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.

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.