Crisis of Opinion

I don’t want to write my opinion, but I have to. I have a new book out, so I need to remind you I exist, nudge you a little closer to visiting your local bookstore and asking for it by name (it’s Monuments, by the way).

Sustaining a career in publishing isn’t newsworthy. A fifth book isn’t as shiny as a first. So, like everyone else with something to sell, I must share my opinion. Ideally in a publication that pays per word, but I’ll settle for a flat fee … or the inclusion of a link to purchase.

But what is my opinion? There are already so many opinions, and so many bad ones, that our media seems reliant on for conflict, content and clicks. Just last week, Ita Buttrose told ABC Breakfast that political correctness had gone too far and Kerri-Anne Kennerley suggested motorists use protesters “as a speed bump”. You know … regular, normal opinions. And before then? I get dizzy thinking about the column inches and cable news tirades, mostly by men like Andrew Bolt, devoted to teenagers – what’s appropriate for them to learn in schools, what’s appropriate for them to think, and what’s appropriate for them to say when cutting world leaders down to size at UN climate action summits.

We’ve been told that attention is difficult to capture, that news cycles must move quickly to compensate, but the protracted response to the youth-led climate strike seems to defy this logic. It seems, it’s always newsworthy and timely to dunk on teens who have the audacity to rise to the occasion and demand adults join them.

Many responses to the climate strike protests relied on anger and misogyny – how dare teenagers organise their protests in air-conditioned classrooms and how dare some of them be girls! Others were less obviously harmful. They were overwhelmingly reasonable. Their authors agreed with the message but not the means of communicating it. Joe Hildebrand made references to Damascene conversions because he’s an intellectual, and to Doogie Howser M.D. because his appetite to be condescending trumps any desire to be relevant.

Unlike most opinion writers, my job has me meeting tens of thousands of teenagers a year. I’ve spent the past seventy days touring schools across the country and I can see the impact our nation’s crisis of opinion is having on our teens.

On the whole, adults underestimate teenagers like the adults who underestimated them. Those who have opinions about teenagers are no different. What they underestimate most is teenagers’ capacity to listen to us. We teach them respect, but when they’re respectful of others’ difference, we call them snowflakes. We teach them expert knowledge, and when they apply that knowledge, we say they’ve been brainwashed.

But they are respectful, and they are smart. That scares some of us.

Over the past seventy days, I have asked teenagers what they would do if they had the power to change the world. The climate is a pressing concern, but not their only one. They want to better support the homeless. They want to end refugee detention. They want to stifle discrimination in all its forms.

Most teenagers reject the injustices we adults have come to accept as the way things are. That’s heartening. I leave schools elated, only to later scroll through Twitter and be consumed with rage. The gulf in maturity between our teens and our adults – the leaders, the talking heads on television, the angry op-ed army in print – is staggering.

Immature as they are, garbage opinions endure. We make room for them in the media and call it discourse, and when we disagree with them, we relish it. We share the garbage opinions with rolled eyes and pithy takedowns, not realising that we’re amplifying those opinions with digital megaphones. And teenagers are, I cannot stress this enough, listening.

Take the myth of political correctness for instance. Every few weeks, it emerges, and every hot take about it is staler than the last. No one really interrogates the actual idea, because like all Sky News After Dark talking points, the notion of political correctness crumbles under an ounce of scrutiny. When framed as treating people with respect, politically incorrect starts to sound a whole lot like civility.

The most popular joke of my teens was saying, “Gay,” when someone did something we didn’t like or understand. It was hilarious. Not allowed now. Some might call it political correctness. Others might wonder why it was ever funny in the first place.

Oh, it’s just stating that people are same-sex attracted. Oh, I can see how that might make them uncomfortable. Oh, I can see that it isn’t really a joke, we’ve just learned that it’s funny, and we laugh out of habit. Oh, we can construct a better joke from the context. Cool.

I say all this because I want you to buy my book, but what are these other opinion merchants selling? Fear. The times are changing, like they always do and always will. If that scares you, they will speak for you. Subscribe. Don’t change the channel.

