Lee Kofman is a Russian-born, Israeli-Australian novelist, essayist and memoirist. She has published a number of books, including her memoir, The Dangerous Bride, and Imperfect: How Our Bodies Shape the People We Become. In 2022 she released The Writer Laid Bare, a book about the craft of writing. Lee holds a PhD in social sciences and MA in creative writing. She has also published three fiction books written in Hebrew and published in Israel.
ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Lee Kofman.
LEE: Thank you so much.
ASTRID: Congratulations on The Writer Laid Bare. This is the most recent addition to the whole canon of books about writing and creativity that has been published in Australia. How did you find your way into such a crowded field? There are many books on writing, but quite often they're bad.
LEE: Look, I do agree with you. I really hate, myself, ‘how-to’ books, the kind of books that say, ‘Oh, 10 steps to your next best novel’, or something like this. But I do own quite a big bookshelf of books that do inspire me, and they're not all strictly books on writing. A lot of them, actually, I think of them as writing books, but they're often just books of interviews with writers. Like Ramona Koval's Tasting Life Twice is an amazing collection of interviews with international writers, like real giants, and Paris Review interviews. And a lot of those books don't try to demystify the writing process too much, because there is some really wonderful mystery about it that we need to retain, as much as we talk about how to write.
So, I used to blog for a long time about writing. I started as a Blogger-in-Residence for Writers Victoria, and then I continued doing blog on my own website. And one day my publisher just sort of said to me, ‘Why won't you turn this blog into a book?‘ And it was pretty challenging because my first thought was just like you, Astrid, like, ‘What can I add? There's so many books’. But I sort of started thinking about why I actually started blogging about the writing process. And the reason I started was because when I was in my early thirties, I got really blocked and it sort of lasted for a long time, for about four years. So I really stopped believing in my own writing at the time. It's not like I was lazy or not writing. I was writing even more than I'm writing now possibly, but I just felt that everything was crap and shelved everything. And blogging for me at the time was kind of a way of getting out of this writer's block, getting back into the writing, getting back into thinking what writing is and what kind of writer I want to be. So I thought, ‘Well, why don't I write a book which sort of will be for myself when I was younger?‘
So the thing that really caused my writer's block at the time, there were many different things, but the main thing I think I just wasn't writing with enough honesty about the world. I was really feeling insecure. I was new to Australia at the time. I was changing my writing languages from Hebrew to English, and I really was so caught up in trying to prove myself, prove that I can be a writer in Australia, prove that I can be a writer in English, that I really disengaged from what I wanted to say.
Once I disengaged from what I wanted to say, I also disengaged from my own writing process. So I kind of wasn't thinking what I need to write productively, I was thinking, ‘What other writers all do the same thing?‘ So I kind of thought, I may as well just write a book about emotional honesty, both in creative writing process, and then on a page, how you sort of create works that are honest. And also finally how to live a life of the writer, which is conducive to art.
ASTRID: Look as a reader of a book on writing, that is what really appealed to me about The Writer Laid Bare. You were asking me to reflect on myself and think about myself, not giving me a list of writing prompts that were apparently going to cure all of my ills. And I have to confess, I laughed aloud when I got to the bit, when you pointed that out about John Marsden’s book, and I really appreciate that. I'm going to get in so much trouble now, but nevertheless, I thought it was…
LEE: So do I.
ASTRID: It's a different way of looking at how to write and how you can help yourself to write by thinking about yourself essentially. Now, you just started to talk about emotional honesty. And of course in this book, you make up a word to describe this and you talk about it at length. Can you tell the listeners about ‘nonesty’?
LEE: It's actually, it was a very private word between me and myself, really. So when I was blocked, apart from writing a blog, I was also writing my sort of like a writing-reading diary. And in this diary I was mainly lamenting my failures, which were many. But I think I subliminally at least was trying to work out through this diary, as I was for the block, ‘What was wrong with my work?’ Because I wasn't lying. It's not like I was dishonest and I was making up things.
