet happened. Book 2 will be pitched to publishers in 2021.
Result: FAIL (but PROGRESS).
2. Promote IB until it has been flogged to death (NB: may have already happened).
I reckon I did what I set out to do here. Despite the pandemic leading to the cancellation of loads of gigs, including events and festivals over east, I still landed a bunch of gigs, many of them online, to sustain myself and promote the book. There was loads of media to promote the book and heaps of good word of mouth. I worked hard on this one, and I achieved my goal.
3. Get 1 piece of short fiction & 1 piece of journalism published.
My short story “Irreversible” was published in a special edition of Westerly in February 2020, so I got the first part done. However, the journalistic piece eluded me. I did have an offer of a commissioned piece mid-year, but I had to turn it down as the deadline was impossible given what I was juggling at the time. I enjoy writing articles, though, so I’ll keep this on the backburner for the future.
Result: HALF SUCCESS, HALF FAIL (note to self: don’t put two different goals in one next time).
4. Start work on Book 3.
This is one goal the pandemic actually made easier. I didn’t just start Book 3 – I wrote the whole thing in five weeks while we were in lockdown in April-May. I have hardly glanced at this manuscript since I finished it and I feel I’ve really benefited from staying away from reading it for more than six months. I’ll have a fresh perspective when I dive into rereading and editing it in 2021.
5. Super Secret Project X!!!
This referred to the adaptation of Invisible Boys as a film or TV series, which I was having conversations about last December but hadn’t yet signed a deal. In August, we announced these rights were optioned by Nick Verso and Tania Chambers, and earlier this month, we received development funding from Screenwest. I am so stoked the TV series is going into development in 2021 and can’t wait to see how it unfolds.
2020 LIFE GOALS
6. Maintain average 5 workouts per week (weightlifting and cardio).
Somehow, I actually managed this. For most of the year it was 6 days per week, helped by the fact that footy counts as cardio. There were some crap weeks where I only exercised two or three times, but overall I maintained a steady level of regular near-daily fitness this year and I’m proud of that. I want to keep going with this into 2021.
7. Shred up & reach goal weight of 73 kg by 30 June 2020.
Not sure whether to laugh or cry at this one. I weighed 86 kg when I made this goal. Despite exercising like a muthafucka all year, I also started comfort eating and drinking bulk alcohol during lockdown. By July, I was 87 kg – even heavier than December. I got my shit together in October, gained some muscle and lost some fat, and consequently weighed in at 83 kg last week. Considering the year I had, this is good progress, but still a far cry from my ambitions of major shreddage.
Result: EPIC FAIL.
8. Get tattoos – July 2020. 😊
This goal is also in tatters. The plan was get ripped, then get inked. I haven’t achieved the first so the second hasn’t followed. Bum-bow. I know I can get tattoos whatever my body shape, but my vain heart wants what it wants.
9. Train harder at footy, get less shit & play at least 1 whole AFL 9s season with the Hornets.
Despite my injuries, I trained harder at footy than in 2019. I played a whole season of AFL 9s with the Hornets, save for a couple of games when I had work. And I ultimately got a bit less shit: I am still not a stellar footy player, but I’m better than I was twelve months ago. I can only try to keep improving and hopefully, over time, become a more useful and competitive player.
10. Do 1 whole term of guitar lessons (10 weeks).
Okay, this one completely fell by the wayside. I was too busy to dedicate time to this every week for a whole school term. I do still really want to learn guitar, though.
Ultimately, I succeeded at about half my goals and failed at the remaining half. That’s a pass mark overall, right?
I am not fazed by the failures. Every year, I set goals knowing I will achieve some and fall short of others. This is the nature of goal setting and life. It doesn’t stop me enjoying the process of aiming high and it helps me work out which goals I don’t feel passionate about and which I really want to work harder at next time.
2020 hampered a lot of my goals, so my list for 2021 looks very similar, with some minor tweaks:
GOALS FOR 2021
1. Sign a publishing contract for Book 2 and do further edits on it.
2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.
3. Progress the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.
4. Get 1 piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.
5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weightlifting, footy and cardio).
6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 June 2021.
7. Get first tattoos in 2021.
8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident and useful to the team in games.
9. Do at least one guitar lesson.
10. Do some fun shit for pure enjoyment.
When I look at these goals, I feel strongly about making them all a reality. I’ll do my level best. I love having goals to chase and I can’t wait to get started on all of these.
What are your goals for 2021? Are they focused mostly on career, or on life, or a mix of both?
The other day, I was asked a question that stumped me.
I was doing a talk at a high school, and a year 9 boy asked me if, given how much I suffered, would I change anything about my younger years?
I did the standard public speaker response when you are asked a question you have no idea how to answer: “Wow, that’s a really great question. Thank you so much for asking it.”
Depending on how slowly you utter this, and how strategically you structure your pauses, you can draw this out for five to ten seconds – enough time to throw together a response.
But even after those few seconds of scrambling, I still didn’t have an answer.
I ended up thinking out loud with the audience to meander my way to a quick response – that I probably wouldn’t change things – but I didn’t have space to explain why.
Growing up homosexual in the broad circumstances I did – a country town, blue collar, Sicilian-Australian, Roman Catholic environment – gave me certain messages about being gay. It was effete; unmasculine; it made me a faggot or a finocchio; it made me evil and sick. Bad bad bad.
But these external messages, in isolation, are not what fucked me up.
What fucked me up was my response to those circumstances. Being gay in that world seemed like it would annihilate me and everything I was supposed to be. So, for years, I fought it, denied it, deleted it. I perceived it as a mortal sin; prayed to God to fix me; dug out my baptismal crucifix and wore it like a talisman; studied the Bible hoping to drive the devil out of me. This led to that spiral down into depression, self-loathing, and eventually the suicidal ideation I wrote about in Invisible Boys.
So yes, the world was hostile to my existence. But I was more hostile to myself than the world was.
I know sixteen-year-old me only did what he did to try to survive. I probably wouldn’t have done it if my external environment told me it was okay to be gay; that I was good enough just as I was.
But I don’t sit down with my therapist to unpack the world and its fuckery. Sure, I could blame the world, but what a waste of time. I can’t change society any more than I can solve suffering on a global scale. Both would be Sisyphean to attempt, and nobody will ever succeed at either.
I do sit down to work with my therapist around how I treat myself, and that is where my recovery process begins and ends: with me, on the micro level. Those microcosmic changes are what ripple out to influence the macrocosm, but I can’t start with the world. I must start with me.
I have spent a long time recovering from how cruel I was to myself. My self-loathing runs deep, and even now, on a bad day, I can be right back there in that dark well in a split second. I have a track record of treating myself worse than I would ever consider treating another human being: with revulsion and disgust and utter contempt. I can turn on myself very quickly.
It might seem logical, then, that if given the chance, I would change this.
But being cruel to myself in my younger years made me more resilient in the long run.
For instance, sometimes I meet someone new who seeks to insult me, denigrate me, humiliate me, embarrass me, or reduce me. This is less common than when I was younger, when I had no discernment and would hang around people who made a sport of ridiculing me, but it still happens.
