Tamara Lazaroff’s short stories and poems have been published, performed and broadcast in Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Last year, she undertook a residency at Can Serrat (Spain) and this year she completed a residency, a little closer to home, at House Conspiracy (Brisbane). Currently, she is working towards the completion of her short story collection, ‘In My Father’s Village & Other Stories’.
W: tamaralazaroff.com T: @tamaralazaroff
When did you first start writing? Do you remember the first thing you wrote?
Thanks, Maggie, for these questions.
I’ve had many stops and starts with writing – many new beginnings. The last beginning was almost 10 years ago now, when I decided, after a year, that a Creative Writing PhD journey really wasn’t for me. It was a difficult decision to let it go – partly because I’d gotten a scholarship and the money was nice, but also because it felt like failing. In retrospect, it was an instance of positive failure. During the whole of my PhD year, I didn’t write a single word that gave me any pleasure – though I read a lot of wonderful stuff. But as soon as I ‘quit’, I started writing again and it felt satisfying and meaningful again.
I started making zines and it turned things around in my head. Writing was for sharing, for and with a community. Not so much bound up with approval. I also started formally studying – relearning – the Macedonian language through Macquarie University, which as you know, Maggie, was my first language. And I think yours, too?
In my final year of Macedonian studies, I ended up travelling to the Former Republic of Macedonia – for a language summer school. It was there that I met another Macedonian-Australian student who said to me in passing, ‘You know, someone in Australia should write something about Macedonia. No-one really knows anything about it.’ I knew in that instant that one of those people was going to be me. And so when I got back, it was a new beginning all over again. I had to find a way to translate the Macedonian language, and a particular Macedonian way of seeing the world into English, into story form.
What are you working on at the moment?
For the last five years I’ve been working on the Macedonia project. If only I knew it was going to take so long!
What I have now I have a collection of 14 auto/biographical short stories (and 2 more in-progress). The collection is called: ‘In My Father’s Village & Other Stories’. The stories, set in and between Australia and Macedonia, are about celebratory liberation – breaking free from memories, places, identities and ways of thinking that limit or confine the spirit. But In truth, now that I’m at the end of it, at the core it’s about my relationship with Macedonia and Macedonian-ness – and family.
I also finished a novella earlier this year called ‘Husk, Root, Bone’. This story is about a young Australian woman who travels to her mother’s birthplace, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in order to deal with the grief after her mother’s death. Instead – or as well – she meets Zlatko, an older, eccentric Ohrid local who may or may not be a hustler.
Do you have a writing routine or a favourite place to write?
I write 3 days a week, and I like writing at home. I also enjoy writing on residencies, I’ve discovered.
What has been your proudest writer moment so far?
Well, right now I feel a sense of accomplishment being at the tail end of the short story collection – the tail end of how far I can take it. I’ve enjoyed the process. It has been fairly organic. And fourteen of the stories are already out there in the world – which I feel happy about. I will feel sad, however, to say goodbye to and move on to the next thing. A friend of mine suggested having a little ceremony or celebration to mark the end of this chapter of my life. I think that’s a great idea. Maybe a lunch of stuffed peppers, ajvar and other Macedonian dishes.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
So many challenges. I think I’ve figured out what set of circumstances I need to write now. My writing needs to be totally self-directed. That means things like PhDs don’t suit me. I need routine serious blocks of time, but I also need to do other work. For my sanity. Writing is such a solitary practice, so I need my other work to be about people, groups and verbal communication (I’m a teacher). I also need a writing community around me. I need to find a way to share what I write – whether that be through traditional publication, performance, zines.
Do you have a self-care practice when it comes to writing?
I have another practice other than writing – yoga. Writing can be so physically and mentally gruelling. So it’s good to have a way to undo what hours in front of a computer do to my shoulders. Yoga – by which I mean physical asana – is also a way to be totally present, not thinking about the past or the future. It’s non-competitive. In a class situation, everyone is just at where they’re at on any given day. And that’s a good thing/skill to transfer over to my writing life. I’m just at where I’m at – in terms of whatever story I’m working on and in terms of the bigger picture of my writing ‘career’ – if I can even use the term. I don’t need to compete with anyone other than my self.
You write fiction and creative non-fiction, often writing about Macedonian characters. Is this a conscious decision or is it merely because of your background? As a fellow Macedonian-Australian writer, it’s great to find representation in the literary scene.
I’m not sure that writing about Macedonia was a conscious decision. It was more of an inner prompting. I have a deep love/hate relationship with Macedonian-ness – specifically, the patriarchal culture I grew up around. So, it’s a rich vein that I can just dip into. I think that as writers we’re all given, possess, drawn to or have the capacity to tell particular kinds of stories, work with particular kinds of themes. I’m not sure how much choice there is in it!
How do you juggle your work commitments and your writing? Sometimes it can feel like a divide between having a work self and a writerly self.
I try to deal with it this way. When I’m at my teaching job, I’m a teacher. And when I’m writing, I’m writing. Next year, I’m planning to take two or three months off teaching to immerse myself in a new project. When I already know my direction, juggling teaching and writing is fine. But at the beginning of a new project, I like to have focussed time to let my mind turn over the material and figure out the roads in.
What was the last Australian novel you read?
I just read ‘The Fish Girl’ by Mirandi Riwoe. Last year, it won the Seizure Viva la Novella Prize. Mirandi was in one of my writing groups and I got to see a very early draft of the story, so it’s exciting to see the story in print. Also Jonathan Hadwen’s ‘All That Wasted Heat’ – a collection of vignettes. We are also writing friends and, again, so exciting to see Jonathan’s success.
Earlier this year I reread ‘Strange Museums’ by Fiona McGregor. And then ‘Indelible Ink’, ‘Au Pair’ and her short story collection, ‘Suck My Toes. She is probably my favourite Australian writer, alongside Christos Tsiolkas.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received and what advice would you give emerging writers?
One of the best things I’ve done is join a writers’ group. I’ve learned so much from other writers, and also from learning how to give useful feedback – which is an art in itself. I’ve also found it useful to have a professional editor look at my manuscript-in-progress. Jemimah Halbert, who offers appraisal services, was fantastic and her feedback has given me the energy to run the last mile. It’s important to have people around you who get what you’re trying to do.
Something else that comes to mind. When I was doing my undergraduate degree at Wollongong University, I had a fantastic poetry teacher – Deb Westbury. She didn’t really give me any direct advice, but I feel I learned from her way of being and her approach to writing that it’s okay to write from experience, from the self. That it’s okay – not just okay, but necessary – to experiment with form, to find the right container for what you want to say. I remember, one afternoon, she had us write down a list of our obsessions. To really take note of them because, she said, they would be useful for our writing. That has proved to be true.