And anyway, writers make up things all the time. It's part of our job. So I needed a word for what I was doing. I was doing what I called, non-starting, not honest writing, which is I wasn't going deep into what life is really about. So I wasn't sort of trying to pinpoint the complexity of being human. I know it sounds very big and abstract, but I can give you a little example. So for example, it's very easy for any writer, I think, to write, ‘He loved his wife’, but what does it actually really mean? Because we can love somebody, there's so many degrees to love and love also such a mixed feeling. And you can love and hate somebody, or you can love somebody a little bit, but actually not passionately. Do you know what I mean? So all that sort of stuff was just missing from my writing.
And another thing that was missing is I was also quite scared of saying things that I needed to say, so I also lost the moral courage. And again, I'll just give an example from my own practice, at the time I really wanted to write about my experiences and failures of being non-monogamous. But I'm talking about years ago, now we sort of talk about polyamory all the time, which is one of the types of non-monogamy, and we're more sort of used to this type of sexuality, but at the time, I'm talking about early 2000 really, it was such a taboo still and I was really scared. So I remember, I think, trying to write about my experiences of non-monogamy as making it up to look as if I, by mistake, ended up in non-monogamous relationships. Again, I wasn't trying to lie to the readers. I was lying to myself really rather than to the readers.
ASTRID: So you just referred to your previous memoir, your first memoir, The Dangerous Bride, and of course after that we had Imperfect. Writing memoirs requires so much emotional honesty on the part of the writer. Now, the subtitle of The Writer Laid Bare is, ‘Mastering emotional honesty in a writer's art, craft and life’. How much of your experience with memoir and that deep honesty that you then shared with the public, how much of the memoir craft enabled you to write this book on writing? Which of course does include a lot of your own writing story and in a way it's a little bit memoir-ish itself.
LEE: In terms of memoir, I don't know if it's the craft of memoir that actually guided me in how to write this book, because before I started writing memoir, I wrote three fiction books, but they're all very auto-fiction. I think I'm one of those writers who tries to understand life through writing, rather than sort of wanting to create alternative worlds for myself to go to, I'm much more interested in what I've experienced. So it's not like I'm writing always about myself, but I always write about people I know, things that really happened or interesting to me or matter to me.
I think I try to write this book, the writing book in the same way, where I'm talking about what is really urgent to me, hoping that the readers will also have this sort of conversation.
Really, I mean, I actually wanted to say, I dedicated this book to Peter Bishop, who is the former director of Varuna, The Writers' House in Blue Mountains, which used to be my second home, before lockdowns, before I started having children and got busy. The reason I dedicated this book to Peter is because he was one of the first people who taught me how to talk about writing, how to actually have an intimate conversation about why we write. Like a really deep conversation, not how to write dialogue or something, but why we actually write, what do we want to achieve through this writing, what writers' life requires. And so for me writing this book, it was kind of, if I'm thinking about memoir, it was like a conversation and part of it, I think, it was a conversation with Peter, actually.
ASTRID: That's a really beautiful description. Thank you, Lee. And also, I know that you've written fiction before, but it's not in English and therefore I haven't read any of your long-form fiction. And it's quite strange for me as someone who loves writers and normally tries to read and try a back catalogue of someone's work before I interview them. I can't, I don't read Hebrew, but it's an interesting part of your writing world that I'm not able to access.
But you just mentioned Varuna and I have a question about Varuna. It is regarded, and it is, this beautiful, mystical, almost place in the Australian literary community where many writers have gone and spent time, thinking and writing and creating great works. In The Writer Laid Bare, you tell a fascinating story of you went to Varuna and you didn't write anything. You just looked at the birds and called your husband. And it didn't work, you were experiencing prolonged writer's block. And I wanted to tease that out because not only do you really talk about your own writer's block, but I suspect a lot of people might get writer's block at Varuna and not talk about it publicly because it's supposed to be the place where all the great works are written. Can you share your experience of Varuna? Obviously when you were blocked, but also you have gone back many times and you have been productively there as well.
