A coffee in Redfern with the young-adult writer. By Sarah Price.

Author Will Kostakis

Will Kostakis is procrastinating. He escapes his home, and “deadline hell”, to meet me for a coffee at his local in Redfern. It’s unseasonably warm. We sit in the sunshine at St Jude, a corner cafe named after the patron saint of hope and impossible causes. It is quiet, except for the occasional aircraft passing overhead or the caw of a crow. Inside, on a shelf above the counter, hard-faced vintage dolls sit among holy paintings of Mary and Jesus. There’s a row of metal hat hooks, black butterflies inked to the wall and a fallen-down crucifix.

Will writes for young people. He started pitching manuscripts to publishers at age 12. After five years of “constant” rejection letters, he signed his first book deal at 17. “I went from zero to arrogant prick in two days,” he laughs. The book didn’t do as well as he hoped, which, he says, was the best thing for him. He had to push himself. In 2013 he published the award-winning young adult novel The First Third, and in 2016 The Sidekicks, inspired by the death of a close friend. Will’s books have been published in the United States, and won or been shortlisted for many awards.

Now, when he’s not writing novels, Will is touring schools. If he hears about a school that can’t afford to pay an author, he visits free. “There is so much I get out of it: I get to meet with my audience and make sure I’m writing how they speak, and that I’m writing things that interest them. It is a good way to give back.”

In 2016, when he was 26 and “scared shitless”, Will wrote a post on his blog titled “Reintroducing Myself” and told his readers, “I liked kissing boys.” At first no one reacted. Then, after he’d finished a school visit, Will noticed five missed calls from his agent. A Catholic school, where he’d previously had a speaking engagement, had cancelled his next visit. He was told the content of The Sidekicks wasn’t suitable for Year 7. “But it wasn’t the content of the book, it was the content of me,” he says. “I give talks about creative writing and about following your dreams – not sex. It was really baffling to me. I had been touring for about eight years and my books had an equal amount of gay content. The problem wasn’t the book – it was me coming out.”

“People had told me, ‘You’ve got to keep your identity separate’, but the same people who told me that were saying, ‘Tell me another Greek grandmother story.’ You can’t accept the Greek part of me but think the other part of me is shameful,” he says. There were cancellations from other schools, yet all Will wanted to do was to talk about his new novel. “I felt guilty about coming out before the book was released, because it overshadowed the book. I didn’t talk about my friend who died. He was same-sex attracted and he was too scared to tell me before he died, and I was same-sex attracted and I was too scared to tell him … so what a waste of the short time we had together. The book can’t bring him back or repair the damage of us keeping things to ourselves, but it can stop people doing that to the people they live with now. In that sense the book was totally appropriate to our relationship. It made me more comfortable in my own skin.”

When he hears “gay” and “faggot” used as slurs in schools, Will stops his talk and “unpacks” the language for students. “I tell them what it means – not just “don’t say the word” – because it will only be replaced by something else. We need to address the culture around it.”

The biggest challenge in writing books for young people, Will tells me, is writing something they want to read, that the people around them will let them read. And it takes effort, “to mine back” into your teen years. It is a huge shift. “I don’t think we’re talking to kids on their level. If we don’t answer the questions they want answered, and if they’re not comfortable asking us the questions, they are going to go elsewhere. If I write about sex it’s considered to be a very risqué thing. That is the biggest challenge – trying to speak to teenagers in a way that actually speaks to them, but in a way that is deemed appropriate.

“There are imaginary parents and real parents who take offence to kids being taught about the world they live in – the assassination of Safe Schools showed that. We need to cultivate a space where students are comfortable speaking. They should have a knowledge of diverse gender identities and diverse sexual identities. If you tell a kid who they love isn’t right, or who they are is wrong, then that’s going to bleed into absolutely everything. Everything will suffer.”

He continues: “I want my books to make people feel less alone. I knew my sexuality in the 5th grade. We’re told readers at that age are too young for stories with gay themes, but the thing is, if other kids aren’t calling them gay, they’re calling themselves that, and hating themselves. I’d love it if we were at a place in this country where we could maturely discuss the disservice we’re doing LGBTQI youth and their peers and working to rectify it – but I don’t think we are.”

For the past few weeks Will has been working on the final draft of his first fantasy novel, part of a duology called Monuments. The duology is still “very much a Will Kostakis story”, but with a fantastical bent. Why fantasy? After 10 years writing contemporary fiction he wanted to stretch himself. Fantasy offers an escape for the reader: the powerless become powerful, the ordinary become extraordinary. Through fantasy we can explore another world, he says, and reflect on our own.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "Writes of passage". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.