Sofija Stefanovic is a Serbian-born and Australian-raised writer and storyteller living in New York.
She is known for her ability to explore the most personal - and true - stories. Sofija has published two books, You’re Just Too Good To Be True: A Love Story About Lonely Hearts and Internet Scams, and her memoir, Miss Ex-Yugoslavia.
Sofija hosts the live storytelling events Women of Letters NYC and This Alien Nation, and she is a contributor to The Moth, The New York Times and The Guardian.
Astrid Edwards: Sofija Stefanovic was born in Serbia, raised and educated in Australia, and now lives in New York. She's a writer and a storyteller, known for her ability to explore the most personal stories. Sofija has published two books, she hosts the live events Women of Letters NYC and This Alien Nation, and is a contributor to The Moth, The New York Times and The Guardian.
In this interview, Sofija reflects on the importance of understanding your strengths as a writer in order to be the best storyteller that you can be. Sofija, welcome to The Garret
Sofija: Thank you for having me.
Astrid: You're a bilingual writer and storyteller, with Serbian as your first language, English as your second. When you read for pleasure these days, do you choose to read in Serbian or in English?
Sofija: I choose to read in English. Yes, my first language was Serbo-Croatian. I was born in what was then called Yugoslavia and learned English when I came to Australia when I was a little kid. But having been educated in the West for most of my life, I think that I'm faster and better at it and more articulate, so I prefer to read in English.
Astrid: Not only are you bilingual but you have lived on three continents, which I would imagine expands your world view. Does it change your writing and storytelling, that international perspective?
Sofija: Well yes. I was born in Yugoslavia, and then we moved to Australia, and now I live in America, I live in New York. And I feel like having moved there allowed me to write this book that I've just written, which is a memoir called Miss Ex-Yugoslavia. I needed to be away from my family and my friends and the people who are in the book in order to write it, and I think that I felt a lot more confident being in New York than I might have here, like it gave me a chance to reinvent myself a little bit and to see myself as a writer, kind of as a blank slate, because I feel like having grown up here, there are a lot of expectations I had of myself and other people have of me as well. So, I've co-written with other people a lot and I've done very specific types of writing and journalism, but I hadn't done much writing about myself. So, moving away from that context I think helped me to be somewhere completely new, to look at those stories again and write them.
Astrid: How long have you been in New York and how long did it take you to write your memoir?
Sofija: I've been in New York about four years. The memoir, the actual writing itself didn't take that long, that took maybe about eight months, but really it's... these stories that I've been telling for my whole life, so it feels like that taken me a very, very long time to write it. [Laughter]
Astrid: I've marked a passage on page 66 of your memoir, a little section where you talk about what it meant for you as a young girl to learn English and be able to express yourself. Would you read that to us and then maybe explain how that ability to tell stories helped you to express yourself?
Sofija: The passage is… ‘Having the language to express myself made it easier to define myself in the world. I rediscovered that part of myself that loved the spotlight, that wanted to be heard, and that felt her opinions and stories were valuable.’
So, when I was a really little kid, and Serbo-Croatian was my first language, I was really articulate and I was a really quick learner of language and I used to kind of show off in front of my parents and their friends, and I was this precocious kid who had really good language skills, and I was always very proud of that. And I loved stories, like my grandma would tell me stories and I would watch a lot of films. I loved that idea of telling stories and articulating them.
And then when we moved to Australia, it was... I was only five when we first came to Australia, but still it was very humiliating for me to suddenly not have language. I couldn't express myself at school, and I felt like I was dumb, and I felt like I was sort of less than for not being able to express myself and it was really hard for me. Having been someone who is really a bit of a show off, suddenly that part of me where I felt confident was silenced.
I think it happens to many – it could be safe to say all people – who move somewhere where they have to speak a second language, that you're suddenly so much less articulate than you would like to be and it's so much harder to have a voice, and voices are so important. I think it happened to my parents as well, and especially to my Mum who came here as an adult, so it was even worse for her. She had been well-respected in her circle of friends and she was educated and she had a job, and then suddenly she came to Australia and she was an immigrant and she felt that everyone saw her as someone who was inarticulate and stupid.