LEE: Yeah, yeah, look, you're absolutely right, one of the best kept secrets in Varuna is that a lot of people who come there, they don't necessarily write, at least not on all visits. And I admit, I came across quite a few people like myself, but unfortunately not in those times when I was blocked. When I was blocked, every time I was blocked, I actually ended up spending the time in Varuna with the most prolific writers who wrote pages and pages every day. There's this really beautiful idea that writers need to clear the decks, go somewhere else in solitude, and then the writing will happen. And it often does, but I think it mostly does when we actually keep doing real practice, because I really think...
I always talk about this with my students as well. I talk about this concept of flexible discipline. And I think often I can sort of teach or know, because I'm friends with many writers. I know so many writers who are pretty much more or less similarly talented, and one would write a lot and produce a lot of works and the other wouldn't. And often it's the difference between actually writing at least three to four times a week, even when you are really busy, also writing in those when you clear time and go away and do something. So the intersection between your silence and creativity is amazing and it really shows what many writers knew for a century, is that most of the writing happens in the subconscious.
And to me, I think about writing on a regular basis, at least three to four times a week. It's like you are in touch with your creativity, with your subconscious, and then the writing often happens there, it's cooking in your guts. And so that's why, look, I'm a dinosaur, I'm not using like recorders. So I have pens and notebooks everywhere, in my car, in the kitchen because words all the time come to me as sentences, ideas, when I'm in touch with my writing.
When I went to Varuna, the first few visits I made the common mistake of beginning writers, or blocked writers like myself, I was not the beginning but blocked, so I was very busy with lots of honourable things; my husband, work, to study. And I forgot what... Actually, sorry, just to go back to this idea of writing three or four times a week, all we really need is about an hour, I think, to keep this sort creative juices flowing. I was not in touch with what I was doing at all. I had this dream, ‘I'll get to Varuna, I'll have two weeks, I'll do it all.’
I didn't do anything. The world just wasn't there. I just was not connected to it. So I think over the years I worked it out, that if I want to get the most out of any writing residency... Because I mean, Varuna is a special place in my heart, I still think it's the best residency in Australia, but other residencies can be also very good, but you sort of need to come prepared. And also for me, at least, it really helps me to know what I want to achieve in the residency and to have achievable goals.
If I'm going to go to residency, to rewrite my whole book in two weeks, that's probably not going to happen, but I sort of build myself up to the residency with regular writing and then I think, ‘Okay, well, in the first week I'll do...’
See, as much as I talk about writing as a mystery, I also have sympathy to the view of writing as a project in some ways, like what Graham Simsion is talking about. I think I'm somewhere between him and somebody like Rilke, who is all very poetic about it. So I think goals before you go to writing residency is a wonderful thing to have.
ASTRID: One of the things that you taught me in The Writer Laid Bare is the difference between writers who are builders and writers who are renovators. And I've always heard this kind of thing referred to as plotters versus pantsers, but I like builders and renovators more, because you get it into the process of how a writer, as a fully formed individual, deals with redrafting and what they have or have not on the page. Can you talk to us about builders and renovators?
LEE: This is another one of those conversations. This chapter, this idea came out of a lot of conversations I have with my friend, she's one of my best friends, the writer Leah Kaminsky, because we love each other, we support each other. We do lots of things together. We often collaborate with each other's writing, but we are completely different when it comes to the writing process. So she's a typical builder, I'm a typical renovator.
So to me, if I think about a work of creative writing as a house, Leah loves building it from scratch. She would love to go into nothing, see nothing, see a really vacant lot of grass or it, and then bring the bricks, and brick by brick slowly build scene, characters, thought, dialogue. She doesn't do that methodically, by the way, I don't want to misrepresent her or any builder. So basically to me, builders are writers who love first drafts. Those are much more courageous writers than myself. And I think the imagination is much stronger. Those writers who don't just don't mind, but thrive on the uncertainty on not knowing what they're doing, where they're going to go next. I'm a total coward. I will take any most derelict, shabby house. Even a few bricks on the grass will be good for me. I need something to start. I'm so anxious about first draughts, hate them so much. But sometimes what I do is I plagiarise myself to get over the initial anxiety. I will just copy and paste from something on a blank page. Later, I'll completely delete it. It'll be my scaffold, but I need something to start from. So what I do love, and this is why I have this metaphor of renovation, is once I've got the whole edifice erect, then I start. I love deciding on what colour the walls will be, where I would put the staircase, how many rooms are going to be inside and then I'll tweak around things and stuff. So I just need those bricks to be in place. I think it's because I'm more interested when I write in language and also in reflections. So I don't like writing. I hate writing, the scenes, I hate describing thing after thing after thing, but once it's there, I love to understand actually what is behind the direct action.
