Les Zigomanis was 36 in 2007 when he enrolled at NMIT (now Melbourne Polytechnic) to study a Certificate IV in Professional Writing and Editing. Having drafted his first novel at 15, after struggling with mental health issues and working in jobs he didn’t like, he finally made the decision to take his writing seriously.
Along with its creative writing units, it offered editing and publishing subjects, and an in-house hands-on student-led publishing arm, Flat Chat Press. It also boasted something important to Les: his teachers were practising, published authors – Sallie Muirden, Anna Krien and Andrew Morgan, amongst others.
Now Zigomanis can count himself amongst them: in August this year his seventh novel, This, was published by independent publisher Midnight Sun. He’s also notched up over 100 placements in international screenwriting competitions, as well as writer/director credits for, among others, the 2021 short film Little Diva Rising. He has a reputation as a deft and trusted editor, with writers such as Miles Franklin Award-winning A.S. Patric saying Les “brings to his editing work a refined sense of craft and rock-solid integrity”.
“I really count those two years at NMIT as the best years of my life,” Zigomanis says. “In high school, I was an outsider because I was into writing and reading. When I wanted to write, I couldn’t find people to connect with. At NMIT, I found a creative hub: people who got me and helped me develop and evolve. For the first time, I really enjoyed going to school.”
“At NMIT, I found a creative hub: people who got me and helped me develop and evolve.”
Pairing up with fellow student Blaise van Hecke on their first Flat Chat Press project, Les found a buoyant, bubbly co-conspirator in his publishing dreams and ventures. With their newfound skills and combined energies, they set up Busybird, a community writing hub, publishing house, and editing service, in the north-eastern suburb of Montmorency.
With the help of van Hecke’s husband, illustrator and photographer Kev Howlett, and a small band of enthusiastic co-NMIT students, Busybird published a series of Untitled anthologies showcasing emerging writers’ short fiction, offered mentoring and manuscript assessment services, and co-published local authors’ manuscripts, including important collections of cancer survival stories, Journey: Experiences with Breast Cancer and Below the Belt: Experiences with Prostate Cancer.
Van Hecke – who passed away last year – became chair of Melbourne’s Small Press Network and a fierce advocate for emerging writers and independent publishing. She was a “quiet, effective force”, says Zigomanis. “If she said she was going to do something, she did it. She drove the whole project – even paid for the first issue of Untitled on her credit card.”
Zigomanis and Howlett continue to run Busybird (now in its 14th year), drawing a full-time income for this work – never an easy proposition in the publishing and arts industries. Meanwhile, This has been launched into the literary world and Zigomanis hopes it provides a counterpoint to existing Young Adult novels dealing with mental health issues.
A work of fictionalised autobiography, This tells the story of a 15-year-old boy navigating declining mental health, social and school issues, and the difficulties of overbearing Greek parents. “One of the things I hate about many stories that deal with mental health is the way mental health issues can be treated like a quirk,” says Les. “I wanted to write a story about how serious mental health issues can be, that mental health decline can happen organically, regardless of how supportive and loving people are around you.”
Zigomanis has been a public advocate on mental health issues, working for Sane Victoria and Beyond Blue. He slates his confidence as a public speaker back to the experience he gained at NMIT, where students had to read their work in front of peers at a public venue once a month.
NMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program is, sadly, defunct – as is the case with many of its equivalents in Victorian TAFEs. But for Zigomanis, the adage ‘TAFE changes lives’ could not be truer.