In 2005 I was teaching, and it wasn’t a rare thing for my students to have a whinge about the fact that whatever they were given to read was written by some dead dude or their elderly teacher (I was in my thirties). So one day, I gave them a short story written by a kid who had just won The Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year Award. It was called “Bing Me” and it introduced me to a young writer named William Kostakis.
Now he’s released his second novel. The First Third resonated with me on a number of levels. For anyone who’s read my work, the grandmothers are important (Nonna Katia, Yata, Nanni Grace and, of course, Lirah).
So here’s Will Kostakis, a synopsis of his novel, and a few questions I asked him.
Life is made up of three parts: in The First Third, you’re embarrassed by your family; in the second, you make a family of your own; and in the end, you just embarrass the family you’ve made. That’s how Billy’s grandmother explains it, anyway. She’s given him her bucket list (cue embarrassment), and now, it’s his job to glue their family back together. No pressure or anything. Fixing his family’s not going to be easy and Billy’s not ready for change. But as he soon discovers, the first third has to end some time. And then what?
It’s a Greek tragedy waiting to happen.
M: I was in my twenties when first published, way older than your first publishing experience, but I didn’t cope at all with the attention and was so glad I had the opportunity 11 years later to enjoy the experience again. What are the pros and cons of being published young and have you seen a distinct difference between your approach to writing the first and second novel.
W: I signed my book deal for Loathing Lola when I was 17, and it was published when I was 19. The big ‘pro’ of being published so young was that I’d reached the end of the road: I’d been published. The big ‘con’ was the other side of that coin – the realisation that it wasn’t the end of the road, that I wasn’t instantly the next JK Rowling (and slowly realising I might never be). So while I’m really thankful for the experience, I don’t think I was quick emotionally ready for it all, but every experience is a lesson learned, and I feel like with The First Third I’m ready for authordom and all it entails.
Loathing Lola was written over several years. It started as a short story scribbled in the back of my Year 6 classroom about a boy meeting his dad’s new girlfriend. As my life changed, the story did too. I built it over the course of years - I was a boy navigating his teens, and every experience I had was crammed into this novel. I grew up alongside Loathing Lola, everything I lived and learned influenced it – the TV show element was inspired by a Year 12 study of bias in the media.
Writing The First Third was a completely different experience. I’d always envisaged Loathing Lola as the beginning series (like any aspiring writer growing up with the Harry Potter books stacked beside their beds), so when I wrote the final draft, and it felt final, I wondered: ‘What do I talk about next?’ I had spent half of my life writing Lola, crafting it, and now had to click my fingers and come up with something new (and it took five years, so evidently, it was a slow click). There came a point where I asked myself, if I only had one more chance at publication, and one more story to tell, what would it be? And the answer was family. When I started writing it, I wasn’t writing to be famous, or to start a blockbuster series, I just wanted to capture the joys and frustrations of being part of a small but potent ethnic family. I wrote to write, and I think the book is all the better for it.
M: What was the hardest part about writing The First Third?
W: I wanted to write a story about my grandmother – the first draft was a best-of collection of her most inappropriate moments. It was fun reading, but it wasn’t a novel. I was interested in exploring mortality, and the idea of ‘passing the baton on’, so I took that real relationship I have with her and asked, ‘What if she was dying/What if she thought she was?’ It was a situation I was hesitant to confront – with Dad in the running for Best Absent Father of the Decade, my grandmother was always everything I could have wanted from a second parent. She cooks and has a sewing sweatshop in her garage, she literally fed and clothed me. Contemplating losing her was difficult, and there were scenes in the book that were incredibly difficult to write – but the main character’s fears of losing his yiayia were my own, and I think, those difficult scenes turned into the best. Just please don’t ask me to read them in public.
M: What’s the worst thing anyone has said about your writing, and what’s the best? (This question is inspired by watching Jason Kennedy and Catt Sadler on E News who have a segment about the worst and best tweets about t hem).
W: The worst thing would have to be after the screening of a film I wrote/directed in Year 10, when, in the row in front of me, the mother of one of my closest friends said, ‘What the f— was that?’ It was shattering, but there’s nothing like sitting in a room with 300 people not clapping to force you to get better at telling stories.
In terms of the best, it has to be the reactions to The First Third so far. All I wanted to do was capture a moment in my life, and pay tribute to the relationships I treasure, and the fact that it has been so well-received is really humbling. Distilling that, the best wasn’t something someone said about it, it was a student at Sunshine College showing me the mark her tear had left on one of the pages. The idea that I wrote something that affected a total stranger like that… I have trouble believing it.
http://www.smh.com.au/news/books/bing-me/2005/09/15/1126750065577.html (Bing Me short story)
http://willkostakis.com/ (his website)