In 2008 I was obsessed with the Beatles and by extension, of all things, the conspiracy theory claiming that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and been replaced with an imposter. It wasn’t that I believed it, just that I found it kind of fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that I had a dream one night that I was an investigative journalist delving into said conspiracy while riding around the countryside on a giant tricycle.
It was a weird dream, but often it’s the weird ones that stick with you, that give you this strange feeling that somehow, for some reason, this is important. As with most things I can’t stop thinking about, I figured I had to write about it. So I came up with a story; a story that could balance the strangeness of the whole thing with the deeper pathos and creepiness that underpins any good conspiracy theory. And for that very particular story, I needed a very particular character.
The name Boone Shepard had been in my head for years; a name that I knew would one day belong to a hero in one of my stories. And the kind of hero who could investigate Beatles conspiracy theories while riding a giant tricycle was the kind of hero who deserved a name like Boone Shepard.
I wrote three stories about him that year. They weren’t great; a mismatch of violent darkness, weird nonsense and tragedy. They were overwritten and packed haphazardly with the things I loved at the time; gonzo journalism, gothic horror, murder mysteries, 60s hippy culture and time travel. The friends I showed them to reacted accordingly, saying that they were dumb and unrealistic compared to the other stuff I was writing at the time – considering the already dumb and unrealistic nature of that other stuff, the fact that Boone Shepard stood out probably said something – so I let Boone fade away and focused on other stories.
Years passed. I left school, went to uni, and wrote more – some bad stuff, some good stuff, most in between. Boone lingered in the back of my head; like most ideas I’ve had I entertained the notion of revisiting him, but never seriously.
Then along came the real hero of Boone’s story; April Newton. She read the old stories and, where nobody else had, saw potential. Her excitement for the world and the character reignited my own; soon the gears start turning and, as if he’d never been away, Boone rode back into my thoughts and quickly, back on to the page.
Some things changed. The weirdness was toned down. The giant tricycle became a battered motorbike. But the spirit of the old stories; the wild, strange sense of adventure, had gone nowhere. And at a time when I’d been writing mostly melancholic, personal plays and super dark novels, returning to Boone was a breath of fresh air and a homecoming that I think I really needed. Over 2013 and 2014 I wrote five novels, finally wrapping it all up with an ending that I still to this day think is one of the best things I’ve ever written.
I sent the first book to a few publishers and agents, but there was never much interest. Then April contacted me to tell me she was starting a publishing house and she wanted Boone Shepard to be her first title. There was no hesitation from my end. April understood Boone better than anyone and knew what the story needed to get the best out of it.
Some parts of the plan did change. The intended first book, The Broken Record, was skipped, with elements of it folded into the subsequent instalments. Book two, Darkening Ventures, became book one: Boone Shepard.
I can’t overstate the work April put in to make that first book a reality. But she did an incredible job and what resulted was the kind of book it was hard for me to believe my name was on. But the jury was still out on whether readers would see in Boone what we had.
The reaction to the first book was a learning curve. Thanks to my involvement with Sanspants Radio it reached a huge audience; the audiobook was listened to by thousands all around the world, and the responses were wide ranging. The very first bit of feedback I got was somebody tweeting me the morning of release to say ‘your book sucks mate’. Subsequently I heard it all. Some people thought it was a disappointment. Others told me it was their favourite book. I was sent fan-art and photos of kids dressed as Boone Shepard for Book Week. It was probably the widest audience my work had reached at that point and I learnt that what you write can never please everyone but as long as you know that you said what you set out to say, then you can be proud.
But that first book was only one part of the story. In retrospect, ending on a giant cliff-hanger was about the most presumptuous thing I could have done, as there was no guarantee of it selling or being well liked enough to get a sequel. Luckily, it did.
American Adventure might have debuted to a slightly more subdued response, but it did so at the same time that the first book was nominated for the Readings Young Adult Prize. I can’t stress enough what a moment of vindication that was. For months, Boone stood proudly on posters in every Readings store, side by side with some of the most talked about YA books of recent times. It was definitive proof that this strange idea of mine that somehow found its way into stores had managed to be seen as a contender. That was a pretty special feeling.
Merging the final two books was, in the end, not only practical but logical. I wasn’t arrogant enough to assume a fourth was likely, so we decided to go out with a bang. The final two books were always linked plot and theme wise anyway, and now it’s hard to imagine them as separate entities. The Silhouette and the Sacrifice probably needed the most work to bring together, but it paid off in a big way. The three books together tell one complete story and the final book, for my money, is comfortably the best; sprawling, emotional and with an ending, almost unchanged from what was written in 2014, that I think shows just what Boone Shepard was always about beneath the adventure and the manatee jokes.
And as of today, it’s out in the world. The whole story, all wrapped up for people to read or not read as they desire (please read it).
How do I feel in this moment of completion? It’s hard to say. Things in my life have been so busy for so long that Boone has almost become an afterthought. But today, more than any other day ever, is his day. Tonight the book officially launches at Readings Kids (6:30, come along, there’ll be wine) and after that, well, who knows?
But for now, Boone has ridden off into the sunset, along with Promethia, Oscar, Jessie, Marbier, Avery and all the rest. And I think for the rest of my life, no matter what I write or what happens, I’ll always have a certain singular fondness for that gang of misfits and miscreants. Boone’s story is one of hope and heroism, about overcoming the worst in yourself to find the best, about learning from your mistakes and saying goodbye to the past. It’s about becoming your own person and being better to those around you. It’s about, in short, all the lessons I learned in the years I was telling it. Beneath the craziness is the most personal thing I’ve ever written.
I hope you’ll read the end and I hope you’ll like it. But it’s out of my hands now. I’m finished.
Goodbye Mr Shepard. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have known you.
Writing words about writing words.