Working with Words: Tom Lee

Tom Lee is an academic and the author of Coach Fitz. He spoke with us about growing up on a farm, the ill effects of 1984 and the joy of writing in busy places.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Photograph of Tom Lee

Photo: Aaron Seymour

Very hard to say. I think I’m much more responsive to writing at a visceral, emotional level now than when I was a kid. I wasn’t really interested in literature that made me cry or laugh as an adolescent either. I wanted to feel melancholic or powerful. Perhaps it was more important to hide tears as a young man. There was always much laughing at TV and the movies. Writing, not so much.

Things are very different now. It is very common for me to cry while reading. A Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling and Normal People by Sally Rooney are two examples. It’s a wonderful thing, both the physical sensation and the thought that writing can move you to that degree.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I wrote apocalypse narratives when I was in primary school and then violent pornographic stories as an adolescent. The former serviced the fantasy of living in a world without adults or adult rules where I could break into the local general store and eat lollies. The latter serviced a desire to explore taboos, exercise a need to feel pleasure through destruction and amuse my friends. I got in lots of trouble for writing a particularly violent pornographic story that came into the possession of a teacher. I was called into his office, he asked for my home address, wrote it on an envelope after I told him, put a familiar looking folded bit of paper in the envelope, and then asked me: 'have you been writing any pornographic stories recently?' I was petrified. He didn’t end up sending it. Thank god.

I am glad to have been subject to the training forces of culture that have helped me understand that a more nuanced and compassionate approach to expression is morally and functionally better. Having said that, it might do teenagers today (not to mention a good portion of the adult population) some good if they explored their sick fantasies through writing rather than simply consuming other peoples’ on the internet. Though this is debatable. 

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing? 

I worked as a farmhand on my family farm during my childhood, then in hospitality and childcare during university, as a window washer in the no man's land after uni, and now as a university academic.

The experiences of growing up on a farm continue to have a profound and belated impact on the inner life I elaborate and transform when writing fiction: shovelling dirt in the baking sun, tending to animals in distress, driving clapped out machines in wide open expanses, planting thousands of trees, building fences, chipping burrs, hacking into the bodies of animals with grim tools for various laudable and not so laudable purposes. These duties only started to become part of my inner mythology once a certain distance emerged between me and the farm. In particular, during my first overseas experience in England as an eighteen year old. My diary from that year is filled with poems about dust, Australian light, paddocks with limestone rocks and dry grass. 

The experiences of growing up on a farm continue to have a profound and belated impact on the inner life I elaborate and transform when writing fiction.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Teaching.

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

I hate the idea of writing to an audience, though it probably makes sense if you want to sell books. Anything that gets between me and an idea I want to explore is a distraction. Refinement through editing is crucial but that ought to come later on.

It’s not so much a piece of advice as an insight from the history of literature, but I love the idea that the novel emerged as a kind of rag-and-bone form from various other genres which include philosophical dialogue, the epic, tragedy, comedy, myth, enigma, poetry and others. All the truly ambitious novels seem implicitly or explicitly aware of this. And again, this isn’t advice as such, but I’ve always held close Les Murray’s poem ‘Politics and Art’: 'Brutal policy,/ like inferior art, knows/ whose fault it all is.'

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I have sporadically. In 2002, 2004 and 2005. I love going back and reading these and wish I kept more. I don’t keep a diary anymore, I don’t seem to have the bandwidth, so much of the day is taken up with various writing tasks. Email and social media has probably had something to do with redirecting my attention elsewhere. I’ve tried to reignite the habit but just can’t seem to do it.

Which classic book/play/film do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated? 

I think 1984 is among the most overrated books. It often serves as a template for hackneyed interpretations of political and institutional power, particularly among rusted on leftie journalists. Of course there’s a decent dose of interpretive force in the narrative, but more often than not it seems to serve in place of a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of politics and power. If you want the more nuanced understanding of power try Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or The Love of Technology, it’s a harder read but far more thought-provoking and intellectually aware.

On another tack entirely, Bill Neidjie’s Story About Feeling is a profound insight into a way of life, storytelling tradition and a metaphysics that has in significant part been destroyed in this country since white settlement. It is simultaneously enchanting to read and deeply tragic in light of the broader history of colonialism. 

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I’m very happy writing in busy places, particularly places of transit like airports, train stations and other kinds of termini. I write on my back when I can because of this blasted hamstring tendonitis I’ve got from overdoing the running. I also enjoy writing outside as much as possible, which can be hard in the sun on a computer. And, though this is hardly strange, I find it difficult to write without some kind of hot drink and a treat.

Whether or not you’re willing to say something to someone’s face is a good acid test of whether it’s worth elaborating.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Mainly emails to people in whom I’ve been romantically interested. I developed a habit of trying to ensnare potential partners in writing exchanges, naively thinking it would be a chance for me to show off. Now I know that when you are not being received well the best thing to do is go underground. Whether or not you’re willing to say something to someone’s face is a good acid test of whether it’s worth elaborating. While it’s a wonderful affordance in a sense, being able to fully explore a matter of the heart in words and then send it from a distance is also a very dangerous thing. 

Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

I’d dearly love to pick Alan Hollinghurst’s brain about the London landscape and his history there – pubs and parks in particular.

As far as fictional characters go, dinner with Judge Holden from Blood Meridian would be a memorable experience, but I’d want him in a cell like Hannibal Lecter, with no ability to identify my face or any awareness of my identity full-stop. It’d be great to go toe-to-toe in a philosophical dialogue with him; there are many contradictory elements to his thinking I’d be keen to press him on.

Actually, I don’t think I really want to do this. I take that back.

Portrait of Tom Lee

Tom Lee is a writer known for his interest in landscape, technology and the senses. He grew up on a farm near Orange in central-west NSW, and lectures in the School of Design at the University of Technology Sydney. He was the recipient of a Marten Bequest Scholarship in 2014.

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