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.

REBEL GODS is out now!

When I was a kid, I was a daydreamer. I would press my head against the train carriage window, and as Sydney scrolled past, I imagined an epic fantasy story playing out across its rooftops. It’s weird to think I’m sitting here years later, typing the words: my first fantasy series is complete.

My books always seem to be a reaction to the ones that come before them. The First Third was super honest, a reaction to all the walls I built around myself as a teenager writing Loathing LolaThe Sidekicks took the queerness that was often sidelined in The First Third and brought it to the fore, at least in the first part. Monuments was a page-turning adventure in direct opposition to The Sidekicks‘ heavy stillness. In bolting to its conclusion, Monuments sowed a ton. Rebel Gods is the reaping.

Monuments was me turning my daydreams into reality. At least, an ink-and-paper reality. It was always envisioned as the first half of a larger story, but I’ll be honest, the shape of the second half has always been in flux … This year has been about finding Rebel Gods considering everything that Monuments set up and wondering what I wanted to pay off. Our heroes, Connor, Sally and Locky were always going to contend with the aftermath of their adventure and face off against the gods of love and fear, but what surprised me most was that as I wrote it, that story evolved into one about changing relationships: namely, the one between single mothers and their grown sons.

Between daydreaming Monuments and writing its sequel, I’ve moved out of home and my relationship with my mum has evolved. In my newbie gods I had the perfect vehicle through which to explore that evolution, so I ditched my plan to incorporate the father more prominently (sorry, not at all sorry), and tested that mother-son relationship that I established in the first book. While Monuments was a story about running away and coming home, Rebel Gods is about growing up.

And I can’t wait for you to read it.

While I’ve got you, I want to extend a special thank you to Melina Marchetta for helping launch Rebel Gods virtually.

I can’t say enough nice things about Melina, but I’ll try. When I met her as a young’un, despite being the only person in Australia who hadn’t read Looking For Alibrandi, I was ready to kiss the ring, tell her what a formative novel it had been. But before I could spew my BS, she looked at me and said, “I would show your short story to my Year 10s.” And instead of letting me insincerely fawn over her, she was generous enough to make me feel like her peer. She lifted me up, like she lifts so many emerging writers.

I read her work over the years, savouring every word because she was somehow more talented than I was going to tell her she was when we met. This year, her adult books were a comfort and an inspiration to me during the lockdown, and her latest, What Zola Did on Monday, is such a treat for beginner readers. I can’t wait for all the munchkins in my life to grow up a little so I can gift them the whole set and watch them treasure it.

People see her success and say they want to be like Melina Marchetta. After getting glimpses at who she is over the years, I say we should all want to be like Melina Marchetta.

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.”


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.

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.