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An Interview with Julie Koh

Lychee Lui sat down with Julie Koh, the author of Capital Misfits and Portable Curiosities, to discuss writing inspirations, the self-help genre, K-pop and Hollywood film scores.  

Who are your biggest writing inspirations? 

There have been too many to name here. In the early years when I was aiming at writing dark bedtime stories for adults, I was interested in Jonathan Swift, the Brothers Grimm, Roald Dahl and Italo Calvino. In terms of contemporaries, I’ve loved the work of Tom Cho and Kyoko Yoshida. Haruki Murakami’s weirder books have been a big influence, though I’m aware that many people dislike his writing. In 2015, I flew to the Auckland Writers Festival just to see him speak. After his in-conversation, when I was back at my hotel, the fire alarm went off. When I got down to the bottom of the fire stairs and out onto the street, I realised that I’d only brought my notebook, which contained notes from his session. No money, no passport. If the hotel had burnt down that day, well, I would’ve been at a loss about what to do next. 

What appeals to you about the short story form?  

Short stories can be sharp and succinct. I have the sort of personality that likes to move through ideas without having to stay with them for too long, so I enjoy having short stories as small projects with clear deadlines. The more I write short fiction, the less patience I have when reading novels – I get frustrated when I’m in the middle of one that I think would be better off as a short story. 

Looking through your body of short stories, what inspired you to build the interconnected short story universe? 

Originally it was something my literary collective Kanganoulipo was doing. We were writing interconnected faux non-fiction stories, published across different outlets, about the members our collective behaving badly – like using a flamethrower to burn down the State Library of New South Wales, or pulling Tim Winton’s ponytail at an awards ceremony. My last contribution to the collective was ‘C is for Cockroach’, a short story written as a fake nature essay. I’ve continued on with the Kanganoulipian project solo, I suppose – sort of an ongoing improvisation. 

What initially drew you to the self-help genre? 

When I finished uni, I tried to write a very ambitious satirical novel in the guise of a self-help book. It was a genre that was a good fit for satire. After two years of attempting this, I figured I didn’t have the skills yet to execute it, so I set it aside. 

Do you feel as though you’ve finally cracked into the self-help genre with ‘Radical Love’? Or was it earlier with ‘Reinvention in Six Parts’? Was it with ‘C is for Cockroach’?  

I probably began to crack the genre, accidentally, in my work with Kanganoulipo – specifically in a speech I gave at the Wheeler Centre for the Emerging Writers’ Festival program launch in 2017. I’d been asked to give a speech on what fuels my writing, no matter the obstacles. So I delivered it as my narcissistic Kanganoulipian alter ego, giving the audience an inspirational talk on how I’d overcome obstacles like being taken into custody as a suspect in the murder of another emerging writer. I developed the voice and character in pieces like ‘C is for Cockroach’ and ‘Reinvention in Six Parts’. 

I wasn’t writing with the intent of revisiting self-help, I just realised when I was commissioned to write ‘Radical Love’ that I was finally in a position to do it, so I did it.  

What drew you to the unreliable narrator? What compels you about an unreliable narrator? Do you like reading or writing them more?  

I’ve met many people who have a loose relationship with the truth – people who control others by gaslighting them, people who tell lies for the thrill of it. I have a knack for attracting these sorts of personalities. I think it’s partly the curiosity in me that draws me to them, and them to me, and that keeps us in a dance with each other for longer than most people would stand. I do get rid of them faster these days! While I enjoy reading stories featuring unreliable narrators, I perhaps get more of a kick out of trying to write stories the way gaslighters tell them: I like the challenge of trying to communicate both a lie and the truth at the same time. 

I also think that we’re all unreliable narrators of our own experiences—sometimes we like to think we’re better people than we actually are—which is partly why I often like to use my own name for the unreliable narrators of my short stories. I reckon I could be a horror of a person if circumstances were different (I’m sure there are people out there who already think I’m a horror) so I’m sort of among the targets of my own satire. 

I have an interest, too, in deception on larger scales. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I am a former politics major. I’m fascinated by the ways in which people with an interest in maintaining power prevent others from seeing clearly – keeping us in our places so that we carry on our small lives. 

I read your ‘What I’m Reading’ 2017 post in Meanjin. I’m curious about your impression of it, six years on. 

For people who haven’t come across the post, ‘What I’m Reading’ was a short story disguised as a non-fiction blog post about what was in my summer reading stack at the time. It focused on two new releases by the fictional Australian authors Adelaide Hegarty and J Fenwick Anderson. 

That piece was one I wrote as an instalment in the ongoing story of Kanganoulipo. You can see structural echoes of it in ‘Radical Love’. The most memorable thing about it was the reaction readers had. Another writer told me after it was published that they’d seen others post the link on social media, believing that the books were real and saying they were looking forward to reading them. I also read the piece out at a writers’ festival to great consternation. It ends (sorry for the spoiler) with the revelation that I murdered Adelaide Hegarty out of jealousy. Someone later came up and asked me if she had actually died! 

