Bri Lee is a writer and editor with a career to watch.
Her first book, Eggshell Skull, was published in 2018. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards in non-fiction, winning the 2019 People's Choice Award, and also won the 2018 People's Choice at the Nib Awards for research in writing, and the 2019 ABIA for Biography of the Year. Eggshell Skull was also shortlisted for the 2019 Indie Book Awards and longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.
Her second work, Beauty, is a meditation on beauty and body image. It was published in 2019, and will be followed by Brains in 2021.
Bri was the Founding Editor of the quarterly print periodical Hot Chicks with Big Brains, commissioning and publishing diverse non-fiction about women and their work from 2015 to 2018.
Bri's shorter pieces have been published in The Monthly, Harper's Bazaar Australia, The Saturday Paper, Crikey, The Guardian, Griffith Review, i-D, VAULT Art Magazine, and elsewhere. She regularly appears on The Drum on ABC TV, various ABC Radio National programs, and often gives talks on writing, law, feminism, fashion, pop culture, and art.
In 2016 Bri was the recipient of the inaugural Kat Muscat Fellowship, and in 2017 was one of Griffith Review's Queensland writing fellows. She has received numerous other fellowships, residencies, and mentorships, most recently the 2018 Premier's Young Publishers and Writers Award at the Queensland Literary Awards.
ASTRID: Bri Lee, welcome to The Garret.
BRI: Thank you for having me.
ASTRID: Now, I am terribly excited to be interviewing you, but we should say we are recording in the State Library of New South Wales. We have just been listening to Christmas carols, and goodness knows what other noises we will get through the course of our interview.
BRI: I did hear a clarinet being used to help people match tone and warm up, which is a nice touch.
ASTRID: This is going to be a very different interview, but that's all good.
So, thank you for your time. And congratulations, Bri. You have had one of the most stunning and spectacular entries into the Australian literary and publishing scene that I have seen, and I mean that in genuine honesty. I know that you have done many, many years of work behind the scenes and I want to talk about that, but I mean, from kind of the public point of view, Eggshell Skull in 2018, Beauty in 2019, and I don't know, holy shit you are here, and everywhere I look. So, congratulations
I am also about ten years older than you, and I feel like quite the underachiever every time I look at your CV. And I really want explore this, firstly because I am fascinated, but secondly because you talk about perfectionism and the quest to achieve and the drive to achieve in Beauty. So it's clearly something that you think about in terms of your own work and your own career.
ASTRID: And I'd like to chat to you about it. So, let's start with 2015 and Hot Chicks with Big Brains.
BRI: Yes. So I started and ran a Indie lit mag for what two and a half, three years. It was all about women and work - all kinds of women, all kinds of work. And it published diverse non-fiction. It started off as biannual, then it went quarterly for one year, finishing up... God, when? I guess at the end of 2017 or at the beginning of 2018, something like that.
I mean, it also makes a lot of sense now that I look back. It had just always interested me... what were the unique challenges facing women in all kinds of jobs? And so something I was really proud of is that every issue would have a really diverse range of not only writers, but a diverse range of people who are profiled. So you had you know the really high up sort of white collar fancy jobs, and then you had, you know, front line service workers, you had people who ran charities to help homeless people feed their pets. It was like really...
I just learned so much. And also, there's a lot that you learn about writing from editing, even the specific appreciation I have for writers who meet deadlines and who you know to be reliable filers. Having experienced that from the other side on, you know, an Indie mag which is very sort of small scale low stakes - well, it never felt low stakes to me - but I feel like I really learned a lot of the ropes as a freelancer from running my own show for a while.
ASTRID: And that wasn't just online, that was print. So you had distribution you have marketing.
BRI: Yes it's a small business. I mean it's also a masterclass in small business running, because I ran it all through my sole trader freelance ABN.
You know, I think it's funny when people say things like, 'Oh, I'm just not very good at emails'. But if you run a small business or you're self-employed or you're a freelancer, you know, 75 percent of your life is email. These are not optional sort of skills. Just keeping track of invoices, oh my God spreadsheets, how I love spreadsheets. All that stuff. It just sort of... what it did was when I messed up, I was the one that suffered, and this baby that I was raising was the one that suffered. And so it was a harsh time to be learning those lessons, but I'm very grateful for them now.
