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.
There’s an old saying, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s one of those things that seems to make sense on the surface, until you look at it a little closer. For example, you can regularly sneak into a vicious country town with a bone-deep hatred of journalists and a marrow deep hatred of journalists named Boone Shepard and assume that, statistically speaking, it’s highly unlikely that said town will manage to catch and try to hang you every single time. After all, a town with such a particular and nonsensical prejudice probably, it stands to reason, isn’t populated with the brightest sorts.
But at a certain point you’re just making excuses without confronting the issue at hand, the issue at hand being that I, once again, was locked up in the cells of the Greenville Police Station waiting to be hanged at dawn, having once again snuck into the town in pursuit of a story and been caught because of an unexpected amorous midnight rendezvous between little old Mrs McCurdles and John the friendly butcher, who had chased me into the police station with his friendly battle axe.
It was also highly possible that the issue at hand was my own insanity, but that one would keep for dealing with at a later date. The same luxury was not offered by a meeting between my neck and a noose.
Leaning against the cold wall of the cell, I sighed. There weren’t many escape options being presented to me at that stage, which meant I would have to rely on my wit and charm when the morning came. That, given Greenville, was bound to be yet another case of doing the same thing and expecting a different result, although to be fair I might well end up vindicated this time – Greenville had never successfully hanged me before. That counted as a different result, right?
I looked around the cell for roughly the hundredth time, but to my surprise I was met with a different result. A face behind the bars was staring back at me, a face that did not belong to the policeman or the Mayor, who had a habit of turning up at all hours of the night to gloat. No, this face was far too young to be either. He was about ten, wearing plain overalls with glasses and a mess of thick brown hair.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hello,’ he replied. ‘You’re Boone Shepard.’
‘Guilty as charged.’
'Is being Boone Shepard what they charged you with?’
‘Might as well have been,’ I grinned. ‘Prying, this time. Which is a change from the standard meddling, but both are pretty synonymous with being Boone Shepard.’
‘Do you think big words make you seem smart?’ he asked.
‘If I wanted to seem smart I wouldn’t be back in Greenville, would I?’
‘So why are you in Greenville?’
I shrugged. ‘There was a story. I heard Mrs McCurdles was running a jewel thieving operation by night. Turns out she was really just running a kissing-the-butcher operation, which doesn’t quite have the same front page potential.’
‘I dunno,’ the boy said. ‘Front pages last a day. That gossip will fuel Greenville for weeks.’
‘More than my finally being hanged?’
‘People care more about gossip than justice.’
I laughed despite myself. ‘That’s… that’s a cynical thing to think at your age.’
‘That’s a condescending thing to think at your age,’ he replied.
I nodded. ‘Fair enough. I’m sorry. People always underestimated me because of how old I was too. I should know better.’
‘But you don’t,’ the boy said. ‘You’re an adult. Adults are supposed to know best.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘In your experience, has that ever been true?’
The boy grinned. ‘Guess not.’
‘I reckon it’s better to be proud of being an idiot than deluded about being smart,’ I said. ‘I can’t tell you why I don’t know better. I just don’t. Too curious. Too stupid. Too…’ There were other words for what I was too much of. That didn’t mean I wanted to say them. ‘What are you doing here, anyway?’
‘Never seen you up close,’ the boy said. ‘Only ever heard all the outraged stories. Thought I’d see if they were true.’
‘My Father says that you’re bad news because you dig up things that should stay buried,’ he said. ‘Truths that make dinner parties uncomfortable.’
‘Is your father an exception to the rule about adults knowing nothing?’
The boy shook his head. ‘I think he’s half the reason the rule exists. Do you think you’ll get out?’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Probably. I usually do, right?’
‘But you don’t have a plan.’
‘Then how will you escape?’
‘Something always turns up.’
‘What if it doesn’t?’
‘If it doesn’t…’ I tried to think of a witty answer. But there wasn’t one. I thought of the noose. I thought of the faces of the town baying for my blood.
And then I thought about what I would see in that moment. About the bent gum trees and dry brown grass of my childhood. About the foggy streets of London now and then, about the rolling fields of England, about blood in the snow and pain and the subsequent endless pursuit of something even I didn’t quite understand.
‘If it doesn’t,’ I said, and tried to keep the tremor out of my voice, ‘then at least I know I’ve had a life.’
‘Everyone’s had a life,’ he said. ‘Some people even have long ones. Or good ones.’
‘Maybe you need the bad to see the good,’ I said. ‘Maybe the kind of life we should want is one that’s full, not one that’s good. Have a few stories to tell at the end of it.’
‘Well considering you might be at the end,’ the boy said, ‘what’s the best story you have?’
I looked at the roof. Closed my eyes. And smiled. ‘Once upon a time there was a boy. Not much was special about him. But he wanted more than what he had. So he did whatever he could to get it, until he learned that he’d been so focussed on one thing that there were a lot of other things he’d missed. And then he started to see those things and then…’ I opened my eyes. I looked at the boy. ‘And then life was full of colour. And the boy knew that as long as he kept seeing those colours, seeing colours even though other people told him they weren’t there, he would be okay.’
For a moment, there was silence.
‘Seeing things other people don’t is a sign of insanity,’ he said.
I winked. ‘There you go.’
For a moment, the boy just watched me. ‘I don’t know if I like that story.’
‘It’s the best one I’ve got.’
‘It’ll have to do I guess.’
He reached out a hand and dropped a key through the bars.
I stared at it, unsure if this was real. I looked back at the boy. He was smiling.
‘Something always turns up,’ he said. Then he was gone, vanished in the dark beyond the bars.
For a long moment I just sat there. Then I reached out and picked up the key. It was heavy and cool in my hand.
I unlocked the cell door and quietly slid it open. I moved through the still, silent and dark station before stepping out on to the cobblestoned main street of Greenville; just quiet, murky shadows at the point where night starts to become morning.
I found my bike around the back of the station and wheeled it down the main street, careful not to make a noise. But nobody else was awake. They slept their boring sleeps, waiting for the morning when they could watch a man hang. A morning that, for Greenville, might as well be a Christmas during which Santa had finally paid some actual attention to who was on the naughty list.
I arrived at the outskirts of Greenville just as the first fringes of sunrise lit the horizon. I stopped for a moment and watched. The distant waves of dark hills were slowly becoming green as fire grew in the sky above, seeping through the purple until it became a lighter blue. Another day, and I was still alive. I took a long, deep breath. The air was cool and bracing. I felt alive. I felt ready. For what, I didn’t know yet.
I looked over my shoulder. Greenville remained partly in shadow. But maybe, standing on the main street I had left the town via, I could see a shape. Maybe it was the figure of a young boy, watching. Maybe it was nothing.
But just in case, I waved.
I started my bike. The thrum of the engine filled the air. I revved it, once. It was like a roar. I laughed, and clambered on. My eyes moved to the road ahead, to the morning and the rolling fields beyond. I didn’t know where I was going to go. But I’d figure that out as I went. Something always came up. Always.
Whistling, I accelerated into the morning light.
See you around, Boone.
Writing words about writing words.