Literary Lockdown 2021

With cities coming in and out of lockdown, the second half of 2021 is going to be a little different this year. But just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it can’t be something incredible. What started as a “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” tweet about virtual talks during Book Week has transformed into Literary Lockdown, a learning from home-friendly writers festival to spark teens’ love of reading and writing.

Secondary schools and individuals who purchase Literary Lockdown will receive:


Coming Of Age In YA 40min
AJ Betts (HiveZac & Mia), Wai Chim (The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, the current season of Survivor Australia), Alison Evans (Euphoria KidsIda), and Claire Zorn (When We Are InvisibleThe Protected) join me for a vibrant conversation, discussing coming of age novels, our influences and our work.

Meet A. S. King 30min
Hailed as “one of the best young adult writers working today” by the New York Times Book Review, A. S. King is a juggernaut. She’s won the Michael L. Printz Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her novels, including Dig and the recently released Switch, challenge, comfort, and most importantly, entertain teen readers across the globe. Amy beams in from Pennsylvania in the United States of America to answer teen questions about getting started, discovering stories as you write them, and approaching writing under exam conditions.

Meet Becky Albertalli 30min
Becky Albertalli is the award-winning international bestseller of Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens AgendaLeah on the Offbeat, and the recently released Kate In Waiting. In a relaxed, vulnerable conversation relaxed, vulnerable conversation, Becky muses about writing in tough times (hello, lockdown) and exploring queerness and diversity in texts.

Writing Tutorials

This package of ten creative writing tutorials (5-30min) will spark students’ creativity. Learn from renowned Australian authors including Gary Lonesborough (The Boy From The Mish), Kate O’Donnell (This One Is Ours), Nova Weetman (Elsewhere Girls), and Lili Wilkinson (The Erasure Initiative). Think of these like very brief writing workshops, paired with teacher’s notes. These can be distributed to students who are learning from home, or used as prompts in class.

Ideas and Inspiration with Kate O’Donnell and Maree Kimberley
Beginnings with Leanne Hall
Endings with Lili Wilkinson
Characters and Voice with Claire Zorn and Will Kostakis
Setting with Gary Lonesborough and Shivaun Plozza
Tension with AJ Betts
Collaboration with Nova Weetman


Schools $150+GST (please email
Individuals $25+GST (click here to purchase, the email address you enter will receive the download information)

ENTRIES CLOSED: Melton City Libraries Writing Competition

While I couldn’t visit Melton City Libraries as planned (thanks, Covid), I could whip up this video to help aspiring entrants kickstart their creativity.

The short story competition is a great opportunity for budding writers of all ages to showcase their talent and have their work read by popular authors.

Entries can be submitted in any medium: text, print, illustration, video, verse, voice or combinations of any of the above. Entries should be no more than 3000 words for adults, 1500 words for junior and teen, or for other story formats, something that takes no more than 5 minutes to experience.

The competition will award the first, second and third prize entries in Junior, Teenage and Adult sections. Entries are now closed.

SWF 2021: Protect Them At All Costs

This piece was originally performed at Sydney Writers’ Festival (‘YA Gala: Protect Them at All Costs’) on May 1, 2021, alongside original pieces by Garth Nix, Leanne Hall, Gary Lonesborough, Jenna Guillaume, Zana Fraillon and Michael Pryor. We were encouraged to speak about the characters who have left their marks on us, those we might want to protect for a host of reasons. It could be because we see ourselves in them, or because they taught us something we needed to learn at the exact moment we needed to learn it … or because we’re furious at an author who keeps doing them wrong. Enjoy.

It’s All About YOU, Calma!

You haven’t heard of Calma Harrison. If I’m wrong, and she’s a mutual friend, then you and I are now friends too. I came across Calma – spelt C A L M A – because Natalie Portman shaved her head to star in V For Vendetta and at a premiere soon after, posed in front of a sea of paparazzi cameras.

The year was 2005. I was sitting in my school library during a free period. I wasn’t there to read. I wasn’t a reader. I was in Year 11. I was quote unquote too busy to be a reader, but I was killing time, sneaking glances at my brick of a mobile phone, when the back of Natalie Portman’s shaved head on a book cover across the room caught my attention.