And you know, my best mate Anna Apuli ran it with me. And she came up with the logo, which was a Venn diagram because we'd had long conversations where I talked about how much the Venn diagram is just... I think it's something I'll be coming back to in my writing for the rest of my life, about how there are so many things that we think are binaries, or there are so many things that we think are separate issues, but everything intersects and everything is related.
And yes, I published Beauty this year, Brains will be coming out hopefully next year. And even looking at that now - like that was the whole thing about Hot Chicks with Big Brains, is how women, you know, feel unique pressures to present themselves or go about the world just so that they can have their brains taken seriously like in quote marks 'a regular human being' i.e. men' would be. In hindsight, it's all very it makes a lot of sense.
ASTRID: Now, you just said Brains. Give us the 20 second introduction to Brains.
BRI: It's just like what Beauty is, in terms of being that length of an essay. A combination of... hopefully, a combination of philosophy and social criticism and lit criticism and a bit of life writing, where essentially I ask the question 'what is one version of the apex of this idea?' And so for Beauty it was thinness, and for Brains it will be that kind of academic sort of intelligence. And I want to ask what is the sort of extreme perfected version of this, and what does it tell us about ourselves and our society, and about how we all inevitably fail to reach that.
ASTRID: You take on the big questions. [Laughter]
So, we're going to get to Brains, and we are going to get to Beauty, but first off let's go back a step. So, you had Hot Chicks with Big Brains, which ran for a few years, and then in 2016 you were the inaugural Kat Muscat Fellow. Now, I have actually seen you refer to that fellowship and share the subsequent fellowships online, saying that, you know, it changed your career and that was really important to you. What did it do for you and why did it change your career?
BRI: Absolutely. I'll never forget the moment I opened the email, because I was overseas at the time and I was it was about 3:00am in the morning because I was up trying to finish some deadline.
ASTRID: A true writer.
BRI: Yes indeed. And yes, I was in New York. And I opened the email and I knew it, I just had this absolute feeling from head to toe like a wave going over me that that was a new entire life trajectory had just opened up for me. And I knew it then, and it turned out to be absolutely that was the case.
So, I had applied for the Kat Muscat fellowship with the idea for Eggshell Skull, with the exception that at that time my own investigation of my own was ongoing, and so any public comments about what I had been given the Fellowship for and what Eggshell Skull was about had to sound like it was only going to be my reflections as a legal professional, it didn't mention anything about mine being a survivor complainant. But off the back of the press release going out I got emails from two or three publishers expressing an interest in seeing the manuscript whenever it was done. And then I took that interest to get an agent, and then the agent turned that three person interest into like a 12 person interest, and the rest is history. So it did.
It just... the feeling I have about it is that it just... it just short cut what I think otherwise would have taken I don't even know how long. And also in particular it allowed me to get my now agent Grace Heifetz, who then was at Curtis Brown and now runs Left Bank Literary with her and Gaby Naher as a partnership and then through Grace Heifetz agenting me I got to meet and sign with Jane Palfreyman, my publisher at Allen and Unwin, who is the best of the best. And for me it is a one two three of Fellowship, Grace, Jane. And that being this incredibly strong and powerful and sort of reliable foundation on which I believe the entire rest of my career has been and will continue to be built upon.
ASTRID: So that speaks really highly to essentially investment in the arts sector.
ASTRID: So what did the Kat Muscat Fellowship actually involve? I mean, it's obviously public recognition, but was it space, was it money, was a time?
BRI: So I applied with one set of things that I asked. It was $3,000 worth of - that was part of your application, what you want to spend the money on. I wanted to spend the money on a residency or something or other, and then the Fellowship committee convinced me to spend it on mentoring instead. So, I had one sort of official mentor which was Liam Pieper, who helped me with actual sort of editing of sample chapters, how to structure a pitch document to even send out, he read over the sample chapters and everything. And then the sort of unofficial kind of life mentor was Krissy Kneen, who is, you know, just the best person in the world. And she really helped me with a lot of those more nebulous questions like, 'I feel terrible. Am I a terrible person?' and 'Why am I life writing? How do you manage this life?' And it was their mentorship that I spent the most of that money on and where I also learnt so many valuable lessons.
ASTRID: And then you were writing Eggshell Skull throughout 2016 and 2017?
ASTRID: It was published in 2018. Now, in 2017 - because I've been googling you - you were one of Griffith Review's Queensland Writing Fellows. Now that's another public recognition, you know, before you even have a book out there. What did that involve?
