By Janelle Koh
1. What are three words that would sum up your experience at law school?
Bewildering, Enlightening, and (sometimes) Frustrating.
2. Did you feel that there was a great anxiety back then amongst your peers (as there is now) to pad your CV with clerkships, volunteer positions and the like, in order to 'get a foot in the door' in a future career in the law?
There has always been that pressure, even twenty years ago. But I didn't place too much importance on clerkships because I spent summers working at my dad's electrical appliance business, where I felt like I got a lot more exposure to the law. I had to read contracts for him, deal with local council issues, go to unfair dismissals at the Australian Industrial Relations Commission with him. I think what seemed to matter when it was time to get a job was real, practical experience in the law because I got interviews, and then a job with a small firm that appreciated I could 'hit the ground running'. I've never worked in a large firm, but that's not where my interest lies.
3. Do you feel that your study of the law has shaped your creative practice as a writer? If so, in what ways?
Law is a very cautious, conservative profession by nature - you have to analyse and assess all risks and possible negative contingencies. Writing is the opposite. - you have to take huge emotional and personal risks, and not care about covering your arse all the time! But my legal training has given me a good eye for reading contracts, such as book contracts and contracts for writing jobs.
4. For you, was there a tension between following your creative passions as a writer, and the stability of a career in the law? Do you continue to negotiate those tensions now?
I was lucky that both my writing career and legal career happened at around the same time. I have always worked in the legal profession (and am currently a part-time legal researcher in the public service). I have never given up my day job. Having a secure and steady job for well over a decade has enabled me to take creative risks that I otherwise would not have as a freelance writer.
Also, writing is quite a lonely and selfish endeavour. When a book comes out, people might be moved by it, but in the meanwhile, you're working essentially alone for years and years. That's why it has been essential for me to have my day job, where I can focus on other people. It also helps enormously in honing in my focus only on the writing and not the ego. After all, my time is finite, so I can't waste any of it mooching around - I only have a few hours before my toddler calls, or work the next day!
5. A related question - what role, if any, did family play in your decision to pursue a career in writing over the law? Were there pressures, support etc. one way or another?
I haven't pursued writing over the law, but if I did I think my parents would be a bit concerned because even the most well-known writers in Australia can't make a living out of their writing alone (they teach at high schools or universities, have a day job, etc.) Even Christos Tsiolkas used to work in a Veterinary Clinic until recently.
6. You've mentioned in interviews with regard to your writing practice that you 'write what you know' - what is it that you value about writing in that manner? Might it translate into some practical advice for law students?
I'm a big believer that even the most mundane life can yield interesting stories. As a writer, I realised that if I didn't have the lived emotional experience, I was working off cliches, no matter how 'interesting' the story. As I have got older, I have also been more honest with myself - these days I also write what I don't know, in that I acknowledge all the gaps in my understanding of the world. Perhaps one of the most important things law school taught me was intellectual humility, because even to this day I carry a lot of self-doubt and it no longer feels crippling because I see it as a healthy antidote to arrogant and dichotomous, overly-simplistic ways of thinking.
7. Any parting words?
The first thing I saw in my first law lecture (History and Philosophy of Law with Professor Peter Rush) was this message on the whiteboard: "Beware complacency. Avoid Mediocrity."