You’re probably thinking, that’s weird. Like, how could Will tell the back of Natalie Portman’s head apart from the backs of all other shaved heads that have ever been photographed? And to that I say, it’s the mid-2000s, and I am tragically obsessed with the Star Wars prequels. How tragically? A few months earlier, Natalie’s line reading of, ‘Anakin, you’re breaking my heart, you’re going down a path I can’t follow,’ caused me to burst out in tears in the movie theatre, something my friends still taunt me about to this day.

Anyway, I cleared the distance between me and this book and plucked it off the shelves. Not too eagerly, obviously. I was quote unquote too busy to be a reader. It was bright yellow, titled It’s Not All About You, Calma! and written by Barry Jonsberg. Despite the cover, it had nothing to do with Natalie Portman. Back in the day, publishers would slap any random image they could get the rights to on YA covers and hope nobody noticed. In this instance, a designer probably logged into Getty Images, searched “woman shaved head”, and clicked their favourite or the cheapest.

I returned to my seat and cracked the book open without a passing glance at the blurb. If it was good enough for Natalie Portman’s likeness, it was good enough for me … Nothing could have prepared me for Calma Harrison though. From the first sentence, I could hear her in my head. As somebody who consumed a grand total of zero Australian stories, it was a shock to encounter a narrator who sounded like me, abbreviated words like me, balanced casual snark with overpowering sarcasm like me … I was reading an Australian teenager, who kept mentioning Australian stuff. I immediately took a liking to her.

And then I got to know her. She had a complicated relationship with her father who up and left years before – I had a complicated relationship with my father who up and left years before. A teacher took an interest in her writing and pushed her to express herself creatively – a teacher took an interest in my writing and pushed me to express myself creatively. She was reeling from the sudden death of a very, very close friend – I was … well, you get where I’m going with this. Calma wasn’t simply somebody I recognised, she was Will Kostakis fan fiction. I’d never experienced anything like it, and I was mesmerised. So much so that halfway through the book, I realised I was reading a sequel without having read the first book, and I pushed on regardless. The moment I was finished, I hunted that first book down, The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull. And I met Calma before the dad stuff, before exploring herself through poetry, before the grief – all the experiences that united us. She and a friend suspected that their English teacher was a drug dealer and they were trying to frame her for murder. I mean, Calma’s life couldn’t have been further from mine in that first book, but I was in awe of her, the way she spoke, the way she joked. She was willing to do absolutely anything for her friend, and I was willing to do the same for her.

Across two books, I think what endeared me most to her is the way she threw herself into every situation, usually emotions-first and with catastrophic results. I mean, she might be a two-time narrator, but often what she saw, and what she told me, wasn’t what actually happened. She was entertaining but unreliable, flawed … She taught me that it was okay to make mistakes – and I mean, really, REALLY big mistakes. Like, crack the case of your drug dealing English teacher, and you’re bound to confidently make some pretty serious allegations about other people that turn out to be wildly wrong and cause a world of hurt. But she also taught me that no matter how big my stuff ups, I had the power to make them right.

Here I am telling you how much I like her, when she is perfectly capable of speaking for herself. Just listen to her describe meeting the love of her life at, of all places, a supermarket checkout.

In Sicily, they call it the Thunderbolt. I read about it somewhere. It’s when you see someone and all these hormonal reactions kick in. Your heart thumps, you sweat profusely, your stomach dips to your shoelaces and bits and pieces you didn’t know you possessed start tingling like you’ve been plugged into the mains electricity. Well, that’s what happened to me when I saw … him.

I don’t want you to think I am a shallow, superficial person, so I won’t start with his physical appearance.

Stuff it. Of course I will.

He was tall and rangy. As I watched him scan a tin of Spam (and he did it so effortlessly, with such grace and ease of movement, like a balletic sequence) I caught the hint of lean muscles flexing beneath the uniform. I could picture him on a beach, the sun reflecting off defined biceps and pectorals you could graze your knuckles on. His face was classically sculpted, high cheekbones framing a pert and flawless nose. His eyes were deep brown, liquid with sensitivity and hidden passion; his skin olive and gleaming beneath the overhead fluorescent lights. During a particularly tricky scanning manoeuvre, involving shrink-wrapped bok choy, he parted his full lips to reveal faultless, even teeth that flashed one brilliant shimmering star. Glossy black hair fell in a perfect curtain over his left eye.