When talking heads on TV moan about “political correctness gone mad”, teenagers listen. I hope that most dismiss it, but others listen. One teenager raised her hand at Brisbane Writers Festival and asked me if, because she intended to work in politics one day, she should shy away from writing about politically incorrect topics.

For a moment, I worried she wanted the freedom to write whatever she pleased without caring who she’d offend – oh, the Lionel Shriver of it all! – but in fact, she was simply asking permission to write about gay people, because she identified as gay. It was heartbreaking on two counts. Not only did she see her sexuality as a barrier to pursuing a career in politics, she had taken their “We can’t talk about gay people anymore!” to mean she couldn’t reflect on her identity in her writing.

The oppressive bogeyman that is political correctness isn’t the only divisive talking point that filters from our opinion writers down to teenagers. During creative writing workshops in Melbourne recently, I asked teenagers what they could say about our world through a fantasy story premise. One teenager wanted to explore how universities stifle the political expressions of one side of politics (a common right-wing complaint … as if scrutinising poorly thought-out ideas and challenging dangerous rhetoric doesn’t belong in an education institution). Another lamented that feminists were taking over the world (he was startled to learn that thinking his mum and dad were equal made him a feminist too). Another believed that criminals should be sent back to where they came from (he later said that reforming the ways we rehabilitate people might be better).

Now, why do I think thirteen-year-old boys sometimes sound like they’re reading Chris Kenny’s first drafts? Because teenagers listen. They internalise the garbage opinions that any editor or TV producer worth their salt should identify as hollow or dangerous and filter out. But unlike Chris Kenny and his ilk, they’re open to discussion, and often, quick to see the flaws in conservative rhetoric.

We all assume that wisdom comes with age, but what if that was just a lie to keep the young at bay? What if we learned something from our teenagers, so full of empathy, so willing to do away with garbage opinions. There is a standard of discourse we should expect, and there should be consequences for those who don’t meet them. Like, maybe somebody who (allegedly) jokes about motorists mowing down protestors shouldn’t enjoy the celebrity and salary being on television affords them.

But that’s just my opinion.

Making Monuments

Almost a month after releasing Monuments, it’s probably too late to write a post introducing the novel and explaining why I wrote it.

I’m going to anyway.

In the years since The Sidekicks (good book, not biased, buy it), I’ve been thinking a lot about the books that I write. Contemporary realistic fiction. ‘You write what?’ is the standard response. People usually know contemporary realistic fiction by another name. Issue books. When we talk about books for children and young adults, we tend to elevate issue books above all others – as if a text that delights, transports and entertains can’t be as worthy as a text that grapples with stuff. I’ve benefited from that elevation. I’ve also benefited from being a cis man who writes issue books. That’s me doubly elevated. If I’d set one of my books in the recent past when overt racism was more acceptable and my aspiring-author child protagonist observed it, I’d have won the elevation trifecta.

My fourth novel for young adults could have been another issue book, and it almost was. But issue books are hurting me.

It’s emotionally exhausting to draw from your own life. I lived one of my biggest fears writing The First Third, my maternal grandmother’s death, and I revisited one of the most soul-crushing experiences of my life, a close friend’s death, when crafting The Sidekicks. When you hurt yourself to write a book, the hurt doesn’t end when that book is released. I have to revisit that fear and that pain every single time I talk about my work. Death by a thousand cuts. It’s what’s expected of authors who draw inspiration from their life … and it’s torture. I endure it because I see people in my audiences who share the same fears and have felt the same hurt. We acknowledge it, and then we laugh. I make sure we do. Laughter releases the tension. We feel lighter afterwards, relieved.

After writing The Sidekicks, I needed to let myself laugh again. My fourth novel had to be a comedy.

Issue books are hurting me in other ways. The primary theme in my novels is identity. I know it’s one of those themes where, if you look hard enough, every text is about it. But I make extra sure that my novels are about it. The thing is though, when you’re writing an issue book, and you want its primary theme to be identity, then the issues stem from identity. In The First Third, Billy’s Greekness was something he had to wrestle with, and the intersection of Lucas’s sexuality and disability was what he dealt with. In The Sidekicks, Ryan came to terms with his sexuality and being known as the “gay” swimmer. While I’m incredibly proud of those books and their explorations – heck, writing Ryan’s arc gave me the confidence to come out to my close family and friends – looking at parts of myself, in the case of sexuality and ethnicity, and framing those parts as issues to overcome is taxing. It’s even worse when that becomes an expectation of my readership.

