Queerstories 2019: My Father Haunts Me

I’m known around the traps as the guy who got a book deal in high school, but I’m usually pretty guarded about one of my strongest motivations. This piece illuminates that and was first performed at Mudgee Readers’ Festival (‘Queerstories’) on August 17, 2019, alongside original pieces by Cadance Bell, Faith Chaza, Benjamin Law, Maeve Marsden and Hajer. Enjoy. When Monuments was released, Mum spent her lunch break yesterday in the display window of Dymocks Sydney conducting an impromptu photoshoot with the Monuments display. She’s earned it.

My Father Haunts Me

My father haunts me. It’s not that he’s dead. He’s not. I mean, he could be, but as far as I know, he’s not. I see him wherever I go. In the faces of passers-by. In cars. Ugh. He’s the tightening of my chest when a white truck that could be his drives past. He is everywhere and nowhere.

Even my writing career, which blossomed in his absence, is haunted by him. My mother’s father was the one who waited outside newsagencies before they opened to buy me fresh lined paper as a kid, but my father was the reason I was sending manuscripts to publishers before my thirteenth birthday. When my parents’ marriage ended, our house was a shell, half-renovated, the ceiling was a mess of wiring, and the kitchen was a leaky fridge, and a sink propped up by a plank of wood.

There used to be an aluminium bench and some chairs. To give you a measure of the man, when my parents divorced, my father collected his half of the furniture, as was his right. Then, he returned to halve it again, claiming that he hadn’t yet. He took our bikes, our boardgames, and the aluminium bench he fashioned in his factory with the accompanying chairs.

Mum worked hard, too hard, to keep us in school and to fill that house. One night, she collapsed walking up the stairs to her bedroom, and instead of working less, she sent us to live with our grandmother so that we wouldn’t see the toll it took on her. Slowly, she made that shell of a house a home. She installed a ceiling. She bought furniture to replace the pieces my father stole, and then some.

And I wrote. Every day. From Year Seven, I sent manuscripts to publishers, each time convinced that that manuscript would be the one to earn a JK Rowling-sized advance and mean Mum didn’t have to work as hard. That drive that saw me earn a book deal in Year Twelve … that was me trying to step into my father’s absence and provide, or at least, ease the burden he had placed on Mum’s shoulders.

His absence didn’t just inspire my drive, it inspired my output. My first novel began its life as a thinly veiled Parent Trap-style revenge fantasy. In an early draft of my second novel, The First Third, a character tracked down their absent father and said everything I wished I could have said to mine. I remember my then-editor Clair Hume, congratulating me for getting it off my chest before suggesting I cut the scene. When I asked why, she asked if I’d ever tracked down my father. I said no. I cut the scene.

I toured the book. Students who study The First Third try separating fact from fiction. Am I Billy? Is the mum in the book my mum? The grandmother? The brothers? Did this all really happen? One afternoon at a school in Sydney’s outer suburbs, a hand shot up in the middle of one of my talks. The student asked if I had ever tracked down my father. I said no. Another hand shot up. That student asked why. And I didn’t have an answer. I was a quote-unquote grown man now, mid-20s, I was perfectly capable of finding my father and expressing everything I wanted to. I didn’t need to do it in fiction.

So, I set out to find him.

I guessed his address. Suburb. Street name. House number. All of it. Unbelievable right? I mean, I could say I worked at a polling place one election, was entrusted with a tablet featuring the electoral roll, searched my surname, miraculously found his entry, and memorised his address, but that would have been a crime. And it didn’t happen like that. I can’t overstate how much it definitely didn’t happen like that.

I had his address, but I wasn’t going to show up on his doorstep. I typed the address into Google and Google returned a White Pages knock-off that featured his phone number. I sat on the edge of my bed and dialled. One ring. Two rings. My heart thumped. My chest was in a vice. My brain stung. I hung up, set my phone down and took a breath. And another.

I refused to believe a man I hadn’t seen in over ten years still had this much of a hold on me. I dialled his number again. One ring. Two rings.

“Hello?” I didn’t recognise the voice.

Heart thump. Ragged breath.

“Hi, I was wondering if I could speak to Stephen please.”

“Speaking.”