I suppose what I wanted to say in the chapter in the book is that there's no value in whether you renovate or build, there's nothing wrong or right about any of those, it's just to know who you are. And then my advice to writers, including myself, is always to get through the stage they hate as quickly as possible. Now, I know there must be some writers out there who love both stages. I really don't know them, because I'll be too jealous. But normally, I mean, when I teach and when I talk with writers or peers like Leah, and I talk to writers friends about this, most of us are either that or another.
I mean, of course there are stages and there are times in first drafts when I say, ‘Oh, wow, I just really nailed it. I really love being in this place. And I enjoyed the mood I'm creating’. It's not black and white. And Leah, to my knowledge, I hope I'm, again, representing her right and other writers like Leah, they surely enjoy some of the revision, but it's very sort of sit more comfortably. And so this is sort of one of the things about the emotional honesty and the writing process that I was getting at in the book, that, as you said, Astrid, it's not about, ‘This is how I should do’, but how... I just try to give tools in this book to writers to identify how they work best.
ASTRID: Absolutely. Now, Leah has appeared on The Garret before, so I'll make sure to include a link to her talking in her own words about her process.
LEE: All right.
ASTRID: One of the areas that you discuss in The Writer Laid Bare really stood out for me, and that is reading. I adored that section of your book and I really enjoyed how strong you were and how you advocate for a... not just reading for reading's sake and reading because you love it, that is obviously always viable. And readers, and I count myself among readers, should read for pleasure all of the time, but reading is also a skill. And I think that in general, we teach it badly. I do, I say that as a person who teaches at RMIT University. And I think that there's no specific subject to read as a writer. Can you talk to me about the art of reading as a writer?
LEE: I'm so glad that you said this, Astrid, thank you so much. I mean, as I was writing this chapter, I was imagining it'll get me in trouble and probably will at some point, because we do have this sort of anti... I don't know how to put it in words. I think, at least in Australia, but maybe it's not just in Australia, among teachers of writing, we kind of tend to be a bit sheepish about reading and I think a lot of teachers are scared to appear elitist when they teach writers. And so there's this thing about how we're supposed to... all books are equal, all books are the same, but like in George Orwell's book, 1984, some books are more equal than others, I think.
I think reading can actually do active damage if you read bad books. I mean, think about Hitler. I mean, he was an amazing reader. I think he read, I think, almost a book a day at some point of his life. And he always read books that approved his world view as opposed to disapproved. So politics aside and speaking about... back to sort of the matters of art, I also really think that reading literature, which is okay, adequate, but not great, can really interfere with our art. It's a bit like if you think about musician, I mean, my kids learn piano and they're really passionate about this. They are very little, but they don't start with some popular kind of piano music. They start with Beethoven, Mozart, that's what they play with their teachers. And to me, the same applies to writing. I know there's a lot of pressure among many writers, emerging, especially, to read the latest book that everybody's talking about and the review and this, but I really believe that to really get better, to make our craft as best as possible, we have to go to the greats. And not to be shy and coy about it and not to worry about being an egalitarian.
Nabokov is very hard work for example, he is one of my favourite writers, but oh my God, when I read Nabokov, it doesn't feel like I have any leisure. It's serious work, but that's what writers do. So I mean, there's a lot of other things I can say about it, but last thing I'll just say is that if you read somebody and you get really depressed and think, ‘Oh my God, I can never write as good as this particular author’, and you don't want to write anymore, I think you're on the right track. You do read what you need to. So you'll get a bit depressed, you'll get maybe a bit discouraged, but once you pull yourself together and start writing... And it doesn't matter what genre people write in. I'm not talking just to literature writers whatsoever. Because I love popular writing too, when it's good quality. And when I look at the greats, like Patricia Highsmith or Stephen King, all those really wonderful writers, they wrote great stuff. And that's why they're at the top of the game of their genre.
