#LoveOzYa Q&A with Will Kostakis
Will Kostakis is an award-winning #LoveOzYA author whose first novel, Loathing Lola, was published when he was just 19. His new release, The Greatest Hit, is an exclusive novella for Australia Reads: a national initiative that invites all Australians to celebrate the joy of reading.
You can read #LoveOzYA Meg Kennedy's chat with Will below, or check out clips from the interview on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
What’s your elevator pitch for The Greatest Hit?
The Greatest Hit is very much a story for now. It is about a teen girl named Tessa who goes viral – a la Rebecca Black and Friday – but she goes viral during Melbourne lockdown and she manages to stuff up her life in the process and so our story takes place five years after COVID, when she is trying to fix all the mistakes she made during lockdown and rekindle her greatest love.
Is this the first #LoveOzYA book that’s set in lockdown?
I’m always hesitant to say I’m the first, because I’ve been put on so many panels where someone’s been like ‘I’m the first person to write about the ethnic-Australian experience’, and they’ll look at me and I’ll just be like ‘What?’, and then I’ll turn to Melina Marchetta who is sitting next to me. But I’m a lot shadier than Melina is. Melina is like ‘Oh really, that’s so wonderful for you.’ Whenever somebody says that they’re the first to do something, it usually portrays the fact that they just don’t read enough, or they haven’t read widely enough.
Look, I think I was in a really unique position where the timeline for this book was so short: I had to write (about) 10,000 words and I had to put in the first draft around June/July and then finish it by August. So I was like, ‘Oh, okay, like I can tell a story for now.’
Whether I’m the first or not – it wasn’t supposed to be this timely, like Melbourne wasn’t in the lockdown when I switched from setting it in Sydney to setting it in Melbourne.
I think if somebody beat me to the punch and wrote something longer, like they are a far better writer than me. Like there’s no way I could have produced a full novel and done the whole editorial process, which is six/seven months. So the flashbacks are largely set in March/April of this year and the actual story takes place in 2024-ish.
You’ve talked a lot about how YA needs to be written for young people today and reflect their experiences truthfully. With that in mind, how do you navigate talking about a pandemic through the eyes of a young person?
So that was it. I was like, I wrote my two fantasy novels and I was like great, I’m itching to write contemporary again. I can’t wait to write books about parties and hugging and family gatherings and then … COVID!
And again I’m pretty sassy, but there’s nothing I’ll drag more than a book that is like: ‘This is a book for teenagers now, set in the 1990s, (about) my love of this fringe 90s band.’ Like, no. That is a book for you, and I love that for you, but if you have to explain the technology in your books … kids don’t know what a floppy disk is besides being the save icon.
When it came to the pandemic, (I thought), I can’t shy away from this, this is an experience. So, I was like: what kind of story do I tell here? The first draft was very COVID-heavy. It was 100 percent set in COVID times, and it was, you know, all of it was Zoom, and all of it was sort of dealing with you know, having an elderly family member in the house and being scared of the virus, and it was written in those early times when we knew, really nothing about the virus but ‘stay home’.
So I wrote that and my publisher read it, and they were like: ‘We love it’, but we don’t know if people are going to want to read this in October. Will we want to escape by then? Will we want this sort of heavy story?
I was in two minds about it. I wanted to sort of capture it now, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be super super heavy and bleak.
And so the comprise was, was that there was another sort of plot idea that I was toying with – it was just a straight love story at that point. And there was another idea where it was that sort of going viral in lockdown – or not lockdown then – and teens connecting through music and all that sort of stuff. And I was like, ‘oh, that could actually work, I could, you know after writing the first draft I was like ‘I’m over COVID anyway’, so I got to write sort of these 19 year olds at uni sort of story, and then flashback to the COVID stuff. But in the flashbacks I didn’t mention COVID, I didn’t mention the pandemic, I just mentioned sort of lockdowns, and then the publisher was like ‘Ok, we’ve swung the pendulum too far the other way, we had to sort of find the meeting in the middle’, and we ended up finding it.
So even though I don’t name COVID, it is the once-in-a-century pandemic. And the lockdowns are there, but it’s mostly, I wanted to try tell a light, positive, uplifting story about family set during COVID.
Was there anything in the story that made you think, ‘Ooft, this is hitting a bit too close to home right now’?
As much as I hate being in that space, I write my best stuff when I’m in that space. (I was) somebody who did have to, at 19, navigate the media landscape and deal with hiding pieces of myself when I was doing publicity.