Heart thump. Heart thump. Heart thump.

“Hello Stephen, this is William …”

Heart thump.

“As in, my son?”

“That’s the one.”

Heart thump.

“What, um, why are you calling?”

“I just think it’s about time we had a chat. In person. Does Thursday night suit?”

It didn’t. We tried for the following Tuesday. He cancelled on the day, rescheduled for Friday. He called when I was walking to the train station to change the venue and push our meeting back an hour. He told me to meet him at Rockdale Station. He waited by the turnstiles. I walked right past him, but he caught the edge of my eye. I turned and stared down an older, semi-sundried version of myself. The same curly hair. The same stubbly beard. The same posture … Even though I had built myself in his absence, I had become him. He was inescapable.

I said hello. He said he thought I’d be taller. That’s what he led with. And now that I was closer, I could see he hadn’t even changed into a clean shirt after work. I hadn’t been worth a quick tidy.

He walked me to a nearby Thai restaurant. We took our seats. It was surreal, sitting opposite him as he browsed the menu. He was alive. Every day and every night he didn’t make contact, he lived. He visited Thai restaurants, browsed menus … He cleared his throat and said it was nice to have me back after my “bitch mother turned me against him”.

I was stunned. That was how he was going to start. I didn’t flinch. I told him I didn’t remember her picking up my brother and throwing him against a wall.

He denied that ever happened, then said he didn’t know why we were doing this, this was a mistake. He still ordered, mind you. My voice shook every time I spoke. We were on edge, combative. He set the tone, and I met it. Again, he said he didn’t know why we were doing this.

I knew. He wasn’t aware, but every time his mother was sick, my mum found out, and she snuck us into the hospital to visit her. Mum took me to the nursing home to see her just before she died. We resolved everything. I was here, at dinner with my father in case he got hit by a bus tomorrow. And I told him so.

He wore my words like a slap, and I teed up the rant that I’d been slow-cooking for years. I was ready for some poetic evisceration … I managed three sentences before I realised he wasn’t worth it. I didn’t want to itemise my grievances, list all the ways he’d hurt me, because he wasn’t worth the words. He didn’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing he’s responsible for any part of me.

There is only one person in the world who deserves that satisfaction. As much as my father has haunted my life, he has never cast a shadow over it, because I have sat perched on one woman’s shoulders and she bore the brunt of it so I would never go a day without feeling the sun on my face.

My mother doesn’t haunt me. She never left.

This piece was first performed at Mudgee Readers’ Festival (‘Queerstories’) on August 17, 2019, alongside original pieces by Cadance Bell, Faith Chaza, Benjamin Law, Maeve Marsden and Hajer. Monuments is out now.

Support Aussie Bookstores

Given that lockdown is back in effect, I’m reviving this offer to give back to the Victorian booksellers who have supported me so much over the years:

Spend $30+ at any Victorian bookstore in one transaction from 9/7/2020-9/8/2020, and you’ll get either:

1. A signed Will K book (your choice!) posted immediately, or
2. A 30-minute video call with me, during which we can talk books, the writing industry, the weather, whatever. If you want to show me a brief sample of your writing for feedback, happy to give it. If you just want to heckle me, happy to take it.

Simply send me your proof of purchase via DM on social media or email and we’ll go from there.

FAQs
You can buy whatever you want from those booksellers, but if those purchases did skew towards Australian authors who were alive, I wouldn’t be angry.

If you need recommendations, I’m happy to give them.

If you and a friend make separate orders that total more than $30, let me know, it’ll be okay.

If you’re looking to support LGBTQIA+ booksellers, Melbourne’s Hares and Hyenas is operating as an online store.

The Greatest Hit is (also) coming soon!

Surprise! I’m releasing two books this year!

I’m so thrilled to be an Ambassador for Australia Reads, joining Beck Feiner, Anna Fienberg, Jacqueline Harvey, Peter Helliar and Dervla McTiernan. In November, we’re inviting all Australians to share and celebrate the joys of reading. Whether you’re picking up a book for the first time or your head is already stuck in one, there’s plenty of books, activities and events as part of the Australia Reads festivities. Thursday 12 November is the main event – Australian Reading Hour. You’re invited to stop what you’re doing for an hour, pick up a book and read to yourself or the children in your life.

