Julie Koh is a fiction writer based in Sydney. She was born in Sydney to Chinese-Malaysian parents. She studied politics and law at the University of Sydney, then quit a career in corporate law to pursue writing.
NLK: Given your background in politics and law, how did you become a writer? What drove your decision to write?
JK: In high school, I wanted to be a film director. I spent a lot of my free time learning about filmmaking. My parents said that going into a career like that would make me dirt poor, so I should at least get a solid degree first that would guarantee me a steady income. So I enrolled in Arts/Law. I studied literature in the first year of my Arts degree but didn’t enjoy it, so I dropped that and took up a double major in politics. Halfway through uni, my high school contacted me and said there was a film producer, Jiao Chen, trying to track me down. He wanted to make a film of a short story I wrote in Year 12, called ‘Colin the Dog’s Fabulous Midnight Adventure and Another Story’. It had been published in an HSC Board of Studies anthology and Jiao had read it in one of his Year 11 Chemistry classes. We eventually succeeded in making the film about a decade after the story was written. It screened at the St Kilda Film Festival as one of Australia’s Top 100 Short Films.
Meeting Jiao was a major turning point for me. It amazed me that my fiction had resonated so strongly in the mind of a stranger. I started thinking about getting back on the creative path. I felt I’d missed the boat in terms of developing skills to make films – words were the only things left that I knew how to use. By my final year of uni, I’d decided that I would begin to write. I still went on to become a corporate lawyer, having signed a contract with a law firm before I finished uni, but I eventually quit that to focus on writing. And here I am today.
NLK: How did it feel seeing your story come to life on the big screen?
JK: While Jiao was trying to find a way to adapt ‘Colin the Dog’, he met the director Grant Scicluna on the set of Mao’s Last Dancer. He thought Grant would be a good fit for the project. Grant ultimately wrote and directed the adaptation, and kindly showed me drafts of the screenplay as it progressed.
It was weird and wonderful seeing the story on the big screen, especially because it was originally a high school major work that I thought only assessors would read. The process made me realise, however, that an adaptation is just an interpretation of a story. It’s impossible for filmmakers to put a story on screen that looks identical to the one the author visualised. So my approach to adaptations now is to make sure a story is in the hands of people I trust, and then to let go and allow the adaptation to evolve as a separate work of art.
NLK: How has your career in corporate law and intellectual property influenced your writing?
JK: Years of writing essays at uni and drafting legal advice have influenced my writing style. If you look at what I wrote when I was a teenager, the language was floral and sentimental. That’s been trained out of me in favour of directness and clarity of expression. I like to convey complex ideas with straightforward language. I’m not a subtle writer.
In terms of my writing career, I still have to get a consultant to look at my book contracts and advise me on what is reasonable in light of industry standards. Legal training doesn’t help when it comes to understanding what an author should and shouldn’t push for in contractual negotiations.
NLK: What are the essential elements of a short story? What makes your short stories successful?
JK: There are particular elements you need in order to write a finely crafted, classic short story but that isn’t the sort of story I write.
In my stories, I start with an intriguing premise and follow it to a surprising or sadly inevitable conclusion. I tend to write stories that are simultaneously funny and tragic, which I think is an appealing combination. Sometimes my stories are like fictional essays, which makes them a little different from the work of other contemporary writers.
NLK: How do you deal with rejections?
JK: Getting rejections from journals, and missing out on literary opportunities and prizes, can be difficult. I’ve been shortlisted for many things over the years and never won. The best mindset I think is to have no expectations and to be surprised by positive outcomes.
The more experienced I get, the less seriously I take rejection. My career seems to work according to its own unknowable schedule. When I really push for something and think there’s a good chance I’ll get it, I never get it. But other unexpected opportunities tend to come along instead. Also, when it comes to submitting to journals, I’ve realised that a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean a story is unpublishable. It may just mean that the editor is not on the same wavelength.
NLK: Do you have a mentor? How important is it to have contact with other writers?
JK: I looked for a mentor in Australia when I first started writing and couldn’t find one. Since then, I haven’t developed formal mentorship arrangements but there have been a handful of people along the way who’ve gone out of their way to help me. They are publishers, writers and editors who are themselves extremely busy but they’ve believed in my work from the start and always make time to give me advice when I seek it.
I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to have contact with other writers. I’m pretty sure there are successful writers out there who are surrounded by friends and family who have nothing to do with the writing game. For me, though, part of the joy of being a writer has been meeting other writers. I’ve come from social circles that are non-literary, which has meant that many of the people I know don’t understand why I became a writer, and also don’t fully understand the struggles of pursuing a career as a creative. I met most of my good writer mates through the Sleepers Almanac – the Sleepers team had a knack for picking contributors who are also really lovely people.
Excerpt from ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’
It was only when a one-dimensional yellow man stepped out of a cinema screen and into a plush red theatre on George Street that audience members noticed him from behind their 3D glasses.
The film from which the man had emerged was Return of the White Ninja 3D. Although the film was in 3D, the yellow man only appeared in 1D. He had been playing Stand-offish Ninja #13, part of a gang of 1D Stand-offish Ninjas led by a 3D white boy who had been raised by ninjas from birth.
In the middle of the closing scene, in which the ninjas had formed a circle and were bowing to the white boy with new-found respect, Stand-offish Ninja #13 had glimpsed light from the movie projector falling onto the heads of the audience. Curious, he had stepped towards the light and into the lap of a blond-haired woman – one foot landing in her supersized popcorn and the other on the spare seat beside her.
The newly three-dimensional yellow man stretched his limbs and tossed his hair. The audience gasped. He had a luminescent quality about him, having just stepped out of a celluloid dream.
He looked around.
Maybe life will be better, he thought, in three dimensions.
At first, the cinemagoers were calm. They shook his hand, starstruck, because they assumed he was a white actor doing yellow face. They thought his slit eyes, flat nose and jet black hair were the work of a good make-up artist.
But when the man shed his ninja costume, strolled out into the foyer and began walking the streets of the island naked, they saw that he was yellow all over.
This could not just have been make-up, they concluded, because he had been clothed in the scene he had exited. There would not have been, from a filmmaking perspective, any practical need to paint the balls of a white actor yellow.
Realising that an actual yellow ninja was on the loose, the cinemagoers started screaming in horror.
© Julie Koh
Connect with Julie:
- Instagram: julie.koh
- Twitter: @juliekoh
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/juliekohwriter
Photo by Hugh Stewart