Welcome to Why Write, a super short podcast that asks writers just that, why they write. Hi, I’m Noè Harsel, a writer and Chair of Writers Victoria, and you know, I’m excited to chat to a diverse group of writers and simply ask, why write? I’m glad you’re here with me.
Today I have Bram Presser. Bram is a lapsed criminal lawyer and academic and has been a cartoon character twice. He’s also a musician and an internationally and nationally award winning Australian writer, whose best-selling first novel, The Book of Dirt went on to receive the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, New Writing and the People’s Choice Award, as well as the Voss Award and the National Jewish Book Award in America for Debut Fiction.
Welcome to Why Write, Bram, it is great to finally get you here for this chat. You do a lot, and maybe a lot that maybe to some on the surface, seems somewhat disjointed to a very serious literary career. I’m really privileged to call you a friend, and it surprises me that I haven’t actually asked you this question already. So let’s get right to the big question, the reason why we are here. Tell us Bram, why do you write?
Thanks, Noè, great to be here. So as the kind of very well littered kind of list of, of former jobs I’ve had might suggest, really, I think I write because it’s the only thing I’m good at. Everything else seems to just be like: failed this, lapsed that! But, you know, I always like, I like to make that joke, and then I made the mistake once of making it, in a, in front of like a kind of an audience of older Jews basically. And then, as I’m walking out, I hear one lady talking to, to one of her friends, and she’s: “you hear what he said there? He was not a very good lawyer.” She’s right, but look, really, I think I probably consider myself a reader first. Right? So like, I read obsessively. And so I think a large part of why I write is to be in conversation with what I read. And like, I feel that it allows me to engage with people who are dead or would otherwise not want to have anything to do with me and talk with me. And you know, it transcends time, it transcends nationality, it transcends a lot of kind of the divisions that identities and what have you. And yeah, I’m just able to kind of inhabit a space where I can speak, or, you know, with words, you speak with words, but speak with words on the page with a lot of these people that I either admire or disagree with, or any of the other reasons you might want to engage with, with a writing community.
Also, weirdly, like I always have this idea, like it must be this ideal “Bram Book”, the books that I most want to read. And so I’m like in search of creating that. So I think part of why I write is to try and create what for me is the book that I most want to read that I’ve not yet quite encountered. So yeah, I think they’re kind of they’re kind of my, my, my main reasons, but you know, that I also have the kind of really classic one for want of a better term, which is that, you know, it’s the way I make sense of the world. Weirdly, for someone with a law background, I don’t think I’m very good as a speaker on the spot, right. So I used to find that I go into court, and if things were going my way, yeah, it was great. But as soon as there was a curveball, I was like, you know, this is not the way my ordered brain works. Whereas, you know, if I was able to kind of run with my kind of prepared speech, or arguments, then I was, they were beautifully crafted. So I think I like to just be able to hide away on a page and craft and grow my thoughts and try and work my way through them and make sense of them in a way that I really can’t find in any other sort of media.
That’s great. And I love that I’m dying to read the perfect “Bram Book”, obviously.
So am I. Hopefully one day, it will happen.
On that though, how do you get into it? How do you get into this space of writing like what is the most compelling thing for you to get into that what started off?
So it’s weird. I think it’s different from piece to piece, like The Book of Dirt is kind of an interesting one for me, because I had been searching for the history of my grandparents for a very long time. I had never really I never considered it that it was going to be a book. And then one day, I’m like, I’m sitting in, do you know, Veggie Hut in Box Hill? Right? Okay, so I was sitting in Veggie Hut, I had a couple friends who were who were, you know, they were coming to meet me. And they were both vegan, so that, you know, obviously means that they took a little longer to get there, no I am joking. And so, I just like this idea struck me of this kind of line. And I just wrote it down about the line never actually made the book, it was something to the effect of, you know: 10 years after they died, it was actually about my grandfather, 10 years after he died, I came to learn that everything I knew about my grandfather was a carefully crafted lie, right. And then I just kept writing, like they turned up and I like scribbled on all of these napkins. And then at that point, I was like, “Oh, this is actually a book.”
For the, there’s a couple of things I’m working on now. And one of them, it’s, it was just an idea I had, I just, I woke up one morning with this image in my head of a body washing up on a, like, in a small village on a riverbank that looked exactly like one of the people in the village, right. And then from there, I sort of started exploring that. And so that’s what I’m working on at the moment.