To celebrate, I’ll be releasing a specially priced novella in November, The Greatest Hit:

Tessa is a teenage has-been.

While everyone else her age is taking their bold first steps into adulthood, she’s accepted she peaked at 14 (thank you, viral music video).

But now — an opportunity. A profile as one of the 5 Most Forgettable Internet Celebrities of the Decade So Far gives her the chance to right a wrong, and the courage to sing her greatest hit as it was originally written.

As I told Twitter between general isolation ramblings, the premise for the novella was one of the framing devices I considered for The First Third. A ‘washed up’ pop singer by 19, Billy tried to revive his career with a greatest hits compilation. Instead of completing his yiayia’s bucket list, Billy’s tasks were inspired by his old tracks.

I abandoned that framing device because it leaned too heavily on ‘the media’, which Loathing Lola had already explored, and the ‘washed up’ aspect hit too close to home after Loathing Lola underperformed, and I still felt like achieving my dream as a teenager was a grave error.

Ultimately, removing that framing device and zeroing in on family was the right call for The First Third. And now, a decade-plus into my career, I’m totally ready to explore the emotional uglies of underwhelming teenage success, in a heartwarming original story about singing your love from the rooftops.

Rebel Gods is coming soon!

Received some wonderful news tonight – in addition to its shortlisting for the Indie Book Awards, Monuments has been selected as a CBCA Notable Book.

In other news, its sequel Rebel Gods has a blurb and a cover. Scroll down, but beware Monuments spoilers in the blurb.

With the Monuments gone, there’s nothing stopping the rebel gods from reducing the world to ruin.

Well, newbie gods Connor, Sally and Locky are supposed to stop them, only they don’t know how. While Sally searches for answers and Locky makes plans to change the world, Connor struggles to keep up appearances as an ordinary teenager. But soon he’ll have bigger problems than his mum finding the giant sword hidden under his bed.

Rebel Gods is the second book in the Monuments fantasy duology from YA superstar, Will Kostakis. It’s a heartfelt look at family, friendship and the parallel lives we lead.

Can’t wait to share it with you!

Sequels and The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve been thinking a lot about sequels this year. It’s a side effect of actually having to write one. While it isn’t all that evident in my work, Star Wars is one of my biggest inspirations. As YA author and ‘Deadline City’ podcast co-host Dhonielle Clayton says, the series “refills my creative well”. Sit me in front of the original, the sequels, the prequels, the new sequels, and by the time the credits roll, I’m energised to write. After seeing the 1997 rereleases as a kid, I imagined and plotted my own sequel trilogy, and brought them to life in low-poly glory thanks to Microsoft 3D Movie Maker. As a teenager, I would take the material George Lucas gave us with the prequels, and rework them as writing exercises. Not to say my versions were better, they often weren’t, but I developed my critical eye. So, I thought I’d cap off my year by discussing The Rise of Skywalker through the lens of what I’ve learned about sequels.

This will end well for my mentions.

Now, there’s no way I can discuss the film in this way without spoilers, so if you have yet to see The Rise of Skywalker, please don’t read further. But so that you don’t feel like you’re leaving empty-handed, here’s a spectacular video about editing Star Wars that illustrates how changing and rearranging a story can elevate it.

Now, how do we sequel? To borrow from Bassim El-Wakil and Lucias Malcolm of ‘The Story Toolkit’, good storytelling is all about set-ups and pay-offs. You set something up to then pay it off. When you sequel, you have to look at what the previous story set up, and figure out an exciting way to pay it off. In a great sequel, the plot emerges organically from that pay-off, as it inspires new set-ups that must, in turn, be paid off.

These set-ups aren’t always obvious. Take Toy Story 2 for instance. It has a happy ending. The toynapped Woody not only returns to Andy, but he welcomes abandoned toy Jessie into the fold. As children, we were all devastated by ‘When Somebody Loved Me’, and then elated by Jessie’s second chance at love. Set-up and pay-off. Film over. Audience satisfied. It wasn’t until we viewed Toy Story 3 as adults that we realised the happy ending of the previous film is actually a hollow one, because Andy and his sister are going to grow up, and Jessie is just delaying the inevitable ‘When Somebody Loved Me’ reprise. And we get that reprise in Toy Story 3. It’s for that very reason that sequels are dangerous. They re-frame the stories that come before them. Toy Story 2‘s ending is no longer a happy one.

