Working with Words: Julie Koh

Julie Koh is the author of two short-story collections. Her second collection, Portable Curiosities, was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, the Steele Rudd Award and a NSW Premier’s Literary Award. Her stories have appeared in The Best Australian Stories (2014, 2015 and 2016), and Best Australian Comedy Writing (2016). She's also the editor of BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016 and is a 2018 Stella Prize judge.

Having left a job in law to pursue writing, Koh spoke with us about the validation of adaptation, the self-directed path to being a writer – and the strange and wonderful people she's met in the process.

Photograph of Julie Koh

Julie Koh — Photo: Hugh Stewart

The fact that a stranger wanted to adapt my work was what got me thinking that I could become a writer.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A short story I wrote in high school called ‘Colin the Dog’s Fabulous Midnight Adventure and Another Story’. It appeared in the NSW Board of Studies’ Young Writers Showcase 2001. About a decade later, it was adapted into a short film and screened at the St Kilda Film Festival. The fact that a stranger wanted to adapt my work was what got me thinking that I could become a writer.

What’s the best part of your job?

An unexpected joy has been that by moving in creative circles, I get to meet so many fascinating, diverse artists who inspire me to do better.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The stress involved in trying to create enough time and psychological space to produce good fiction.

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

Being named a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist.

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

Eric Yoshiaki Dando gave me some advice he himself received: ‘To be a writer, all you need to do is stand on a desk and declare that you are one.’

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

After an appearance I made at a writers’ festival, a friendly audience member came up to me at the signing table and said something amusing along the lines of, ‘Your poor Mum, you would have been a handful as a child!’ My Mum and I were both surprised. I was apparently a quiet kid – so chill that my parents wondered if they’d produced a slow learner.

Moral of the story: introverts can perform.

Photo of Julie Koh's book, Portable Curiosities

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

I would be a trillionaire. If I had the talent, I’d be a visual artist. A trillionaire visual artist.

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

I think writing as a craft can be taught, but the student needs to have an original spark on top of that to stand out. I think it’s also important to choose the right teachers – those who avoid teaching in a way that flattens original style and storytelling instincts. 

Ultimately, you don’t need to do a creative writing degree to become a writer. I don’t have one. Though I did do my ‘apprenticeship’ in other ways – by reading, writing, being edited, doing short courses and going to see writers speak.

Look Who’s Morphing taught me that I could be Asian Australian and write wild and get published.

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

Don’t write for the money and fame, because you may be sorely disappointed.

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

Both.

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

J. Alfred Prufrock. I’d order fruit and be like, ‘Eat the fucking peach!’ I would be so inspirational.

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

It’s difficult to pick just one book, though I do always talk about Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing. I remember the moment I first became aware of its existence. Copies had been arranged in a big display at Kinokuniya Sydney, and I was drawn to that stunning cover photo by Owen Leong. Look Who’s Morphing taught me that I could be Asian Australian and write wild and get published.

Portrait of Julie Koh

Julie Koh was born in Sydney to Chinese-Malaysian parents, and left a career in corporate law to pursue writing. She is the author of two short-story collections: Capital Misfits (Spineless Wonders; Math Paper Press) and Portable Curiosities (UQP), which was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, the Steele Rudd Award in the Queensland Literary Awards, and a NSW Premier's Literary Award.

Julie’s stories have appeared in Best Australian Stories in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and Best Australian Comedy Writing in 2016. Julie is the editor of BooksActually’s Gold Standard, a 2018 Stella Prize judge and a founding member of Kanganoulipo. 

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