David Canfield
October 17, 2017 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Will Kostakis has a new book coming out — and he found just the writer to talk with about it: John Corey Whaley.

Kostakis is an Australian author making his stateside debut with The Sidekicks, a poignant exploration of grief that centers on three boys who come together after their shared best friend unexpectedly dies. It’s generated positive word-of-mouth and is a fitting introduction for Kostakis — a wunderkind who published his first book at just 19 years old and was already winning writing awards in high school — to American readers.

Whaley, the award-winning author of Where Things Come Back, most recently published Highly Illogical Behavior, a tender teen story that frankly tackles taboo subjects including sexuality and mental health. The book, released in paperback earlier this year, was cited by NPR and many other outlets as one of 2016’s best. Tuesday night he’ll introduce Kostakis at a Sidekicks event at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif.

Ahead of that, the two acclaimed YA novelists quizzed each other in an exclusive EW interview about their inspirations for their latest projects — personal questions which naturally led to some intimate but funny discussion on their experiences growing up. Their conversation below covers topics ranging from anxiety to coming out to the ever-complicated writing process.

Courtesy Will Kostakis; Lilly Lawrence/WireImage

JOHN COREY WHALEY: Will — your new book is called The Sidekicks. What’s it about (in one sentence) and what made you want to write it?

WILL KOSTAKIS: “Four guys, one dies, what next?” The Sidekicks has been 10 years in the making. It started as a senior-year project. My best friend had passed away the year before, and I was still processing how it affected me. I always wanted to revisit it in more depth, and I expanded it over the years until it became a novel.

… And I bet you can’t pitch Highly Illogical Behavior in six words or less.

WHALEY: Six words! Wow. Okay — “Anxious kid makes new friends. Maybe.”

KOSTAKIS: And why did you write it?

WHALEY: The origin of my book is pretty personal too. I’ve dealt with anxiety for years, and when it got to its worst after I turned 30, I felt like it was finally time to write about it.

I commend you for writing about something so painful — did you find it helped you grieve as an adult in a way you weren’t able to as a teen? I feel like writing is sometimes the only way I understand anything.

KOSTAKIS: Back then, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. It was the worst pain I had experienced and my life was over. Revisiting that grief through my writing as an adult though, I saw my friend’s death in the context of the life I have lived since. I could definitely see how it had shaped me, and while I certainly wish it hadn’t happened and would give anything to have him back, I felt more at peace. The writing process also forced me to consider how others grieved, and I think it allowed me to better understand why others reacted differently at the time.

But I was conscious of the fact that my characters had to grieve as teenagers, not as twentysomethings. That meant preserving how I grieved in high school, warts and all. You drew from your later-in-life experiences with anxiety for inspiration … Was it difficult to separate teen Solomon from thirtysomething Corey?

WHALEY: SO difficult. But I realized after much trial and error that I could focus on anxiety and still frame it from a young person’s perspective — it took effort, though, to not get on a soapbox as my adult author self when discussing mental illness, so I tried to make sure Solomon’s knowledge and experience were more personal and raw than they were researched and understood.

Switching gears a little here — you’ve published two previous novels to much acclaim in your home country of Australia and you’re quite known for being a literary wunderkind there. Have you ever referred to yourself as a wunderkind? You have to tell the truth, it’s EW.

KOSTAKIS: You need to see my debut author photo… Look at the popped collar, the smug smirk, you can tell he referred to himself as a wunderkind. For that reason, I am so thankful my first book flopped upon release. It cut me down to size and helped me realize age and hype aren’t everything. I had to work on myself and my craft, and I’m a better person and writer because of it.

Harlequin Teen

WHALEY: That popped collar would’ve taken this country by storm, my friend. I hope you’ll consider a pop or two on your first U.S. tour. Don’t think I won’t ask you in public either. What excites you most about your American debut?

KOSTAKIS: I’m making my debut having had a test run in Australia. It’s like I’ve been training 10 years for this … The American YA community is so large and passionate, and I’m most excited to get to spend some time in it. … And also to lug home some beautiful, beautiful hardcovers. They’re not really a thing in Australia, which is devastating.

Do you have any advice for me as a debut author? What are the traps? What have you learned?

WHALEY: My advice? Oh boy. Danger, Will Kostakis. Danger! But, in all seriousness, the YA community here really is 99 percent awesome and only about 1 percent perpetual popped collars, so you’re going to love it. I think what I’ve learned most is that kids’ librarians and booksellers are the true heroes of the book world. For them, it’s about finding the perfect story for a kid or teen. And that passion and its impact are awesome and contagious. So, my only advice is to make as many librarian and bookseller friends as possible, which shouldn’t be hard for an Australian recovering wunderkind who writes really damn good books about the teenage experience.

Throwing it back to The Sidekicks, you’ve mentioned in interviews that part of what you wanted to explore in this book is the way society forces toxic masculinity onto otherwise sensitive young men. This is definitely a problem in the U.S., and one I’ve had a particularly personal experience with growing up gay in Louisiana. Having read about your advocacy for LGBTQI rights in Australia — I’m wondering — did your experience of being gay inform your need to delve into this subject matter? And, are you ready for your books to be potentially challenged in closed-minded areas of America, as is the fashion in the Trump era?

KOSTAKIS: I came out the week before The Sidekicks‘ Australian release, and a high school canceled a book launch event they had organized because they now feared my gayness rendered the book unsuitable for teenagers. The book was never supposed to be my super gay book, it wasn’t written as that, but my sexuality colored how some people saw it. Ultimately it’s a book inspired by my experiences grieving in an all-boys, sports-centric school, where showing emotion wasn’t really the norm. That meant reflecting the broad spectrum of teen boy experiences, from gay to straight, rebellious to straight-laced, outgoing to timid…

But my sexuality does inform my grief … I was closeted, my friend who died was closeted. We were too afraid to tell each other the truth, and what an absolute waste of the time we shared. All grief is rooted in time — not having enough of it, not spending it properly. I’m sure the hyper-masculine culture of my school at the time played a part in my reluctance, so I couldn’t not delve into it.

How did your upbringing shape the stories you’ve told?

WHALEY: I’m one of those writers who thinks where you’re from ultimately shapes every story you tell — so I’d definitely say I use my books to specifically work out things I’ve dealt with in my own life, in the past and currently, as a result of where I’m from — I wrote my first book to come to terms with being from a small, Southern town. My second one was about having a completely new life and feeling disconnected from the past, and this last book was my way of confronting the anxiety I’ve lived with since my teens. I think I also write a lot about religion and faith and the way those affect people struggling to belong in certain communities.

It’s been great chatting with you, Will, and I wish you all the best with your U.S. debut! Unless your fame knocks me right back into literary obscurity, and then I wish you only as much success as places you just shy of that, of course. But just shy. Haha.

In all seriousness, so many of us are thrilled you’re bringing your lovely book to the States and I can’t wait to cause some mayhem and dig a little deeper into this story with you on your upcoming U.S. Tour!

Any last words, pal?

KOSTAKIS: No last words, only … *Pops collars up*

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