BRI: So the Griffith Review Fellowship was what ended up coming out as a like a sort of standalone piece of memoir. It was actually an edited version of one of the chapters from Eggshell Skull, and that... I mean it's interesting that you say that I got that and it was still before the book came out, but it was very much off the back of the legal specific sort of freelancing and issues based freelancing I had been doing as well, including an article that I had written for the Millennials edition of the Griffith Review called 'Young lady that's inappropriate', in which I did a lot of the work - for which, I should say - I did a lot of the legal research that I would then come to reference and bring up again and again and again, both during the writing of and the publicity of Eggshell Skull.
ASTRID: When did you start being a freelance writer?
BRI: I was doing it in between my associateship on a very sort of small and sly scale even back in 2015 for places like Scum Mag and Spook Magazine, which no longer exists, and Writer's Block, and then I think I might have just got something in Kill Your Darlings. Like, it was very much... my advice when I get asked by younger or more emerging writers about freelancing in particular is that you have to imagine it as a kind of diagonal staircase where you start with the tiniest place online only that pays you know $25, maybe $50, and you get your bylines there and then you step up diagonally ever so slightly. And you just sort of have to hop and hop hop and hop until you find yourself in The Saturday paper.
ASTRID: Of all the publications in the world, what do you... what's your dream?
BRI: Oh, The New Yorker.
ASTRID: The New Yorker.
BRI: Yeah, absolutely. Because I've had a subscription now for I think three years. I first subscribed when I absolutely could not afford it, and it was very much a sort of treat to myself. But then I very quickly realised that reading it as much as I could was making me smarter, was expanding my brain in the way exercise does for other muscles in the body, really, truly. And I love it.
ASTRID: For everyone not in the room, you are smiling right now. [Laughter] I
BRI: I just even love reading it. It's just... I even... one of the things I read most frequently is the 'Tables for two' section by Hannah Goldfield, she does it mostly now. Even though I know I go to New York maybe once every one or two years, but even the food writing about restaurants to which I will probably never visit is that good. [Laughter]
ASTRID: Back to your writing. But I do love your investment in reading as a way to become a better writer. In 2018 Eggshell Skull, your memoir is published to great and deserving acclaim. Separate to your memoir being published, you know,#MeToo rocks the world. And it just, you know, even just looking back a year, two years from that time Eggshell Skull couldn't have come at a better time for what the world was ready for and hungry for and just wanting to discuss. You couldn't plan that, but what was that like for you?
BRI: Yeah, this is a really interesting question that I appreciate being asked, because I started planning and very much was well underway writing Eggshell Skull go ages before Harvey Weinstein, before any of #MeToo o really properly sort of broke the way we're both referring to. And then it was an absolute fluke that the year and indeed even the month that it came out was when Australia's ears in particular were brand newly opened to this conversation. It was I think a month or two after the Saxon Mullins Four Corners report, after which the New South Wales Attorney-General referred their consent laws to the Law Reform Commission. And then my book came out which, was specifically about #MeToo, well reflected that questioning that was new around how power structures - both at the sort of interpersonal workplace level and then also at an actual state level, like state powered institutions - were responsible for continuing the problems that lead to you know horrific #MeToo related outcomes. Yeah.
And so it was... I do believe that saying that you can never write for the trends because books by their nature, if you're trying to do them even remotely well take a while. Even just once you file, you know, the sort of editing and process takes several months and you can't try and sort of chase the tail of the wave so to speak. I still feel incredibly lucky that my book came out precisely when it did.
ASTRID: So, we're going to talk about the content of Eggshell Skull, but I'm also interested in how that kind of thrust you in the spotlight. I mean you've been building your career, you had this brilliantly written and executed and timed debut, you've been on TV, you've been on radio, you've been in magazines, that put you - which you tell us about in Beauty - that put you in the public spotlight with a responsibility to talk about these things. Now, you know you have legal training and you've done all the research but still that's a public position of power and responsibility. How did you prepare for that? How did you deal with that on an intellectual level?
BRI: Two very separate questions. I cannot prepare for that, not really. And certainly I didn't prepare for that because nobody was more surprised than I by how big the book went and sort of quite how quickly. And then how to deal with it. It was... it just all happened so quickly, and kept happening that quickly that there was no time to figure out how to deal with it. It was... I very much felt like it was a question of simply doing my absolute best every single day, whether that was with you know like one on one book talk at a small festival right through to a meeting with ministers and and speaking in front of thousands of people or being on live telly off at opposite a defence barrister telling you you don't know what you're talking about.
