Protagonists is a series of interviews about life, identity, and pursuing passions…
It’s better not to compare yourself to Will Kostakis. His novels are bestsellers, earning fulsome cover quotes from the likes of Melina Marchetta (Looking for Alibrandi). His latest is due for release in March. The fact he’s a full year younger than me makes me want to cry.
In 2005, Will won the SMH Young Writer of the Year award. That was the same year his best friend died, a loss which continues to have a profound influence on his work.
Tell me about your upcoming book.
The Sidekicks is the book I’ve been putting off until I felt I was good enough to write it. It’s based on that time at school when Ben died. We were a group of four guys. But we weren’t four best friends. We were three guys with the same best friend. Then he died and we were like “Oh shit, we have to be best friends now.”
Death is often explored in YA. I cheated in the first book. Someone died then it was “two months later!” Or they spiral into depression and people help them out of it and it always feels like a plot device.
The Sidekicks follows three different kids and the three different ways that they react to one person’s death. I wanted to capture that rawness of grief. The big secret I’ve kept is that it’s three novellas crammed together.
What did Ben mean to you?
Ben was the guy who encouraged me to keep writing and he read all my stuff from Year 6 onwards. He was a major motivator, and we would picture our lives when I was “JK Rowling rich” – he aspired to be a groupie.
It wasn’t until I wrote and submitted a chapter based on his funeral that I was offered a book deal based on its strength alone. There’s poetry to it, I guess. Cruel though.
A lot of your work seems quite close to home. How do you strike the balance between observation and imagination?
When you write a book, it’s between one and three years of your life. I can’t sit there and write a story that someone else can tell. I have lived experiences that I want to reflect on. That’s the really interesting stuff. For me it always has to come from a personal place. The First Third came from that greatest fear – that my grandma’s been such a huge part of my life, what if she no longer is? But I wanted to tell it in a funny way that was true to her character.
Of course there’s sprinkling in of different characters I’ve encountered in my life but they’re all works of fiction.
I knew with The Sidekicks I needed to write about my friend that passed away, mostly because the moment he passed away, death crept into everything I wrote. And it’s getting to the point now where it’s exhausting me.
[I thought] I’ll give him this book. I’ll explore it and hopefully get as much of it off my chest as possible so the next book can be a little lighter.
Did you tour with your grandma for The First Third?
The only time I took her with me was Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago. I told the kids maybe she’d sign autographs for them. Her queue was longer than mine! She was trying to kiss and hug every kid. I’m like, duty of care! You cannot kiss children.
She’d cooked something. She wanted to give them food. I mean, you have to ask about allergies. I thought, Yiayia’s gonna kill a kid and it’ll be my fault.
A big reason why I got to stay at Newington as long as I did was because she stepped up and helped pay fees when dad disappeared. I am where I am because she and mum raised me. To be able to say thank you and involve her any way I can, it’s really great.
Have you reconnected with your dad at any point?
I hunted him down last year. I found out where he lived and got his phone number through some miracle. We had dinner and he was more disappointing than I remembered. Which was…great. No, I know. It’s horrible. But also really cathartic.
My mum didn’t divorce someone who was nice. Her brother died while they were on their honeymoon. On the third day she was still crying [my dad] goes, “what the fuck are you still crying for?” If that’s not a warning sign…
But you’ve got the pressures of the Greek community. Mum was the first one to get divorced out of all the cousins. Now they’re all divorced. But back then it was frowned upon. My mum was rebounding, my dad was rebounding, so they just sort of rebounded together and made their parents happy. And that is not the way.
Do you plan to move into other mediums?
I would love to move into TV. The First Third started from pitch meetings with a TV producer. At that point I had four Greek characters and he told me, point blank, there weren’t enough Greek actors in Australia. And I was like, “That’s fine. Do what you always do – get a LaPaglia brother in it.” I was pretty annoyed.
I think I’ve met at least that many Greek actors.
