Beau Hillier, super-editor of page seventeen, kindly invited me to be a part of the blog hop. It’s a pretty good idea, I reckon. Writers answer four questions about their work and nominate others to do the same. Make sure you check out Beau’s responses here.
Next in the chain is the lovely and brilliant Julie Koh. I was lucky enough to meet Julie earlier this year in Melbourne, very briefly, at the launch of the Sleepers Almanac No. 9. That night she read an excerpt from ‘Civility Place’, an exceptional short story, and had the room in stitches while attempting to photograph the crowd from the stage.
To read Julie’s responses, visit her website.
J.Y.L. Koh is a Sydney-based writer. Her short stories appear in The Fish Anthology 2007, The Sleepers Almanac Nos. 7, 8 and 9, The Lifted Brow Digital Issue Vol. 5 No.1, Kyoto Journal Issue 80, and The Best Australian Stories 2014 (forthcoming). In 2013, she was a finalist in the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards Written Word category, longlisted for the Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, commended for the Australian Society of Authors’ Ray Koppe Young Writers’ Residency, and shortlisted for the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers. jylkoh.com
What are you working on at the moment?
Home Mechanics began a couple of years ago as a collection of short stories. Set in locations as sleepy as a Darling Downs backwater, as familiar as a suburban Brisbane backyard, and as exotic as an African campsite, the stories explore relationships and modern masculinity. In 2012, the manuscript was shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards, and since then, almost half the stories have been published in various literary journals across the country.
Taking the next step, however, has proven difficult. Single-author collections are rare in Australian publishing. No one reads them, apparently. With the exception of a handful of successes in recent years – Nam Le and Maxine Beneba Clarke among them – most unknown short story writers have a hard time selling their work to publishers, let alone attracting significant exposure in the literary landscape. So I’m attempting, with patience and determination, to string the stories together, work them into a novel without straying too far from my original vision. Every writer wants an audience, right? Right?
How do you think your work differs from that of other writers in your genre?
This is a tough one. Analysing your own work is near impossible. The way we see ourselves is often very different to the way others see us. Our perceptions are flawed and our objectivity lost when we lay it on the page and study the mirror.
Some writers have the gift of imagination. Sadly, I don’t. Every story I’ve ever written is based on direct, personal experience. I NEVER set out writing a piece with the intention of making a social, environmental or political statement. I don’t create characters or scenarios to comment on past or contemporary issues. Ruminations on the themes of love, loss, relationships, modern masculinity, travel and working-class struggles reoccur in my stories, but only because I’ve lived them.
For me, it’s all about honesty, recognising a conversation, a moment or a series of events that changed the course of my life, and attempting to wrangle it into some sort of cohesive narrative. Of course, this may be considered a narrow lens. But isn’t that what it’s all about? Each of us has a unique vision of the world, and in turn, a distinctive voice. Now that I think about it, the only things that make my work fiction are the patchwork of experience, the omission or alteration of details, and the inaccuracy of memory.
I aim for simplicity in my writing, clear and direct storytelling. I’m not much of a fan of linguistic flamboyance or literary tricks. Sorry, that’s just me. My early influences are both common and predictable. Hemingway lit the path. Steinbeck blew my mind. Bukowski broke my jaw. Carver broke my heart. But like any creative art, writing is subject to shifting tastes. Some say realist fiction – or whatever they call it nowadays – is waning. Contemporary, kitchen-sink-dramas were hot for a long time, but are now beginning to fall out of fashion – if they haven’t already. These days, story collections are praised for their diversity. Exercises in genre-bending and schizophrenic characterisation are the staple requirements. This, of course, takes great skill and imagination, and I’m in awe of those who manage to pull it off and make it believable. Perhaps in the future I’ll attempt a similar approach, but right now, I’m focused on a few key themes and a central, single voice. Yes. The written word must continue to evolve. It must shape-shift, expand. No doubt about it. But I reckon if you stick to your guns, write what is true for you and no one else – whatever it may be – the tastemakers will eventually come around. Write it well enough, and they’ll have to listen.
Why do you write what you write?
I write as a kind of therapy. Home Mechanics, at least I hope, explores what it means to be a modern Australian male in an emerging world of empowered women. Resisting the indolence of reducing the protagonists into hapless comic figures – a stereotype of masculinity so often portrayed in various forms of media – I want to present my characters as conflicted and confused, complex and thoughtful. Men, without question, experience powerful emotional lives, whether or not they are willing to talk at length about their feelings. Most often their emotions manifest not in wordy dialogue, but in decision and indecision, action and inaction. Sensitivities emerge from the silences, the spaces between conversation, and from the possibilities implicit in the smallest choices they make.
A couple of years ago I read a statistic relating to the suicide rate in Australia. Apparently, five Australians take their own lives every day. Four of those are men. Why? Aren’t men supposed to be the less sensitive of the sexes? I sure as hell don’t have the answers, but I’d like to ask a few questions. To think that men aren’t affected in a deeply profound way by relationships – marriage, divorce, parenthood, abortion, body-image, sexuality, social and gender-related ridicule – is absurd. At least that’s the way I see it. Just because men don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.
Masculinity isn’t what it used to be, and that’s probably a good thing. Yes. It is a good thing. But what are the consequences?
What’s your writing process and how does it work?
I don’t know if writing can be taught. I’ve never studied Creative Writing at university or anywhere else. I’ve never had a critical reader at any stage of developing a story, let alone a Mentor. Of course, this approach has its limitations – too many, in fact, to bother mentioning. When I publish a story in a journal or an anthology, it’s always intimidating to read the bios of other writers listing their impressive academic and professional credentials.
I spent my late twenties teaching myself to be a writer by typing out the stories from the books I liked to read. Sometimes I typed out short stories, and other times long passages from novels. By doing this, I reasoned, I could discover the rhythms of good writing, the secrets of the craft. I knew, of course, that to be a writer I must one day write my own stories, but I was determined to serve my apprenticeship the hard way. I’m a chef by trade, a man of practicality. I learn by doing. I cook for a living. I sweat, burn and bleed, while every other bastard with a real job is out having a good time. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the worst job in the world, certainly not the hardest, but it was the chef in me that reasoned that you must first replicate the recipes of the masters before you can truly begin to create.
Hemingway once said that writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed. I’ve always liked that. And I guess that’s how my stories have come about. I write late at night, after work, usually from about 10pm to 1am. This may seem inconceivable for other writers, but it’s the best time for me. Still amped from dinner service, my mind is at its most active. From start to finish, I usually know what’s going to happen in a story. The difficult part is filling in the gaps, finding the right words, the structure to deliver the most impact. Admittedly, it’s a slow process, a walk rather than a run. I take great care in the first draft, and edit as I go. Each word is crucial. If I can write two hundred good words in a couple of hours, I’m a happy man. Above all, writing is a compulsion. I need to do it.