When I was younger, I listened to anyone who insulted me. I tried to make them like me. I tried to embody the characteristics they admired and squash out the traits they derided. I laughed at their ridicule of me to make them tolerate my presence. I performed like this constantly and if they didn’t stop insulting me – which they didn’t – I would blame myself for not doing enough to make them like me.
I did this most of my life. I don’t do it anymore.
These days, when I encounter someone like this, I feel a bit immune to their bullshit. Like, what can they say to me that is worse than what I have said to myself? Nothing. I was the most destructive person in my life for years. So, every time someone in my life tries to have a go at me, even in subtle, passive-aggressive ways, I just think, You can’t hurt me. They can’t. They will never come close to making me feel as bad about myself as I already did.
That isn’t to say I’m impervious to being emotionally wounded. Far from it. I have a sensitive temperament. I have a propensity for listening to critical voices, either my own, those of others, or those of society, that tell me I am not okay.
But I know now that there is nothing wrong with me. The message that I am not okay at my core is what is inaccurate, always, whether it’s me or someone else saying it.
So, the moment I get a whiff that someone is going to be destructive towards me, I don’t try to please them, or get them to change. I just get the fuck out. I cut them off, stop talking to them, stop investing time in them, block and delete if it’s online. I keep their toxicity as far away from me as possible. Their voices do not bear listening to, and whatever I do hear, I don’t take on board.
But this is a response I’m not sure an otherwise serene adolescence could have manufactured. It is a resilience borne of self-acceptance overcoming self-abnegation; a powerful alkali neutralising a corrosive acid.
That is to say: I am not sure I could have ended up where I am without having gone through what I did. I don’t know if I could know self-acceptance and wholeness if I hadn’t, at one point, hated myself so much I was willing to abandon myself entirely. Living through my own personal brand of shit made me who I am.
What if I had grown up in a wealthy, inner-city, left-wing suburb, in a white-collar family, with no cultural or religious prejudices towards homosexuality? Or what if I had grown up heterosexual?
I don’t know who I’d be or what I’d be like, but I do know that guy wouldn’t be me.
And even if those facets of my life changed, I don’t think I’d be happier or unmolested by life. I would have suffered anyway. All humans suffer and our suffering shapes our lives. My suffering would have just had a different colour.
So, to answer that kid from the high school library: no, I wouldn’t change anything about my past.
The only thing I would have changed about my younger years is that I would have been kinder to myself. But I feel okay with how things played out for me. It is my past cruelty towards myself that led me to a sense of what psychologists call unconditional self-acceptance.
The arrows I slung at myself along the way were misguided, but they both toughened my hide and taught me to put down the bow.
Like most writers, I have been sculpted by failure far more than success.
One failure in particular has always hurt me, because it was the first.
It was only tonight, here in 2020, when I was in the middle of judging a writing competition myself, that I reflected on this failure and realised it may not have been what I thought it was.
I’ll set the scene, Sophia Petrillo style. Picture it: Sicily, 1912.
Or, more accurately, picture it: Geraldton, 2000. An eleven-year-old Holden Sheppard submits a short story to a writing competition for the first time in his life. It was an original mystery/detective story in the style of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books I was devouring from the primary school library at the time.
I had, at this point, been actively writing in my spare time for three years. There was almost nothing emotional or powerful about any of my writing, but the mechanics were pretty solid for a boy of my age. I knew I was a capable writer and that it was one of my strengths.
I wrote my piece, and even drew a small illustration of the story’s crime scene on the bottom of one of the pages. This was twenty years ago, so nothing was digital – hard copy was the only option – and this wasn’t the adult world of publishing, this was primary school, so everything was also handwritten.
I can’t remember what the competition was, but I know it was only for young writers, and I think it was across the whole of Western Australia.
A while later, the competition results were being announced with the stories entered being put on display at the Geraldton Regional Library. I went to the library and hunted excitedly for my story on the display. Had I won? Had I been placed second or third, or highly commended?
I had not.
My story not get any kind of placing or recognition whatsoever.
Worse, what I remember is seeing my story with a number written on it in pencil. From memory, it was #125.
I remember, vividly, feeling sick with disappointment. I have a vague recollection of one of the library staff telling me and my mother that there were something like six hundred entries. I have a much sharper recollection of all the adults present looking at me with what felt very much like schadenfreude. I felt it like a wave of psychic energy. Kid thinks he’s some kind of writing genius, huh? That’ll take him down a peg or two.
I felt deeply embarrassed. I called myself a writer and had been working towards that for three years, only to have my first public attempt at writing deemed, effectively, a piece of shit, in front of my family, and the teachers and parents at the school, and my peers, who could all publicly see where my story had ended up. A hundred-and-twenty-fifth? What humiliation.
And amid that sense of shame was a sense of anger and injustice. Okay, maybe my story wasn’t good enough to win, I thought, but it was not a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth level bad. Was it?
Like any writer who cops a rejection, I wondered what I had done wrong. Was it the illustration that made the judges think I was just a dumb kid? Maybe it was supposed to be typed and printed instead of handwritten? Was my story just too derivative of Donald J. Sobol’s style? I hadn’t plundered his characters or stories: I had written an original piece, just following the same structure and stylings of those (dated) detective stories. Was it because I had set the story in America? Did the judges only want Aussie stories?
There was another fear that plagued me. I wondered if the judges thought I had plagiarised the piece, either by copying an existing story or having an adult write it for me.
The reason this was a fear of mine is that I was accused of it around the same time.
At the start of Year 7, our entire class was given a spelling test called the South Australian Spelling Test. We had to spell seventy words. They started out very simple and grew increasingly difficult.
A few days or weeks later, we were given our results. The mark out of seventy came with a corresponding score of what spelling age you were at. We were almost all eleven years old, so the idea was if you got a score that said your spelling age was 9 or 10, you were below average. 11 would be normal. 12 or over meant above average.
Our teacher – who was new to the school – handed back the tests in reverse order of success; that is, the lowest scoring student got their test results back first. I can’t remember if the teacher announced the scores aloud as he did this, but it’s quite possible, and likely, given what came next.
My test came back last: I had achieved the highest score. 69/70. I only spelled one word wrong. My spelling age was the maximum possible, which was listed as “greater than 15 years 6 months”.
I felt pretty good about this, until the teacher rounded on me in front of the entire class.
“You cheated,” he snarled. And it was a snarl.
“No, I didn’t,” I replied, absolutely horrified to have a teacher mad at me. I was a painfully obedient child in primary school, oppressively perfectionistic.
“You did. You cheated on this test.”
I denied it again. In fact, I had to deny it several times. I felt sick. This forty-year-old man was furious, almost seething, and hell bent on attacking a scrawny eleven-year-old nerd. I had never experienced anything like this from any adult before. Teachers usually liked me because I was both smart and well-behaved.
“I didn’t cheat. I would never cheat,” I told him meekly.