Pivoting to Star Wars, the sequel trilogy was launched by JJ Abrams, the king of set-ups. He loves himself a ‘mystery box’, a metaphorical box whose secret contents the audience yearns to discover. I am an Abrams fan. While I have never out-right loved one of his films, Alias is one of my favourite-ever TV shows. I was addicted to it during its initial run. Week after week, I was teased with mystery box after mystery box. The show’s answers always led to more questions, and I was excited to see how the series would eventually resolve its overarching mysteries. Shock-horror, it ended with a whimper. For a long time, I blamed the show’s creative decline on Abrams’ departure after the second season to explore other projects. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that Alias faltered because no mystery box’s actual contents is ever as satisfying as what we think might be in them. And the longer mysteries are teased, the better their resolutions need to be.

The Force Awakens is a film of two very different halves. The first half introduces the new cast, we learn a lot by observing their ordinary (and extraordinary) lives. The film cleverly sidelines Luke Skywalker, so that there’s time for the new cast to endear themselves to us. If Luke was wandering around with his lightsaber, we’d spend the run-time wondering why he wasn’t the one saving the universe, so he’s set up as the film’s MacGuffin (the plot’s necessary object) to be sought out. The film then abandons that particular search in its second half, focused instead on the Third Death Star Starkiller Base. The search for Luke is hastily resolved in the final minutes by a randomly awakening R2-D2, which is a weak pay-off considering the prominence of that search in the opening crawl.

Like an Abrams TV pilot, the film is packed with set-ups it doesn’t resolve. What is going to happen when Rey hands Luke the lightsaber? Come to think of it, why is Luke, famous for helping his pals, in hiding? Why did they say he held himself responsible for Ben Solo’s Dark-Side turn? What happened after Return of the Jedi that led to the First Order’s rise? In fact, what is the First Order? And who is Snoke anyway? Who are the Knights of Ren? They sound cool, when do we get to see more of them? Who is Rey? Why is she so powerful? Why does Kylo respond so intensely when “the girl” is mentioned? Does he know who she is? How long will Finn be in that coma?

Some of these, like the lightsaber cliffhanger, are genuinely laying the path for the sequel. Some of these are the fault of the final cut of the film, which doesn’t adequately set-up the dynamics of the New Republic, the Resistance, and the First Order before (literally) blowing them up. The Hosnian System, and the New Republic it is home to, is destroyed by Starkiller Base. It’s a pay-off without a proper set-up, so it lacks the emotional punch of say, establishing Alderaan as Leia’s home-world before destroying it. And some of these, like “Rey from nowhere’s” true identity, are mystery boxes, designed to tease and inspire fans to theorise.

Fans who grew up with the original trilogy, and the expanded universe that fleshed out its sometimes wafer-thin narrative and character work, expected the sequel trilogy to pay-off every set-up, satisfy every mystery and justify every mention, in a way the originals never did. Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi, was more interested in exploring the characters Abrams’ created. Check out this incredible video essay about the film.

He swiftly dealt with The Force Awakens‘ lingering questions and crafted a story that tested its protagonists. It does this while also honouring all of the Star Wars films that came before it. The Last Jedi makes sense of Luke’s absence, actually gives Leia something to do, acknowledges the (let’s face it, unintentional) Jedi uselessness in the prequels, explains Rey’s power by redefining what “balancing” the Force means: the Force actually balancing, and not simply good overcoming evil. The potent nostalgia is purposeful this time around. This is a film not about letting the past die, but rather, about learning from its mistakes and growing. This was willfully misinterpreted as Rian Johnson disrespecting the history of Star Wars by fans who listened to the villains and not Yoda.

I felt odd after first viewing The Last Jedi. It challenged me. I knew I loved it, it features some of my all-time favourite Star Wars moments (R2-D2’s Leia hologram, Luke’s first lesson, the throne room, Yoda’s lesson, Holdo light-speed, that entire opening sequence that makes us cheer when the ship blows up, then shows us Leia devastated by the casualties, forcing us to confront the human cost of war and learn Poe’s lesson alongside him), but yeah, challenged.