Why is there always a “Greek tragedy waiting to happen”? Why must the gay kid in fiction struggle to come to terms with himself? Why can’t the gay Greek kid just save the world?

My fourth novel wouldn’t be an issue book. It would be a comedy, and the gay Greek kid would go on an adventure.

Funny, flustered and fabulous, Connor swam around in my head for years. I would daydream about the moment he discovered a god hidden in the foundations of his school. I heard his snarky commentary as he embarked on a Capital-Q Quest.

He didn’t arrive in my head fully formed though. He was the culmination of every school visit, of every conversation I had with teens who felt powerless, teens who felt equipped to changed the world, but who didn’t have the opportunity to. Touring from Denver, Colorado to Moora, Western Australia, I am bowled over by today’s teens. They are kind and open-minded in ways we all aspire to be. I watch the ways they embrace their LGBTQIA peers, strike for climate change, strive for refugee justice, and when I leave after a long day, my heart is full. The future is so bright. Then I scroll through Twitter, and I wish the future would get here faster. Our teens put our leaders to shame.

My fourth novel would be about that.

Wait, no. It was supposed to be a comedy about the gay Greek kid who went on an adventure. It was meant to be an antidote to me writing texts that grappled with stuff. But here’s the plot twist: all books grapple with stuff. Genre fiction is just as capable at reflecting our world and its concerns as contemporary realistic fiction. Only, genre fiction can do it with dragons*.

*There are no dragons in Monuments. There is a quest to find ancient gods and a cute couple you’ll ship hard though.

Fan Fiction: Ronald Weasley and the Authorial Intrusion

This piece was originally performed at Melbourne Writers Festival (‘YA’ll Are Thirsty’) on September 1, 2019, alongside original pieces by Alison Evans, Jes Layton, and CB Mako. Enjoy. And a gentle reminder: my new urban fantasy novel Monuments is out now, signed if you follow that link quickly enough. You don’t need to write fan fiction to experience the boys in that book kissing, but writing thirsty fan fiction about them is totally encouraged. In fact, just by reading this, you are now obligated to.

Ronald Weasley and the Authorial Intrusion

The last trace of steam evaporated in the autumn air. The Hogwarts Express rounded a corner, taking Albus, Rose, Hugo and Lily with it. Harry’s hand was still raised in farewell.

‘He’ll be all right,’ murmured Ginny.

As Harry looked at her, he lowered his hand absent-mindedly and touched the lightning scar on his forehead.

‘I know he will.’

The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.

All was not quite as well for Ron Weasley, who had just extracted a Muggle device from his jeans pocket. He squinted down at its screen. The Author had tweeted. She liked to tweet little retcons. It was her way of reminding them that she was still there, looming. Ron found her posts equally endearing and baffling, mostly because they never seemed to concern him.

Today’s post concerned him. And it … concerned him.

Throughout their time at Hogwarts, Ronald Bilius Weasley harboured an intense crush for Harry James Potter.

He dragged his finger down to refresh the tweet, in case she had posted it by accident and since deleted it. She hadn’t. There had been no mistake.

Harry glanced back at him and smiled. The same Harry from the tweet. He knew because the Author had used their middle names. She only did that when she was serious.

Ron’s heart pounded against his chest. It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be.

Somebody seized the back of his shirt and pulled him into a seat. Ron was no longer on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, but in the Great Hall, a glass of pumpkin juice raised to his lips. He had no idea where that had come from.

Hermione spoke sharply. ‘Don’t drink that, Ron!’

Flustered, he followed Harry’s gaze until he too was looking up at her.

‘Why not?’ said Ron. He set down his glass. This was familiar. He remembered this. He had been here before. It was some kind of memory.

Hermione was now staring at Harry as though she could not believe her eyes. She was about to tell him that –

‘You just put something in that drink.’ Ron mouthed the words as she said them.