The other students – surprisingly, some of the worst-behaved students who would, on any normal day, give me shit for being a square – stood up for me.
“He didn’t cheat. He’s just really good at spelling. He’s smart.”
Our teacher wasn’t having a bar of it. “You’ve obviously done this test before and that’s how you knew how to spell the words,” he sneered. “But you got one wrong, didn’t you? Embarrassing.” He grinned down at me savagely. “How embarrassing for you.”
He threw this particular insult at me because the one word I misspelled was “embarrassing”. I spelled it with only one ‘r’. I have never spelled it wrong again in my life.
I offered one more denial of having cheated, and he concluded by threatening me that he was going to tell my parents at the upcoming parent-teacher interviews. And when those interviews rolled around, he did, too. My mother countered by letting him know that I was a bookish, intelligent kid. He still refused to believe me or her.
I learned a lot that day. I learned that teachers don’t always care about their students. I learned that adults can be petty and jealous. I learned that even when you are telling the truth, some people will refuse to believe you.
And I learned that sometimes, people in positions of power will be downright cunts to you, as that teacher was to me, and they will get away with it scot-free, because life is sometimes unfair.
I bring this story up in the context of that short story rejection for two reasons.
Firstly, because it illustrates why I was paranoid enough to wonder if the competition judges, like my teacher, had assumed I’d cheated, or plagiarised my story. Did they seethe at this well-crafted story? “How dare he! He obviously cheated! A-hundred-and-twenty-fifth place for him!”
Secondly, I guess it illustrates why I expected to have ranked a little higher than a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. I was an intelligent kid and an exceptional writer for my age range. I had already written a whole “book” (it was sixty pages) in 1999, so I knew I had some level of ability. I could accept not being first, or in the top ten, but to score so crushingly low amid a field of peers my own age just hurt.
But that lesson from that cunt teacher – that adults can be cruel to children, and life can be unfair – actually helped me.
All writers think we have talent. It is how we get up in the morning and write, because we believe in our hearts that we have the ability to tell stories, and tell them well. From our very beginnings, it is fundamental to our craft that we have a tiny kernel of belief that we are actually good at this. If we didn’t, we would never pick up a pen in the first place.
At eleven, I thought I was talented, and perhaps even I knew I was, but it was not recognised in that competition. Maybe that particular story just wasn’t as shit-hot as I thought. Maybe it was just shit. Maybe there were a hundred and twenty four more talented child writers in my age bracket in WA that year(?!).
Or maybe there weren’t. It was tonight, as I was judging a young writers competition myself, that I not only smiled at the full-circle moment, but also realised how strange it was for judges to rank as far down as one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. Most competitions I’ve judged, we judges decide on a longlist or shortlist, but that’s never more than say twelve or fifteen entries. It would take forever to do a detailed ranking beyond that. In light of this, I find it hard to imagine that all six hundred of those entries back in 2000 were individually ranked. Tonight, it occurred to me that the number scrawled in pencil on my entry was simply its number: entry number 125. I had a laugh about this with my husband, but then immediately went back to being quite sure it was indeed a ranking, because writer egos are like this: the self-doubt usually wins out.
In any case, it’s ancient history, and I’ll never know why I ranked so badly in that competition, and I still, to this day, feel sore and cheated by it – unduly screwed over.
But what I am proud of is how this failure shaped me. I did feel hurt, and yes, it was embarrassing.
But I didn’t stop writing.
That first rejection, the sinking-through-the-floor moment of standing in that library and trying to politely smile as I discovered, in front of others, that I sucked, only made me work harder towards becoming a better writer. I trained so hard. I read voraciously to get a sense of how published books sounded. I wrote more stories in my exercise books, and then began to post them online to an audience, who gave me invaluable feedback on how I could improve. I routinely studied the dictionary and thesaurus to expand my vocabulary and challenged myself to use those new words in my stories. I decided I would not stop until I had the recognition I craved.
It would be a long road ahead. Five years of hard work until I scored second place in the Randolph Stow Young Writers Award. Nine years until my first short story was published in a literary journal. Seventeen years until I won my first writing-related award. And nineteen years until my first book was finally published.
There have been many more rejections since that first one, and as a ratio, many more rejections than successes, even now. But that first rejection – and that first cruelty – hardened me in a way that helped me, and shaped me into the man I am today.
I’m thinking about the young people who entered this competition I’ve just finished judging. I wonder if the winners will go on to be writers. I would certainly encourage them to do so, heartily, if it’s something they want. But did the winners in the year 2000 go on to become published writers? I don’t know who they were or what they ended up doing. But I do know that the boy who landed at a dismal #125 was the one who was driven enough to make it in the long run.
I wonder if there is a teenage writer in this competition I’ve just judged who didn’t make the shortlist. One who wants to be a writer more than anything, one who will be devastated to have missed out, who will spend years wondering why they weren’t good enough, or thinking me cruel for having overlooked their talent.
If there is, I hope this rejection lights a fire in them like it did me. I know now that we learn more from being burnt than we do from being congratulated.
And while the flower that blooms in a fertilised garden is beautiful, the one that grows out of ashes is unstoppable.
PS. Although I did entertain the notion of naming my Year 7 teacher in this blog post, I won’t. I’m not really interested in revenge and besides that, I don’t need revenge because I feel like I won the first time. I was the calm, rational kid who didn’t do anything wrong, and he was the bullying adult who was not only deeply in the wrong but, objectively, a cunt of a human being. I will leave it to the universe to give him some solid karma.
Plus, to be frank, I’m pretty sure the only reason he lost his shit at me was because he got a lower score on that spelling test than an eleven-year-old boy. How embarrassing for him! 😛
About three years ago, during a time of massive failure, I went back to my uni to visit my writing lecturer.
At the time – early 2017 – I had both lost my full-time job and had to abandon my failure of a fantasy novel. From every angle, I felt like a loser. I wanted my lecturer’s advice, and comfort, and to try to recapture that student feeling that dreams could come true.
As I told my lecturer about my book’s inability to interest agents, and how I realised my novel wasn’t good enough, I tried to find a way to fan the flames in my chest into words.
“I’m going to make it,” I told her, resolutely.
“I know you will,” she replied.
No, she wasn’t getting it, I thought. I wasn’t just some writing student who sort of wanted to get published. This wasn’t just a career that I may or may not proceed with. This was my life. This was almost the only thing in the whole world that I cared about. This was the only way I made sense as a fully-rounded human.
“I mean I won’t stop until I make it,” I elaborated. “No matter what. Even if I have to write a whole new book, even if I have to self-publish first before I can get a traditional publishing deal, even if it takes me years and years, the rest of my life, I will get there.”
“I believe you,” she said, with an ‘ease up, turbo, or I’ll press the duress button’ kind of look.
I remember that day, and that era, as the point where I kicked my ambition up a notch.