First, it was not the film I expected it to be. I mean, where were the Knights of Ren? And it didn’t feel like a middle chapter. It felt like an ending, because the set-ups weren’t obvious. The Resistance was decimated, but that felt less like a cliffhanger and more like a sad state of affairs. And I’d been conditioned by The Empire Strikes Back to expect a cliffhanger that more obviously signposted a way forward. It didn’t help that on first viewing, I didn’t get the Broom Boy sequence. It felt like a jarring epilogue after the everyone-all-together tableau on the Millenium Falcon. It felt separate, when I really should have been looking at those two moments together. Leia tells Rey that they have everything they need, and then we see the legend of Luke Skywalker inspiring the galaxy’s most downtrodden.

The Last Jedi sets up the rise of the entire galaxy against the First Order, not just one special person. While it kills off Luke, it allows him to live on as an inspiration. Strike me down and … well, you know the rest. It also paves the way for the sequel trilogy’s Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, to be his own master and do what his grandfather never did. It positions Rey to look beyond her past, Poe to be Leia’s successor, and Finn to … Well, this trilogy has no idea what it’s doing with Finn. He is no longer devoted to Rey, and rather, he’s in the Resistance because he wants to be there, but that’s not much of a launch pad. More than anything else though, it sets up a true end to the saga: the balance of the force.

The Force Awakens‘ set-ups were obvious. They were questions. The Last Jedi‘s set-ups were situational. How did The Rise of Skywalker honour those set-ups?

Um … Not well. It undoes the characters’ progression. The film resurrects Emperor Palpatine as the Big Bad, and in doing so, denies Kylo Ren the mantle. Poe doesn’t assume the leadership until all of Carrie Fisher’s unused footage is awkwardly re-purposed, and even then, all he does is co-general with Finn, who has reverted back to his The Force Awakens state (running after Rey, screaming, “Rey!”). Rey learns her surname, then learns to be her own person, buries the Skywalker lightsabers and then … adopts their surname. Rose is somewhere else looking at Star Destroyer cross-sections or something. The result is a film that, as film critic Daniel Lammin puts it, “is so desperate to be liked”. It’s non-stop fun. The characters are a trio now! Banter! There are things to find! Quests! And answers! The film zooms from place to place, heavy with exposition, only to end up exactly where we expect it to: a confrontation with Emperor Palpatine.

The problem with this trajectory is, we’ve been here before. Return of the Jedi. The Emperor died and the Empire fell. Only it didn’t really. The First Order rose and Emperor Palpatine returned. So when The Rise of Skywalker resolves in almost the same way, it doesn’t feel permanent. Instead of reflecting our times (Nazis are trying to make it okay to be Nazis again!), and exploring how the First Order came from the Empire, and really grappling with what must be done to keep a Second Order from rising in its wake, we are given Emperor Palpatine, professional puppet master and his Final Order. The mystery boxes are opened. Snoke was a clone! Emperor Palpatine was always the villain, and now that we’ve melted his face off his skull, the Nazis are gone forever!

The film attempts to explain this convenience away by saying the confrontation with Emperor Palpatine inspires the galaxy to rise up against the First Order … So, Abrams spent the entire film re-establishing The Last Jedi‘s set-up, only to pay it off in a montage that lasts seconds. Luke Skywalker is reduced to a ghost mentoring one person, and chastising her for tossing his weapon disrespectfully. It is so preoccupied with answering fans’ supposed grievances that it shrinks itself. The Force is left imbalanced. But at least we have answers. And The Knights of Ren were there. That mystery box was sort of opened and just like the others, its answer underwhelmed.

Sequels are dangerous. They re-frame the stories that come before them. By revealing Snoke is simply an extension of Emperor Palpatine, the celebrated throne room sequence in The Last Jedi loses most of its power. Kylo Ren’s actions are retroactively made less significant. And I don’t believe Abrams is unaware of this danger. The Force Awakens was a risk. Luke, Leia and Han were denied their Return of the Jedi happily ever after to launch a sequel trilogy. Now that it’s over, we have to wonder, was the reward worth what they lost?