On Writing

Writers, editors, agents, publishers and more share their thoughts, experiences and stories.

Where do you do your writing?

I have a studio at the Abbotsford Convent, where I do most of my writing. If I can’t get there, I will try and carve a chunk of time out of the day and write by hand in an exercise book or my general notebook. Usually this means an out-of-the-way cafe near work (I teach at RMIT). On my recent Asialink residency in Myanmar/ Burma (funded by Arts Victoria), I didn’t have a dedicated writing space, so I ended each day writing up my experiences in local internet cafes. 

Photo of Lee Kofman in bushland

Dictionary Definition:

1. Not as well-known as their female counterparts, the Literary Wives (LW). Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s ‘wife’, for example, is nowadays inseparable from Stein’s oeuvre; Stein even titled one of her books ‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas’, forever mythologising her helpmate’s role in the Stein legend.

Do you have a manuscript in your ‘bottom drawer’? One that you promised yourself that you would finish, polish, and get out to agents and/or publishers this year?

Now it’s October. . . The year is almost over and you’re keen to make good on that New Year’s resolution and get it onto someone’s desk before midnight this New Year’s Eve.


Could there be a better time to make your submission?

Who were the writers you admired when you first started writing?

I started writing when I was only six or seven and my favourite writers were people like Enid Blyton, CS Lewis and Eleanor Farjeon. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always loved to read, and so the two have gone hand-in-hand ever since.

‘I start at the first sentence of the novel and finish at the end . . . There is only one draft and when it’s done it’s done.’ You could not ask for a more concise description of the ‘pantsing’ method, though in the lecture from which this quote is taken, Zadie Smith uses the term micro manager. And she makes it clear that there is no preliminary planning stage for her – start means start. 

They say to write what you know. It sounds so easy. Know something? Great. Use it in your writing. But what if what you know about is the astonishing variety of resonant structures that cicadas use to be so ear-splittingly annoying every summer, and you dream of writing a chew-your-nailsto- the-quick thriller with murder and mayhem? Death by noisy insect is hardly a compelling plot device. 

For me, books often arise from images and an image is responsible for the origin of my latest one, ‘Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy’. On Boxing Day 1974, which was my eleventh birthday, I walked down the driveway of my suburban Melbourne home to pick up the paper. Moments later, I stood trying to make sense of the photo before me: an image of flattened piles of rubble and twisted pieces of corrugated iron – what was left of Darwin after the city was hit by a cyclone late on Christmas Eve and into Christmas morning.

When I go for a check-up at the Aboriginal medical service, my doctor asks if she can record my details for her research. I say sure, no worries and continue with my appointment. I pay scant attention to what the research is and what policy my statistics will be influencing this time. You see, they say that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most researched demographic in Australia. As an Aboriginal, Chinese and Muslim woman I can attest to this a thousand times over. 

Research is essential for writers. Set as a debate topic, I couldn’t speak on the negative team. Research takes so many different forms with all sorts of motivations. It might be validating an idea or fact-finding so that your writing is more convincing. My notebooks are full of observations and eavesdropping, so just going out for a coffee is technically research. And, of course, often it’s simply a tool to justify plain old procrastination.

There are so many times I find myself thinking that writing historical fiction is a far more difficult challenge than to simply write fiction inspired by our everyday experience of life. Not that writing fiction is ever a simple feat to achieve. Writers write fiction because they have a story to tell. To tell a story filtered through history challenges writers not only to construct their story through a context not their own, but also often by using the real stories of real people from history.