An Interview with Lee Kofman
A candid discussion about memoir, voyeurism and the body
Your memoir, The Dangerous Bride explored non-monogamous relationships of various kinds, based on your own experience and your research. Voyeurism is another subject matter and theme that the book examines. To what extent do voyeuristic moments or experiences inform your writing? How do you record and assess them and draw upon them in your writing process?
L: I often describe myself as a confessional writer, because even when I write fiction I tend to draw upon my own experiences, or the experiences of people I know well. But voyeurism is another fitting way to describe much of my work. Temperamentally, I am a voyeur and an eavesdropper, constantly looking for opportunities to peep in and to listen in. This behaviour may have something to do with my somewhat metaphysical worldview, which means I see the world as a thrilling mystery to be unravelled. I write not to escape my life, as many writers do, but to make sense of it. This is where confession and voyeurism intersect – when I examine, in writing, my own experiences that are often voyeuristic.
I’ve always loved infiltrating secretive environments. The more subterranean, the darker they are, the more interested I am. And it is always from the position of a voyeur that I’d do this, acting a sort of insider but without taking a proper part in any activity, without risking too much, both because I am a coward and because I am constitutionally unsuited to being a part of a group yet like experiencing it by proxy. When I was a teenager, I hardly ever took drugs, but often hung out with drug dealers and users, then wrote about them in the journalism I did then. Later I got enmeshed with the milieu of Russian migrants in Melbourne amongst whom I spent my first two years in Australia. I wrote about them, and about fetish clubs, and about the worlds of writers’ residencies and swingers parties. Right now I’m exploring networks of ‘cutters’ and cutter-haters.
I also love being a voyeur in more intimate situations. For example, once a couple of friends asked me to witness them having sex, because they thought it would be thrilling, and I gladly agreed. Being a witness to extreme situations, and sex is one of these extremes, gives me the – perhaps illusionary – sense that I’m going to gain some wisdom there, gather a better perspective on how people work. Plus, there is the pleasure. Any voyeuristic experience is transgressive and therefore, to me at least, erotic – be it watching a couple copulate or merely argue over washing the dishes.
The passivity inherent in voyeurism is less a feature when it is bound with writing. When I am being a voyeur, my mind is super-active as I simultaneously experience something vicariously through other, and also record and process everything so as to later recreate on the page what I observed. Writing voyeuristically also entails constantly making complex ethical decisions, continuously negotiating the balance between truth and decency, and even though it is difficult, I love the challenge of such risky work.
While The Dangerous Bride is a memoir, your early career as a writer was largely focused on fiction. What were some of the challenges of moving to memoir as a form? Conversely, what were some of its freedoms and affordances?
L: I don’t see The Dangerous Bride as purely memoir. I felt I had to call it that not to scare off potential readers with unfamiliar terms, but really it is a more hybrid work of creative nonfiction. Perhaps an ‘immersive memoir’ will be a more precise, if less known, definition. So I’ll answer your question with reference to my move overall to writing predominantly in the creative nonfiction genre. This happened way before The Dangerous Bride, about 12 years ago when I began writing essays.
I actually didn’t find it challenging at all moving from fiction to creative nonfiction, even though I discovered the latter accidentally, and first as a writer rather than a reader. I saw a call for submissions by Griffith Review, asking for personal essays on the theme of human networks. I had never written a personal essay (nor read many of them), but I was a freshly minted migrant then, and as such more dependent on people than I normally would be, so I felt I had a fair bit to say on the subject. Not knowing anything about the genre, I nevertheless intuitively felt a freedom as I worked on that essay to the extent I had never experienced while writing fiction. I could say directly what I wanted; there was no need to couch anything in an imagined story, set a stage, develop a plausible plot. In short, I didn’t have to use any of the artifice fiction requires. I incorporated some research about Russian and Israeli communities in Australia, as these were relevant to my story, without laboriously disguising the facts within a narrative. But I still used fictional devices whenever I felt the need, such as snippets of dialogue and scenes, and I crafted my sentences with care. This eclectic writing process felt pleasurable and organic. It still does.
Annie Dillard, a legendary practitioner of creative nonfiction, used to say to her students that if fiction provides the consolations of the mask, nonfiction provides ‘the knowledge that what was underneath the mask, your own individual sensibility, that was irreplaceable and potentially of value.’ As I was saying before, even when I write fiction I like uncovering what is underneath my mask, so naturally creative nonfiction felt like a fitting medium for my art.
I am also drawn to the experimental nature of creative nonfiction – playfulness with language and form prevails in these types of works which, at their best, often border on poetry. Some authors even incorporate fictional threads, like Victoria Hammond who added a fairytale-style retelling of Nabokov’s life into her otherwise realistic account of a sojourn in Russia, Letters from St Petersburg. Others, like the memoirist Alice Pung, write with authenticity from the point of view of other people. Some create strange, hybrid works resistant to definitions; Geoff Dyer is a master of that. My favourite book of his is Out of Sheer Rage – an original combination of memoir, literary criticism, travel writing and essayistic polemic. It seems to me that best creative nonfiction works sit somewhere between long-form journalism, memoir and poetry, and this is how I try to write too.