I see my work as evidence of an artistic process, so I often lose interest in it after it’s been published. (Actually, I lie. I lose interest even before the editing phase.) Looking back on the piece, I enjoy the bits that immortalise my real-life friend and collaborator, the amazing illustrator Jeffrey Phillips. I also still like that the story is about how celebrated writers can also be terrible people who write “serious” but very boring work. 

Do you see yourself first as a writer or Julie, the person? Is there a meaningful division between the two?  

It’s difficult to separate the two, mostly because I’ve felt I’ve had to sacrifice a lot in the rest of my life in order to be a writer. In the early years, I defined myself as a writer in defiance of others, since many people in my life told me not to take this path. I quit my job as a lawyer, and ended a long and tumultuous relationship, to pursue writing. Quitting law was an extreme move—after all, some writers are also simultaneously lawyers—but I felt like I had to do it to get back to my creative self. These days, I’m always ruminating about my writing, even if I’m not physically doing it. That part of the mind never switches off. Also, since it’s so hard to earn money from literary fiction in this country, most of my time is spent trying to organise my life in a way that is most conducive to giving me enough time and energy to write.  

I do now strive a bit in the other direction, attempting to separate who I am as a person from my writing. Having met writers (some of whom are delightful and some of whom are terrors) and seen what the literary world is really like, I no longer idolise writers or publishing, and consider it unhealthy for writing to form the basis of my identity. I like to make friends outside literature to give me some perspective. As for the close friends who knew me before I became a writer – I don’t expect them to, and even prefer them not to, read my work. Our friendship is not based on writing. To them, it’s what I do, not what I am. If I were ever to quit being a writer, it wouldn’t affect the friendship. I know they’re friends with me because they genuinely like me as a person. 

Do you think the young Julie who wrote Colin the Dog’s Fabulous Midnight Adventure & Another Story would be happy with where you are right now? How did you feel when you saw its film adaptation in 2012?  

To give readers some background, ‘Colin the Dog’ was a short story I wrote in high school as an English Extension 2 major work. It was published in the Board of Studies anthology for that year and later picked up for a film adaptation. 

Younger me would be happy that I pursued a creative avenue against the odds but she would be disappointed to see that I’m so jaded. Young Julie was a real Pollyanna – she thought she’d have her life sorted by the arbitrary age of 26. She’d be travelling the world with a great romantic partner, working for the UN or directing arthouse films, etc. It’s been a lot messier than that. There have many moments of despair. But that’s what life is. Not being able to breeze through has been character-building, I hope. I do think, though, that younger me would be in awe of the fascinating and talented people I’ve met, as well as the interesting circumstances I’ve found myself in as a result of becoming a writer.  

It was a lot of fun seeing the film adaptation of ‘Colin the Dog’. It was also surreal to me as well – one of the actors, Di Smith, was someone I used to watch on TV as a kid. I’ve grown quite close to the producers of that film, who have gone on to do remarkable things in their field. I live my childhood filmmaking dreams through them. 

What has been a highlight of your mentoring experience? 

I’ve mentored emerging writers through different literary organisations. The most recent highlight has been mentoring Bryant Apolonio as part of the award he received as winner of the 2021 Deborah Cass Prize. He’s an astonishing talent who’s already making waves. I look forward to seeing what else he’s going to achieve. 

I’d like to end on a lighter question—what kind of music do you listen to when you write? Does it change depending on the theme or the season? 

I listen to music that enhances the vibe I’m going for but isn’t so intrusive as to make me focus on the music rather than the writing. When music feels too distracting, I listen to the sounds of a café or library, or whale sounds, or Tibetan bowls. 

I build playlists for particular stories as I write them. They’re pretty eclectic. For ‘Julie Koh’, a story about me as a white male Hollywood action hero, I predictably listened to Hollywood film scores. For ‘The Secret Garden’, a ghost story, it was mainly Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Derrida album with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel and Cassandra Wilson thrown in. (As an aside, I loved the documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda.) For ‘Workers of All Lands Unite’, a story I wrote a while back, I listened to a mix of artists like Sakamoto (again), Saint-Saëns, Ambrose Akinmusire, Wayne Shorter. 

I’ve recently written a road trip story. Classic Western ‘road trip’ songs were a bit annoying to listen to, so I ended up streaming a playlist of music used in the reality TV show In the Soop: Friendcation, which is not at all the mood of the piece! But it kept me going.  

Weirdly I’ve been able to listen to K-pop recently no matter what I’m writing. I was in the top 1% of BTS listeners on Spotify last year – not an achievement I was hoping to unlock. 

Editor: Anh Noel