On dreams and new books

Allen & Unwin rejected my first novel when I was 16. I still have the letter somewhere. It was printed on fancy paper, almost like cardboard, but that wasn’t what made it worth keeping. After dozens of rejections, theirs was the first one that was kind.

They put care into each word and offered quality constructive feedback when they really didn’t have to. That letter held pride of place in my desk drawer, and whenever my dream felt way out of reach, I returned to it. The next time I sent Loathing Lola out, a publisher said yes.

I’m still so grateful for that letter, and it seems significant that they’ll be publishing my sixth novel. It’s about Greek families and messy, wonderful dreams. It’s out next year. It’s We Could Be Something.

An emotional rollercoaster of a novel: part-coming out story, part falling-in-love story, part relationship break-down story, and part extended-family story, I’ve never felt this way about a book before.

This is the one. Coming in May 2023 unless I botch my deadlines.

What I Wanted

Here! Have at it! (With apologies to the year six cohort of 2000).

What I Wanted

My year six teacher waged a war on uninspiring words. One afternoon, he set his sights on got, popped it in the centre of the whiteboard and compelled us to conjure alternatives.

Achieved.
Allowed.
Possessed.
Received.
Understood.

Each synonym was transcribed and connected to got by a stroke of his marker, until the whiteboard was overwhelmed by a spider with too many legs, and we realised that we used got instead of too many words. Whether we were paying for somebody’s lunch, chatting to a supportive friend, or cornering a superhero, we said, “I’ve got you.”

We needed to expand our vocabularies.

The problem with whiteboards is their biggest perk: they wipe clean. My year six teacher wanted to erect a monument to better words, so he enlisted his most presentation-proud student to commit the synonym list to cardboard. Me. I got started to work on the floor in the far corner of the room, carefully copying the list of synonyms onto the sheet with marker. It was all going pretty well until the final word. It’s always the final word. I misjudged the space I had to work with, left too big a gap between the early letters, so the final few were smooshed and had to curl up the edge of the sheet. I was mortified. I showed my teacher, expecting him to find the work subpar and demand I redo it. I even pointed out the error. He dismissed it and pinned the poster to the back wall.

My teacher produced more uninspiring words, the class produced more alternatives, and I produced more monuments. I went out of my way to keep the spacing of each letter in check as my designs became more intricate. I wanted that first attempt to look worse by comparison so that when I floated the idea of redoing it, my year six teacher would see reason. We couldn’t leave that inferior list up there, with its simple layout and curled final word.

Apparently we could.

Even when I suggested I do it at home, with my own sheet of cardboard, my teacher wasn’t having a bar of it. So like any reasonable tween, I plotted a false flag operation. When I next had the room to myself, I would deface my own work. I couldn’t half-arse it. It had to be so appalling that my teacher would have no choice but to take it down. And I would have to redo it.

The next recess, I struck. I forgot my hat so that when the teacher on duty chastised me, I would be sent inside to retrieve it. At this point, you’re thinking this is some Ocean’s shit, but it gets worse quickly. I returned to the classroom, seized a pen from somebody else’s case, and climbed onto the table by the wall. I probably took one disdainful last look at that curled abomination of a word in the bottom corner, raised the pen, realised I should probably write with my left hand to throw everybody off the scent, changed hands and wrote three true words:

William is gay.

In the interests of veracity, it may have been You are gay. I don’t remember. But gay was definitely there.

Kids had called me gay before. It bothered me. I understood I was different, not because of the reasons they called me gay – my campiness, my allergy to sport – but because I was probably gay. I knew it and I was afraid of it. In 2000, it was just about the worst thing you could be called, and I knew it would be potent enough to prompt the destruction and replacement of the poster.

I sighed, satisfied.

Nobody needed a synonym for quite some time, so I’d almost forgotten about it when a classmate timidly rose his hand and pointed the graffiti out. There was a flurry of action. My teacher removed the poster immediately. He hid it, rattled of a couple of awkward but stern words, and then continued the class. He asked to see me at recess, no doubt to have me redo the poster. I would act put out, then get to work.