I just felt this real - I don't know whether I should have, but I did - feel a real obligation, that Eggshell Skull had clearly gifted me the beginnings of the career I could only ever have dreamed of and it was off the backs of so many survivors and sympathetic readers that that foundation had been built, and I had been given this incredible platform and come from such a position of privilege that I felt like I had to try and do something. And so that's why I really started hard on the advocacy, which then took me through to July this year. So it's sort of... in hindsight it meant that, you know, my own trial finished in December 2017, book stuff went crazy in May 2018, and then the campaigning kept going and going and going and escalating if anything to July this year, and very much those things are connected in my mind and tap into the same places of rage and sadness. And so I feel like actually when I first reported my matter at the end of 2015, I feel like it's only just finishing now at the end of 2019.
ASTRID: That is a long experience, with incredible highs and lows. I mean, the fact that you've had them publicly in such a small space of time, I imagine that you will be reflecting on that for years, and you know, here we are at Christmas 2019, so only a few months after the period that you just outlined. With this small degree of distance, what do you wish you'd known at the beginning?
BRI: I think even if I had gone back in time and told myself anything there is no way it could have changed anything. Some things you can't learn apart from by doing... I made some mistakes, I know for myself that I did my best and at the end of the day the thing that has been pretty much constant for me is that I have always had the most incredible support network.
I don't think I will... I think the feeling of difference I have now, or perhaps in a different way like what I've learned, although I'm not sure I could go back in time and tell myself it, is that... Bill Murray has this excellent quote about how we need to basically allow space for life to happen. It's something I've learnt by being so sometimes frankly excruciatingly busy for a very long time is that I'm now at a point where I don't necessarily think that that's when I do my best thinking and therefore where I do my best writing. But I also know for sure that that is not where I do my best human behaviouring, as a partner, as a daughter, as a friend. And so I sort of I feel like I flew a bit too far to the sun, got a taste of what that looks like, did it all right, and now I cannot imagine going that hard at least not for a while again.
ASTRID: That sounds like a good life choice, at least for a little while.
BRI: I say that, but...
ASTRID: Well, I'm still looking at my list of the stuff that you're done, and we haven't even finished what you've done in the last couple of years. You've also managed to get your Masters.
BRI: Well, we'll see, it's due in December. Well, it's now December. It's due at like mid, at the end of next week. I need to...
ASTRID: You have shut your eyes to us and gone into some kind of personal pain.
BRI: I have my final presentation in January, so fingers crossed.
OK. Well you are at the end of your Masters. Now, Beauty is one of the works that comes through it. What was the driver for study? And I teach, I adore study, but I remain fascinated by writers, publicly successful writers, in any and all genres who still go through the traditional academic path. And I am really interested in why both? I mean you can get a byline in The Saturday Paper without your Masters.
BRI: I think anyone who is on a funded scholarship is lying if they say it doesn't have anything to do with $25,000 dollars a year.
ASTRID: Great answer.
BRI: But for me it is also that I have always loved reading and research. And it is such an immense privilege and a true enjoyment to have dedicated time and space to work the muscle that is the brain. And in the same way that I find legal research and legal thinking and writing stretches a different part of it and makes me better in all of the other areas of writing for forcing me to consider how specifically legal thinking and writing is done best, I also find that to be the case for academic literary research and writing. And yeah, I have really enjoyed it. And now I'm just grappling with the question of whether or not I do a PhD, and if I do if it's in law or writing, and I really resent the feeling that I have to make a choice between the two.
ASTRID: I know you have to make a choice in terms of, you know, you need a supervisor from a particular discipline, but surely you can kind of write across, do a cross genre cross disciplinary approach?
BRI: The interesting thing that I am spending a lot of time thinking about at the moment, especially in the sort of early stages of formulating what the tone of Brains might be, is that I can do a I - well, I mean hopefully, I don't want to sound presumptuous at all - but it is conceivable that I could do a law PhD and then also sort of teach and do writing at a university level. It is not conceivable that I could do a writing PhD and then teach and sort of do legal academic work in quite the same way. And there is a lot to unpack there. And I also think, yes I could do a sort of creative writing project that has legal themes and questions. I could also do... the law PhD I would be thinking about is in relation to Australia's complete lack of protection for press freedoms, which of course is something as a writer and as a journalist with many friends in this industry I care deeply about, and is obviously symbiotic also. But those are definitely the thoughts that I've been sitting with for the past sort of two or three months.