Ambition had always been the undercurrent of my personality, since the age of seven, when I first knew I wanted to be a writer. I am not ashamed of my ambitious nature. I am proud of it, actually. It would have been easy to give up on this dream at an early age. A boy from a blue-collar background in a country town doesn’t have the most inspiring pedigree for a literary career. In order to become a bona fide published novelist, I had to reach beyond my station in life, defy expectations and obstacles, and keep going in the face of many years of scorn, disinterest, rejection and abject failure.
Ambition – that craving to get the thing I wanted – is what pushed me to persevere and rise above all of that. I believed – and still believe – that if you want something dearly, and work hard for it, you can eventually achieve it. I am living proof of this approach.
But at that particular time, I knew standard ambition wasn’t enough. I had to move to a total war, scorched earth approach to achieving my dreams.
So I did.
I doubled down on my ambition. This was the only way I could pick myself up from what is probably the nadir of my career so far; if I did not fight back and push on twice as hard, I would have crumpled.
This blind ambition moved me through a hard time, and made me achieve a lot. It made me dig deep and write about something real: my novel Invisible Boys was born from this process and was written in the winter of 2017.
Moreover, my blind ambition spurred me on to do more than just write. It made me get on social media and work hard at building a platform. It made me cut way back on socialising and prioritise the hustle. It made me treat my day jobs as secondary, so I was author first, worker second. It made me quit smoking, take up exercise, eat better, lose weight, push myself out of my comfort zone. It helped me get what I want and it made me increasingly happy.
As my dreams began to come to fruition, winning awards and landing a publishing contract, I started to think about where I was going.
In 2018, I wondered how I would measure success, and the best metric I had was unemployment. That is, the day I can quit my job and live off my writing full-time, I would have made it.
In both of these reflections, my only metrics for success were the continued pursuit of my dreams. On one level, I don’t really have a problem with this. In 2018, I wrote how a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, sums up my approach to life:
“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
In other words, if you spend your whole life trying to become a successful writer, but never achieve fame and fortune, you’ll still have a happy heart and a fucking awesome life, because you spent all your time doing what makes you joyous: writing.
The paragraph above is ripped word-for-word from my 2018 post, and still sums up how I feel. So, I guess I’m still blindly ambitious, although perhaps I’m using that term too liberally. Some people would interpret blind ambition as compromising your values to get what you want, stabbing people in the back and walking over their corpses to climb a career ladder, shouting “don’t you know who I am?” – that kind of shit. I haven’t done that, ever. (Well, okay, I have said the last one, but only as a joke, I swear!)
And while I’ll continue to be ambitious, something cropped up recently that made me think more deeply about what I want.
It started when I interviewed Natasha Lester at Perth Festival in February, and she talked about becoming a New York Times bestselling author. When her publicist said, “you can check that off your bucket list”, Natasha replied that she had never had it on there in the first place. (In a bit of a boss move, however, she did then jot it down and cross it off, just so she could say she had – ha!)
That interview drew my attention to the idea of a bucket list – the list of things you want to do before you die. Then, a few months later, I was filling out a player profile for my AFL 9s team, The Perth Hornets – a social media “get to know your player” thing. One of the questions was “what’s your top bucket list item?”
Well, I don’t have a bucket list, I thought. I just want to make a living from writing.
But that goal begged a question: before I die, how do I want to live? What would I actually do with that full-time writer living if I achieved it?
My worker bee response to this was this: keep writing.
And this is where I discovered the downside of blind ambition. For all the success this approach has yielded, it has also left me stunted in my focus. I am a blinkered thoroughbred horse and I cannot see anything but the finish line of this enormous race I trained myself for.
On my player profile, I wrote my top bucket list item as:
“Owning some rural land with my dream ute and dirt bike – that’s it!”
Not super exciting, but it was my first, unfettered response, so I wrote it and moved on with my day.
But then a couple of things happened that brought my own mortality sharply into focus.
Firstly, my uncle died, far too young. He was a good man, and I care deeply about him and his family. I returned home to see my relatives, and attend his funeral. I delivered the eulogy, and as I rehearsed it, I was struck by how contented my uncle was with his life. Not only was he a kind, gentle and good-natured man – he was content. He worked hard as a bricklayer to provide for his family, but also to provide for himself. He enjoyed his life. He was at his happiest sitting on the balcony of the dream house he built for himself and his family, having his morning coffee and overlooking the spectacular cobalt blue of the Indian Ocean.
The second thing that happened was that I was in a car accident a few days ago.
It was, thankfully, not fatal. My car was stationary at the back of a long line of traffic on the freeway at peak hour, and the car behind me just didn’t stop – he ploughed directly into my Commodore and smashed it beyond repair – it’s a write-off. I was in shock and apparently responding quite slowly to paramedics and had back pain and whiplash, so I was taken to hospital by ambulance and wasn’t allowed to move my head or neck or spine for hours until they had done scans.
According to the X-rays, nothing was broken. I was released to go home and heal my back – which would be sore and stiff for a while, they said – and to take care of myself mentally and emotionally – which is expected to take longer. But all things considered, I appear to be okay. Hopefully there won’t be any long term impacts.
When we left the hospital, my husband (author Raphael Farmer) asked me if I’d had any revelations. Had the accident made me see life differently? I was alive, but that was pure luck: if the other car had been going faster, that might have been the end of me.
When I imagine my death, I see myself very old and grey, in bed with Raphael, and we both die in our sleep at the same time, peacefully and never having to mourn the other. This is what I hope for. But that night, had things gone worse, my death might have been in the twisted metal of a Holden Commodore on my way home from having San Churros with a mate, my last thought about how frustrating peak-hour traffic is on the Mitchell Freeway.
To say this was merely sobering is the same as saying 2020 has been just been a little challenging.
I told Raphael that no, I hadn’t had any great shake-up in terms of my life direction. Laying on that stretcher, I realised I am already living the life I want, which is reassuring. I have a husband I love, and who loves me; I have a fulfilling career as a writer; I have hobbies and pastimes and sports I enjoy and family and mates whose company I value.
Unexpectedly, the first thing I said to my husband was about a material desire: “I’m going to finally buy my ute.”
Maybe it’s dumb, but because I don’t come from money, and writing is rarely lucrative, I always knew I could have either the dream or the material possessions, but not both.
Blind ambition meant it was an easy sacrifice to make: the dream comes first.
But there are consequences to this way of living. I don’t spend money on my house: I live in a cheap rental in a cheap suburb and I don’t remember the last time I bought any furniture for it. I don’t spend money on my car: I drive (or drove) a cheap sixteen-year-old sedan. I don’t spend money on anything: for years, I haven’t replaced our broken washing machine, or our broken second-hand mattress that hurts our backs every night, or my ancient laptop which is so painfully slow I want to scream and throw it against the wall every time I use it. And so on, and so forth.
It always seemed like a worthwhile trade. Short-term pain for long-term gain. To some extent, it has made my achievements as a writer possible, so I don’t regret that.
But what if achieving a sustainable career as a writer takes another five, ten, twenty years? Would it be worth living a hindered, shitty quality of life for that long if it meant getting more novels published?
Before my uncle passed away, and before my car accident, I would have said yes.
Now, my answer is no.