And then there was another one where I say, These things just hit you in the weirdest places, I actually went, this sounds very strange to synagogue. To, because a friend of my partners was getting married, and I was going for them, they have a call up at the week before where they get a call to the Torah. And I’m just sitting there. And there’s a couple of guys. And who I knew, and I’m like, Are you here for the bride or the or the groom’s side, and they’re like, oh, neither, we’re here for a friend. And we started talking, and they told me this incredible story. And like, while I’m not writing that story, it inspired me in a particular way to, to kind of think about this, what they had told me, and how I might make something of it, because it sort of really kind of blew me away like it was something that I’d never heard it was um, that you would that exposed a lot of sort of cracks in like the community I’m from particularly, and also kind of the idea of the history of, of, particularly Melbourne Jewry.
So yeah, so like, they there’s no real kind of hard and fast kind of rule for where I, like find a moment of inspiration. But that said, I do actually need that moment. I know, a lot of writers can actually just sit down and go, I will start writing, I’ll start writing about a character and things will start to flow. And then I’ll end up with this massive pile of essentially crap, which is actually a, you know, it’s kind of the raw stone from which you begin to chisel the sculpture. I can’t do that. I need that, that seed of inspiration.
Yes. Yeah, amazing. Well, on that I’m also really then interested in that notion of what you’re talking about taking inspiration from history or historical fact. And how when you’re writing that in a fictionalised way, or you’re memorialising, that, when does that evolve? Or what happens to the historical fact in your mind?
Yeah, so this is, this is actually really difficult, and it’s very, very dicey. It’s something that I firstly, I encountered writing Book of Dirt because something like the Holocaust is a really kind of difficult area, because, like, you know, fiction about the Holocaust, absolutely fine. But to get the facts wrong — the basic facts wrong, is deeply problematic. So, you know, where, where, how far can you kind of push the line before you cross into that problematic area? So like, for me, what so this is interesting. For my when I was researching my grandparents, I had to reimagine their pasts. Right. So I feel that The Book of Dirt even though it leaned very heavily on magical realism, and things that were clearly like mythical and a lot of kind of spiritual stuff. I feel that it is as close to an accurate historical description of what happened to my grandparents through those years, as it’s possible to give. And I actually think part of why I kind of infused it with those kinds of imaginative creative elements was to make it clear that I was not writing hard history, right.
So I think, I remember actually Arnold Zable said this to me quite early on in the piece, when I was really struggling with exactly this issue. And he said, you know, it’s okay to make stuff up. So long as you are clear to the reader that you’re making stuff up, like, so don’t try to pass off your creative expression as, like hard historical facts. It doesn’t have to be like, you can get the essence of it without having to nail it to the actual proper historical moments. Yeah. So, so I think I think, you know, there are lots of lots of books that I have a lot of problem with that I’ve written about them. That, that actually do cross that line. And it’s very easy. It’s actually, if there’s a, it’s almost seductive, to kind of get pulled into the full fiction of it and to, to kind of leave the facts behind, but depending on what you’re writing, like I think this generally with like historical fiction, a lot of what I do is based on historical stuff, so I think when I read historical fiction, even like amazing historical fiction, that is not like alternate history stuff. So I like the one that really springs to mind is Fatherland by Robert Harris. Right. Which is, you know, what if the Nazis had won the war, brilliantly done, right. And, and it works really well, because like, all of the basic historical facts leading into it, were right and his knowledge of this historical time is right. Yeah, there are other authors who are less committed to that and actually, their, their books suffer for it. They just like if you feel that you’re that you’re sort of being fed this kind of sanitised version of history or just like this romanticised it, it just doesn’t work. Like you don’t feel the authenticity. So, you know, I think for me, I think that the, that what I write is the historical, historically reimagined facts, but I think it stays true to that which is documented and verifiable
Bram, we cannot wait for what’s going to come up next and how you’re going to do it.
Might be a while. I’m a slow writer!
Thanks for listening. We would love to hear why you write. Tell me at whywrite.com.au Why Write is a Writers Victoria podcast. All programs and information about becoming a member with us at Writers Victoria is available at writersvictoria.org.au We hope you enjoyed Why Write and if you did, please tell your friends and don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on Apple iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Why Write was recorded at Brand Music and engineered by Michael Burrows.
Original Music by Michael Burrows.