Yeah, they all don’t have jobs! And you end up with TV shows that look the same and sound the same. I mean, how many episodes of House Husbands do we really need?
The suggestion was, couldn’t they have emigrated from the UK? And I’m like, no! That’s when I got in touch with Penguin. We’d been talking informally and they said yep, write it as is.
I believe that restriction creates the best writing, don’t get me wrong. But when your restrictions are: don’t make these people brown…make sure these people marry people of the opposite sex…you end up with the same stories we’re used to.
So it must be encouraging now to see shows like The Family Law not only getting made, but succeeding?
It is heartening to see the buzz that The Family Law is getting – Ben Law does a great job of showing the embarrassing/heartwarming relationship we have with our parents. We all have our own Laws, whether it’s our own family, our neighbours, our friends. But we hardly ever see them.
We’re just as at fault for the lack of representation as producers. Look at the racist garbage that featuring an Indian family on Neighbours inspired.
On the other hand, Here Come the Habibs…
I’m glad you brought that up. Yeah, the trailer did seem very lowest common denominator, but the “Nine Network, Please Ban This Racist Stuff!” reaction is just as harmful as the racist reaction to Neighbours’ diversity.
We haven’t seen the show, we’ve seen the marketing. We’ve seen the quick jokes that establish premise and tone, we haven’t seen the shading – the quieter moments where characters become more rounded and human. And even if there is no shading, representation doesn’t mean only positive representation.
I guess I don’t really trust Nine with that sort of thing.
It looks absolutely awful. But hey, spend a day with my gran. You’d say she’s broad and such a stereotype. I’ve quoted her verbatim and been called racist. You’ve just gotta sigh and laugh it off.
I’m not saying the show is good, or that the representation will be nuanced and have a positive effect on ethnic communities, but we need to actually watch shows before we call for them to be axed.
You were submitting to publishers from a very young age. How did they respond?
I wrote 720 pages when I was 12. Didn’t edit it. Sent it straight off to Penguin. Didn’t say my age. When I got the reply, it was just one line saying “this is not very good.”
I’m glad I had that rejection because I kept working to get better and better. Then the rejection letters stopped being “you’re shit” and started being “well, you’re a bit shit, but here are some things you can work on.”
I think what pushed them over the line was when I sucked it up and wrote my age. That’s when I realised that publishers aren’t just buying a book. They’re buying a person they want to mould and support through a career. I needed something that would make me sellable. And being 17 – that’s an angle.
I still have those drafts I wrote in Year 7. I’m really scared someone’s gonna Go Set A Watchman me at some point.
I mention it as much as possible so if I’m in a nursing home and *Will’s Lost Novels* come out, you know it’s against my will.
Whenever I visit schools, I show kids. I say I’m gonna critique you for the next hour but here’s what I wrote in Year 7. It is a steaming pile. Enjoy!
Is that the biggest obstacle for young writers – accepting that not every word they write is going to be genius?
You look at what’s been printed in a book and think, my writing doesn’t compare to that. You don’t see the four or five hands that that passes through. You don’t see the edits.
That’s why whenever I hear an author say, “I don’t edit my work. I just birth it and this is how it is.” Just shut the fuck up.
There was a guy in one of my uni classes who claimed he didn’t create his work – he was merely the vessel through which creativity flowed.
The vessel! I love the vessel.
When did you feel like writing was a real thing you could build a career with?
I think when you hold [the book] for the first time, you think holy shit this is actually happening. But that lasts five seconds.
At the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival – the first time I’d seen it on shelves – I saw a lady pick it up, read the blurb, make THE WORST sound you’ve ever heard, and put it back down.
Getting published is not the end of it. It’s telling people about it without seeming smug. It’s begging your friends to buy it without begging your friends to buy it. It’s a constant struggle until you get to the point where there’s fanfare about your next release. It never feels secure. It feels like it could go away at any moment.
Is the YA demo something you think about while you’re writing or does that come later?