ASTRID: So I am desperately looking at my notes, because there is a line that I can't stop thinking about in Beauty, which is where you ask the question, 'What is the literary equivalent of 100 metres in under ten seconds?' Because with that question you are basically asking...
BRI: What is greatness?
ASTRID: What is greatness with words? And here you are trying... I think you should do two PhDs. This is the only way you're going to do it, right. [Laughter]
BRI: Yeah. I don't know, I wouldn't rule it out.
ASTRID: After sitting here across the table from you I'm not ruling that one out.
BRI: Well, I think that is what is makes it a lot more interesting, it is impossible to quantify. You know, even sitting here, we were just talking before we started recording, thank goodness, about the greatness and the faults of the Miles Franklin. You know, we are in this room where I don't know if it's every shortlisted, every longlisted book that's on this shelf...
ASTRID: here are a lot of books in here.
BRI: But it's certainly it's either every single shortlisted book or every single longlisted book from the Miles Franklin. I don't... I'm sure that all of these books are great. I do not think that the awarding of even a listing for the Miles Franklin tells me what I want to know about literary greatness, in the same way that the more I think about Beauty, I think that it just sort of doesn't exist or not that it doesn't exist but it's unknowable but for an entirely individual like decision or something. But that doesn't lessen the importance I feel about trying to decide for myself what I think it is, and trying to live a good life by that decision. I know what I love reading.
ASTRID: It doesn't have to have a gold sticker on the front.
BRI: Yeah. I just... I think perhaps also though that it's very easy for me to say that as somebody who's won a couple.
ASTRID: Yes, but I happen to agree with you. And I haven't won a couple. [Laughter] So I'm going to say it's a valid opinion anyway.
BRI: But you know, I might still, you know, I think perhaps I, for example, for the rest of my life have a kind of chip on my shoulder about academia. Neither of my parents were given the opportunity to go to university. This sort of deference to academic institutions I feel very deeply, and I'm trying to question and I suppose unlearn that. And I think that's what will be at the heart of Brains. And it's interesting for me to think about how similar and different that is from the deference to sort of literary institutions. And I think myself personally knowing my own insecurities about such sort of esteemed institutions, I think it would be worse if I hadn't won anything myself.
ASTRID: So you've made me think of Marcus Aurelius, Bri, and you know, there is a scene in Beauty where you take Marcus Aurelius and his philosophy to a place that I've never seen it go before. And I think that's part of your beauty as a young writer. But tell me about that.
BRI: Well, I mean what I get from Stoicism and Aurelius is that core sort of nub of an idea that self-respect comes from self-discipline. And something that I really love about him and Stoic philosophy is this idea that life is this eternally unpredictable heaven and hell that you have to simply try and do your best within, that you cannot control anything else that happens but you can control yourself and your reactions to it. And there is something there that I am guided by when life throws pretty heinous shit my way sometimes. I take solace in that attitude. But what I also really grappled with was that self-discipline, that self-control, when it sort of comes into contact - and has the overlap of the Venn diagram - with that sort of really perfectionist, essentially kind of masochism, where you tell yourself, well, I'll speak for myself, where I was telling myself that I should have had complete control over every part of my life and should have been able to demonstrate discipline and set my mind to something and to achieve it, and therefore if my body, for example did not look the way I wanted it to it was because I was failing to achieve the version of myself that I most wanted to be. And therefore I must not have been working hard enough and must not have wanted it hard enough.
And, you know, with hindsight now I think it's easy to see how one helpful version of Stoicism can sort of bleed into this other bad one. But certainly at the time it was all just jumbled up together. I just want to wrestle Aurelius back from the sort of sweaty palms of dude bro's in Silicon Valley.
ASTRID: Fair call, we should take a lot back from Silicon Valley I suspect as a society. Now moving on from that side comment, you are of course referring to perfectionism, not only in your career, your writing, you know the literary equivalent of 100 meters in under 10 seconds, but you are talking about your body and your experience in of course Beauty. That's incredibly personal. I mean, that's as personal is as someone can be. And this is a work, Beauty, came out in 2019 off the back of Eggshell Skull which is talking about your experience of...
BRI: Sex crime. The other most personal...
