Reappraising Boone Shepard
I’m proud of Boone Shepard, but it took me a little while to get there.
This is somewhat complicated so I’ll do my best to explain. At the risk of sounding like an egotistical wanker, around the time the first Boone Shepard was gearing up for release, I’d gotten a little too used to being told I was brilliant after various Movie Maintenance episodes. In my defence, it was the first time in my life I’d had what amounted to any kind of following for my work, and that’s a hard thing to keep a level head about. People were tweeting and emailing me fairly regularly to tell me how excited they were for Boone Shepard, and maybe that somehow coloured how I actually saw the book.
On Movie Maintenance I was known for putting dark or revisionist spins on franchises, mainly horror. Boone Shepard, by contrast, was only ever intended as a quirky, gothic, children’s novel. But being released through Sanspants Radio as an audiobook read by me automatically linked the novel to the podcast, and the impression I got was that some fans of the show were let down by the book.
Look, I don’t want to speak for anyone’s experience. No book is for everyone and Boone Shepard is certainly no exception, but I heard from a few readers that they expected something more explosive or shocking from me, and that’s fair enough. I’m also sure there are plenty of readers who just didn’t like Boone Shepard very much and, that’s equally fair, just like there were plenty who liked Boone enough to send fan art and theories and all kinds of stuff that made me feel awesome. The value of what anyone creates is subjective and if there’s one massive lesson I learned from Boone and my time on Movie Maintenance, it’s that that’s okay. Somebody’s opinion on your work doesn’t reflect on you personally, whether positive or negative.
But I do feel like there was a contingent of Boone Shepard readers whose expectations didn’t meet the reality of the book, and it took me some time to wrap my head around that. Despite all the great feedback Boone got, I think I was a little let down by some of the reactions, and that led me to look at it through slightly cynical goggles. It was only really after the first book was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize that I let myself think it was maybe pretty good after all. Re-reading it then, a year after release, I was taken aback by how much I actually liked it.
I think that the first book, for the most part, works as the establishment of a character and a series. It’s super pacy; never spending a second longer than it needs to on any given stretch of the plot. The characters are pretty clearly defined and the dialogue is funny and bouncy. Both Boone and Promethia grow and change in tangible ways over the course of the book, and there are passages that lend the book enough thematic depth to make it more than just a rollicking adventure yarn.
I’m glad that I can still feel warmly about my first published novel three years later. The fact is that Boone Shepard is the best book I could have written at the time. I’m proud of it and I think, overall, the response it got vindicates me feeling that way But since it was released I’ve learned a lot and consequently, there are things I would approach differently if I was writing it today.
Like the prose. I don’t think it’s bad or anything, but there are times when the language is perfunctory at best, clunky at worst. This is one case where the timing of the book worked against me; I don’t think I really mastered prose in a way I was happy with until 2015. Boone Shepard was written in 2014. Looking at American Adventure and The Silhouette and the Sacrifice I feel like there’s a natural flow that isn’t always there in the first book.
Part of the flow issue might be due to the plotting. A big criticism that’s been levelled at the first Boone Shepard a few times is that it jumps around a lot. This is true and I think it’s hard to pinpoint with much specificity what the central plot of the book is before the end. Boone’s goal changes regularly; at the start he’s trying to eradicate a book that contains his secrets, in the flashback section he’s trying to become a famous journalist, in the back half of the book he’s trying to defeat his evil brother then, in the last two chapters, all the threads come together. I think the book’s fast enough for this to not be the biggest problem in the world, but in retrospect I probably could have found a way to give it one clear through line around which the other plots could orbit.
Tone is a bit of an issue too. For context, the Boone Shepard series was, in development, supposed to be goofy with flashes of darkness, but in practice I think it ended up closer to the other way around. Part of this is due to the fact that Boone Shepard was initially written as the darker sequel to a jaunty first book that was skipped by the publisher. It’s the reason American Adventure is my favourite of the three; ultimately it hews closest to what the series was originally meant to be.
I don’t think the foregrounded darkness is necessarily the worst thing in the world. Starting goofier might have made where the series went feel kind of jarring. I guess the problem is that now the weird silliness at times might feel a bit egregious. I don’t know what the solution to this could have been. In the end, without being at least a little goofy, Boone just wouldn’t be Boone. The series straddles some vast tonal shifts, and that’s always a tough thing to manage, especially when you’re going from silly manatee jokes to human experimentation and murder.
Speaking of murder.
If Boone Shepard was more well known, I think I’d be excoriated for the treatment of Marbier. A friend who read the book in the early days suggested that, in killing her off to drive Boone’s story, I’d ‘Gwen Stacey’d’ her. Which, look, yeah. I defended the choice at the time; Marbier was never some damsel in distress, besides which she had a larger role to play in the series and it wasn’t like her death marked the removal of the only major female character in the book. After all, Promethia Peters remained alive and kicking. Plus, the second book went on to introduce Jessie and Addison Cane; across the board, I’m proud that the Boone Shepard books boast a cast of female characters who are not only collectively tough and capable, but very different to each other. Promethia is immature and gleefully snarky, Marbier is laconic and mysterious, Jessie is excitable and optimistic while Addison delights in her own corruption and selfishness. I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t just write a pile of Black Widow-esque super cool tough girls and pat myself on the back for my stellar feminism.
But look, all of that dances around the fact that what happened to Marbier was a fridging, plain and simple. And the fact is, the early development of the series happened long before I had any idea what ‘fridging’ even was. By the time the term and its ugly implications entered my lexicon, there wasn’t much I could have done short of overhauling so much carefully planned narrative.
Or maybe there was something I could have done. Maybe. Or I could have handled it differently. I don’t know. In isolation, Marbier’s fate is a valid plot point. But it doesn’t change the fact that even as recently as Deadpool 2 we’ve been seeing the clumsy death of the love interest to motivate the hero. It’s a trope I detest and yet one I still used because I guess I didn’t know any better. So what’s the solution? I wouldn’t change it, as it would dramatically alter far too much of the story. But I can’t pretend I’m happy with it as it stands. Which is a sticky place to be.
I guess, like anything, the lesson is not about changing what’s done, abut about knowing what you wouldn’t do again. Which is especially fitting for this retrospective as it’s essentially the theme of the whole Boone Shepard trilogy.
Writing words about writing words.