So, once I started learning English, back to that passage, because I was little I had the ability to learn pretty quickly. I watched a lot of TV, that was one of my best teachers. I would just sit there watching TV and I got stories. So, I knew that what I was watching would have some sort of beginning and a middle and an end, an even if I didn't understand the words I could fill in the gaps. Then once I started learning English and being able to express myself again, as I had when I was smaller, I felt really, really liberated and excited about it. I think that's the power of language, that suddenly you can say all these things that you feel.
Astrid: Definitely. Later on, in Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, you talk about the differences in expression between Serbian and English, particularly the example that you give is terms of endearment, which are probably better. Is there anything else that you can't say in English or that you feel that English is not a good language to express?
Sofija: I think English is a fantastic language and I love all the things that we can do with it. However, there are certain terms that I love in Serbian, like we refer to a loved one as ‘our soul’ and stuff like that. It's very romantic and there are really nice expressions that… I've never been able to translate songs, like there are a lot of songs that I like that feel really romantic and poetic to me in the original, and if I try and translate them to English, they sound really dumb.
I also miss diminutives, because diminutives are really lovely ways of describing things, like describing someone as having... like when you see a baby, you say, in English, all you can say is like, ‘Look at your little hand!’ While we have all these different terms for little hand, things like that. Yeah, I miss that. I think that they are really beautiful ways of expression.
Also, we have masculine and feminine forms, so like a table is masculine, a chair is feminine, and I feel like maybe that sort of makes the world a little bit more of a exciting place because it's almost like you're imbuing objects with personalities, in a way.
Astrid: Well they say English is a bastard language, cobbled together from everything else, and one of the things that we lost was the declensions and the masculine-feminine for our nouns. Reading that passage actually made me think, has your book or books been translated out of English?
Astrid: Would you ever translate them – particularly your memoir – into Serbo-Croatian?
Sofija: You know what I think? Not, just because I'm so over writing it. When I write something, I'm in some ways a bad writer, I think, because... well, maybe that doesn't make me... I just, once I finish writing something, when it's published, I generally never ever look at it again because I feel like I've spent so much time on this book, I can't do it anymore. I feel like everything that I needed to get out... You know how people say – and I really, really believe this – that to write a book you have to be committed to two years, at least, of work. One year is basically you're writing it and going through proofreads and edits, and the next year is you promoting it and selling it and talking about it. After that, you're really, really sick of it. [Laughter]
I don't know, there are some people who I met recently, the really interesting writer called Viola di Grado who's Italian and she was really involved in the translation of her book from the Italian into English, and had a lot to say about it. I think I couldn't get as involved in it again because it's quite hard for me to put myself in that world, because it is also my life, it's a memoir, and I have to be in a certain head space for it. So, I think I will just allow a translation to happen and then if it's not quite right or if it's a little bit embarrassing, oh well.
Astrid: Your first book, You're Just Too Good To Be True: A Love Story About Lonely Hearts and Internet Scams, was published a few years ago. Like Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, it deals with incredibly personal stories. Which book was harder to write and why?
Sofija: The first one, You're Just Too Good To Be True, was shorter, that makes a difference. It was a Penguin special, and they do these really great kind of shorter form books, and that was where I was talking to other people about their experiences. It was quite hard because I wanted to represent people fairly and not upset anyone, and I'm generally anxious about things like that, so that was a little bit hard. But writing about myself and my own family was very hard for me, because I am a people pleaser and it's bad being a people pleaser if you're a also a writer, especially if you're a memoir writer, because really in the end, you're writing your own experience. You can't please everyone.
You now, my mother plays quite a large part in this book, and she was very smart. Like when I said, ‘Do you mind that I've written...’ or you know, ‘How do you feel about this?’ She said, ‘Well, if I'd written about book about myself, it would have been completely different. I know that this is your version, these are your memories, and of course they're not perfect. It's not fact, it's memory, and it's art.’ She, I think, has a much healthier attitude towards that than I do because I always think like, ‘What if this person hates me…’ You know, so that was very... sorry, to answer your question, which was harder to write, this was really ... a memoir is really difficult to write.