ASTRID: Sex crime. I mean goodness knows what you're going to come up with for the rest of your life, Bri, but I want to ask you about what it's like to present yourself in public. And you're always on message and you have a beautiful Instagram profile and you are kind and compassionate and so fucking intelligent on TV when you're opposite you know barristers who aren't listening to you. How do you protect yourself? And be you but a public version of you?
BRI: This is an interesting question because I also am grappling with it a lot. I grapple with it, I grapple with part of that in Beauty, more framed though in terms of complicity, like complaining about how damaging social media is and yet being one of the people who takes photos of themselves and takes photos of others and is active on social media in a very sort of visually reflective way.
There is sort of two facets to this. The first answer is that I get asked all the time how I do self care, which to be really blunt is fucking easy now that I'm not broke. I think self care for Shaz who has three kids and two mortgages and one minimum wage job looks very different than than it does for someone like me. And now that I am comfortable financially I just... self care is easy now.
The events I struggle most with - and I think this is telling, and now that I've done two book tours I know that it wasn't just a sort of anomaly with the first - the event I most struggle doing is when I do an event in Brisbane, because that's where I was born and grew up and that's where all my family and friends who know me best still are. And I realised this time around when I was extremely nervous about talking to the Brisbane crowd, even though that sort of should be ironic because I know that they are all very loving and supportive, is because I cannot to any degree not even to 2 to 5 per cent like put on a face. Otherwise it will just like yeah just bullshit detectors bing-bing-bing-bing. And I try to be a genuine authentic person, but what is an undeniable fact is that we all have sort of slightly different versions of ourselves that we have to put on at different times. I could not afford to be my absolute authentic genuine self when I am meeting with politicians and fighting for law reform.
ASTRID: Social niceties are probably required.
BRI: Precisely. You know, there are these different, slightly different versions of yourself that you put forward. The thing that is such a challenge about this world in which we live now is that the version of ourselves that we put on the Internet is static, and it stays there and is comparable. And I don't feel like my Instagram... I don't feel like Instagram as a medium is capable of reflecting how many natural facets we as human beings have. It's... I find the line between my... It's not so much a personal and a public or professional life, it's more like where I put my energy, and almost like an emotional energy, particularly because I get reader responses via the Internet - either Instagram DMs, Twitter DMs, even emails. I find it very very difficult to know when I have done enough for complete strangers.
Something I am conscious of having learnt from other people's writing and reflections, even most recently Jamila Rizvi, is that something a lot of us can accidentally do is give our best selves to strangers rather than the people who are closest to us in our lives.
ASTRID: Did you listen to the Wilosophy podcast yesterday?
eBRI: No, but I saw I think I saw a screenshot of it and I thought, Yes that's precisely this thing I've been grappling with, where I am aware of how incredible my parter is, my friends are, my parents are. I want to be a better partner, friend, daughter, sister. It's difficult to come to terms with the fact that I cannot do that unless I start giving the public less of that emotional part of myself. But that comes into direct conflict with that feeling I was describing earlier where I feel genuinely that I owe my readers everything and I care so deeply about reader responses. I don't even read reviews anymore. I don't look at, I try to avoid looking ever at Goodreads, individual reviews...
ASTRID: Goodreads is a nightmare.
BRI: Yeah, or like big paper reviews. But what I care deeply, deeply about is reader responses. Somebody reads my book and then goes to the effort of actually writing to me about specifically how it has affected them, like what more can you ask for as an author? But because of the nature of these books I've written, sometimes those correspondences also include disclosures or just questions can be sort of gentle ones and sometimes can be sort of extreme and very ongoing ones, which I also just professionally am not capable of dealing with but cannot, absolutely cannot, dismiss. And it is an ongoing grapple.
ASTRID: You won't be the first writer, the first public figure to be put in that place, and I don't think you have the answer, but that's a really intelligent and engaged response to what is unanswerable. As a public figure who, you know, someone can send you a personal message by Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or wherever else you are. It's a strange world we live in.
BRI: I also really... Instagram DMs are where I get the most these days, and more and more I am frustrated by the inherent inadequacy of that platform to do that kind of meaningful correspondence. And so even if somebody sends me a lovely message with a specific question and I want to offer a heartfelt response I just can't. I look at that little screen I... That's not where I can do anything to the best of my abilities even. And it's very frustrating. And yet, I am also aware that a lot of people who will send me an Instagram DM no way would they email me, in the same way that many people who emailed me no way would they put pen to paper and write a handwritten letter and put it in the post. And so I am also very grateful for these platforms for essentially making the barrier between an author and their reader significantly more porous and more communicative. But there are downsides to that as well.