The challenges in creative nonfiction for me are mostly ethical, such as the question of the memory’s accuracy, of how to find the balance between so-called ‘truth’ and imagination, as well as the related challenge of representing other, real, people. But, as I said earlier, dealing with such dilemmas can be invigorating artistically. I am more inspired than discouraged by these problems.
While your first three books were published in Hebrew, you’ve mentioned in some previous interviews that you now prefer writing in English. How has the shift in language changed your approach to writing fiction and nonfiction?
L: To say that my English was poor when I moved to Australia would be an understatement. During my first years here I didn’t even consider that I would ever write in this language. Instead, I continued writing in Hebrew, working on my third book. But once that novel was published in Israel, I realised how unsatisfying it was to live in one country yet to write for another. Every time I publish a book, I thrive on being a part of literary conversations and on contact with my readers, but with that novel I experienced very little of this. So I decided to do what many people told me was impossible – to start writing in English.
Firstly I stopped reading in Hebrew and in Russian to ensure my focus was on absorbing English. And, to this day, when I read in English I always read with a dictionary nearby, checking the words I don’t know. But back then, after a year or so of such intense reading, I finally braved the move to writing in English. I started by writing first drafts in Hebrew, then translating them. But the resulting work read as quite cumbersome and not sufficiently authentic. Gradually I developed an internal monologue in English (marrying an Australian helped…), and this marked the point when writing in this language became easier.
However, even when I learned to write directly in English, I still wasn’t sure I’d be able to really engage with the language in a sustained way on that deep, visceral level that writing requires. You have to be steeped in the language you write in. But as the years went by, I realised that English actually suits my personality better than Hebrew does. Hebrew is an economical language where words and sentences are fairly short and concise. But my natural way of thinking, speaking and writing is more circular, with more clauses within sentences. I came to love the dreamlike quality of the many long words in English, such as ‘metamorphosis’, ‘fairytale’ or ‘strawberries’. The serpentine nature of English syntax also works well for me and I now like my English writing voice more than the one I had in Hebrew.
In my case, switching languages didn’t inform a particular writing approach, but rather affected something most fundamental – my writer’s voice, the mood and flavour of my prose, which I believe is the most crucial ingredient in writing. Voice is never just about aesthetics, but also ethics. How one writes is a direct expression of one’s worldview – whether that is say tragic, metaphysical or ironic. In my case, I feel that moving to writing in English helped me to express myself more authentically, as the language fits my dreamy, somewhat romantic, and maybe philosophical too, sensibilities.
As a memoir, The Dangerous Bride addresses and explores your own narrative, while also incorporating the stories of others at various points. How did you negotiate these shifts in the writing process? How did connecting your own experience to those of others affect your understanding of both them and the broader subject of the memoir? In what ways did these links enhance the book as a whole?
L: My initial impulse, in deciding to add stories of other people who have had non-monogamous relationships to mine, was more selfish than artistic. I only ever write books to answer questions urgent to me, because my writing drive arises not so much from the desire to share what I’ve been through, but, as I was saying earlier, to understand my experiences in the context of the larger world and to learn how to live. At the time I began writing The Dangerous Bride I was grappling with my desire for non-monogamy, which is something damn hard to practise. I was then married and also began an affair with a man I met while I was staying at a writers’ residency in Perth. Before that marriage I’d already had another, quite disastrous, non-monogamous relationship. This time I was hoping to learn from the mistakes of others rather than make more of my own. So I decided to find how the non-monogamous relationships of other people worked and what price there was to pay.
I wrote my book simultaneously in four different modes: I reflected on my past, lived and recorded the unfolding love triangle I was engaged in, researched other people’s non-monogamous relationships and also read books and academic studies around my topic. It was messy but invigorating. If I was bored with one thread of the story, I could always move to another. Plus, in this way I satisfied both my confessional and voyeuristic impulses.
I ended up talking to a diverse bunch of people: Anglo-Saxon, Indigenous and migrants; manual labourers and writers and accountants. They all varied in age and sexual orientation, and practised different types of non-monogamy, whether it was polyamory or swinging or anything in between.
These interviews, and the stories of already dead, and famous, non-monogamists (such as Iris Murdoch, HG Wells and Salvador Dali) I read about, helped me realise that my book wasn’t just about non-monogamy, that it was about larger questions: What is love? What is desire? And what happens when our desires do not sit well with our politics and/or ethics (which is so often the case)? Delving into other people’s stories assisted me with deepening my work because there, as a writer, I wasn’t in control of the narrative and my subjects, whether these were the living or the dead, often took me on unexpected detours. For example, an early interview I did with a feminist activist led me realise that I cannot examine non-monogamy without considering the question of gender as well.