Astrid: When do you show the people that you write about your draft writing? For example your mother, your sister; in the first book, the older man, Bill.
Sofija: Yeah, so I didn't show the older man in the first book the draft. I can't remember why I made that decision. I think it was because he didn't really want to see it. So, he was in the middle of being scammed and he was sort of... he didn't want to face the fact that he was part of an Internet scam, and I didn't include his last name or anything like that so he could have got by without being identified. I didn't show him.
I think it's important to show... so I showed my mother and my sister, who play a big role in my book, because I thought that was fair and I was happy to take out anything they didn't want in there. Other people I just changed their names, often. There are some people who I'm not in contact with anymore or... yeah, and it's fine to do that as well. And some people are an amalgamation of two people.
Astrid: You mentioned before that you've co-written works with other people. I know that you wrote Race Relations with John Saffron back in 2009, I believe it was. What is the difference for you writing with a collaborator or by yourself?
Sofija: I actually really love collaborative writing because it's creative and there's that ability to go beyond what you can imagine, which is quite fun. You know, when you're sitting in a room with someone, you bounce ideas off each other and you come up with something that neither of you would have come up with on your own. I think that's really nice and I love having conversations with people and creative things coming out of them.
Having said that though, it's also limiting in different ways. On John's show, we were writing about John, so I was his co-writer. When I've written with people before generally, I've had the role of co-writer, so trying to facilitate… to bring out someone else's voice, so I'd be writing in the voice of whoever I'm working with.
Writing by myself, I actually really love it because it's in some ways liberating because you can write whatever the hell you want. Writing for print is also easier in many ways than writing for TV because a lot of things come into screenwriting. A lot of people get a say, the end product isn't just you, it's very much influenced by the editing and the directing and more things can go out of your control.
So, I love collaborative writing, I think it's a very special thing and it's something I'd like to do again, but this is also interesting for me, writing on my own, and a bit scary as well, I guess.
Astrid: Tell me why it was scary.
Sofija: Because you don't have anyone to fall back on, you can't actually bounce ideas off someone. You're just by yourself and you're writing, and you have to keep sort of pushing yourself along. Being a writer, sometimes I envy my friends who work in normal workplaces because they have a support system of colleagues or a boss or someone who says, ‘Well done’, on something. If you're a writer, you're just sitting there and you have to keep saying to yourself, ‘This is really worthwhile’, and it's very hard to think that because often you read something and you think, ‘This is terrible, why am I even writing? Why am I here?’
Astrid: What is your process, and how do you keep going on a day where it feels like it's not working?
Sofija: I think it's okay to skip a day if that happens, because sometimes it's not worth it. When I'm feeling down on myself, I won't do the writing part, or I won't read over things. I have become better at recognising what kind of mood I'm in and what is the most productive thing to do. The memoir was interesting to write. I read a book called... I think it's called The Art of Memoir Writing by Mary Karr. It's really good and I followed a lot of her advice about how to write and kind of how to free your thoughts and memories.
I had a really, really intricate structure, like I knew exactly how the book would be planned out. I planned it very carefully beforehand so I knew what each chapter would have in it. But to actually write the chapters, I'd kind of sit down in my room, put on like... maybe have a nice candle burning, put on some music that reminded me of that time, and then try and just access memories, so remember smells or sounds or conversations that I'd had word for word, and just let all of that flow into my head. Often I'd remember all these things that I hadn't thought of for a long time, and then I'd sit down and write like a big stream of consciousness, sort of massive chunk of stuff, not looking back over it, not focusing on it looking nice in any way. Then I'd go away for a few days, come back, and then craft it into something that made sense and that was like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Each of my chapters kind of follow a narrative arc.
Astrid: That sounds very immersive. I know you're also a storyteller for The Moth, and I listened to your performances and I recognised two of those stories from your book. Do you write what you perform or do you already know it so well that it's more impromptu?