ASTRID: Yeah, absolutely. I recommend everybody dive in to The Writer Laid Bare, but also that chapter, because reading is a skill and I clearly love reading contemporary Australian fiction and nonfiction. It's what I do every week, but it's really sad when I have a student who only reads a particular genre or only reads a particular style because their writing can never progress
LEE: Of course, I read a lot of contemporary worked literature too, but I think it's just a question of balance because I get a lot of students that that's all they read, but there is also South American literature, there's Indian literature. And we're talking about literature from centuries, etc. etc. So it's broadening your diet as opposed to sort of being very particular about something.
ASTRID: I could not agree more. Now, I've been checking your Twitter profile because that is what I do before I interview someone.
LEE: Oh, goodness.
ASTRID: And you posted very recently about that the first reviews for The Writer Laid Bare have come in and I quote, ‘They're better than expected’. Now, in your work, you do deal with rejection and that is part and parcel of being a writer. But I guess I wanted to turn it back on you. What were you expecting and how do you brace yourself for, or deal with, reviews or the lack of reviews?
LEE: Yeah, this is a great question and I didn't expect any less from you, Astrid. To be my own worst advocator, I don't mind. Emotional honesty, that's what my book is about. So look, I sometimes ask myself what I prefer more, no reviews or bad reviews. I'm not sure to be honest. I want to say I prefer bad reviews rather than not being noticed, but I don't know because I do have a weak stomach. I do get very sensitive. But because this book, I do talk about things like my approach can be viewed as elitist and then I had a friend, a really good friend, and he actually helped me a lot with this book and gave me some good feedback.
One of the things he said to me, he said, ‘You're going to cop it because you talk about writing in such exalted ways, like it's a vocation, it's art, it's...’ And again, it maybe seems elitist but I don't mind. I mean, I will mind when I'll see a bad review and I'll go and drink a bottle of whiskey. But I think I do want to talk about writing in this way, because once again, I don't think we tell musicians or visual artists or dancers not to think about themselves as artists, but there's some kind of pressures I sort of noticed in some... I don't know, media or sometimes just... I just talk of thinking about writers as entertainers or craftsman, and I just don't relate to this because I think we're paid so badly, unless of course we're Liane Moriarty or Stephen King.
We're paid usually so badly, it takes such a long time to write a book, it takes so much self doubt for most of us, we're probably there for something, what really matters to us. Really, it is art. But yeah, I'm really sort of worried about copping this. And also, I have a chapter about social media in this book, which expressed quite strong opinions, which maybe will not resonate with many people in terms of... because I really think social media is great for networking for writers. More important conversation to have about social media is how it affects our daily functioning.
I mean, you talked about my tweeting, Astrid. I do it. And I hate myself for doing it because this is like all those days when I spend tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming, which what I do now, because the book just came out, those days when I go to the page, my head is full of emoticons, exclamation marks, trivial details of what I ate for breakfast because I just tweeted about it. And I don't like admitting it, but it does translate onto the page. I mean, I'm paraphrasing, I don't remember exactly the quote, but he said something about, ‘True art comes from dark, secretive places’, and overexposure on social media, I think, really interferes in those corners in our mind that we need for art. So for all those reasons, I'm a bit... I don't know how the next reviews will be, so we'll see.
ASTRID: It's interesting that you said you kind of, you're worried that you'll cop it for writing an elitist book about writing, I did not read it as elitist at all. I did feel like you were throwing me down a few challenges that could choose to take up and probably improve my ability to express myself. So I found challenges in there for me in areas where I can do better. I didn't find it elitist because yes, you mentioned many writers who are held up to be in the canon. And in the canon, I should add, of a variety of different languages. You are not English specific, Lee, at all. You are trilingual. I enjoyed it, and I do hope others who are writing and interested in how they can express themselves, I do hope they find The Writer Laid Bare incredibly useful.
I wanted to ask you one final question. Because we are talking about writing and we have talked about reading, can you leave us with two recommendations of books that you go to when you want to be inspired?
