Working with Words: Larissa Behrendt

Larissa Behrendt is a legal academic at the University of Technology Sydney, a filmmaker and writer. Her latest novel After Story, sees a mother and daughter take the overseas trip of a lifetime. On their journey, they discover that their past isn’t quite behind them. We spoke about writing authentically and being a cat person.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Photograph of Larissa Behrendt

I co-authored an article in Tharunka, the student newspaper at UNSW with my brother Jason. It was called ‘Bad Fruit or Rotten Apples?’ and was about the use of excessive force and other discriminatory practice used by the police in Redfern. It was the first time I was able to express my views and use my voice. I didn’t look back after that. 

What’s the best part of your job?

When someone takes the time to write to tell me how much they enjoyed reading something I’ve written. 

What’s the worst part of your job?

The self-doubt of how others will feel about my work and what I want to say. It must drive my poor husband, Michael, nuts. 

What’s the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Winning the David Unaipon Award in 2002 for the manuscript that would become my first novel, Home. It encouraged me to take the idea of writing, something that I loved doing as a pastime, as a serious pathway that was open to me. 

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice was both write what you know and to stay ‘match fit’ – so write every day. 

The worst advice was that I had no talent for fiction and should stick to writing political opinion. I took it to heart and it stopped me writing fiction for many years. 

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

Ignoring the negative right-wing smear campaigns and tall poppy diatribes, it still surprises me that people find me intimidating. I’m just a cat person who loves shoes and 80s music, and a working-class kid who’s done good. 

... it still surprises me that people find me intimidating. I’m just a cat person who loves shoes and 80s music, and a working-class kid who’s done good.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I certainly don’t feel confident to teach it. But I do think everyone has at least one novel in them. If you’ve got an extended family like mine, you’ve got many more than that. But just having the story is not enough. Writing is a craft, an art. And you have to constantly work at improving your natural talents. 

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Find your truth. Write authentically. Be curious. Treat it like a craft – you have to practice, develop your skills, take as many opportunities to listen and learn from others. And read, read, read. 

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

During Covid I’ve had to go online but I love a bookshop and the browsing, the staff suggestions, finding a treasure I didn’t know existed. Who would ever want to give that up? 

The Color Purple was the first book I read by a non-white person and the voice and perspective, the rhythm of it – it changed my world.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

It’s hard to pick just one. George Orwell’s Burmese Days is still one of the best books written about the insidiousness of colonisation. The Color Purple was the first book I read by a non-white person and the voice and perspective, the rhythm of it – it changed my world. And I predict that Chelsea Watego’s Another Day in the Colony will be a new classic. 

Portrait of Larissa Behrendt

Larissa Behrendt is Professor of Indigenous Research and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is a regular columnist for The Guardian and has published numerous textbooks on Indigenous legal issues. She is also the author of two novels: Home, which won the 2002 David Unaipon Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (South-East Asia and South Pacific); and Legacy, which won the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing. She is the Ambassador of the Gawura Aboriginal Campus at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney and a board member of the Sydney Story Factory, a literacy program in Redfern. She was awarded the 2009 NAIDOC Person of the Year award and 2011 NSW Australian of the Year. After Story is her latest novel, coming out July 2021 with UQP.

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