Sofija: Yeah, that's interesting. Actually The Moth, I feel like The Moth is probably the reason that I wrote this book. When I moved to New York, I've always... you know, that little passage you got me read talks about how I kind of liked being in the spotlight, but I always felt a little bit shy about it. Especially having English as a second language and feeling a lot more behind the scenes and in front of the scenes, and co-working with other people and like I said, helping other people's stories, facilitating other people's stories, I didn't feel that confident with my own stories. I always thought like they're kind of interesting and I tell them a lot, but I didn't think that there would necessarily be an audience for them.
Then I moved to New York where people have really... everyone has something that they're doing, so many creative people and a lot of them are just kind of following their dream and aren't embarrassed about it, and there's no tall poppy syndrome like there is here. I went to a Moth storytelling night where you put your name in a hat and if your name gets drawn out, you tell a story. I would never have done it here. I would feel far too self-conscious, and I'd think people know me as something so I don't want to get up and do this. All the things that I would have thought here, I didn't think in New York, because people aren't afraid to embarrass themselves. I've heard some stories, some of them were amazing, some of them were not even that good and you know, not very well prepared, so I was like, you know, ‘I'll do this’. Then I put my name in the hat and told a story and it was really great. It was really fun for me because as a writer, often you're just sitting by yourself in a room and no one cares, and if you get onstage and tell a story, people clap, which is an amazing revelation. Yeah, you get feedback.
People were interested. My stories are always about me as this Yugo kid growing up in Australia, and for some reason, New Yorkers were interested in that. I thought okay, ‘If they're interested in it, maybe I should keep going with this and write these stories and maybe there is something universal and it's not just’... because I feel like my strength is in telling very personal stories, they're always something that happened to me and I don't feel like an authority on global issues or anything so I always try and get my messages across through very personal stories. Because it was really nicely received in New York at The Moth, I kept doing The Moth and then started writing them as well.
Astrid: You said that you facilitate other people's stories. You also host This Alien Nation, a live event series in New York sharing other people's stories of immigration. Have you ever asked anyone to participate on that based on their written work?
Sofija: Yeah, I mean... so it's a show that every month, my co-curators and I invite a bunch of people who have backgrounds other than American, because it's in New York, and ask them to tell a story, which can be anything. It can be a big epic story of moving to America from somewhere, or it can be a little one like having a language misunderstanding with a parent, or a school experience, anything. We give them free rein. The people that we choose are always people who have an interesting story to tell and we find them through various means. Sometimes they are writers, sometimes they're storytellers who I've met on The Moth circuit.
One of our co-curators is Michaela McGuire, who runs the Sydney Writers Festival, so she knows amazing authors. We have André Aciman, who wrote Call Me By Your Name. We had Françoise Mouly who is the art director of The New Yorker, she chooses the covers and she's French and so her story is very different. We had a woman who is a domestic worker, an activist, who talked about her experiences nannying. We just kind of get people who have all sorts of backgrounds, but they have to be... or they don't have to be, but it's nice if they're good storytellers, and writers are good storytellers.
Astrid: Not all writers are great performers. Do you think your, I'm going to say confidence, telling your stories in public, for example in The Moth, improved your writing in your memoir?
Sofija: Maybe. I write in a pretty, I'd say simple style, and in a conversational style as well, and that's similar to the way that I talk, so maybe it helped me hone my voice a little bit. I actually think it's a really good thing to do as a writer, to test out material and you rarely get that chance. Sometimes there are writing groups where you can go and read things to colleagues and people who can give feedback, and I think that they're fantastic. I think it's really... for me, I would always... whenever I'd write a chapter I would send it to my friend who is also a writer, and whenever she writes something sends it to me, and we have that kind of exchange. If you're not doing it, if you can't do it in a performance kind of environment, I think it's really great to keep showing your work to people somehow and getting feedback.
Astrid: Have you ever been part of a formal writing group?
Sofija: No, I think I've always been informal. I love classes and things, I’ll always do them. I never feel like I know enough, and I love doing refreshers and all sorts of classes that inspire me in my writing. I haven't been in a formal writing group but I've certainly done classes and workshops and things like that.
Astrid: You've also been published in The New York Times and The Guardian. Can you tell me how you went about pitching an article or...