Basically, he was all right, if you like that kind of thing.

I wish I could tell you, though, that in the 15 years since, I’ve caught up with Calma regularly. I mean, I pop open her books occasionally, to read a passage or two to reluctant readers and aspiring writers, hoping that her voice inspires them as much as it did me, but I’m scared. It always happens with favourites, the hesitation to revisit them in case more mature eyes are more unkind, and they spoil how I think of her. That isn’t fair, I’ve grown, as has the world, and she’s stayed still. But even if I do revisit The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull, or It’s Not All About You, Calma! and it’s not the same, and Calma and I don’t click like we used to, I will always be thankful for her. It’s because of her I went on to meet Melina Marchetta’s Francesca, Markus Zusak’s Ed, Jaclyn Moriarty’s Bindy, Shivaun Plozza’s Frankie, Claire Zorn’s Lucy, Lili Wilkinson’s Pru … Characters who haven’t reflected my experience quite like Calma, but who have certainly made my life richer.

It breaks my heart a little that Calma is trapped in the beforetimes. The odds are, this is the first time you’ve heard somebody talking about her, and you’ll have difficulty finding the books she’s in, but if you do snag a copy and read her, there’ll be distance between you, because her life is similar to yours yet different in marked ways because she exists in the analogue era of payphones just before smartphones existed, the era of waiting in line at the supermarket instead of scurrying towards the self-checkout to avoid the human interaction. My heart breaks a little more when I realise how close I came to missing out on meeting Calma entirely, when her experiences reflected mine almost one to one. Had a designer not chosen a photo of Natalie Portman, and failed to disguise the fact that it was Natalie Portman, I would not have met Calma, would not have fallen back in love with reading, not discovered Australian YA in that moment, and seen a pathway towards being the author I am tonight. And I wonder how many Calmas I’m missing now, how many Calmas we’re all missing now, because a book is older, because it’s fallen out of print, or because Senator Amidala isn’t on the cover. And if nobody reads them, the odds of them falling in front of the teen who needs them most shrink, and there isn’t somebody who’ll talk about them at Sydney Writers Festival 16 years later, life completely shaped by them.

So if you’ve caught yourself falling out of love with reading, or talking less about the stories you love than you used to – make an effort to change that. Because these characters we love, these stories we love, this local industry we love, they need our protection or they vanish. And it’s our job to keep them alive, not just for what they give to us, but what they give to the next generation and the next.

It’s Not All About You, Calma! is now available via print on demand, so it might take a couple of weeks to get to you, but it’s definitely worth the wait. If reading series in order is (shockingly) more your thing, The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull is readily available. So order them both, Kiffo will arrive first, and by the time you’re done, Calma! will show up.

Returning to (a different) reality

Growing up, there was no shortage of teachers telling me to write what I knew. It’s advice I now give in various forms — write what you know, lean in to what scares you, tell the truth — because my best writing, the writing that best connects with readers, has come from that vulnerability.

We rarely talk about the costs of scratching at old scars. We scratch until they bleed again, because the words are better when we bleed, and then we’re left with fresh wounds. And we need time to heal.

My first novel, Loathing Lola, was dedicated to my friend, Ben. In the dedication, I said that my words missed his eyes. A close friend from the latter years of primary school into high school, he was one of my earliest cheerleaders. He read everything I wrote and encouraged me to write more. He fanned the flames of my wildest dreams, but he died before I achieved them.

I’ve been writing about grief ever since, with varying degrees of bravery. Loathing Lola opens with a funeral based on my experience at Ben’s, and then … I cheat. I jump forwards in time. Protagonist Courtney goes from decidedly not fine to mostly fine but occasionally not. I knew I would write a novel about the immediate aftermath of death, about wading through grief, but not yet. It was too fresh, and I wasn’t a good enough writer yet. I would write the Ben book someday.

