Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Leah Kaminsky, a physician and award-winning writer, is Poetry & Fiction Editor at the Medical Journal of Australia. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, is published by Vintage (2015) and will be released by Harper Perennial US in 2016. We’re all Going to Die, a ‘joyful book about death’, is forthcoming with Harper Collins in June 2016.
Leah conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician-writers, which starred on Booklist (Knopf US 2012). She is co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family (Vintage 2015). Her poetry collection Stitching Things Together was highly commended in the IP Picks Award and is published by IP Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
My first ever publication was a poem called “The Royal Beetle Bug” in grade 3 — it even had the word ‘psychedelic’ in it. I’ve always loved writing but it wasn’t till I was 21 and runner-up for a short story competition at university that I started to dream about becoming a professional writer. I had to put that on hold till I finished my medical studies. Then a close friend told me about the NYU Summer Writers’ Conference and invited me to stay in his apartment so I could attend. I leapt at the offer and ended up starting an MFA at NYU. Not long after though, my father took ill and I had to fly back home.
I was accepted into the Professional Writing and Editing Program at RMIT and pitched my first feature article to The Age. I freelanced for various publications. I also published poetry and short stories, and had a couple of children’s picture books commissioned. My then agent, the lovely Caroline Lurie, secured me a deal for my first book back in 1991. My biggest break came in 2007 when I won the Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship for Fiction at Varuna.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
I’ve had an extraordinarily lucky year, with contracts for three books. The most recent was my debut novel The Waiting Room, published by Vintage Australia, due out in the US & Canada with Harper Perennial in 2016. June 2016 also sees the release of We’re All Going to Die, ‘a joyful book about death’. It’s a creative non-fiction book exploring death denial in modern society, through the lens of my role as a physician.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
Chaotic! I don’t have a dedicated place to work in, so I’m fairly nomadic — libraries, cafes (I carry earplugs in my bag!) — I’ve even been known to close the door to the bathroom at home and write there if I have a crazy deadline. I spread out on the dining room table and work while my kids are studying. Various fellowships have given me precious time and space to write in beautiful places like the State Library, Glenfern or Varuna. I prefer solitude and quiet when I’m working on a first draft of anything. I’d love a studio at home, but I’ve learnt not to wait for the perfect conditions to write or I’d never get anything done.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
When I’m not at the clinic, I drop my youngest daughter at school and aim to sit down and write by 9am, but often the dog is itching for a walk or the cat jumps up onto my laptop and starts licking his belly and demanding attention. I get distracted so easily and have to force myself not to check social media and emails while I’m writing. But once I’ve managed to settle down and am ‘in the zone’, it’s as if I’m in some kind of trance and nothing beyond the page exists. The day passes quickly and after I’ve had a break for lunch, hung out some washing and put on the dinner, 3pm rolls around quickly and I’m out the door again for school pick-up.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
It took me a long time to understand that my writing process is a very messy, organic one. I always write a first draft of anything in long-hand and only then edit on a computer. I circle around ideas, writing scenes or snippets of dialogue and am never sure how it all hangs together until the very late stages of a work.
When I was at NYU I was fortunate enough to hear E L Doctorow speak. He said: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ That’s how I feel when I am creating a new work — I have an idea and then I am curious to see in which direction my pen will lead me. The story invites me in at the start and I am compelled to follow as it gradually reveals itself.
When I was doing my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the US, novelist Richard Bausch ran a masterclass in which he gave students three brilliant words of wisdom: JUST TURN UP. If you sit in front of the page for an hour or two every day, you’ll inevitably write something. At least there are some words to work with then — you can’t edit a blank page.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
It is a part of me; words are like breath. I cannot imagine my life without writing and reading. It helps me make sense of the world — both my awe of its incredible beauty, as well as my horror at how easily we screw it up.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Reading is my greatest inspiration, especially poetry. I always have poetry books on my desk and if I feel stuck I turn to them. My best ideas have come either while I’m reading or daydreaming. It’s always when I let my guard down after struggling and agonizing over some work that something magical appears out of nowhere. Often this happens while I’m in the shower though, and I have no way of jotting it down.
As a doctor I have been so privileged to meet such a wide range of people who have shared their wisdom, vulnerability and courage with me over the years. Each patient is a walking poem.
I have also been incredibly blessed to have writers I deeply admire encourage me along the way — the list is way too long, but I have to tip my hat to Tom Keneally, Geraldine Brooks, Jerome Groopman and Graeme Simsion, amongst others. I’ve been lucky to learn from the greats along my writer’s journey. And my children and husband have been the best ideas people, editors, coaches and cooks.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Finding enough time for writing while juggling my busy life as a doctor and a mother of three. Carmel Bird gave me some sage advice when I was a young writer at RMIT — ‘Give up the housework’. I’ve heeded her words — our place is always a mess.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
That you need to be courageous, believe in yourself, take risks with your writing and most of all, be persistent. I wish I’d had more confidence in myself when I was starting out and not felt despondent when someone didn’t engage with my writing or I received a rejection. The process of writing is not the same as the business of writing and I would have saved myself a lot of heartache if I’d learned to separate the two early on in my career.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
I’ve been lucky enough to sign contracts for three books within six months in 2015, so I can’t be greedy. Even so, most writers I’ve spoken to, whether emerging or established, are always looking towards their next goal. Mine is to finish another novel based on a true story which requires a ton of research. I’m also completing a hybrid non-fiction book that weaves biography with memoir.
We have such talented and diverse writers here in Australia — I’d love to see more of them achieve wider international recognition. I’d also love to see writers and editors being paid decently for the incredible work they do. I don’t think the reading public understands how so many beautiful books are put together on such shoestring budgets.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
I have so many, but if I had to choose just a few, they would be Anne Enright, Anne Michaels, Sharon Olds and Marie Howe. Aussie gals I hugely admire are Lee Kofman, Clare Wright, Alison Goodman and Geraldine Brooks.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Leah Kaminsky!
— Nicole Melanson
And thank you, Lee Kofman, for recommending Leah! Read Lee’s WordMothers interview here
* Author photo by Nicola Bernardi
Like this interview? Follow WordMothers or Subscribe to meet more great female authors!