Hypable speaks to up-and-coming Australian author Will Kostakis about his (not quite) autobiographical novel The First Third, and hears a few hilarious anecdotes along the way.
The First Third is a hilarious and heartwarming story of family, food, and love. If you are a fan of Melina Marchetta, Nicky Hornby or (dare we say) John Green, you will devour this novel about a boy who attempts to hold his family together while everything is falling apart.
For more, read our spoiler free review of The First Third. The First Third will be released on July 24, 2013.
Will Kostakis’ journey to become a writer began early. Having won an award for creative writing in year 1 (“Which I don’t understand at all. How can you be excellent at creative writing in Year 1?”), he decided that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
He then went on to be one of the childhood success stories that makes every hopeful writer curse with envy. In year 5 of school, he began writing a story, which he submitted to various publishing houses. Despite facing many rejections, he went on to win the prestigious Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year Award, and sold the story during his final year of school. That was his first novel, Loathing Lola.
That novel was over eight years in the making. Now, about to publish his second novel, The First Third, we talk to Kostakis about his inspiration, the difference between his experiences working on each book, and just how stereotypical his family is anyway.
Exclusive interview: Will Kostakis
Tell us 5 interesting facts about yourself
1. The first story I ever wrote was about escaping a strict boarding school – rewritten every year in primary school to rename the headmistress after my current teacher.
2. I once accidentally leaked the winner of a high-profile reality TV show and inadvertently became front page national news.
3. I’m chucking a Pixar, while every Pixar movie features the pizza truck hidden in a scene, each of my books features a barely-hidden reference to the most ardent supporter of my creative writing in high school, Rosalind McKenzie. It’s a way of reminding myself of the doors other people’s support opened for me.
4. My first book was submitted to Penguin under the cringey pen name wakobill (wak are my initials, bill is a name I hate… so it makes zero sense that I’d want to be called that for the rest of my life).
5. I was so bad at high school basketball that they had to make a new division – the 13ths. Only one other school in Sydney had a 13ths at the time, but to be fair, we always won against them.
How has your experience been different with ‘The First Third’, compared with ‘Loathing Lola,’ which you were writing over 8 or 9 years?
I always had this plot line in the back of my head of one of the characters grandmothers coming in and doing something with that inter-generational story because that always appealed to me. I have a really close bond with my grandmother, so I thought “Okay, I think there’s something there, but I’m not sure what.”
I was actually writing a different novel which is finished, but I felt more passionately about The First Third. And that was because, whenever I’d speak at schools, there’s always a story that I keep in my back pocket, and it is about my grandmother at my book launch, and whenever I told it at schools it never failed to get a response from the kids.
I thought “I want to capture this, I want to capture this feeling.” So that prompted me to start The First Third.
How much of ‘The First Third’ is autobiographical?
Well, when I was in Year 8, my grandmother actually did get sick, and she timed it for maximum impact. She got sick on Christmas Day, and it was really bad. That is the most truthful part of the book, and obviously a lot of the family members are inspired by my own, but in terms of the narrative itself, it is completely fiction.
So you don’t have a little brother that is going to be really upset after reading this?
No no, I embellish things. I just wanted to speak generally about the kind of relationships you can have with your siblings, and whether they are gay, straight, angsty, not angsty, I think there are some universal truths beneath that. That was really what I wanted to capture. I really wanted to look at that.
Tell us about your writing process
To start, I need to intro to be really, really good. The way this book worked was, I pitched it and then it got to the point where I wrote the first 2000 words over, and over, and over again.
Everyone always says “Just leave them and move on,” I have that voice in my head saying “No one is going to read this, because your opening sucks.” So I get the beginning as good as possible, and then really work on the rest.
I like to write chronologically, but if I get to a bit that is boring me, I always say “Never write when you’re bored, or when you’re bored of your writing,” because the reader will feel that. So I put a dot point saying “and then this necessary plot point happens,” and then write the next scene that I want to write.
I still write chronologically, but I make sure that any one time I am working on what I want to write.
What do you find easiest to write, the first or the last line?