Half a decade later, during a visit to his parents’ place, I closed the fridge and found myself staring right at him. His photo was stuck to the door. And I remembered what he looked like. And if I was remembering what he looked like, at some point, I had started to forget what he looked like. So despite believing I wasn’t a good enough writer yet, I knew I had to write the Ben book before there was too much time between us.

I scratched at old scars. I wrote during the day, and at night, he invaded my dreams. I would wake and have to mourn him, over and over again. I convinced myself it would be worth it. My second novel, The First Third, came from truth, vulnerability … I had to persevere.

I kept scratching.

When the book was done, I was left with a wound, not as fresh as the one from January 2006, but fresh enough to sting. Time would heal it, but not if I kept picking at it. I knew I would if I continued to write contemporary realism. So I didn’t. Just as the fantasy books Ben introduced me to pulled me out of my initial grief, the two fantasy books I wrote next pulled me out of my second, self-inflicted grief.

As the Monuments duology neared completion, I began to contemplate writing realism again. I no longer felt raw. I wanted to write realism again. I itched to scratch at scars. I was going to ease myself back into it, a novella for the Australia Reads campaign.

And just as I set out to reflect reality, reality changed. We cut ourselves off from the world. We debated when schools would close, not if. We locked ourselves indoors. We panic-bought. We had endless conversations about the virus.

The contemporary realism novella I wrote in April would have been called dystopian a few months earlier. The problem with it was —  I mean, besides the problems all first drafts have — the coronavirus had overwhelmed every aspect of our lives, I wasn’t sure readers would want to read fiction about it.

But I believe young adult authors ought to engage the young adults of now, be it by incorporating technologies, figures of speech and once-in-a-century pandemics. I couldn’t just ignore the coronavirus. It was disrupting teenagers’ lives across the country.

I leant into that for the next draft. In the same way all our lives have been disrupted, Tessa’s was too, but instead of focusing on now, I looked to the future. A story about lockdown became about life afterwards.

That’s the perk of writing what I know — I can sometimes heal what hurts. I can acknowledge the pain of the present, and imagine our tomorrow. There’ll be life after this, and that’s worth looking forward to.

In The Greatest Hit, Tessa strives to rekindle her greatest love after Melbourne lockdown. Available for a limited time. Pick it up before November 12 and join thousands of readers across the country for Australian Reading Hour.

My Vantage Point

Over the past few years, I have made a concerted effort to avoid online frays. Some days, I’m better at it than others. Given the intensifying discourse around Becky Albertalli, I realised this was one of those days when I had to say something. Especially given my experiences as a closeted gay author, and an out gay author.

For those who’ve missed the brouhaha, after years of scrutiny for writing books centring queer characters, Becky came out as bi. It prompted a conversation about what we, as readers, feel we have a right to know about an author who appears to write outside their lived experiences. One author said people shouldn’t write queer stories while closeted, then complain when others scrutinise their sexuality. Articles were written. Author McAuthor slams Becky Albertalli for … As a celebrity gossip journalist in my former life, I love a deftly deployed slam in the first paragraph. It heightens what’s said. Makes it physical. One body crashing into another. Conflict.

What I learnt pretty quickly as a celebrity gossip journalist was, stories hours apart could contradict each other, but so long as somebody was getting slammed, people clicked. It’s really difficult to see the bigger picture, because conflict is so damn entertaining.

I’m writing this to commit the bigger picture to words, at least, the bigger picture as I see it from my vantage point.

I was in the closet for fifteen years, from the first, “Oh, that’s different … I’m going to squash that feeling way, way down,” in primary school to that blog post that blew up my life in my mid-twenties.