The big thing is I’m writing a book I would want to read, that I know kids would want to read as well. But also that adults would want to read. I’m trying to hit that broad spectrum. Most of my readers are adults. That whole stigma of YA just being for kids [is nonsense].
Who are your influences?
I can see a lot of Terry Pratchett [in my work] – not that I was ever writing as well as Terry Pratchett. I wanted that sense of humour. When I first read him in Year 7, I didn’t get any of the jokes. Later, I saw the innuendo everywhere. I really like those layers and how he mixed philosophy and did something different with the fantasy genre.
He was someone I always aspired to be like. The first draft of Loathing Lola had seven footnotes per page and my editor was like, “No, only Terry can do that.”
Is your approach to reading different now that you’ve seen behind the curtain?
The main stuff I read is re-reading my own work looking for clunky sentences. So now when I read for fun, that’s the only setting in my brain. I try to switch that off, but it’s difficult.
I consume a lot more TV. Everyone’s says you can’t be a writer if you don’t read. I read plenty, but there’s an ear for dialogue you get from TV.
What part of the process do you enjoy most?
The second draft. When you’re smashing it apart, finding what you really love, rejigging it. That’s when you start to believe it’s a good book.
Any bad habits in your writing?
There are things like telling and not showing. I think telling can work really well. The most engaging voices can be a lot of telling. I don’t believe wholly in ‘you must show and never tell’.
The big thing is slipping out of the voice. I’m doing it less now but if you read Loathing Lola you can see where I slip out of the voice and it’s like “now I’m Will Kostakis and I’m gonna be a sassy bitch for a page.”
It’s just about finding that middle ground. That’s the thing I’m working on. It’s something you don’t want to do in every book, especially if you’re writing about different people and different voices and contexts.
Is enough emphasis placed on creative writing in schools?
Not at all. It’s because there aren’t those clear assessment points throughout high school. I think it’s unfair in that they haven’t massaged that skill set. When I visit schools, it’s all about equipping them with the tools they need.
There are benefits. My confidence improved the moment I was writing more. My essay writing improved when I was creative writing. Essay writing is trying to convince someone that something is true, which is basically assuming a character and saying ‘these are my reasons’.
I can’t recall much guidance in high school English other than “OK, now just write a story.”
You encounter bad writing all the time when you visit schools but you also encounter writing so bad that it’s amazing. There was one – it was this love story about a girl whose parents just died, but then a guy came over to her house with a puppy and she fell in love with him. It was just a terrible story. But there was a time jump and it was like, 20 minutes later. But she wrote “like, 20 minutes later”. I sat there thinking, that is terrible but, at the same time, it captured the voice so much better than anything I’d ever written. She has no idea what she’s done.
When we teach creative writing at school, there’s so much focus placed on just writing a discovery story, or a journeys story, or a belonging story, that we don’t teach voice. And we don’t teach kids that their voice is okay. I wasted so much time trying to write like an adult.
Once I was told no, just write as a teenager. Don’t try to write an adult perspective because the adult market will always see through it. Write from a teenage perspective and remind them what it was like to be a teenager. That was the best advice I ever got. And it’s sort of what I stick to now.
What’s the most important thing you try to impart on kids learning to write?
‘Write how you speak’. That’s a good place to start. With kids, once you put a pen in their hand they think, I’m writing for my teacher, so they try to sound really smart. With those kids I say walk around your house with a tape recorder and say the story, then write it down how you say it. Start there.
When they tend to write it’s always ‘this happened then this happened then this happened then the end.’ There’s no detail. They don’t build moments. It’s all about taking those sentences and fleshing them out. In a film, where would the camera be? What would the actor be doing? You can’t just say “she ran”. What was she running through? How is she feeling? What is her heart doing? All those things give meaning.
But is the teacher going to carry the torch? Or is that the one lesson on creative writing this year? The only reason I am where I am is because I had teachers walking through with me, constantly teaching me. There’s a danger that teachers think, okay we ticked the box. We tried.