Working with Words: Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is the Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books in Hebrew. Her short fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in English has appeared around the world in Best Australian Stories, Best Australian Essays, Griffith Review, Heat, Westerly, Creative Nonfiction (US), Brand (UK) and Malahat Review (Canada) among many others. Lee has been mentoring writers and teaching writing classes for over ten years. Her latest book is the memoir The Dangerous Bride (MUP).

We talked to Lee about writing in cafes, being told not to write in English because it’s her second language, and organising parties in night clubs to avoid writing.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I began publishing work at 16 - mostly journalism and the occasional short stories for young adults. I lived then in Israel and worked as a young reporter for one national and one local magazine until I turned 18 and had to begin the compulsory army service. My first book, a novel, was also published around that time, when I was 20 years old. It wasn’t a good book though.

What’s the best part of your job?

I get to go to cafes, which is where I love writing. Plus, in my work I process many of my own experiences, and thus save a lot of money I would have otherwise spent in therapy … More seriously, writing serves for me the same functions that religion serves for many. It helps me to understand better the world around me and through writing I try to better myself.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The agonising self-doubt I experience almost every time I write.

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

This is a tough question. Writing is tightly bound with my sense of self and my self-worth, so there have been many many such moments in my life. Completing my last book, which is also my first book in English and first published in Australia - the memoir The Dangerous Bride - was one of those. That moment when after five years of struggling to write it, I pressed the ‘save’ button and that was it. The end…

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

Worst advice is always most interesting (but only in hindsight). I received it from many people, mostly migrants like myself, in my first years in Australia: ‘Forget writing in English, you have to be a native speaker for that.’

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

When my second book, a collection of short stories, came out, reviewers described it as a book about ‘sex and violence’. This came as a surprise to me as I naively thought I was writing a book about people searching for happiness. I was only 25 years old then. And of course what I wrote was predominantly about sex and violence.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’ve already been there. For most of my life I tried to do everything but writing. Writing has always been such hard work for me that I avoided it as much as possible. I worked as a bartender, in a singles agency, had my own business organising parties in night clubs, was a social worker, then social work educator in universities, even completed a PhD in social sciences to avoid writing. In those years I’ve been continuously writing, but only in snatches. Only in the last four years I’ve been working as a writer and writing teacher full-time.

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

This is a complex question which I once tried to answer in an essay I wrote for Griffith Review. In a nutshell though, I am certain you cannot teach talent, but many gifted writers do seem to benefit from studying writing. I think the best thing you can teach writers is how to survive the turbulent process of writing and work out what writing strategies work best for them, how to discover what they are really writing about and how to not make easy compromises about their art (so – how to dare). So, really, effective writing teaching in my view is more like therapy or life coaching, as much as I am ambivalent about both terms.

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

I’ll share here my own writing mantra: Write only about what feels urgent; what makes you blush and feel ashamed is going to be your best material. It is more important how you describe what happened than the precise details of what happened - reflection and analysis are usually more interesting than even the most colourful action.

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

Both. Bookshops are still my favorite places (even more than cafes…), but there are many books I want to read I cannot get in Australia.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

A dinner with a fictional character I adore is usually not the best idea – Satan from Master and Margarita or Humbert Humbert from Lolita may not prove to be the best companions. I also read a lot of creative non-fiction where main characters are usually the authors. My dream dinner will be with Robert Dessaix. I’ll love to talk to him about Russia, the probability of paradise on earth and generally about how to live. Anything Dessaix has to say always interests me, so I hope you can forward this interview link to him.

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

The book that affected me most profoundly, on many levels, is Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I read this novel several times, the first being when I was still a child, and I believe its philosophical and humanist bent helped shape my personality and my tragicomic worldview. The book taught me about the redeeming power of laughter in the face of the despicable, how irony rather than righteousness is our best friend. This novel was also partially responsible for my quasi-metaphysical approach to writing, where I often use my work to try finding some hidden order in the chaos of life.

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