ASTRID: I imagine Brains is going to involve quite a bit of your own personal story or personal reflections. Is that the case?
BRI: I don't really know yet, probably there will definitely be some. We'll have to see.
ASTRID: I am putting you on the spot, and that was a leading question. I guess where I was going with that, Bri, is...
BRI: It won't be the same level of gruelling. Very much Eggshell Skull and then Beauty, those are the two things that obviously gave me so much pain through my young life. I can't - touch wood, which is good because this desk is like two square metres big - I've not had any other struggles as significant as those two. So I cannot imagine... Yes, Brains will be personal and contain personal reflections and some life writing, but it's just I can't see how it would be as gruelling as the first two.
ASTRID: So when you think about, you know, we talked about your PhD and what you might go next, are there other genres or forms of non-fiction that you as a writer are interested in exploring?
BRI: Well, I've been working on my first piece of fiction, actually.
ASTRID: Oh, this is exciting.
BRI: Oh yeah, it's been I've been working on it for about a year and a half and it won't be ready for at least another year.
ASTRID: Adult? YA?
BRI: Adult. I find all these different types of writing I do help each other by clarifying the specific goals and methods of each other. And I mean that even in terms of a 110,000 word book, compared to a 23,000 word book, compared to a 600 word piece of journalism, compared to a 12,000 word academic peer reviewed paper, compared to crafting a funny Instagram caption, compared to 1,200 words of legal reporting, compared to long form interviews to create a feature article. Every different approach marks itself for what is required and forces me to read best practice of each of those different formats, and forces me to clarify what is required of me to try and do good in that format.
And I think perhaps we're not supposed to, you know, when you're thinking about what makes a good author career, like you are supposed to find one thing and get really really good at it, it's perhaps the equivalent of switching between mediums as a visual artist, which I'm sure managers everywhere loathe. But at the moment, because I am young and still green and still emerging, I know I can tell for sure that pin balling between them makes every single one of them better. And so I will keep doing that until I feel alternative.
ASTRID: That is an extraordinary response.
BRI: I don't even remember what your question was.
ASTRID: No, well, I have asked versions of this to quite a few writers and a lot of writers justifiably feel like they have to do what is required to fulfil the expectations of their publisher, because often a publisher - particularly for an emerging writer - wants two books, three books in the same genre or in the same area of the bookstore. So, you know, the theory goes a writer can get a profile with a certain type of audience who continues to buy their books and you are now rolling your eyes, and I love it.
But you know, there is that kind of standard out there. And I'm enjoying the way that you give no shits for it. And it's clearly doing well for you when you're writing.
BRI: One of the other reasons I went with Jane Palfreyman at Allen and Unwin particularly was because within the 12 months preceding I had read both The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford, and I knew Jane to be a publisher who could equally do fiction and non-fiction, and I thought that I didn't want to be with a publisher who was too specifically dedicated to one or the other because I also think that the line between them... well, it's a Veen.
ASTRID: Do you think you will ever go back to publishing in terms of, you know, what you did with Hot Chicks with Big Brains? Like do you want to go there?
BRI: One of the reasons I stopped Hot Chicks with Big Brains was because I felt like, you know, I talk big about switching between genres as a writer, but I felt that I needed to choose between being an editor or a writer, because both were growing in their demands of me and I couldn't keep learning and improving at that rate at both. And if I had to pick I would always rather be a writer, well, certainly at the moment and for the foreseeable future.
I think I get so much out of all these different types of researching and writing that I find there is something very rewarding about making things happen, and sort of having a goal that facilitates other voices being heard. So The Wheeler Centre the event I did for Beauty was this idea that I just pitched to Ronnie and The Wheeler Centre's events team, where I said, 'Well, I mean sure we can do another sort of Bri Lee in conversation with someone about beauty, but what I would actually rather do is you let me pick three people who I want to hear from who have interesting perspectives that are not necessarily elevated in the book that I have written. And basically I get to ask them questions and we use my essay as a starting point and go a whole three levels and three facets deeper and wider and more exciting'. And the feeling I had at the end of that panel with Abbey Mag and Frances Cannon and Dr. Nikki Stamp was the feeling I used to get when I saw an issue of Hot Chicks with Big Brains come together where I felt like I had been able to do something good, and extend ideas and conversation and space for thought.