As a writer, you have taught both fiction writing and creative nonfiction in a variety of contexts and locations. Are there any differences in your teaching methodology or approach when the focus is on students writing memoir pieces as opposed to a novel or short story?
L: The main difference would be the level of my enthusiasm. I feel that nowadays fiction has run its course in many ways. It’s an overly trodden and over-taught territory. Too many fiction books published today tend to be replicas – often skilful and sophisticated yet still replicas – of many other books I’ve already read. While the more experimental fiction often reads like a cerebral exercise, lacks emotional texture and can be fairly tedious. What I miss in contemporary fiction, and please forgive me if this sounds hyperbolic, is the soul, the urgency, the spilt viscera. So unless I read books written by such giants as Milan Kundera, Elena Ferrante, Jonathan Franzen, Hanif Kureishi or Angela Carter, I tend to get bored and retreat to the classics. Even when I read my favourite Australian writers, Helen Garner and Robert Dessaix, I much prefer their creative nonfiction to their fiction. Where I am more likely to find all that visceral stuff is in memoir. So even though I feel I am a consistently passionate teacher, I think in my memoir and creative nonfiction classes I show even more enthusiasm.
In terms of teaching strategies, not that much is different, as I believe all good literature, no matter the genre, springs from the same well – that of emotional honesty, deep analysis, a powerful voice and an eye for vivid detail. But I do emphasise Aristotle’s classical plot structure more in fiction classes, and there I often teach how to dream up characters, something memoir writers don’t need to worry about. Whereas in memoir classes I spend more time discussing the ethics of writing, a topic I find exciting both while teaching and reflecting upon it.
One of the great benefits of writing as practice is that is can help us make sense of our own narratives and life events, but the task itself can often be daunting. Speaking as both a writer and an educator what are some of the best starting points for novice memoirists? What are some of the pitfalls and challenges of memoir writing that they might not be aware of from the outset?
L: Forgive me for starting on a negative note, but first of all I think it is important to remember that memoir writing – as useful indeed it can be for ordering our life stories – is not for the fainthearted. So if there are many things a writer feels she cannot say because she is not prepared to offend people, or because she doesn’t want to expose herself and make herself vulnerable, then in my view it is not worth writing this particular work. It is better to focus on writing something else, maybe fiction, than to end up with a false sounding, sentimental piece of writing.
But if the story is pressing enough to take those necessary risks, then here are my best pieces of advice, the ones that over the years have become my own writing mantra:
- What makes you feel ashamed or distressed for other reasons is usually going to be your best writing material.
- It is more important how you describe what happened to you than the precise details of what happened – reflection and analysis are usually more interesting than even the most colourful action.
- All writing is re-writing. First drafts are only the beginning and each subsequent draft will deepen and beautify the work. Don’t try to get it all right in your first, or even fifth, draft. I hope this takes some pressure off…
On a final note, you have a new book coming out with Affirm Press in 2018. A work of feminist creative nonfiction focusing on the body. Could you tell us a little about what inspired this new work and the approach you are taking?
L: This work was initially inspired by my own experience of having lived most of my life in a body disfigured by scars. By the time I turned eleven I underwent seven operations, including an open heart surgery. All that was done in Soviet hospitals which were way behind western ones in terms of technology, and the staff there were unconcerned with such trivia as aesthetics. In those days in Russia, I’m talking about the early 80s, it was considered to be fortunate to even just survive going under the knife; after all, it was not uncommon for Soviet surgeons to turn up at work drunk.
So even though I ended up bearing heavier scarring than I should have, for some time I actually considered myself to be lucky. That was until my family moved to Israel and I entered puberty. Then the reality of living in such an imperfect body as mine finally hit me. I am still dealing with all that. So it may come as no surprise that I ended up writing a PhD that explored experiences of women with scars.
Doing this PhD for five years, having all these interesting, super-intimate conversations with more than 30 women about their bodies and reading loads of books on the relationship between our flesh and our psyches made me realise that my own story, which I thought was unique since my scars are so disfiguring, can be also the story of many other women. After all, in our era of ubiquitous botox and photoshopping, most of us get concerned, if even briefly, with the imperfections of our physique. So I decided to go beyond scars and write a book that examines more generally how our bodily flaws shape ourselves and the ways we live our lives.
Conceptually, this book shares some similarities with The Dangerous Bride in that it combines my own story with research. But this time the balance between the personal, and the journalistic and philosophical is different. If in my memoir research served to illustrate my own narrative, in the book I am currently writing my own story is a less central element, serving more as a starting point from which to examine the bigger picture of how bodies shape women’s lives and how in turn women try to ‘tame’ their bodies to fit their purposes. So, for example, I’ll be telling stories of women who are very tall or have amputations or fashion themselves into vampires. I know this sounds very broad, but this is because I am at the start of the writing process. The way I write is that I usually work out what it is exactly that I am doing by simply doing it. So if you ask me the same question in a few months, I hope I can give a sharper answer.
Image: skeleton dancing in a slightly strange setting by Steve Johnson