Sofija: I am really bad with pitching things because it's a lot of work and you have to be really, really persistent, and I get really exhausted of that. I really hate rejection and a lot of pitching is rejection and getting just people... when I first moved to New York, I pitched everywhere, and I'd either just get like, ‘No’, that's the extent of the email, or nothing. It feels like you're being ignored intentionally which I guess you are. [Laughter] But it's more... the longer you are somewhere, the more people you meet, and it's always some sort of personal connection. For The New Yorker, actually I didn't pitch them an article. The editor who ended up publishing me came to a show that I did and said, ‘Hey, I think you're kind of funny. Would you like to do an opinion piece for us?’ That was very unexpected and very exciting, but I think that pitching... I think that being persistent with pitching is amazing, and I think that people who do it are fantastic because it is so hard and it's so punishing. You're just trying really, really hard. You have a great idea, and you just keep sending and getting nos. I find that really, really hard to do.
Astrid: Have you experienced rejection a different way? Do you have an unpublished manuscript in the bottom of your drawer or have you gotten..
Sofija: Yeah, oh I mean I experience rejection all the time. I pitched this memoir plenty of places who didn't want it. I found an agent, but there were other agents who didn't want me. I feel like rejection is a big part of it and all that you can do is keep going and get better, because the more you write, the better you get at it. It's all about experience. Sometimes I get really stuck on things and think this needs to be the best thing that I've ever done, and I never want to let go of this draft because it's not the best, but then I think well, it's not my last book... I hope it's not my last book! And the next will be better, so just keep going. Whenever I have some form of rejection, I just think, okay, is it time to move on to something else, which often it is, and what can I learn from this experience.
Astrid: Do people come to you for advice, particularly when they see you onstage on The Moth or This Alien Nation?
Sofija: Sometimes. I don't know how much good advice I have, though. [Laughter] Sometimes, yeah, people who are writing or who are working on things. I have, like I said, I feel like writers don't have much of a support network so I'm always happy... my colleagues sometimes send me things and I'm really happy to read them and give feedback and put n editorial eye to it as well.
Astrid: How is performance storytelling different from written storytelling, in your mind?
Sofija: It has to be a story that you can tell as if you're sitting around the dinner table with your friends, and you're there to entertain them. To me, I think that my writing... I think that that's kind of the way that I write as well. There are people who are beautiful at crafting gorgeous sentences and who are interested in the beauty of language and the written word on paper, which I think is different. For me, writing is like storytelling in that I want to get ideas across and I write in a simple, straightforward... often I think about who my readers are and I will always want people who have English as a second language to be able to read what I write without it being too complicated. I make an effort to write in a way that I speak and I try and speak in a way that is to the point, I guess.
Astrid: And accessible.
Astrid: That's a fascinating point. You know, you think about your audience or your future readers. What other advice do you have for either performance storytellers or writers who are trying to find their audience, find their tribe, I guess?
Sofija: Who are trying to find their audience, I don't... well one thing about the storytelling, a piece of advice would be to keep it really truthful, to keep it honest and to think about what's the honest idea that you have or that you're trying to get across or the feeling that you're trying to get across, and just stick to that. Don't try and be too tricky with it. Often I'll have a really basic idea and then I'll be like, ‘Add this thing, and add this thing, and there'll be a twist’, and in the end, I'll always end up writing something big and then going back to what I had in the beginning, which was a really sort of straightforward essence of an idea.
I think it's really interesting to find your audience, and it's really important to do that when you're writing because you might accidentally be pitching it to the wrong audience. I often think about that. Sometimes when you get rejected, it's good because the place that rejected you isn't really your audience.
Astrid: Do you have an example of when that happened to you?
Sofija: That I got rejected because it wasn't my audience?
Sofija: I wrote a piece for Aeon, A-E-O-N, which is a really interesting online publication that I really like reading, and I tried really hard to write in their style. They commissioned it, and when I finished writing it and sent it over, the editor said it's not really... I think she said it's not really Aeon-ish or something, it's not really our thing, it's not really written in the way that we like to publish, and she didn't publish it. I got a kill fee which is nice, which is like when you've been commissioned and then they don't want it, but that made me think ‘Okay, well that's not my thing’. Clearly, I should play to my strengths, which is personal storytelling style. This was like a very kind of scientific article that I tried to get up, and I tried to write it in a way that I thought they would want.
