Publications: See a list of Lee’s books here
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 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 we have Dr Lee Kofman. Lee is a Russian born, Israeli author of three fiction books and two memoirs, including Imperfect, which was shortlisted for the Nib Literary Award, and The Dangerous Bride. She’s the co-editor of Rebellious Daughters and editor of Split, which was long listed for the ABIA awards, and is an anthology of memoirs by prominent Australian authors. Her short works had been widely published Australia, US, UK, Scotland, Israel and Canada. She has a blog, which was a finalist for best Australian blogs in 2014. Lee’s most recent book is the Writer Laid Bare and is all about writing.
Welcome to Why Write, Lee. It is so a joy to have this chat with you. And we will no doubt get some tips on writing, as I always do, when we speak, as well as hear about your writing. So, I know we all want to get right to it, right to that big question. The reason why we are here. Tell us Lee, why do you write?
It’s actually wonderful question, which I did contemplate a lot because writing doesn’t come easily to me, I really struggle. I have to drag myself sometimes by the metaphorical hair to my writing desk. And sometimes just like a torture chamber, and so I do periodically check in with myself. And I do need those reasons, because I think they sort of keep me going when I when I hate those kind of downs. So there’s lots and lots of different reasons I can list for why I write.
But if I go really to the very basics of this, and that kind of pains me to say, because I’m a natural born rebel and I left religion of my parents, my parents are Jewish Orthodox. So I left to the religion of my parents when I was 14. But I think there’s something religious in my impulse to write, as I said, it does pain me to say, because I always like to differentiate myself and say, I am not like my mother, not like my father. But I think something, something of that sort of metaphysical upbringing did trickle down into my approach to writing. So for me, really, I think writing serves as a kind of framework very similar to religion in the sum of its purposes. It really helps me to live my life it’s, it’s an organising principle to my life, because generally, I’m a very scattered person. I speak three languages. I’ve lived in three countries. This day, I can say I lived in four countries, because I was born in Russia, but lived in Ukraine, the last six years there. I had lots of marriages and lovers, I had lots of profession, different professions and careers and hair colours. And if I’m advancing, which has been constant for me since I was eight years old is the right thing. So I just can’t see myself, I know it, psychologists often say that it’s not good to invest in just one aspect of your identity. But I really think this is my kind of anchor to who I am. And that I think, and this is a cliché, but it’s such a true cliché for me, writing helps me it’s a cliché, because a lot of writers say the same thing. But writers, writing really helps me to make sense of the world, which is really what religion does for a lot of people. And I never know what I think about something until I write about it and try to explore it in this way. And then another thing about writing and in how it’s similar in my mind to sort of the religious things that people get out of religion is you know, how we didn’t really just reach those people sort of look for the sublime experiences. Now, sometimes you can attend those and prayer or, or visions or whatever it is, for whoever. Writing, as I said, it’s extremely hard for me, but there are moments when I really get into the flow. And I think I live for this moment I write for this moment. And that’s better than sex, I must say, you’re really, which maybe says something about more about my sex life than my writing I think?
I think it’s really I think it’s really interesting what you’re saying and the beauty of that parallel between the notion of religion and writing and that sort of profound experience and I’ve heard you I think I’m correct in hearing you describe memoirs more as quests, you know, so that there’s a quest in writing the memoir. And I love that notion as well. And I’m wondering if you could explain that and even tell me what it is about the memoir writing itself, that is called to you particularly?
I thank you. Noè, can I actually tweak this question a little bit and say what I, say not just memoir, but fiction as well? I do not make a very big distinction between memoir and fiction writing in terms of the purpose of writing them, not in terms of the, you know, the writing conventions. Because that my first two books are fiction, actually. And, but for me, I always, it’s always sort of comes out of this questing impulse, I think, I think, to persevere in writing a book, as we both know, because you’re a writer yourself, to persevere if a book which takes you know, years, for some people might be two years for people like myself three to five or more.
To persevere with a book, you really need to something need to be really urgent for the writer themselves. And if I’m going to write a book, where I, where I feel like I have a particular message to convey, or lesson to teach, I personally, without offending anybody else, but for me personally, this is I will feel arrogant to write for those so the freedoms and I also think when you have a particular message, so very kind of strong message you want to convey it, it doesn’t lead usually to artistic writing the energy is not the same energy as when you explore something. So my, my sort of approach to creating an artwork, what attracts me to an artwork, what sustains me through those years of hard slog is to when I have an urgent question I want to answer through the writing of the work. And that’s what I meant also before when I said that, for me, writing is my means to make meaning.
So let’s say if I’m, let’s say I’m passionate about a particular issue. Like if we go back to memoir, as you now Noè, my first memoir was called The Dangerous Bride, was about non monogamy. So I did have I did start from a message but I wanted to convey that in my first draft, that’s my first draft was very bad. My strong message was that non monogamy is a great option. It’s a great thing to do. And I still think so, I still think that non monogamy is no different to monogamy. I mean, it’s very different, but it’s just as valuable way of living. But, then as showed my first draft to a wonderful mentor I had then, Judith Lukin-Amundsen, I can never pronounce her name, I am sorry, but she is an editor who, you know, I edits Helen Garner and some other writers I really look up to. And she said to me, ‘Lee, get off your high podium. Why, you know, and stop preaching,’ and she was so right. And then I asked myself a different question I asked myself, ‘Okay, well, I believe I genuinely believe that more non monogamy is, is a valuable way of loving, no less valuable than monogamy. So why did I fail this so gloriously when I had the chance to try? Why for me didn’t work, even though I think it’s, it’s a good way of potentially having an intimate life. And that will drive my book eventually.
And I think when you write from a point of view, whether fiction or nonfiction doesn’t matter, when you come to work from a point of view of the seeker, then you become really, then you’re much more likely to produce wise things as well. I’m not talking about myself. Now I’m thinking about Socrates who said, I know what I know, nothing. And he was such a, because this is where the wisdom is, I think, in approaching your subject open mindedly and be open to to find things you never thought he would find out about it.
Can I ask you a question that goes back to the fact that yes, your first three books, I believe were fiction. I’m really fascinated by this notion of, about writing in your another for you could be the second, third, language. What is that experience like? Where are the limitations and the freedoms in that?
That’s a great question. What do we have an hour? All my books are written in languages, which are not my mother tongue. So I’m really what is called exophonic writer. Because I wrote my first three books in Hebrew, but my mother tongue and then an English, the next five, but my, my mother tongue is Russian. And I think when you’re so dislocated from language, it’s, it’s, look, there’s a lot of downs and ups for it, but from a positive, if I look at this from a positive lens angle, you always feel and an I was, I should say, I, I should always, I always feel uncertain in the languages I write, even if I have a good vocabulary in them, even if I speak them everyday. Still, it’s not the same like you know, being born into this language and I, so I feel always feel a bit a little bit dislocated, a little bit on the margins. And it although it’s a painful position to be in, but I think it helps me to keep me, it keeps me on my toes. It just just sort of maybe hopefully I mean, I might be wrong, but it hopefully it means I approach writing more carefully than I would have if I, if I sort of, you know, rather than my mother tongue and also the last thing I’ll say about it for today is that sometimes when you don’t know cliches you just don’t use them because you don’t know them.
That’s so perfect. And Lee, it kills me, but we have not even touched the surface of the millions of things I wanted to ask you, we might have to do a part two at some stage. But thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you giving me some time this afternoon to tell us why you write
It’s such a pleasure. Thank you for having me, Noè
Thanks for listening. We would love to hear why you write, tell me at whywrite.com.au
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