Author Interview: Will Kostakis

Teens D.C.

Author Interview: Will Kostakis

Destineé Coburn talks with the Australian YA author about his personal journey, LGBTQ+ in YA, and writer's block

Teen Council employee Destineé Coburn interviews Australian young adult author, Will Kostaskis. Check out the anthology Out Now: Queer We Go Again! featuring a story by Kostaskis with your DC Public Library card. 
Image is from willkostakis.com.

You had been working on Loathing Lola since you were 11, but didn’t publish it until 2008. What was your process for compiling the material and finishing the book? 

Loathing Lola began as a scene I wrote in the back of my Grade 6 classroom that grew and grew until, in the first year of high school (in Australia, that’s Grade 7), it was a novel. It had a wafer-thin plot that allowed me to write down funny things that happened at school. Every year, I would rewrite it, and age-up the characters to be my age, and send it off to publishers. They rejected it, but their rejections became nicer and nicer, and that motivated me to refine the story until in my final year of high school, I settled on a narrow premise, culled the hundreds of thousands of words that were irrelevant, and had a novel that was less “here are all the funny things that happened to me at school today” and more “this is a story."

You might’ve seen this coming: writer's block. How do you deal with it? How did you deal with it when you were in high school? 

Writer’s block only hits me when I’m months-deep in a project, so thankfully, it wasn’t a problem in high school because projects weren’t that long. My advice to high school students is to take a sheet of paper and just write, and give yourself permission to write something that’s not good. You can always revise it. A lot of high school writer’s block comes from doubt. When you accept the first draft is allowed to be garbage, that doubt evaporates.

To get over writer’s block now, I ask myself why I’m blocked. Is it because I lack motivation or is it because I’m lost in the story and can’t solve a particular problem? To prepare for the former, at the beginning of a project, I make a dot-point list of how I want a reader to feel, and what has drawn me to the project: what I love about it, what it’s about. When I lack motivation, I look at that list and it reminds me why I’m doing this. If I can’t solve a problem in the story, I give myself permission to step away from it. Go for a walk, go to the gym, swim, read, come back in a few days, if I can’t find a way forward, then I go back. If I’ve hit a wall, I need to go back a few pages and give a character a sledgehammer. But I finding having a few key scenes in the novel in my head before I start it allows me to avoid getting stuck. I just need to go from scene to scene.

 How would you describe your daily life in one word? Why? 

Procrastination. There are so many things I should be doing that I don’t do, at least, not before two o’clock. But procrastination isn’t bad, it’s resting your mind, soaking up inspiration, allowing your subconscious to work in the background so that when I finally come to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), the words flow.

You mentioned the challenges you faced while writing your books The First Third and The Sidekicks, such as homophobic judgment, being urged to change material before publication and mixed reception. In a world where none of those challenges arise, how would you write those novels differently? Would you rewrite it at all? 

I wouldn’t change a single thing. The biggest challenge with The First Third was that I was a closeted writer creating my first gay character just before queer YA was really celebrated. There’s only one name on the front cover of a book, but every book is a dialogue between editor and writer, and my editor did encourage me to make changes, most that I was comfortable with, to allow me to get the story’s message across without alienating more conservative readers, and I can’t argue with the end result: the queer character was embraced by teen readers.

It was for that reason I put a queer character front and center in The Sidekicks, my US debut, and while the world had changed significantly between books, and my editor was more comfortable with queer representation (this is post-Simon Vs), my coming out as gay when the book was released caused friction with schools and libraries. As challenging as it was to see my sexual orientation alter my reputation overnight, everything came good in the end, and the resistance I faced forced me to become more comfortable in my own skin. And I know how much the book, and what I went through after its release, helped queer teenagers and up-and-coming queer writers, so I wouldn’t change anything. 

 After reuniting with your father, how would you write the scene where Bill meets his in The First Third? Would you still leave the scene out? If so, Why? 

As a teenager, my father was absent. I confronted my father in my late twenties. I think it was the right call to keep the father off the page in The First Third because that is truer to my own teen experiences, and truer to so many teens’ experiences. Plus, confronting my dad was anticlimactic. He gave me no peace I couldn’t have arrived at by myself, so the endpoint, where Billy stands at the end of the book, and where I stand now, is the same.

What parallels have you found between your book The First Third and your piece in the anthology, Queer We Go Again?

The First Third was my first novel to really touch on social media. I was more wide-eyed and optimistic about social media then, it was just a fun way for us all to connect! In Follower, it’s altering the way we live our lives. Experiences and connections are only valuable if they result in content. 

What themes do you make a point to include in all of your work? 

My books are deeply interested in forging connections, characters overcoming hurdles to come together in some way. I’m more interested in friendships than romance, although I dabble in the latter.

You described your experience writing as “scratching at old scars” and then letting yourself heal once more. Is negating past experiences and writing with the means to experience escapism healthy? Why or why not? 

I think you need both. When I “scratch at old scars”, I’m writing my lived pain and showing everyone. It allows me to release its hold on me, and connect with others who have experienced something similar. That said, writing ‘escapist’ fiction can be just as freeing. Instead of mining trauma, I can imagine a past that is slightly, or infinitely better. Finding the middle ground is probably the most healthy though – an acknowledgement of my past, but not wallowing in it, and also focusing on something brighter.

With the craze for entertainment and the constant supply of it, would you say, in today’s reality, life begets art or art begets life? Why? 

We are all content generators, whether we’re authors or we’re just curating our own social media account – I think it takes conscious effort to live to live and not live to generate the next post or bestseller. I fall more on the life begets art side of the argument, because as a writer who mines his own lived experiences, I have caught myself thinking, ‘Oh, this sucks, but it’d make for a great book someday!’ 

What advice would you give to young writers trying to sell their material?

Stop actively trying to sell. Instead, focus on forging connections with readers through your work. Be honest, vulnerable, authentic. Tell the truth you can’t bear not to tell. Do that, and the selling will come easily.