ASTRID: And the profile of others.
BRI: Yes yes absolutely. Yeah. I mean one of the other reasons we stopped doing Hot Chicks with Big Brains was because every time we got more money we just paid our contributors. You know, we're really proud of that. As I say, Indie publishing is a young person's game as a person who's about to turn 28, because it's like... it's for you know, like most of the people who work at or for The Lifted Brow are volunteers, like it's just. And that's in Victoria where they actually fund shit, which certainly they did not in Queensland. Anyway. That is the feeling I miss, essentially is what I'm trying to say.
ASTRID: I would love to read some kind of established magazine or Festival curated by you.
BRI: Thank you.
ASTRID: That could be fascinating.
BRI: I get to pick everybody but don't have to do any of the event management work. ASTRID: Talk to me about events. BRI: Event management is such hell. The little bit of what I did for Hot Chicks with Big Brains - because that's what we also tried to do, try and really help build Brisbane's cultural infrastructure.
ASTRID: And that is something that you continuing to do now. As we said earlier, we are sitting in the New South Wales State Library and after this interview you are actually going to do one of the B-List events.
Now, I mean look I'm obviously a reader who loves talking to writers so I'm not the person to ever think that any literary event is anything less than perfect, but what's your motivation for these events? the series?
BRI: So, I feel really lucky that I landed... so I only just moved from Brisbane to Sydney in about March this year. I kept it a secret for several months while we were still campaigning for law reform in Queensland. But from whenever we started - I think July - I just pitched the idea to Sam, Samantha here at the State Library and they said yes. And the idea that we started with was that I wanted to talk to an author each month who had been shortlisted but not won one of the library's major awards, of which there are many, and many different types of awards. So yes, they have the Miles Franklin, but they also have for example the Ashurst Business Writing Prize, and the biography of Elizabeth Macarthur that I did last month was on it.
ASTRID: Michelle Scott Tucker.
BRI: Yes. And they have a humour writing prize, for which I spoke to Tracey Sorensen, the author of The Lucky Galah, and they have a history writing prize, and they have an Indigenous prize, they have emerging writers prizes - all these really different prizes, and as someone that has both won some and then been listed for some and not won others, the feeling I also have towards prizes is that once you make it, especially to a shortlist, it is a chook raffle who wins.
And something that I see happening in Australia is... God, we're so fucking thirsty for establishment approval that we just do this thing where as soon as something wins it's just this snowball effect, and it is also this winnowing where anything that hasn't won - and it could have been shortlisted for three or four different things - but if it hasn't won something it just seems to fall away off the sides of the cliff of agreed upon remembered history.
ASTRID: And it also goes from the bookshelves.
BRI: Yeah. And I hate that. All of the authors I've spoken to, of which there have been six so far and tonight is the seventh, I really believe that any of them could have won and for whatever reason they did not. And I don't think that says a damn thing about the quality of their book. So that was the idea initially.
Having said that, we are opening it up slightly next year where it's pretty much just any book I pick, and it's called the B-List because my name starts with B. And we're doing that because it happened twice this year that I really wanted to, for example, talk to Meredith lake, and then The Bible in Australia won after that, and I really really wanted to do Melissa Lukashenko and then Too Much Lip won.
So what I will also open it up to slightly is very much still be guided by the long lists and the short lists, but still be able to pick the people who I most just want to talk to, in case it hasn't been awarded yet. However, what I can pretty confidently say is that I feel it is unlikely that something that has just won would be the person who I pick, because it's also a hugely privileged position. I get paid per event honorarium to prepare and do the conversation, but also, the author who appears gets an appearance honorarium, and the State Library has the capacity on a certain number of times to fly people interstate to come here for this event, and that's a huge amount of responsibility on me to make sure I use that privilege well to further the kind of conversations that should be being furthered at a publicly funded, partially publicly funded, organisation like the State Library, and I do not take that responsibility lightly.
ASTRID: It's a perfect answer, Bri.
BRI: Thank you.
ASTRID: Thank you so much for speaking speaking to me today.
BRI: A pleasure. I feel like I rambled a lot.
ASTRID: Yeah, it's a podcast. We are allowed to ramble.
BRI: A perfect medium in which to ramble.