In reality, he insisted they would get to the bottom of who defaced my work and assured me that student would be punished. I started saying it didn’t matter, but then silenced myself. Sure, I was the culprit, but I’d written what kids would call me when teachers weren’t in earshot, so if somebody else got into trouble was held accountable …

Nothing came of it at first. I was encouraged to redo the poster. Honestly, I didn’t even act put out. The revision was a masterpiece. I’d become something of an expert at synonym posters, and I used a yellow cardboard sheet for this one, as opposed to the original’s sky blue, so it really popped. It was pinned in the other’s place. Other students stopped talking about the incident. My false flag operation was a success, until, walking from the music room back to my ordinary classroom, I spied my year six teacher sixty metres down the corridor. He was leaving the deputy headmaster’s office with a rolled-up sheet of blue cardboard and an exercise book. And not just any exercise book. One of mine.

He might have been sixty metres away, but as presentation-proud as I am, Mum is more so. When Anna (then Ane because she fell headfirst into Numerology after the divorce) covered exercise books, she did it well. Everything from her choice of the contact to her prevention and eradication of bubbles was world class. I could spot an Anna contactjob from a mile away. And I was only sixty metres away.

I put two and two together. My year six teacher and the deputy were comparing my handwriting to the culprit’s. Why they needed my book as a reference when my normal handwriting was on the poster was beyond me, but what wasn’t was, they suspected me.

It wasn’t long before I was called to see the deputy. She played it cool, sympathetic. She reiterated how horrible what that person said about me was, said they’d find out who did it. I remember her pausing for the expected confession. I gave her nothing. To coax one out of me, she applied some pressure. The entire form – three year six classes – would spend their lunch in the assembly hall until somebody confessed. I didn’t flinch. Sixty-odd year six kids spent lunch sitting a metre apart, staring at a patch of assembly hall wall. The next time I was summoned to her office, she changed tack. Warmly, but sternly, she explained that there was nothing wrong with being gay and suggested I seek counselling. Sensing circling wagons, I told Mum about it in the car. I spun the story, one correctly placed emphasis and Mum was incensed the deputy had dared urge I seek counselling. It was a temporary reprieve. I wasn’t going to weasel out of this. The deputy had me in her sights. I couldn’t imagine a way out of this that didn’t completely change my life. If I admitted to the self-sabotage, there went my pristine reputation. If I admitted to robbing the entire form of their lunchtime, I’d be hated. And if I admitted to calling myself gay, did that make me irrefutably and irreversibly gay?

But while I couldn’t imagine a way out of this, the universe could. Before the deputy coaxed a confession out of me, she and the headmaster were abruptly stood down. There were murmurs about “changes made to the curriculum” that older students widely interpreted as “they were bonking”. The interim headmaster had year six spend another grim lunchtime staring at the assembly hall wall before he gave up on finding the culprit. He had more pressing concerns.

I exhaled for the first time in forever. Life continued as if the incident never happened. I didn’t have to stare at that monstrous original poster. I didn’t have to unpack what writing William is gay (or You are gay) really meant. Had there been no “changes made to the curriculum”, I might have come to terms with myself far earlier, as soon as I knew. How different my life would have been if tween William knew he was gay, and was okay with it … All that torturous hiding, wishing I was different … simply wiped from my history.

I got achieved everything I wanted.

And with two decades’ distance, I wish I hadn’t.

The memoir project was written with generous support from Create NSW, City of Sydney and City of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this, remember books make wonderful gifts for Christmas, doubly so when we buy them from local booksellers and keep them thriving into the new year.

The memoir pieces in some sort of readable order:
Inheritance
My Father Haunts Me
Ben (Part One)
What I Wanted
You Come Out

Ben (Part One)

I reckon these intros are gonna get shorter and shorter until they’re just: Here! Have at it!

Ben (Part One)

Ben arrived in year two, but our friendship wasn’t immediate. Not that there was any animosity … Okay, there was some animosity. We did fight on opposite sides of the Great Cat and Dog War. We divided ourselves by allegiance to certain household pets (because year two) and fought over the out-of-bounds territory between hedges and a school fence. However many lunchtimes it lasted, and whatever injuries were sustained, I distinctly remember the looming threat of detentions inspiring the conflict’s swift resolution. It was like nothing my class had ever seen. Ben was the leader of the Cats and probably the instigator of the whole thing, if not the escalator.