LEE: So one is a book that is my all time favourite... Have you read it, Astrid? You probably know what I'm going to say, so it's a book called The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is not a book you can sort of pigeonhole easily. So it kind of considered to be a magical realism book because it has this wild premise. So the idea is it is set in Stalinist Moscow in the 1930s, and as we all know, during Stalin's days, religion was forbidden, God was forbidden. And it's a Easter week and Satan decides to come and visit Stalinist Moscow with his crew of helpers. And he wrecks havoc. I mean, I can see you smiling, Astrid, and I'm smiling, but so it's very funny book, but it's not just funny book.
So it's one of those books that just contains everything in it. So there's a very, alongside this really wildly satirical, fantastical, amazing story, there's a lot of serious stuff going on in this book. There are so many really important, I don't like the word messages, but it's a really important mirror, I suppose, to the human condition and to this particular country in that particular time. So there's a lot of political commentary, which we see it as a satyr, it's not didactic. There's a whole side story of philosophical and theological kind of story of Jesus and crucifixion. There's a lot of reflection on art and the meaning of art, which is what I suppose my book is also about, so of course I relate to that. And this beautiful art story there as well. So to me, the reason I go to this book is because it just reminds me how flexible the form is of literary story, be its fiction or creative non-fiction. It reminds me that there are no rules because it really breaks all the rules, that you don't need to pigeonhole yourself in a particular genre.
And it also reminds me that you can say a lot of really important things without being overly didactic, preachy, and political. It can be very political without being political on the page explicitly, but through using humour, because humour I think really is such a great tool to get to people's minds. Those people who don't think like you, I think it's the best tool. And it also really reflects the richness of life because of all the layers. So that's one book, so that's a novel. And the second one, have you read, Astrid, Geoff Dyer's book Out of Sheer Rage?
ASTRID: No, I haven't. You are expanding my to-be-read list.
LEE: I love you to tell me if you read it, what you thought. It's amazing. So this is a contemporary living writer this time, Geoff Dyer is a UK based writer. He actually was in Australia a couple of years ago. I was furious because I was away. He's one of my favourite living writers. I missed him. So I got my husband to go to his talk and sign the book for me. But anyway, so Geoff Dyer, who is one, again, like Bulgakov, he's a very entertaining writer with very serious things to say, that's my perfect combination of a writer.
And my favourite book by him, Out of Sheer Rage, is a book about not writing a book about DH Lawrence. So Geoff Dyer has always been really obsessed with DH Lawrence. It was one of his muses and he always wanted to write a serious literary study, exploring DH Lawrence's work, and he could never manage it. So he tried and tried and tried, a bit like me when I was blocked and I tried to write a book, which I shouldn't be writing instead of what I wanted to write about non-monogamy. And of course, this book about not writing about DH Lawrence ends up being very much about DH Lawrence, but also about Geoff Dyer. And what inspires me about this book apart from what I said before, the combination of humour and seriousness in thinking, is, again, it's a really, really versatile book in terms of form, like Bulgakov's novel, this book doesn't like definitions. You can say it's a memoir. You can say it's a literary biography. You can say it's travel book even. And he writes about everything there. He writes about his love of watching tele, as he puts it. He writes about why he decided not to have children, how much he hates children generally. So he writes about the amazing sex he has with his wife. So both Bulgakov's book, The Master and Margarita, and Out of Sheer Rage, they're the kind of books where, A, you can't skip pages because you just don't know where they're going to take you next. You can't skip a sentence because you don't know what will happen next. And this is the kind of books I really live for and aspire to write.
I didn't say I manage, but aspire to write something where you just can't predict where you go to the next level. And this is what Peter Bishop, whom I mentioned before, calls, ‘Strange writing’, and that's what I learned from him actually, one of the first things. I met him a long time ago when I was a relatively young writer and this is one of the things that I learned from him. But one of the best things I can say about a good book is this book is strange.
ASTRID: That is two beautiful recommendations. I am going to read them and I will let you know when I think, Lee. And thank you very much for talking to me today.
LEE: Thank you so much for having me.