Laura Jean McKay is the author of Holiday in Cambodia, a short story collection that explores the electric zone where local and foreign lives meet. Holiday in Cambodia was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award 2014. Laura will be leaving Portarlington in Victoria to appear at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Roadshow at the NSW Writers’ Centre on November 8. Ahead of this trip, EWF Director Sam Twyford-Moore caught up with her.
Holiday In Cambodia, your debut book, is a collection of short stories – what attracted you to the form?
There were two things. The first is that when I was living in Cambodia I was trying to write an historical novel but there were too many stories. I realised that a book of shorts was the only way I could even begin to capture what I was experiencing over there, and that a novel wouldn’t do it justice. It was a matter of what form was needed to tell the tale. I think that’s true of most stories. We try to stick with the one form, but sometimes a novel should really be a haiku. The second thing is that I was hanging out with Cambodian writers like Chakriya Phou and Kho Tararith in Phnom Penh who were working predominantly in short forms – stories, essays and poetry. I loved their work. They were my heroes. So I started working like that too.
One of the big conversations at the EWF Roadshow will be around writing residencies, travel stories and writing from the fringes. Where do you write from?
When I climb the stairs every morning to the studio I share with my boyfriend Tom Doig, I just stand there gasping stupidly at the view out the window. It looks over Port Phillip Bay and the You Yangs in Portarlington, Victoria and it’s so crazy wonderful. Because we live in a small town around the bay, I also spend an extraordinary amount of time on public transport. The Geelong (or Geebanger as I like to call it) to Melbourne train has seen tens of thousands of words from me in the past year. I’m thinking of dedicating my book to Vline.
And where has your writing taken you?
I have travelled to New Zealand and back on a cargo ship, lived in a caravan surrounded by wild animals in the Northern Territory, worked with Nou Hach – the only independent literary journal in Cambodia, travelled up the guts of Bali with the Bali Emerging Writers Festival and EWF, then gone back months later for the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, and spent lots and lots of time not going anywhere – writing about other places and other lives in my undies at home. Now I’m about to hop on a train for the Emerging Writers’ Festival Roadshow. I’ve been everywhere, man.
You’ve had a long history with writers’ festivals, what do you get out of them as a writer?
The first big proper writers’ festival I went to was NYWF, Newcastle, 1999 (!), and it changed everything. I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne because of that. I enrolled in a writing course because of that. I became festival-struck because of that. There are some people, writers and people I love, that I really only get to see at festivals because we live in different states or we’re just busy or different. Rushing from one great panel to a performance – program in one hand, new book in another – and bumping into someone you met at the last festival who introduces you to a new person and so you decide to flag the performance and go have a beer/tea instead is really wonderful. It’s the opposite of writing. It shakes all the knots and letters and screen time out and resets. Even if I only make it to the thing I’m programmed in, at least I walk bipedally, look at something other than a screen and interact with other humans for a few hours. They’ve very healthful, writers’ festivals.
Can you give us a sneak peek into your 5×5 rules of writing? Care to leak one here?
Writey-leaks! My rule number one is: write what interests you. This may seem obvious but a lot of writers get told to ‘write what you know’, and it can be a problem. Write what you know has been taken too literally to mean write only what you know. It’s limiting or confusing, especially for early career writers. Writing what interests you opens this up. If you’re interested in what you’re writing about, your reader will be too. Laura will be delivering the rest of her five rules of writing at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Roadshow at the NSW Writers’ Centre, along with four other brilliant writers – Benjamin Law, Tom Doig, Delia Falconer and Walter Mason. Tickets available here and full program available here.