We became friends towards the end of primary school, after a series of departures left me adrift without any friends. Ben was the guy who whispered jokes in assembly that cracked up everybody in his orbit, but I was never close enough to hear what was so funny. Until we were assigned to the same English group. The brightest kids were plucked from each class to be extended, challenged … Ben was in the back row, looking up sex in the thesaurus and losing it over slap and tickle. Notoriously well-behaved up until this point, I yearned to be the kind of kid who laughed about slap and tickle in a classroom. I wanted to be his friend.

I don’t know whether I sat beside him before somebody else could or if he was moved beside me in the hope that my studiousness would rub off on him, even though there isn’t a documented case in human history where the opposite hasn’t occurred. Whether it was my drive or an accident, what’s important is, we sat together I made an impression. We sat together again. And again. I had usurped his regular desk-mate. He wanted to sit next to me. And it felt amazing to be wanted.

I would say we became friends then. I’m not sure when he would say we became friends, if ever. He cultivated a certain precariousness in his friendships. People in his orbit were afraid of being cast aside at any moment. I wasn’t old enough to know it then, but with hindsight, it’s plain as day. When I made the transition from English group friend to lunchtime friend, the two others he regularly sat with were defensive. They would snipe, and often, dig the heels of their school shoes into my shins until they bled. For fun. I was so worried I would say or do anything to lose Ben’s favour, that I didn’t see they were worried too. They were keeping me at bay. I don’t know whether it was my daftness or Ben’s allure, but I endured the bleeding shins game until it stopped.

Our friendship continued into high school. Ben was a planet, we were his moons. He collected more. He dictated what we spoke about and for how long. He was a natural storyteller. He never stumbled or stammered, and there was no exhausting the stories he could share about the friends he hung out with outside of school. When he was absent, everything still revolved around him. We would end up talking about him. One lunch, somebody floated the idea that maybe those friends he hung out with outside of school didn’t exist. One of his stories was eerily similar to a recent TV plotline. We planned to confront him, and possibly negotiate a more equal group dynamic. He had taken to excommunicating people who annoyed him at this point.

I was the last to arrive at school the following morning. My greetings were ignored by everyone. I tried to insert myself into the conversation, and after a few failed attempts, I realised what had happened. They had confessed our discussions the previous day. They laid the blame solely at my feet. I was banished.

Ben let me back into the fold eventually. I don’t know whether I grovelled or if he got bored.

As his exploration of alcohol and other substances intensified, I was pushed to the fringes. I was the guy who wondered aloud if things were getting out of hand … Nobody likes that guy at the best of times, but given the precarious nature of Ben’s friendship, others worked hard to make sure he didn’t like that guy. There was one hanger-on who operated like pull-string doll – tug a limb and he’d say, “William doesn’t understand you.”

I was watching people dismiss a downward spiral as a Super Happy Fun Slide, because he was closer to them when he was inebriated. He had grown guarded, or perhaps, I’d grown to notice he was guarded. He only spoke candidly when he was under the influence. I mostly missed out on him in that state. Occasionally, he would change his instant messenger username from benji to bentji … I did wonder if it was performance, a way to make us believe he was wilder than he was.

The last time we spoke was online. It was the middle of the January before year eleven.

look, the only people ive ever told about my dirty secrets are people who like to drink! so the ritual has always been we do shots together and then i dish the dirt

but itll obviously have to be different with you, ok?

youre my good friend

as in my good friend who’s good

It was notable because after our most tumultuous year of friendship, he had admitted we were friends. Good friends. A short time later,

anyway, i have to go now

bye bye

And he was gone.

The memoir project was written with generous support from Create NSW, City of Sydney and City of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this, you’ll probably like The Sidekicks.

Inheritance

Week two and I haven’t abandoned steady posting … Let’s celebrate that! Here’s a new memoir piece. Hope you enjoy.

Inheritance

Yiayia Filyo introduced me to the idea of inheritance. Not because she left me anything when she died. Members of my father’s family have a curious tendency to bequeath their worldly possessions to my stepmother, as if, when drafting their wills, they all receive the same legal advice about impeding child support debt recovery.

I would sit at the stool in front of her triple vanity mirror and watch as she ran a comb through my hair. She styled it like hers. When she was done, I was her bite-sized doppelganger. It’s the earliest I recognised that a piece of me had come from someone else. Now, I don’t understand how inheritance patterns work – besides my stepmother inheriting what my father’s due, I understand that pattern – but on the off-chance I comb my hair back, I see my grandmother in my reflection.