I wrote and released The First Third in the closet. After my first book flopped, I took a few years off (code for having a ton of writer’s block and pursuing that career in celebrity gossip). When I came to write The First Third, I threw as much of my life into it as possible, thinking it might be my last. The book follows Bill, a character with a name very similar to mine, with a family very similar to mine, who is burdened with his grandmother’s bucket list – find your mother a husband, ungay your older brother, and make your younger brother not a twerp. The First Third is my love letter to my small but potent Greek family, but woven through it, is my first awkward, scary exploration of my queerness in fiction. I basically split myself in half – straight version of me deals with most of the family stuff, and my queerness is contained within a separate sidekick character. On a story level, he exists to give the protagonist somebody to talk to and bounce ideas off, and to break up the sometimes-heavy story with a joke or two. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day unpacking the fact that I imagined my queer self on the margins of my own story, laughing at the ridiculousness of my family dynamics but rarely stepping into the centre of the page.

Lucas, or Sticks as he’s known for most of the book, is the sassy gay friend. I was too afraid of writing a gay protagonist, one, in case my mum put two and two together, and two, because publishing was a different place back then. Lucas’s arc was the most heavily scrutinised in the editorial process. Lucas was coming to terms with what it meant to be gay and disabled in the body-image obsessed Sydney scene. Since he would have sex for the first time during the novel, he had to be aged up from sixteen to eighteen, because if he wasn’t an adult, gay sex would be … Let’s say, there were trepidations. They were worried Lucas’s shenanigans might mean librarians and other gatekeepers would label the book as inappropriate, as if having a queer character living queer experiences in the margins of the story might spoil an otherwise honest reflection of my teen life … I wasn’t out of the closet back then, so nobody saw Bill and Lucas as I did, two halves of the same whole.

Writing Lucas scared the living shit out of me, but it was freeing. My truth was hidden in plain sight.

Two things happened after The First Third’s release in 2013: Lucas was widely embraced by Australian readers – gatekeepers and teens – and Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda was released by my publisher in 2015.

At an event that year, my publicist waved that little red book and hyped it with full-throated enthusiasm. It was going to be big. The same publisher that insisted my queer characters needed to be eighteen to be sexually active was throwing their weight behind an unashamedly gay book two years later. Publishing was changing. The fear I had that writing my queerness would negatively impact my career began to dissipate. I wouldn’t have written The Sidekicks as it exists today were it not for Simon, and by writing my fears of coming out into that book, I built up the courage to publish The Sidekicks as an out gay man.

And this is where my feelings get complicated. While Simon and The First Third, two books with queer elements written by seemingly straight authors, were rarely scrutinised by Australian gatekeepers, my coming out inspired a lot of hand-wringing about how appropriate my school talks and books were for their target audience. I had to rebuild my reputation as a public speaker almost a decade into my career. I had to run speeches past principals, teach workshops under strict supervision (as in, the teachers outnumbered the students). I saw the gulf between how we treated queer books by ‘straight’ authors and how we treated queer books by queer authors. What was cute and inspiring, could be sinister and inappropriate.

It’s very easy as a queer author to feel bitter about this gulf. Heck, I sat next to Becky at an Australian signing and listened as a procession of queer teens told her they didn’t feel seen until they read Simon. I wanted to leap onto the table and scream, “ME! I’M RIGHT HERE! GAY AUSSIE! WRITING GAY AUSSIE STUFF! YOU SHOULD FEEL SEEN WHEN YOU READ ME!” But you know what that is? Ego. Envy. That’s what’s best for me. That’s not what’s best for these kids. Seemingly straight Becky and her little red book changed their lives.

Just as it changed mine. I mean, I’m a gay, Greek-Australian writer. Christos Tsiolkas isn’t reading this blog post thinking, “WHAT ABOUT ME?”

Straight authors are capable of – I know this might seem shocking – writing about us with care.

We accuse, often with good reason, the cis heterosexual community of having an overbearing obsession with what happens in our bedrooms. Would decision-makers in the industry, from publishers to librarians, have been as comfortable with Simon had Becky been out? I can’t say. But that’s an industry problem, not a Becky problem. And we, queer authors and readers, shouldn’t be obsessed with the bedroom habits of those who write about us.

Your identity doesn’t guarantee you’ve written a good story. I know. You should read the stack of horrendous gay stories I’ve written that will never see the light of day. At least, not until a publisher Go Set A Watchmans me. Coming out isn’t risk-free. I can attest to that. Instead of demanding queer confessions from those who write about us, let’s work to make the prospect of coming out less daunting in the world and the industry.