I’ve been thinking more about how I want to live. Not my goals, but how I spend my day to day life.
So this is what I want, long term. I want to live with my husband on a bit of land – a good few acres, somewhere semi-rural, but close enough to the amenities of the city, where I can write from a writing den in my house and travel to the city/further afield for appearances and gigs. On said land, I’d like to have a dirt bike to ride around on, and I’d love to have my dream ute (a Holden SSV or Maloo).
That’s my bucket list. Everything else is gravy.
The house and land will take time to achieve – and the dirt bike is an extravagant toy.
But since I need a new car now anyway – dammit, I’m gonna get a ute. I’ve wanted once since 2007. It’s unrelated to any sense of achievement. It doesn’t help my career. I just want it for me. I’ve been busting my arse working since I was seven. I think it’s time I got something nice for myself.
I’m gonna find a way to get a new mattress, and washing machine, and laptop, too. Chasing dreams is not pleasurable if I’m running the whole way with holes in my shoes.
I will always be ambitious and hardworking, but the time for unadulterated, blind ambition is, for me, over.
I’ve always been a country boy who wants far more from life than he was ever poised to inherit organically. I still want to achieve big things before I die. I still want to scale this mountain.
But now I’m looking forward to seeing, feeling and enjoying the climb, too.
There was no way I was going to miss posting a reflective message about the end of a whole goddamn decade. 🥳🥳
I chose these two photos to juxtapose because they exhibit the positive change a decade has wrought on me. 😁😁
The biggest change is not on the outside, but within.
The 2009 me on the left is smiling, but he has no confidence, no self-esteem and loathes himself most days. He thinks he’s not good enough. He cares what others think so much that he lets their opinions shadow, plague and dictate his own self-talk, words, and life. 😔😔
The 2019 me on the right looks a bit aggro, but he is confident, assertive and likes the bloke he’s become. He knows he is good enough just as he is. He is the captain and master of his own self-talk, words and life: he is his own. He also looks really fucken buff here. 💪💪
What a metamorphic, Saturn-Returny decade it’s been. 🤩🤩
And hell, what a wild year 2019 has been – marrying my beautiful husband Raphael Farmer and my debut novel, Invisible Boys, being released were the highlights. 😍😍 Thanx heaps to each of you for being a part of this massive year. Your messages, reviews and photos this past few months have made my heart incredibly full. Thanx for supporting (and sometimes tolerating) me, my book, my writing, my penchant for talking about my dick, my entirely healthy obsession with Alanis Morissette, my Witcher song singing, my runaway ego and my neuroses, and my shameless shirtless gym selfies. 😜😜😅😅
And here’s to the Roaring Twenties 2: Electric Boogaloo. Although sequels are usually worse, let us embrace the next decade with the same foolish optimism that I embraced Jumanji: The Next Level. It could be awesome, who knows? We should experience it first and decide later, right? 🤷♂️🤷♂️
May this new year and decade bring you each growth, comfort, strength, opportunity, fucktons of fun, challenges, solutions, liberation, balance, and most of all, the doggedness and determination needed to build and live whatever kind of life you want. It’s yours and we don’t live on this planet for very long, so go on and do what you want before it’s too late. 🤘🤘🤘
So, this weekend, a bookseller from Dymocks Busselton sent me a photo of two chefs on stilts reading my novel at the Manjimup Cherry Harmony Festival.
I cracked up laughing, because I had no context for this image and it seemed like the most random thing I’ve come across in this book’s promo cycle so far. (Sidebar: the bookseller has since told me there was absolutely no context for this photo, she just took it because she thought it would be a cool pic – so that’s even funnier to me.)
Anyway, yesterday, for some reason, this image stirred up an idea. I remembered how one reviewer had mentioned the role food plays in the book. I also hadn’t written anything creatively for three months, since I’ve been so hectic with touring and promo. Apparently a day and a half was enough rest time to have recharged my creative batteries a little: I was eager to write something creative and fun, and I churned this piece out: a menu based on the culinary dishes that feature in the book.
If there’s anything more random than the photo of the chefs on stilts reading Invisible Boys, it’s probably this blog post. But I had fun writing it and it was a great way to reflect on my novel and also ease back into writing creatively again.
Happy reading – or bon appetit!
INVISIBLE BOYS: THE MENU
Anna Calogero’s Traditional Sicilian Potato Salad
How dare those Skips try to put mayonnaise in a goddamn potato salad? This traditional dish is the same Italian recipe handed down by the women in your family since the 1930s and it is not going to change now just because of some Aussie tart pushing her way into your family. This refreshing salad includes peas, red onions and eight litres of olive oil. A versatile dish, it will simultaneously please the palate and, when paired with a hearty spray of Lynx Africa, can competently mask the odour of unexpected bodily fluids in the kitchen bin.
Charlie Roth’s Gummy Shark & Chips
This simple, classic Aussie favourite doesn’t need cutlery or crockery, much in the same way that you don’t need anyone else in your life because they’re all phonies anyway so fuck ‘em. Salty and satisfying, this dish is perfect for hot February nights on the Geraldton foreshore before you dip into the Indian Ocean for a swim, or lurk by the wharf to cruise men for anonymous sex.
Natalie Wright’s Tiramisu
So your Italian mother-in-law hates you, but that’s no reason to stop trying to change her mind. Instead of bringing around your usual pavlova, spice things up by making your own version of the one dessert she prides herself on. Moist, creamy and soaked in liqueur, it definitely won’t trigger her defensive tendencies or remind her of how you’ve swanned in and usurped all influence over her son. Buon appetito!
Matt Jones’s BBQ Snags
Who says the gays need to be known for delicate baked goods and effete brunches? Be true to you and embrace your retrosexual masculinity by treating your Valentine’s Day date to a hearty slab of your meat. Best cooked with plenty of ventilation to ensure just the right amount of smoky barbequed richness. Pairs well with a Bushchook or eight. For added Northampton flair, surprise your beau with snags made of native Aussie meat and wait to see how long it takes him to notice.
Zeke Calogero’s Gnocchi in Traditional Sugo
Perhaps these potatoes wanted to end their lives rolled into lumpy gnocchi, perhaps they would have preferred to be French fries, but the existential anthropomorphism you try to project onto them doesn’t detract from how deliciously filling they are in your belly. A staple of the Sicilian peasant diet, these hearty dumplings are enriched by a homemade Italian tomato sauce: just because you can’t squeeze a drop of goddamn empathy out of your rigid Catholic parents, doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze some ripe tomatoes to form a zesty and herby condiment. Bellissimo!
Kade “Hammer” Hammersmith’s Onion Rings á la Bilby’s Burgers
Nothing says “self-sabotage” like interrupting your closely-monitored diet of protein shakes, creatine and BCAAs with a greasy post-footy feed from Bilby’s Burgers. Whether you’re dining in or sequestering a lover away in your brother’s ute, these crunchy, beer-battered onion rings are the perfect, masculine accompaniment to your 100% Aussie Beef burger from Bilby’s. Do your best not to tell your date how you wonder if your dick would fit through the middle of the onion rings. Best served with aioli, or any other salty white sauce.
