I first became aware of Julie Koh at last year’s Wollongong Writers Festival when she read from her collection Capital Misfits. I became an instant fan and was thrilled for the chance to do an interview. So without further ado… I give you Julie Koh!
- Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?
I was born in Sydney to Chinese-Malaysian parents. In high school I wanted to be a film director—I was convinced I’d be the next Scorsese—but in the end I studied politics and law at uni. By my final year of that double degree, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I went on to become a corporate lawyer but eventually quit to focus on writing fiction.
My fiction is surreal and often satirical. I like thinking up extreme premises and seeing how they unfold. Reviewers have likened my work to that of many different writers—including Sonja Dechian, Nic Low, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Kelly Link, Philip K. Dick, Richard Yates, Kurt Vonnegut and Don DeLillo – but ultimately I want readers to come with fresh minds to my fiction and engage with it on its own terms. It is doing its own thing, and for its own reasons.
- Your short story collection, Portable Curiosities came out in June. What was it like putting that together?
I originally didn’t realise I was writing a short story collection. Straight out of uni, I’d failed at writing an extremely ambitious novel. So in 2010, I decided to start from scratch and teach myself to write by working on short stories.
By the time I’d quit law in 2011, I’d decided that Twitter was the place to learn about how the Australian publishing industry functioned. I saw a tweet calling for submissions to a curious-sounding publication called The Sleepers Almanac No. 7, so I submitted the story I happened to be writing, and it was accepted.
I went to Melbourne to read at the launch, and that’s where I met Ian See, an editor who worked for Scribe. He asked me if I had anything else to show him, and I didn’t – but we kept in touch.
I’d had a great experience with Sleepers, so I kept writing stories and getting them published in literary journals. That approach gave me the opportunity to work with a range of editors, and the process of bringing each story to publication provided me with an informal education in writing that has in some ways compensated for the fact that I don’t have a creative writing degree.
In 2014, Ian began working at UQP and asked me how many stories I’d written. I sent him what I had, and he put my name forward as a writer who could potentially be part of UQP’s short story collection series. A book deal ensued. I asked for Ian to be my editor, and I worked with him to add a few new unpublished stories to the mix. He arranged the stories into the order in which they appear in the collection. That’s how the whole shebang came together.
- Do you have a standard writing practice or is it different every time?
I don’t have a standard writing practice. I write in the spaces between all the other things I have to do with my life, which has been adequate for writing short stories. At some point, however, I’ll have to try to finish my novel, and that will mean setting aside a few hours each day to write. The problem is that I’m not a particularly disciplined person: I’ve always done things in last-minute bursts. So we’ll have to see how that goes. Potentially, the novel will have to be a last-minute burst of a few months in which I don’t eat or sleep or shower or see anyone. Otherwise it might not get written.
- How do you feel about live readings? Do you get stage fright or are you a natural?
I never get stage fright but I’m usually nervous leading up to a reading. Then the minute I’m on stage, it all comes naturally.
Live readings are easy because all the words are already on the page. When I’m required to speak off-the-cuff, that’s when I properly worry – because I’m more articulate on the page than in person. In situations where I have to rattle off the first thing that comes to mind—radio interviews, for instance—I often give badly-worded, half-formed opinions that I wish I could go back and revise. Also, I have a short attention span, which means I can start thinking about something else while in the middle of a sentence, and completely lose track of what I’m meant to be talking about.
I find it interesting that I’m more comfortable talking to a thousand people in a convention centre than to small groups in classrooms and lecture theatres, where there isn’t a spotlight and it’s consequently easy to see who is not paying attention. I once gave a talk to a high school class, in the middle of which a student decided to leave her desk and get into a cupboard at the back of the room. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything weirder, and am now prepared for most eventualities.
In situations that I’m most nervous about, I’ve always found that making myself exceptionally tired beforehand is a good solution. It’s almost like being drunk. If I’ve been up late preparing for a lecture, then delivering it becomes less nerve-wracking because I’m too tired to care. But there’s a fine balance to strike between not caring and not being alert enough to put together a coherent sentence. I walk the line.
- A print version of your first collection, Capital Misfits, is going to be released with illustrations by Matt Huynh. What are your thoughts on the relationship between words and images?
I’ve always loved illustrators and illustrations. As a child, I spent a lot of time drawing pictures to accompany my own stories. Words and images were always a natural fit. I liked entering colouring competitions, partly because first prize was invariably a gift voucher to buy books.
It’s rare to see illustrated literary fiction – I think people take Literature less seriously if it’s accompanied by pictures. People are still coming to terms with the idea of graphic novels as literature.
I’m always excited when my work is illustrated. I almost write to be illustrated. I get a huge kick out of seeing in a concrete way how the product of my own imagination resonates in the mind of another person.
Capital Misfits is literary fiction but Matt’s illustrations enhance it. He often takes a symbolic approach when illustrating my work, which is why I think our partnership works so well. My short stories stand well on their own but I’ve always liked the idea that I’m writing bedtime stories for adults, and so illustrations should definitely accompany them.
If I wasn’t a writer, I would want to be Santa Claus or an illustrator. I think I pursue friendships with illustrators because they can do what I’ve always wanted to do, but at a professional level. I’m in my early thirties now – if I make time to learn from scratch, I might be pretty good at drawing in thirty years’ time. Maybe in my sixties I’ll be able to illustrate my own work.
- Are you working on any new projects at the moment that you can share with us?
I’m working on a surreal, satirical spec fic novel at the moment. Recently, I haven’t had a proper chance to work on it consistently, although I keep it kicking along in the back of my mind while I’m busy with other things. It’s an extremely difficult story to pull off: I’m currently standing at the door to my novel, trying all the keys in the lock. I like setting myself challenges that are almost beyond my intellectual capacity. It keeps me suitably stressed.
Another project in the works is a new annual anthology I’m editing for Math Paper Press in Singapore, called BooksActually’s Gold Standard. It will comprise short stories by people we consider to be the cult writers of the moment from East Asia, Southeast Asia and the diaspora. It will be out in November in Singapore, and will even be available for purchase from BooksActually’s vending machines. We’ll bring it to Australia too.
- Where is your favourite place to write?
I have a writing studio in a creative warehouse in Marrickville, although I don’t get there much anymore because of other work commitments. I feel calm when I’m in my studio because I can lock the door and write uninterrupted. I’m also surrounded by creatives, so when I’m stuck or bored, I can wander around and see what everyone else is doing. I especially love talking to visual artists about what they’re working on. I don’t have much of a vocabulary to describe art, so I often stand there and say inane things like: “Wow, I love… the purple.”
I enjoy writing in bed, too. It’s a good place for generating new ideas, particularly when I’m nearly nodding off. My fiction tends to be surreal, so the time just before sleep—when I’m tired and relaxed—is an ideal time to get my brain to connect disparate ideas, images and experiences.
Sometimes I feel like getting out of the city, so I book a little shack in the Blue Mountains for a few days at a time. The hosts give me a stash of food and leave me alone.
I like to write in quiet places. Although I can generally work surrounded by most types of noise, I really struggle to write when I can hear individual conversations. That really irritates me, and I’ve resorted over the years to wearing industrial ear muffs over ear plugs to block out that sort of noise.
I’m trying to learn to write anywhere, though. Hopefully, at some point in the future, everywhere will be my favourite place.