My memories of Yiayia Filyo are hazy now. I don’t know if it’s cruel or kind that the people we love occupy less space in our minds as the distance between us grows. I experience her in flashes – her running a hand and a brush through my hair; her drenched in black, watching me through the fence at pre-school; her sitting on the back step of her Marrickville home, peeling the potatoes that would become the best damn chips I’ve ever eaten.

I wish I could say she only took up less space in my mind when she died, but the truth is, it happened much earlier. When the rift between my parents worsened, and every second weekend came to mean never, I saw her less, I thought of her less, and I thought less of her. People have said she feared my father, so she did what he told her to, however harsh …

Nobody’s character comes out of a protracted divorce untarnished, but Mum did what was right when it counted. If she heard Yiayia Filyo was in hospital, she would sneak us in to see her. One afternoon in my teens, Mum announced that she was taking me for a drive. We ended up outside a nursing home in Earlwood. She told me it was where my grandmother lived.

It was the first time I’d seen her in years. She hadn’t aged in my head, so the sight of her, hair grey and speech slurred, hit me hard. I blinked back tears as we spoke. Don’t remember what about, but I left feeling like a weight I didn’t know I was carrying had been lifted. I would have carried it forever had she died before I visited.

It was cathartic, and I wanted that catharsis for my older brother. When I encouraged him to visit, he reacted in anger. He wouldn’t go. And it made sense. Dad had been the worst to him.

She died soon after. We found out by cosmic coincidence. My maternal grandmother, Yiayia Susie, came across the obituary in a days-old Greek newspaper.

My older brother was upset. He said he didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to her. I probably shouldn’t have told him that he did have the chance, he just didn’t take it.

Mum insisted we go to the funeral uninvited. I remember the breath catching in her throat as we approached the church in Newtown where she married my father years before. She had spotted what we soon would – Yiayia Filyo’s tiny coffin elevated on wheels, left unattended on the street. We stood there uncomfortably. We didn’t want to get too close. We weren’t supposed to be there. Minutes passed like hours, and nobody came to retrieve Yiayia Filyo. Mum did what was right when it counted. She encouraged my brothers and me stand by our grandmother.

We approached the coffin, scared that at any moment Dad would emerge from the church to chastise us. He didn’t. He was late. In his absence, we kept his mother company on King Street – my older brother, who refused to visit her at the end, my younger brother, who barely knew her, and me. We were the family she lost in the divorce, but we were the ones who were there in the end.

And while I’d be lying if I said that’s front of mind at all times, you can’t stop that shit from shaping you. When I think of Yiayia Filyo, I think of standing on King Street. I shouldn’t, she wasn’t really there, but it was the culmination of our story. An acknowledgement of the lost years. An apology. And I carry that moment with me. It’s the only thing I can say for certain that I inherited from her.

The memoir project was written with generous support from Create NSW, City of Sydney and City of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this, I have freshly signed books available for purchase at Dymocks Collins St, The Little Bookroom and Readings Kids. If you’re after something like this, you can check out My Father Haunts Me and You Come Out.

You Come Out

What I love most about being a touring author is reflecting on my life experiences — the ones that inspire books, and the ones that don’t — to answer teens’ questions about where they’re at in their lives. I really missed those honest conversations during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, so I channelled those untold stories into a memoir. Some of the pieces have heavily inspired the two fictional novels I’m working on at the moment, but the others are just sitting there, languishing. The end of the year has lost a lot of its shape, so in an effort to build a scaffold I can drape my life over, I’ve decided to set myself a task: to polish and upload some of the languishing pieces every so often (as you can see, it isn’t a particularly ambitious scaffold). Hope you enjoy.

You Come Out

You’re in luck. It’s one of his last nights in Sydney before he moves overseas, he wants to head out, but no one else is free. It’s just the two of you. After a series of false starts, you’ve settled into your groove as two guys in their early twenties with a pretty firm friendship. Sure, you’re not his best friend – your eyes glaze over too quickly at the mention of ancient history and ball sports – but you’re close enough that tonight might be the night you tell someone.

Gay has been everybody’s go-to insult for as long as you can remember. It’s your voice, your vibe, your music taste, your way of carrying yourself. Well-meaning friends have asked you if you’re … you know more times than you can count, but you’ve always flatly denied. They never say the word. They skirt around it like it scares them.