(PS. Did you really think this post wouldn’t end up where it did? :P)
I feel like I won’t know how I feel right now until I look back a decade from now when I’m 41 years old (or maybe still 29 ;)) and I have some distance from this whirlwind and I can appreciate that really in the scheme of the industry I was only ever a small fish with a book that was an indie hit for a few months and then maybe it will stall maybe it or I will flail or sink and in a decade none of this or me will even matter to anyone at all or maybe it will get even bigger than that even bigger than it is now and maybe it will launch rockets from here hurl me up into the stars like that ambitious fucker Orion
I kinda hope it does no who am I fucken kidding of course I want it to get bigger its like when they interviewed me on that podcast after I won the Hungerford and the bloke asked me “what’s your goal in life, Holden?” and I said “world domination” and he laughed and I looked him square in the eye and said “but I’m really not joking”
yes I want bigger I want enough money to live off I want to be able to focus just on writing I want to not be transferring money between my accounts so I can afford red rooter for tea or fuel for my shitbox Commodore I want to be not stressing about paying the rent or fixing my car or can I really afford this massage of course I can’t afford any massage it’s all beyond my station in life but sometimes it feels good to say fuck it all what’s the point of any of this if I can’t feel good every now and then
and I don’t know how to put up more boundaries than I already have I feel intruded upon constantly but that’s what you get for putting yourself out there so vulnerable it’s like you can’t stop yourself it’s vulnerability porn really and eventually I know someone is gonna get sick of it and me and say I’m old news and I’m beating a dead horse flogging flogging and what else do I really have to offer other than baring my flayed skin for everyone?
fuck I live for the attention my ego loves it and I try to tell people I am Hammer I am a cocky arrogant dickhead and nobody seems to properly believe it but I am (but you seem so down to earth! But you’re helping people to process their arcane trauma they shoved down for three decades!) well I’ve been deep in the earth my whole life I’ve rolled in the dirt I’ve tried to hide myself in the soil I’ve soiled myself to survive the scrutiny of being so different so fucken different and so yes I know how to be down to earth and yes I’m self-deprecating to the point where it’s not funny anymore and I do have the pain I have all the pain in the world I have my own and I have yours and anything you have felt in your deepest darkest most alone most depressed most suicidal most dissociated I have felt too I understand you (even if we haven’t met, haven’t spoken, and we don’t need to) I have kept my pain and siphoned it out of my body I decanted the poison out of my blood and it’s outside of me now and you read it and now we see each other
and everyone sees me now and it is like glare like stepping out of a thirty-year dungeon into the brightest sunrise I feel like all I’ve done for the last month (the last year!) is blink and blink and try to get my eyes to adjust but it’s always getting brighter too bright and a little part of me wouldn’t mind crawling back into the dungeon for a bit of rest but I can’t rest the way I used to rest I can’t sleep I can’t switch off I can’t think straight I can’t eat right I can’t get into a routine because I’m driving and flying and I’m always ON which I’ll gladly do a thousand times not just to sell myself (like on a street corner) but so that telling this story helps you not do what I nearly did – I want to help you save you rescue and protect which is too much for anyone to take on but fuck it I’ll try and if I can help you process the nightmare you barely breathed through then that will make it all worthwhile and god knows I live for the attention my whole life is thunder and I live for validation and acknowledgement and I live for the applause applause applause but sometimes when I get it I shrink and think “why the fuck are all these people being nice to someone as shit as me? I’m a fucking arsehole!” and some days I can’t handle a single further word of praise and other days I’ll fall apart if I don’t get it we artists really are a unique brand of needy boofheads
and some days I’m overwhelmed with gratitude when I hear from people who went through the same as me (decades apart or minutes apart) or something goes well like the morning I found out we were going into reprint after just 7 days on sale and I stepped out of my mate’s shower in Richmond, Victoria and dried my Mohawk with his spare towel and then clutched the bathroom sink to hold myself up as I collapsed into a fit of sobs realising oh my fucking God I’m not a failure anymore after 23 years of trying my guts out and being a loser being THE loser that everyone sneered at and said “oh, how’s that writing going lol?” I have finally made this shit work and it was guttural sobs of joy and relief and arrival with my tears splashing on the slate-grey tiles of his modern Melbourne apartment while I listened to ‘I can go the distance’ from Hercules and I realised I had actually gone the distance
and I’m not ashamed of it I’m not ashamed of anything no shame no sacred cows no fucks shall be given because I am good and I am mine and I’m not even ashamed of writing a stream-of-consciousness on a Friday night when I should be (partying? Socialising? Fucking my husband?) but instead I am here putting words on a digital page because when I don’t write I get sick and I haven’t written a word for too long now and so don’t worry this isn’t me being sick in front of you, this is medicine probably the best medicine i have known
This month on my author interview series Holden’s Heroes, I chat with the latest writer friend I’ve cornered and blackmailed invited to share their craft: author, editor and doctoral student Rebecca Freeman. I’ll be asking her the tough, intelligent questions, like how does she manage to do so much with a cat sitting obstinately in front of her keyboard.
Let’s dive in and find out more!
Holden’s Heroes ~ September 2019
Holden: Rebecca Freeman, welcome to my house! Don’t mind the cans of diet coke all over the patio – that’s just the fallout from when Lana Pecherczyk came to visit. I’m not supposed to mention this, but she also stayed for a cheeky gin. What a wild child.
Rebecca: Oh please. I live with an Adam, our four children, dog, cats and chooks. This is nothing. I’ll just move the nail polish and tin of supplement and sit myself down here on this milk crate.
H: Classic me, painting my nails punk style while making my protein shake, ha! Anyway, Bec, welcome to trashville, population me and my husband. Now let’s start with the most exciting news first: your brand new novella Alt-Ctrlis a dystopian story and it’s hitting our shelves on Monday, 30 September! Tell me, what’s it all about?
R: OMG I KNOW. I can’t quite believe it. September 30th seemed like such a long time away when I was discussing it with my publisher and now it’s nearly here! So Alt-Ctrl is set in Australia in the near future, and centres around a young woman, Finn. She lives in an enclosed City, which is one of the few safe places to live since the climate collapsed. Outside the City are the Badlands, and Finn has grown up hearing all kinds of stories about the people who eke out a living there, suffering from radiation poisoning and starvation. But as it turns out, the stories weren’t true, and there might be more to fear from within the City than there is without.
H: It’s such a great premise and flips the classic dystopian setup around. Where did the idea to write something dystopian come from? The cli-fi aspect seems to be relevant currently, what with the way the world is going and the recent global climate strike. What inspired you to write this novella?
R: Well, weirdly, the story itself was inspired by losing access to a blogging platform I used and it made me think about how connected we are to the online community, and how it can feel like you’re completely cut off if that drops away.
H: This would actually have such an impact – so many creative careers would be poleaxed without access to blogs and social media! Including my own probably *sad cough*. What about the plot?