There's a lot of publications like that, like The New Yorker, if you read The New Yorker, they're very specific about the voice that they want you to write in. If you're a writer who's doing something for The New Yorker, you can have your own voice but you also need to make it...
Astrid: You need to fit in.
Sofija: A New Yorker voice, yeah. I don't know how good I am at doing these different voices. I've never tried for The New Yorker but I feel like I'd have to work quite hard to make it right.
Astrid: That makes sense. Given that you've identified your strength — the personal stories, the truthful stories, the honest...
Sofija: And there's always a bit of funny in mine as well, sometimes when I talk about serious things, I feel like I need to have something light hearted in it, that's the way that I like to connect with people, something that people can identify with. My themes, like I know kind of what the themes I'm interested in, the protagonist is me, who is usually like an outsider trying to fit in or observing the world through a specific lens. I think I've worked out those things, that they're the things that I can do, and then I've been sticking to that. Not that I won't change, I hope that I will, I hope that I won't forever be writing about my childhood. [Laughter] I think I'm old enough to maybe get over that now. But yeah, I think the more you write, the more you recognise what your vibe is.
Astrid: What do you think is next for you, or what do you want to be next?
Sofija: I don't know. I really want, in my heart of hearts, I really want to write fiction, but I've never had the guts to do it because fiction is so sprawling, you can write about anything. I've always fallen back on the idea that non-fiction is truth in some way, so you're bound... there are certain boundaries. I really like boundaries... I like deadlines, I love being given a task, and then with you have a writing class and you're given a prompt or something, I actually love things like that because they rein me in a little bit, because when I'm given nothing, like a completely blank slate, if you said write fiction, write whatever you want, that's terrifying to me. Even though I'd love to do it, I love fiction, I love reading fiction, and I think that one day I'll write fiction. I just don't know when that will be.
Astrid: We interviewed Alexis Wright, the recipient of the 2018 Stella Prize recently, and she, when asked why she writes fiction, she said it was because it was the best way she'd found to tell the truth.
Astrid: Which I thought was quite a profound way of looking at it. Sofija, you also host Women of Letters New York.
Astrid: Do you write to people? Letters.
Sofija: Do I write letters to people?
Sofija: Not really. For a writer, I one, don't write that much to people and two, I watch a lot of TV and films for someone who's a writer. I love books and I find them relaxing in a very special kind of way. I read a lot more as a child than I do now. But I don't know if it's that I'm all written out...
Sofija: But I don't really write letters that much. I prefer talking to people.
Astrid: Fair enough. I was lucky enough to receive a handwritten note literally a month ago. I haven't received one for years, and it was such a gorgeous thing to get.
Sofija: I love it when I hear that people are letter writers, there are so many people... and yeah, in Women of Letters you find out... who was telling me, I think it was Deborra Lee Furness who's married to Hugh Jackman, she was saying that she's kept all these letters that they wrote to each other and that they still... maybe they still do it like on their anniversary or something, and it's so lovely. I always think I really must write letters, and sometimes you find old ones. I sometimes find old ones from friends or whatever, when we used to, I don't know, just write notes to each other. It's so much nicer than having an electronic copy of something.
Astrid: Better than a text message. I guess my final question to you would be who would you most like to receive a letter from in 2018?
Astrid: Dead or alive?
Sofija: Whoa, okay. Who I would most like to receive a letter from? I don't know. To me, I think it will be more of a... I don't think it's something like Gandhi or someone like that. I think it would probably be someone from my life. Yeah, maybe... maybe someone from... or maybe like my grandma who died. Someone who I didn't get to ask all the questions that I wanted.
Astrid: That's a beautiful response.
Sofija: I think someone like that.
Astrid: Thank you, Sofija. Thank you for coming to The Garret.
Sofija: Thanks for having me.