Last line. I like the last bit. The thing that you’ll notice about Loathing Lola is it is dialed up to 11. It is completely farcical, and that is the kind of stuff I like to write.
But with The First Third, I wanted to prove to myself that I can calm down and just write a very simple story without layering all this other stuff on. I had to keep it simple.
The first draft was actually really hard to write because I was really bored. I was just writing what I knew, I was writing a quirky Greek family, and that wasn’t anything really surprising to me. But everyone who read it was really enjoying it as I was writing it.
The only thing that kept me going was knowing that that ending was really, really good. I had the final scene, and I just had to get to that point. Then I kept going back over and over it again to get it to live up to that final scene, and now I can say I have a book that cover-to-cover, I really love.
Speaking of the final scene, there is a distinct correlation in the book between family, love, and food. Why did you choose to make this such a focus?
Whenever I think about the pivotal family moments in my life, food has always been involved.
Case in point: There was a huge function when I won Young Writer of the Year, and me, being a good Greek boy, I could invite two people, so I invited my mum and my grandmother. My grandmother was twenty minutes late to this massive sit-down lunch because she was cooking a leg of lamb in case they ran out of food. So under out table we had a leg of lamb wrapped in aluminum foil.
Whenever I think of my family, there’s always food. My grandmother’s English isn’t very good, and her Greek isn’t particularly good because she didn’t go to school, so she communicated through gestures. And her biggest gesture is, “I cook for you because I love you.” That’s the way she communicates.
And it is also a really great way to talk about tradition without really hammering it home.
Let’s talk about Billy’s best friend, Sticks. The rest of the novel was fairly cohesively about family – why include him and his story?
I was plotting the story and was talking to one of my mates, who has cerebral palsy and is gay. I was telling him, “Yeah it’s about this broken family, and the sick grandmother, and all this stuff.” And the more that we listed all the things, the more it sounded like the most depressing book ever.
So I thought, let’s add in the kid with cerebral palsy who is not struggling with his sexuality, but struggling with his disability and his sexuality together, and write it in as funny and as warm a way as possible, without the usual stereotypes that you get.
I love my sidekick characters, and I love writing them. He was there to make sure the book didn’t get too heavy and too stuck in Billy’s head. I don’t honestly think there is enough compelling stuff in Billy’s head. He doesn’t know who he is yet, and he is still forging his identity, so I wanted to give him a best friend who was very much, “This is who I am.” But at the same time Sticks still has all his problems, but is really keeping them hidden.
And it seemed like you had a lot of fun writing the scenes between Billy and Sticks.
Absolutely. The thing is, the other manuscript that I put on hold was really about my relationship with my best friend. I was reading through that and thinking if I never release this book, what is the best thing inside of it? And it really is, I wanted to try really hard to capture to the really awesome relationship I have with my best mates.
I wanted that to be a big part of The First Third because its not just about the family you have and the family you lose and the family you try to keep, it’s also about the family you make – and that’s why there are the characters like Sticks and like Hailey. This is his future, this is the family that he made, and it broadens the definition of family from just quirky Greek people you’re related to.
Because Billy has those gaps where his dad isn’t, and where his grandfather was. While this is a book about loss, I wanted to say that there are people there to fill the void. And that’s why that final scene is really quite important, it’s repairing over the things that they lose.
I also wanted to include a non-ethnic family, and with Sticks, I didn’t want to fall into the trap of him having a non-supportive family. With characters like Sticks, that is always the biggest misstep because that is a really easy place to have drama come from.
I wanted to show that even though he’s open and comfortable with his sexuality, and even though he has a really, really supportive family, with a testosterone-filled older brother who is beat the crap out of anyone who talks badly about him, there is still drama. Those are the kinds of stories that aren’t being told.
To finish, any other YA book recommendations?
I am reading Girl Defective by Simmone Howell, and she is incredibile. And The Reluctant Hallelujah by Gabrielle Williams. She really writes an honest story about being a teenager in the most ridiculous premise that I just absolutely love.
More about ‘The First Third’:
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.