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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Interview with Will Kostakis, author of 'The First Third'

This year I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of a Greek tragedy Aussie YA. 'The First Third' by Will Kostakis is funny and heartfelt, and seems to ring so true to the young author's own life that I simply had to pick his brain about fact and fiction ...

Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile? 
Slush pile - after seven rejection letters, eighth time was the charm.

Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
I have key plot milestones I want to hit, but I like to keep the parts between them loose, so that there’s a good mix of order and natural evolution. As a reader, there’s no more exhilarating feeling for me than when I know authors know what they're doing, and guide me with a steady hand, building towards an ending that utilises every piece of the story that comes before it. But that said, some of the best things I’ve ever written have been random, spur of the moment-type things, so I had to give myself the freedom to write those.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The First Third’, from first idea to final manuscript?
The idea of a grandmother, near death, meddling in her grandchildren’s lives, was in the back of my mind while I was writing the final draft of Loathing Lola. It was a potential arc for Katie in the infinitely-more-serious sequel I was considering.

The idea returned to me a few years later when I was swimming laps one evening, only this time it was of my own grandmother giving me a bucket list. And those plot milestones I mentioned earlier, they all started to just click into place as I swam (I ended up swimming twice as much as usual, only because I wanted to get to the end of it). When I emerged from the pool, I had that final scene, and I knew I had to write it, immediately. That was the middle of 2011. It was written by the middle of 2012, and then edited 4 more times until early this year, when it was finally finished.
Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
For me, scenario and ending come initially, then the characters I need to get the scenario to that ending just sort of fall into place. Given that the title was one of the first things I came up with, the theme of “crossing thresholds” (into adulthood etc) really informed the way the characters were built.

Q: In my review I said; “truth is stranger than fiction” and wondered on how much of ‘The First Third’ was you borrowed from your own life. So, can you discuss a bit about what’s fact and fiction and what real-life inspirations helped shaped this book?
It is fictional, but it was informed by a lot of fact. My yiayia did almost die from a kidney stone (and it was timed for dramatic effect too, but it was Christmas, not Easter), she thankfully survived. The bucket list doesn’t exist, never did, but you could say that a lot of it is inspired by what she’d want… The First Third was written at a time when there were no immediate plans to have a second book published, so I asked myself, ‘If I only get one more chance at this, what is the story I want to tell, and why?’

There was a lot to cram in there, the closeness I felt with my grandmother who helped raise me, my mother re-entering the dating world at 40 (hilarious), my absent father, my present-but-distant brothers, my really amazing friends… I eventually wrote a book that allowed me to say a lot, but in a completely fictional way.

The strongest motivating feeling was hoping to repair my strained relationship with my brothers, and that was what I was writing towards. And I knew that even if it wasn’t published, or if it was and then panned by critics, and a total flop, if my brothers picked it up, got to the end and knew how I much I cared for them, then I’d consider it a success.

Q: On that note, I’m assuming your family and friends have read the book – what were their reactions?
There was a lot of my mum saying, “You can’t write that!” Her exchanges with Yiayia in the book about her love-life are verbatim. But yeah, it’s hitting the right notes.

Q: Melina Marchetta is quoted on the cover of your book, and I can imagine for the multigenerational aspect you get a lot of “The new Melina Marchetta” tags. But I feel like Bill has a very different relationship with his Yiayia – and actually your book isn’t about a young person railing against the older generation’s restrictions, but seeing merit in them. And I loved Maria talking about this, telling Bill about the yiayiathes in Greece versus Australia. Can you talk a bit about Gen-Y Bill appreciating his Yiayia and what she teaches him?
I know it’s fashionable for kids to hate their parents/grandparents, especially in TV and film, but it’s something I never quite related to.

I was raised by my grandmother and mother while Dad committed himself to his do-over family. I couldn't "rail against" them because everything they did was for me and my brothers -- theirs is a love I wanted to pay tribute to, to appreciate.

As with a lot of YA, this is a story about defining self, but it comes from embracing heritage not from rejecting it -- that's not to say this is a blind acceptance of some of the crazy things my grandmother's generation believes. It's a meeting in the middle, a guide to being a third generation Greek Australian.

Q: I loved the character of Lucas, and the very affectionate friendship between him and Bill. I especially liked that he’s a gay character with cerebral palsy who is actually very comfortable and (seemingly) confident in his skin, but is dealing with other people’s reactions and misconceptions about him. Sometimes it’s hard to find male friendships in books that feel as true and lovely as this, and I wonder if you have future plans for Lucas - maybe in a book all his own?
My first instinct would be to say YES. The Ps were something that evolved a lot as I wrote (bar Lucas' admission, they were the unplotted portion). Damo was originally the third member of the Sticks/Bill group - they were a trio, but he wasn't working as a character, so I demoted him to a background character,  made him Sticks' older brother, and then he found his voice, and he became a rich character on the fringes.

I would love to write a book about the Ps, but I'm wary... They thrive in the background. Whenever my favourite TV shows give more plotlines to the underused characters I love, I slowly begin to love them less... be it because I tire of them, or because what enamoured me to them was the mystery.

If I find a plotline that services Lucas and his family, then yes, I will revisit them. I am certain this won't be the last time I write a novel in this universe, whether it'll be a story about teenagers, twentysomethings or fiftysomethings, I can't say for certain. While The First Third does satisfy all of its arcs, Bill's story isn't over.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Terry Pratchett. 

Q: Favourite book(s)? 
His Discworld books featuring the witches. Amazing. But looking locally, anything by Barry Jonsberg, Gabrielle Williams,  Melina Marchetta, Simmone Howell really works for me.

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
Write the story you can't imagine going your whole life not writing, and write it like you're talking to friends. Small words, simple sentences, big ideas, and be honest.

The First Third is now available from all good bookstores 

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