‘Excuse me?’ said Harry.

‘You heard me. I saw you. You just tipped something into Ron’s drink. You’ve got the bottle in your hand right now!’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Harry, stowing the little bottle hastily in his pocket.

‘Ron, I warn you, don’t drink it!’ Hermione said again, alarmed.

Ron knew he should listen to her. She was his wife, after all. But Harry … Ron felt something stir deep inside of him when he looked at the boy who lived. That scar, those spectacles … His heart fluttered. That was a weird thing for it to do. Had it always done that? Throughout their time at Hogwarts, had he harboured an intense crush for Harry James Potter?

Ron told himself that he couldn’t entertain the thought. He was married. He had made a vow. He and Hermione had children together.

Not yet. This was a memory. He was a teenager. Hermione was his future wife.

Ron picked up the glass, drained it in one and said, ‘Stop bossing me around, Hermione!’

She stormed up the table away from them.

Ron’s shirt was seized, and he was pulled back once more. A roar of sound greeted him. He was in the common room, surrounded by his Gryffindor peers. They were celebrating something, someone. He glanced down. He was holding a goblet of Butterbeer and had spilt half of it down his front. A hand gripped his shoulder.

‘Congratulations, bro. Keeper! I can’t believe it.’

Ron recognised the voice immediately and it was difficult to breathe. ‘Fred,’ he gasped.

‘That’s my name,’ his brother, who was very much still alive, said before the crowd swallowed him.

Ron scanned the room, searching for a familiar face. He needed to tell the Harry from his memories what was happening to him. And that he might love him. The Author said so.

The Fat Lady swung forwards and Ron identified the slightly younger Harry. He cleared the distance between them, beaming all over his face and slopping Butterbeer down his front.

‘Harry, I –’ Ron was pulled backwards onto his bed.

‘What d’you mean, congratulations?’ said Harry, staring at Ron. There was something wrong with the way Ron was smiling, it was more like a grimace. Like he’d dropped into the conversation at the midpoint and was trying to figure out when and where he was.

‘Listen,’ added Harry, ‘I didn’t put my name in that Goblet. Someone else must’ve done it.’

Ron raised his eyebrows. He had his bearings. Fourth Year. The Triwizard Tournament. Harry had just been announced as the extra champion. Ron was hurtling through his memories, and he had no way to control it.

He wrenched the hangings shut around his four-poster and attempted to collect himself, leaving Harry standing there by the door, staring at the dark red velvet curtains. The thought made his heart pang.

Ron needed to get a grip. Of his feelings and of time more generally. He couldn’t love the boy who lived, and he couldn’t keep reliving memories. He had to return to the present, to Platform Nine And Three-Quarters.

He was propelled deeper into his memories. He was a Third Year in Professor Lupin’s Defence Against The Dark Arts class.

Hermione put up her hand.

‘It’s a shape-shifter,’ she said. ‘It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.’

‘Couldn’t have said it better myself,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed.

Ron’s chest was in a vice. The Boggart. When Professor Lupin let him out, the Boggart would immediately become what Ron feared most: Harry discovering his crush.

He shut his eyes and was forced backwards once more, this time into the hard seat of his father’s Ford Anglia 105E Deluxe, which burst out of the clouds into a blaze of sunlight.

It was a different world. The wheels of the car skimmed the sea of fluffy cloud, the sky a bright, endless blue under the blinding white sun. He couldn’t think of anywhere else he would rather be. And he was here, with Harry. He was speechless.

‘All we’ve got to worry about now are aeroplanes,’ said Harry.

Ron’s brow furrowed. That wasn’t right. If this was a memory, he should’ve been the one to say that. Not Harry. It then dawned on him that he wasn’t simply reliving memories. Harry hadn’t actually laced the pumpkin juice with Felix Felicis, but Ron felt like the luckiest boy alive. He had been thrust into the past, the actual past. He might love the boy who lived, and might have a chance to act on it.

And he wasn’t afraid of Harry discovering his feelings. He wanted him to.

The two of them looked at each other and started to laugh, for a long time, they couldn’t stop.