R: The plot came to me in a dream! It was one of those times when you wake up from a dream and write it down and the next morning it actually makes sense, unlike most of the time when you wake up the next morning and see that you’ve written ‘Sliced oranges’ or something equally confounding.
H: So many writers I know have done this, and it’s usually even less coherent than ‘sliced oranges’.
R: I later wrote a short story called ‘And then it rained’ which was published in an anthology of Asian-Pacific Speculative Fiction (called Amok). And the characters really stayed with me, and so I started writing a story which featured them, and that turned into Alt-Ctrl. But cli-fi in general, I love it so much, because I think it’s an example of how incredibly powerful fiction can be in affecting change in subtle ways, you know, without being too preachy. We change our minds because of stories, and now more than ever we need a shift in perspective, a way of finding new solutions. From what I read about how your writing impacts people’s lives, I imagine you can probably understand that too.
H: Yes, I totally get it, and that’s something that drives me in terms of opening up new conversations without preaching – letting the art do the talking. I’m sure your novella will do the same as it’s so pertinent to what we’re facing globally at the moment. I love the boldness of the cover of Alt-Ctrl. I remember from our chats a few months ago that this wasn’t the original title. Can you talk about your process in choosing the right fit for the novella’s title, and why you chose this one?
R: Thanks, I love it too! But ugh, don’t talk to me about titles. I haaaaate titles. Hate them! If it were up to me, I’d call them ‘Story A’, ‘Story B’… haha. But I guess that’s not very interesting. You’re right though. Alt-Ctrl was Collapse the whole time I was writing it, and then at the end, I sat down and brainstormed with my publisher and Adam and we came up with this, and then I thought, ‘Yes, that’s it.’
H: The title immediately tells us we’re dealing with spec fic, I reckon – nice work. Now, you’ve also had some other wins recently, with your novella pitch to the Drowned Earth competition shortlisted. How did it feel to get that recognition of the quality of your work, and what’s happening with that project currently?
R: That was so great! As you know, both Mike [author Michael Trant] and I were shortlisted for this competition which was fantastic – it’s awesome to share that sort of thing with your friends. It also sparked a new story and to be considered for the shortlist, I had to write a synopsis and the introduction, so now I have the beginning of the story. I’d love to get back to it, and I’ve got a notebook with a few thousand words in it, but obviously there are only so many hours in the day!
H: And from where I’m sitting, I’m pretty sure you are using literally every one of those hours already! You’re incredibly busy and productive, as you’re also completing your PhD through Curtin University. What’s your thesis on?
R: Yeah, so I’m doing a creative PhD, which means I need to produce a creative project and then a short thesis of about 30,000 words.
H: *hears distant screaming of people wondering how 30,000 could be short*
R: I’m writing a steampunk novel as my creative project and both that and the thesis are focusing on how steampunk explores colonisation, and how it portrays nature and technology. The setting of the novel is here in Albany in the late 1800s but it’s obviously quite a different place. I’m really enjoying playing with an alternative world and weaving in some of the real-world problems and conflicts during that time. Even the research is interesting. Did you know that we had a massive depression in the 1890s?
H: Somehow, yes, I did. I can’t remember most of high school but I do remember that we had an economic depression in the 1890s. Go figure.
R: And did you know that in 1893 the Australian Federal Bank failed?! So incredible.
H: I didn’t know about that! I guess knowing the fine details makes you such a great editor, which is my brilliant segue to my next question, because you also work as a freelance editor! How does that experience differ from the creative writing process and is it difficult to switch between the two?
R: It actually balances out really well. When editing, I’m in a different mindset, I think. It’s more methodical, more critical. You can’t approach writing in that way – at least not when you’re doing the first or second drafts – or you’ll get totally bogged down in the details. But it always surprises me how I still need to draw on creativity when I edit, because I have to phrase my feedback in a way which is helpful and constructive. I’m glad I get to do both, though. I think being an editor helps my writing, and that could be simply due to the fact that it requires lots of reading, and that’s always good for writers to do.
H: I think Laurie Steed told me something about that once – and if he didn’t, he totally could have, because he’s also both an editor and a writer, and his writing is exceptionally well constructed. Now, being an editor, you must see a lot of rough-looking drafts from writers before you work your magic on them. What are some of the most common mistakes you see and what can writers do to improve their work?
R: Most of the time writers have done a great job with the manuscripts they send me, and I’ve been so amazed at the incredible stories I get to read. Occasionally I’ll get something which really is a draft, and I have actually sent some back to the writer, to tell them that their story is not ready to edit yet. So I guess my advice would be to not be in too much of a hurry. When you finish a draft, let it rest for a bit. Leave it at least a few weeks before you go back to it and read it again – and that time can really give you some perspective.
H: Totes agree on letting manuscripts rest! Speaking of rest (someone is going to scream at me for this segues soon) but – when and how do you rest, because as if being a writer, editor and doctoral student wasn’t enough, you’re also raising a family of four. Now, I can barely take care of myself, so forgive the cliché question, but how on earth do you manage your time?
R: Oh, I just leave a massive bowl of fruit in the kitchen and leave them to it! Haha, just kidding! (Well, sort of. They do eat a lot of fruit.) But having lots to do is fun for me. I generally thrive on it. I mean, there are days – like today, in fact – when I’ve barely had time to eat, but those are few and far between. Most of the time it’s about managing my time well while the kids are away at school or asleep. That’s why getting up early is really good for me. Now that they’re all starting to sleep in, I can get a good chunk of work done in the mornings. As for everything else, I recommend menu planning and a large diary to write everything down!
H: I’m taking notes that I 100% know I will not follow, because my career is so tightly managed that my personal/home life is a tyre fire and I don’t see that changing haha. Sidebar to anything writery, I grew up in a family of six kids and loved it because there were always people around and plenty of noise. Do you find that’s a great environment to write in, or do you prefer to quarantine some quiet time and space for yourself to get work done?
R: I need the quiet. I do love being in a household full of people – on weekends we often have extra kids coming and going, and it gives me a sense of contentment that our kids like being at home and that their friends like visiting them here. When I grew up it was often just me and my parents as my siblings were a lot older, so having a busy house is different from my childhood, but not in a bad way. Still, when we moved here a few years ago, we worked out that we could convert the enclosed verandah into a study for me, and recently we put up bookshelves and most importantly a LOCKABLE DOOR. Since I work at home, there have definitely been some BBC-Dad moments.
H: That is one of my favourite memes ever, and I love that you’ve been able to live that moment yourself haha – hopefully while not on live TV though! I have major envy looking at your beautiful home study. Now, you live in the rugged and beautiful town of Albany, on Western Australia’s southern coast. What is your experience of being a writer in a regional town, and do you feel there are some services and opportunities you miss out on being in a more isolated location than the metro area?