I remember the publicity for Loathing Lola at 19, journalists would be like, ‘So what’s your girlfriend’s name?’ We think we’ve always been as progressive as we have, but being gay in 2008 was different to what it is in 2020.
So that ‘hiding a piece of myself’ (theme), I wanted to tie into, but I was very wary of (it being) largely rooted in shame, and I don’t want to keep writing queer characters who are ashamed of themselves. And so it was finding a reason for Tessa to still be sort of closeted, but not have it be about her hating herself or hating how she loves.
And it’s just a tricky road to navigate, because as much as I don’t want to write queer coming out, and I don’t want to write queer trauma, that’s what a lot of readers like. Namely, heterosexual readers love reading about queer people, like they see it as ‘Oh, I’m seeing someone blossom into their true self, that’s so lovely.’ But they don’t realise that to get to the true self you have to go through the minefield. And I can’t keep writing the minefield, because that’s telling teenagers, ‘Hey, who you are isn’t good enough, and it’s something you have to navigate. By setting (The Greatest Hit) in the future, when she was more comfortable with herself, but reflecting on a moment where she wasn’t, then you sort of see that.
But that isn’t the sort of centre of the story.
And seeing that across YA now where – and I know you’ve been such a pioneer of it in the #LoveOzYA landscape – you have these queer characters and they just happen to be queer, it isn’t the centre of the story.
But it still informs who they are, which is really important. But we’re still shaking some things off. I’d love to say we’re sort of there, we’re not.
There’s still the expectation that queer writers write coming out stories, there’s still the expectation that characters suffer with their sexuality. I remember when I wrote Monuments, and it was look, the queer Greek kid, he’s not going to worry about his identity. He’s just going to go on an adventure and have fun and deal with other stuff with other consequences.
And the most feedback I got from librarians was ‘I loved the story – I wished Connor struggled with his sexuality more’. Like those were their actual words! Like, why do you wish that on him? We don’t want our straight characters to struggle with their sexuality, so why are we forcing that on our queer characters? Surely we need to see that there is more to the queer experience than coming out? That is literally just the beginning.
I’d love to know if you have any advice that you would give 2008 Will, in retrospect?
I’m more comfortable taking the piss out of myself now. I took myself so seriously as a 19-year-old: I was ‘19-year-old author’, and then very quickly I was ‘19-year-old flop author’, who no publisher wanted to go near, and who was saved from the bargain bin by Penguin.
I wanted to be a bestseller straight out of the gate. I’m really glad that it took seven or eight years to get my first bestseller because that forced me to find my voice, find who I was, and not descend down a super arrogant path, because I think I am at-risk arrogant. I need every two or three books to flop, just to keep my head in proportion to the rest of my body.
So not to take myself too seriously, and let myself make mistakes.
Do you approach contemporary YA differently now, having written with fantasy elements?
I do. Fantasy forced me to have to describe more than I usually do. I hate description, I’ve never been good at it. Whenever I try, it sounds like a shopping list.
So I’ve gotten better at description. I’ve figured out that every book is different book, and the way I plot one book isn’t that way I plot the next one, and the next one.
It was mostly about writing what I needed to write, and not what somebody expected of me. It would’ve been very easy to follow The Sidekicks, The First Third, with a book like The Greatest Hit.
Let’s talk about Australia Reads. I’d love to know the process of how you got involved with that, as an ambassador this year?
Well, my publisher she's like, ‘Look, I know you're really stressed writing two books back to back, but do you want to maybe write a third book? And I was like, if I think about it, I’m going to say no, so I’m just going to say yes.
I love writing shorter stories. That's where I got my start in high school, writing those small potent stories with those gut-punch endings. So getting involved was exciting and nerve-wracking, because I was writing a draft of Rebel Gods and then jumping into a draft of The Greatest Hit, back and forth, and back and forth. It sort of broke my brain, but in the best possible way.
(The Greatest Hit) is definitely a book for Australia Reads. Reading has been such a huge help for me this year: I've gotten into audiobooks in a big way when I go for my daily walks, and plug in a new book from my local library, and listen to it. I absolutely love escaping into a book in audio form, and then I find I come home and I want to read a different book in paper in paperback form.
That kept me motivated and that kept me inspired this year when all the other things I could do to get inspired – hanging out with friends you; touring schools; having life experiences outside of these four walls – I couldn't do all of that.
So reading saved me.