Henry Sheppard was born in Melbourne in 1954, the second of eight children, to a schoolteacher of Irish descent and a Polish refugee, a former slave labourer in Nazi Germany. His father became an alcoholic and abandoned the family when Henry was nine. His mother brought the children up on her own.
After completing high school in rural Victoria, Henry itinerated around Australia, working in a wide range of jobs, before settling in Adelaide.
Today he lives with his wife Rainee, and divides his time between writing, gardening and trips to hospital.
What’s your favourite part of the lifestyle of an Author?
That moment when I’m closeted in my study; outside it is raining and cold, but inside the temperature is perfect; I’m not likely to be interrupted any time soon; and the words and images are flowing painlessly from subconscious to page; and I just know I won’t have to rewrite a word of it.
What made you start writing?
Having survived the bulk of my (largely unpleasant) childhood by immersing myself in English schoolboy novels, I suddenly decided at the age of 17 that I wanted to write a book. At the time I had a brother in prison. He regaled me with real life crime tales, fresh from the penitentiary. How could I not be inspired? I decided to write a heist story.
At the time, I worked for a pharmacist after school and on Saturday mornings, delivering medicines to pensioners and running errands. I was earned $5 a week, which was paid on Saturday. On my way home I cycled past a betting shop, and soon got in the habit of investing the lot on the ponies. Despite being only 17 (legal age was 18), I was never hassled. Which started me thinking. I was obviously big enough to be accepted as an adult. What if… (the classic question of writers everywhere.) What if I turned up in coveralls and balaclava, and robbed the joint at gunpoint? The staff/cops would assume I was an adult. If I could get away clean, strip off the balaclava and coveralls, and appear in school uniform, I’d be just another kid on the street. A non-suspect.
Somewhere it all became blurred and I began planning the job, instead of the book. But that’s another story…
From there, life intervened, as it will. I woke up at the age of 40 and conducted a review. The key question was: What did you plan to do with your life that you haven’t done already? The answer was, Write a book. And so I started serious writing, as distinct from the technical writing I’d done off and on for years, usually for government agencies.
Is there an Author that you consider your inspiration?
Short answer, no.
I must have been inspired by a range of writers as a child, but none of them stands out, until my final year of high school, when we had to read Pride and Prejudice. For context, I have to say that I lived in a small country town where men were real men, reading was suspect, and schoolboys did not embrace fruity romance novels, not if they wanted a quiet life. I was duty-bound to hate the book, and maintained a good front in the schoolyard, but privately I was stunned that an old book could contain such sharp observation of human nature, as well as a sense of humour.
The next writer to jolt me was Julia Phillips. Her book, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, dazzled me. The material was salacious, but the writing exquisite. Though I’ve talked about it with many people, I’ve only met one other person who liked it, so please don’t complain if you’re moved to give it a read and don’t like it.
What’s your number one tip for an aspiring Author?
Read. Write. Rinse. Repeat.
What type of book do you like to read and does this differ from the genre that you prefer to write?
I read history, biography, true crime, espionage, anything where someone has to make life-changing decisions, while under pressure.
Which book do you consider a must-read?
Of mine? Haematemesis. It’s easy to read, funny, and tells the truth about what it’s like to be human.
Of others? Oh, so many. Anything by John le Carré, but especially The Honourable Schoolboy. Anything by Raymond Chandler, but especially The Big Sleep. Same with Elmore Leonard, Leon Uris, Julia Phillips, John Gregory Dunne, Clive James, Tom Wolfe, James Baldwin, James Clavell, Joe Eszterhas, Jane Austen, and on and on.
What’s been the hardest edit that you’ve had to make? Why did you want to keep the material in?
When writing Play the Devil, I once deleted 50,000 words at a single keystroke.
Two minor characters had a romance. This was a tiny background detail, but as I wrote, it grew and grew. I enjoyed these people. I liked the sense of joy they brought in the midst of a mostly serious story. I got carried away. Deleting it all was my greatest experience of the imperative to ‘kill your darlings.’
If you could live in a book, which one would it be?
Unreliable Memoirs, by Clive James.
If you could pick an Author to write your biography, who would it be?
I’m tempted to say Raymond Chandler, because I know it would be well-written, with beautifully original phrasing and a selection of bon mots, which would pass into the language. On the other hand, it would also be brutally honest. Or Clive James, because I know it would be hysterically funny. Not James Clavell, because the book would end up as a doorstop and no one would ever pick it up, for fear of injuring themselves. No, I think it would have to be Roald Dahl, because he would make my life short, readable and extremely funny, even if something of a cautionary tale, which is sort of how I think of it.
We all know the phrase “the book is always better than the film.” Which film would you like to see remade as a book?
First, I have to disagree with the proposition. Some films are better than the book. One striking example is The Firm, by John Grisham. The film, with Tom Cruise, has a vastly improved ending over the book. (No offence, John.)
The book of the movie? How about The Actors (2003), starring Dylan Moran and Michael Caine. I’m probably the only person in the world to love the film and I know it has weaknesses, but the strengths are so great as to make the overall experience rewarding.
What’s exciting you about your next project?
The thought that I might live long enough to complete it. Seriously.
And finally, you have one quote to be remembered by, what is it?
“Spelling and punctuation are completely irrelevant; unless you’re hoping to be understood.”
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