R: I adore living here. I grew up on a farm near a tiny town only a few hours drive from here, so moving down here was like coming home. And sure, there are some things I know I miss out on, like writers’ festivals and events. It’s very different meeting people in person and going to talks or conventions, that kind of thing, and it can be frustrating that we don’t get that as much in regional or remote communities, although of course I understand why. Saying that, I’ve found a vibrant writing and arts community here, and I belong to two writers’ groups. The library is also outstanding in its support of local artists and writers, and I’m working with some other local people to bring a writers’ festival to Albany in 2020.
H: Agree with Albany Library being amazing – they’re bringing me down to Albany in November for an author talk and I can’t wait – I’ve never visited. Great news about the potential for an Albany writers festival in 2020 – go you. Does this mean you’ll have to put some other projects on hold to make that happen, or will you still be writing new stuff?
R: I’m trying very hard to focus on one thing at a time but as you can imagine, I’m not doing very well with that. Now that Alt-Ctrl is finished, I’m probably going to try and focus on my PhD. But I have a magic realism novel which I’ve written about 20K of, and a cosy crime series which I’m plotting out, and then there’s that Drowned Earth novella idea I mentioned earlier … well, you know how it is. I have a very long ‘to-write’ list!
H: To-write lists are both exciting and stressful as hell. Speaking of hell, it’s sometimes hellish to get up at 5am, and yet we both aim to do this by being in the #5amwritersclub (best segue ever). I feel like you’re one of the most committed in terms of checking in with the rest of us each morning and trying to make us accountable.
R: Aw, thank you! It’s probably less about commitment and more about procrastination! But I think since I work at home and also with the isolation of living in the country, it’s really helpful to have that online accountability. I have deadlines for work and but when it comes to writing, I need to say to someone, ‘I have to do 1000 words by tonight’ or ‘I have to finish this chapter by the end of the week’, and it motivates me to do it because I’ve told other people.
H: What made you join the club, and what made you stay?
R: When Lana [Pecherczyk] started posting the hashtag and suggested getting up early to write, I thought it was something which would help me carve out the time. And as for what made me stay, well, it’s everything: the camaraderie, the support, the laughs, the friendship. It’s such a cool group and I’m honestly blessed to be part of it.
H: Agree. It’s great finding fellow writers to hang with, celebrate with, commiserate with. Is that the advice you would give to new writers who are just starting out?
R: Yes. Find your people. They can be online or in person, it doesn’t matter! I think we consider writing to be a very solitary activity and it’s true that you have to get the words down on your own. I reckon any art needs to be created in solitude, because that gives you opportunity to reflect, but as artists we also need to live in the world, you know? So find those people in the world who will support you, who’ll give you feedback. You know, to celebrate the wins and lift you up from the rejections. It’s kind of lonely, otherwise!
H: Great note to finish on. Rebecca Freeman, thanks for coming over to my place – it was awesome to get to know you better. Care for a drink or two? What’s your poison?
R: I had a great time, thanks for inviting me! I’m not a drinker, as you know, but I brought some lemon balm and peppermint from my garden. Thought I’d make us all a pot of herbal tea.
H: Ah, music to my ears! I love lemon and I totally dig peppermint tea. I’ll chuck the billy on.
R: Oh, and can I tempt you with some homemade brownies? It’s cheat day, right?
H: I’m going to have a little cry at the prospect of tomorrow’s carb bloat, and then eat a brownie anyway, because if there’s a brownie involved, it’s always cheat day.
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the wonderful Rebecca Freeman. She’s a solid friend to have, and a big supporter of others on her social media, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
I’m about to set off on the book tour in support of my own novel, Invisible Boys, which is released on 1 October (four days away) but Holden’s Heroes will return soon with another interview with a local WA author – stay tuned. Until then, thanks for visiting! 😉
This is a day, and a cause, close to my heart because of what I went through growing up.
Getting help for feeling depressed and suicidal is something I have *never* regretted. As a man, it made me feel stronger, not weaker, to tackle my problems head-on by getting support. And it made me want to keep living. 💪💪
I say this in particular because male suicide rates are triple those of female suicide rates. Triple! And even worse for men who are gay, bi, trans or intersex, or who are indigenous, or who live in rural areas, or who are elderly. Instead of seeking support or help when we’re in crisis, us guys often stop talking, shut down and isolate ourselves. I want to help others but particularly boys and men know that talking about how we feel is a source of strength, not a source of weakness. Learning how to be vulnerable and manage our emotions will literally save our own lives. Showing our mates that it’s okay to be like this will help save theirs.
I wanted to share two things with you all today.
Firstly, I wrote a new article for my publisher Fremantle Press about my own experiences with mental health issues and suicide and how this led to my decision to become an ambassador for suicide prevention organisation Lifeline WA. If you or someone you know is in crisis or thinking about suicide, get help immediately. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14. These guys are absolute legends. 🙌🙌
Secondly, on a slightly more personal level, I want to share a song I came across when I was bleakly suicidal at the age of 18/19.
The song is “Joining You” by Alanis Morissette. This song was the one that blew my mind, that helped start to pivot me around to rethinking whether death was the best option, because it didn’t just say “don’t kill yourself, dude” or “life is worth living” or anything generic or meaningless.
It said, “Well, if I saw the world the way you’re seeing the world right now, I’d be joining you. I’d kill myself, too. But, this isn’t what the world is. You’re seeing it wrong. You aren’t your body, your culture, your future, your denials, your emotions, your afflictions, their condemnations. These things are not you and you’re more than any of them, and none of them are worth taking your life over.” The underlying message being, effectively, fuck everything that’s hurt you, and live anyway.
I’ve always found this song helpful – to getting through those moments of suicidal ideation, and also to processing the resultant trauma and shame of having those feelings in the many years since.
Big love to you if you’re struggling atm or if someone you know is struggling. Seriously, reach out, even anonymously. It makes it much easier to breathe once you tell someone else how you feel. You can always call Lifeline on 13 11 14, too.
Lyrics to “Joining You” by Alanis Morissette (1998):
dear dar(lin’) your mom (my friend) left a message on my machine she was frantic saying you were talking crazy that
you wanted to do away with yourself I guess she thought i’d be a perfect resort because we’ve had this inexplicable connection since our youth
and yes they’re in shock they are panicked you and your chronic them and their drama you this embarrassment us in the middle of this delusion
if we were our bodies
if we were our futures
if we were our defenses i’d be joining you
if we were our culture
if we were our leaders
if we were our denials i’d be joining you
I remember vividly a day years ago we were camping you knew more than you thought you should know you said “I don’t want ever to be brainwashed”
and you were mindboggling you were intense you were uncomfortable in your own skin you were thirsty but mostly you were beautiful
if we were our nametags
if we were our rejections
if we were our outcomes i’d be joining you
if we were our indignities
if we were our successes
if we were our emotions i’d be joining you
you and I we’re like 4 year olds we want to know why and how come about everything we want to reveal ourselves at will and speak our minds
and never talk small and be intuitive and question mightily and find god my tortured beacon we need to find like-minded companions
if we were their condemnations
if we were their projections
if we were our paranoias i’d be joining you
if we were our incomes
if we were our obsession
if we were our afflictions i’d be joining you
we need reflection we need a really good memory feel free to call me a little more often