Ron peered down at the Hogwarts Express below them and was yanked backwards into the seat of one of the train’s compartments. He knew this moment, he had replayed it over and over in his mind for years – the moment he met Harry Potter and his life changed forever.

The Author was tormenting him. She wasn’t going to give him his chance. She was going to dangle the past in front of him, show him what could have been, but shy away from two boys kissing.

Ron just had to fill in the time before she yanked him away.

He went through the motions. ‘Are you really Harry Potter?’ he droned.

Harry nodded.

‘Oh – well, I thought it might be one of Fred and George’s jokes,’ said Ron mechanically. ‘And have you really got – you know …’

He pointed at Harry’s forehead.

Harry pulled back his fringe to show the lightning scar. Ron stared. His heart fluttered.

He waited for the Author to seize him by the shirt and drag him back to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, but she didn’t. Harry asked Ron if he wanted to sit beside him so that he wasn’t riding backwards.

‘Are you sure?’ Ron stuttered.

‘Yeah, there’s plenty of room. You’ll get sick otherwise.’

Ron didn’t need to be asked twice. He climbed over the table and the two boys spent the journey in nervous conversation. At one point, their hands brushed together. Neither pulled away.

And Ron understood what was happening. The Author was giving him a second chance.

All was well.

This piece was originally performed at Melbourne Writers Festival (‘YA’ll Are Thirsty’) on September 1, 2019, alongside original pieces by Alison Evans, Jes Layton, and CB Mako. Another gentle reminder: my new urban fantasy novel Monuments is out now, signed if you follow that link quickly enough. You don’t need to write fan fiction to experience the boys in that book kissing, but writing thirsty fan fiction about them is totally encouraged. In fact, just by reading this, you are now obligated to.

GIVEAWAY: Win an audiobook!

2018 saw the release of both The First Third and The Sidekicks on Australia’s Audible store. I’ll be giving away the choice of either to one lucky subscriber of my author newsletter. Simply sign up before February 15 for your chance to win.

What can you expect to feature in my author newsletter? News, sneak peeks, special offers, giveaways, book recommendations … It’s going to be my main way of communicating the readers while I gear up for the release of Monuments later this year.

More soon.

TOUR: Want Will Kostakis to visit your school?

You’d think, after years spent working as a web journalist, I would have learned not to headline a post with a question that could easily be answered with thousands of “No!” comments, but hey, apparently not.

Hi. If this is the only way you get Will Kostakis news, you haven’t heard from me since … shrieks while scrolling … Okay, that’s bad. It’s been two years since my last update. Those years have been spent writing and rewriting and rewriting my new young-adult novel, Monuments, and touring schools in Australia and the United States. While I get to work writing (and then rewriting and rewriting) Monuments 2, I want to be better at keeping in touch.

That means regular updates and soon, a newsletter (click here to subscribe) jam-packed with exclusive news, offers and giveaways.

What sort of offers will the newsletter feature? Well, those of you who’ve been following me for a while know that I’m a big believer in getting out and visiting schools, especially those restricted by locations and budgets. With the release of each book, I tour select schools around the country for free. This is the sort of thing my newsletter will eventually feature, but since my subscriber base is currently just my mum, I figured it’s only fair I involve you, my abandoned website visitors in it too.

To celebrate the re-release of 2014’s Stuff Happens: Sean in a collection of four awesome Stuff Happens stories (A Lot of Stuff Happens), I’m hitting the road in the first half of 2019. If you would like your Australian primary school to host a free author talk and meet-and-greet, email me. I will accommodate the first 15 schools to get in contact, and on the off-chance there’s more, I will try to visit as many as humanly possible.

Stuff Happens: Sean isn’t the year’s only re-release. Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOZYA Anthology has been released in B-Format, complete with a summery makeover. To celebrate (you guessed it), I’m hitting the road in the first half of 2019. If you would like your Australian high school to host a free author talk and meet-and-greet, email me. I will accommodate the first 5 schools to get in contact. If there’s more, you’ll be first in line for the Monuments tour later in the year.

Oh … yeah. My new novel Monuments is in stores this September. More on that soon.