Writing time and place

Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Lee Kofman

headshot of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

My writing has always been grounded in a strong sense of place. Perhaps this is because places in my own life have been so contingent, so impermanent, that they often got transformed in my mind into mythology, and personal mythology is one of the most powerful drivers in writing that I know.

Siberia and Ukraine I associate with childhood, that time when every significant experience is amplified and stamps your psyche somehow. Whereas some Israeli cities, particularly Tel Aviv, stand for me for youth and all this expansive word includes – body, music, sexual and intellectual energy. Melbourne, the city where I’ve lived for the last fourteen years – the longest I’ve ever spent in one place – became for me a metaphor for personal freedom and reinvention which are the prerogatives of migrants like me, who move to a new country alone.

My preoccupation with all these places propels much of my writing. For example, my last novel I will love Christina was really my love song for Tel Aviv. And my forthcoming memoir about non-monogamy, The Dangerous Bride, is also a story of my past inability to remain faithful to one city or even country. So for me places are not backgrounds to the story, they are integral to it. They are characters too, with their own personalities, and they are responsible for much of the book’s mood, the atmosphere. They shape main characters and they are filtered through those characters’ points of view.

You’ve been blogger-in-residence on the Writers Victoria website for over a year. What do you think about the new spaces that digital technologies are creating for writers?

These are risky but also exciting places. Like sirens, if you aren’t careful they can seduce you then kill your writing output. I find that when I blog, or even tweet, I use the same creative energy I use in ‘proper’ writing. However, from the start I decided to treat my posts for Writers Victoria as mini-essays. As such, they are inseparable from my oeuvre and one day may turn into larger works. I know of other bloggers who also using their blogs as spaces to work on larger projects, and sometimes blogs become books, like in the case of Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia. Moreover, cyberspace offer writers some rewards that aren’t available in print, mainly – direct access to readers and the immediacy of their responses. I think as long as writers use digital technologies artistically rather than in a narcissistic or therapeutic fashion (i.e. to offload unprocessed feelings and fleeting thoughts) then these spaces can be great both for producing new work and reaching a vast, engaged audience.

You’ve written about how many authors have built their writing lives around working in cafes. Is that where you spend a lot of your writing time?

Oh yes! I am a restless writer and love wandering throughout the day between different places. Paradoxically my restlessness actually focuses me, The novelty of each place clears my head and makes me see whatever I’m working on from a new perspective. So I often move between my study, the living room and local cafes.

You’re an immersion writer – do you believe that a person can authentically write a place without having been there?

I believe some writers can do this but not all, and the trick is to be aware of your own limitations. Generally, writers I know of can be roughly divided into two types. Some are what I call ‘curious’ writers. They possess strong imagination and can literally transport their readers into other places and times with great authenticity. Jules Verne, for example, famous for his adventure novels set in exotic locations, hardly ever left his house in France. But I belong to the second type, that of the ‘obsessed’ writers (I borrowed this term from Gerard Murnane). We are obsessed with certain people and places, often at least loosely related to our life experiences, and most or all of our work is dedicated to exploring these, possibly for the purpose of exorcising the obsession. Milan Kundera is an example of such a writer. And Murnane too, of course.

Who are some authors who’ve really nailed writing time and place?

Most good writers write time and place well. But here are some examples of those who in my opinion excel. Joan Didion wrote a stunning little book, Salvador, bringing alive that beautiful and terrible place during its bloody 1980s. Her many essays on America, particularly California and New York, are pure poetry and affect me at the gut level. Moscow during Stalin’s time is a character in its own right in my favourite novel ever, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Jonathan Franzen and Hanif Kureishi are masters of analysing contemporary reality, rendering what we came to take for granted – be this climate change or our addiction to therapy – as strange. Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbo set in Carthage during the third century BC is a masterful example of historical fiction that recreates vividly, scrupulously and believably a little-known time and place. Robert Dessaix is an example of an Australian writer whose creative nonfiction and fiction turn places into characters. Even when set in the present, Dessaix’s work is imbued with the strong presence of the past. I can go on and on, of course, so I better stop here.

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her short works in English have been widely published in Australia, the UK, Scotland, Canada and the US. Her first book in English, the memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’ is due to appear in October 2014 through MUP. More information is available at Lee’s website.