There’s this sincere kindness that emerges when he drinks. After the third, give or take a schooner. He relaxes his stoic performance and speaks candidly. He’ll definitely get to that point tonight. The football match they’re showing at the pub doesn’t start till late. Early hours of the morning-late. You’ll just have to have the guts when he gets there.

If it goes south, he’ll be on the other side of the world before you know it. No risk. You won’t lose a thing.

You order beer, as if that’s what will make him want to keep you around. Your heart thumps as he drinks. You suffer through yours. Foamy and bitter. You opt for a mixed spirit on the next round. Likely bourbon.

You get pep-talk-in-the-bathroom-mirror drunk, but you have enough of your wits about you to know that if someone waltzed in, they’d judge you for it. You skip the next round and watch him drink. You want to make sure he’s in the right headspace before you start.

“Hey, I’ve got something to tell you.”

It’s noncommittal. The something can change right up until … you come out. The confession lands like a brick on the table between you. He ignores his drink. He blinks. You wonder if you overshot it.

Is he too drunk?

“Okay,” he says.

He blinks again.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” he adds, like he’s convincing himself.

He asks you when you knew. He asks why you took so long to say something. Did you not feel like you could? Was it his fault? You reassure him. He’s a good friend. He relaxes. It’s less about you than you expect.

You eventually explain that every good friend you introduced him to is in fact, your ex. He nods. It makes sense. He asks about them, then gets distracted.

You’re relieved.

You stay for the football match. You yawn through the whole thing. You’re sobering up but you don’t feel like drinking, and you don’t feel like rushing home either. You want to sit in this. Somebody you care about knows and he’s fine, you’re fine. There’s one point where he tries to set you up with a random at the bar. The guy’s slurring and you’re not even sure he’s gay. It’s a bit much. But it’s a bit sweet too.

You say goodbye. He knows not to tell anyone. He moves across the world. When you finally get around to telling the others, they already know. He told them, probably.

Time passes. You fly across the world to visit him. It takes him close to a week to ask if you’re seeing someone, but he asks it like he’s not all that interested in the answer. At some point you let him have it – probably in a text. You don’t remind him he was the first person you came out to, so he should’ve been better, but it’s subtext.

You count the time between reunions in years.

Eventually he stops texting. He tells the others he doesn’t want you to come with them when they visit. That stings. You convince yourself it doesn’t.

He returns briefly. Reservations are made for a buck’s dinner. You trek across four suburbs to get the nerves out. Doesn’t work. You’re the last one to arrive at the restaurant, even though you’re early. You wonder if they made plans to start without you. He catches sight of you as you approach. Your stomach drops. You’re happy to see him, shit-scared to see him. He’s a ghost, acting like he was never gone. He’s enthusiastic. He encourages you to take the vacant seat beside him. You’re hesitant but he’s interested. He talks about his life and asks about yours. He wants to meet your partner. It’s like no time’s passed and nothing’s soured. But near the end of the night, after the dinner has made way for a half-arsed pub crawl, it’s too much for you. He complains about his watch, taps the screen, says it doesn’t respond to anything he does. You say the watch is ignoring him like he ignored you. It isn’t your best work and your voice wavers, but when he doesn’t react, you reiterate it minutes later. There’s no emotion in his reply. He says he didn’t want to spoil the evening for the others.

At the wedding, you pull him aside. You ask him what went wrong. He’s evasive. You ask if it’s because you’re gay, because even though it likely isn’t true, it’s possible, and when it’s possible, it takes up space in your heart and eats away at it … He huffs. He says you’re too much work. And hey, you’ve pulled him away from his wife at somebody’s wedding to have a moment, he’s probably right. But fuck it, you’re worth the work. But so is he. You draw a line in the sand. You accept any blame. You miss him. He melts a smidge. He tells you that he’ll see you before his flight.

He doesn’t.

You feel you wasted it. He was the first person you came out to and he discarded you.

But you didn’t waste your coming out.

You didn’t do it for him.

You did it for you.

The memoir project was written with generous support from Create NSW, City of Sydney and City of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this, I have too many books out for you to buy, but The Greatest Hit is the cheapest and the shortest if you’re scared of commitment. If you’re after something like this, you can check out My Father Haunts Me.