Melbourne kicks up a windy, lightning-striking, summer storm as I drive to meet Lee Kofman. The Bureau of Meteorology radar is a colour riot that matches the graffiti sidewall of Neighbours, Lee's local cafe in St Kilda.
Set on one corner of an intersection with a service station, a milk bar and a single-storey brick house, this is where Chapel St sighs. It's the rolling recovery from Richmond, South Yarra and Windsor, barely touched by the knockdown rebuild developers. Yet.
Just up the road from the cafe are terraces that remind me of houses my friends moved to in Carlton when we were at university. Back then I was a girl from Glen Waverley still stuck in suburbia and envied anyone living in these old houses with bohemian histories and character.
While I was coveting Victorian buildings, a much younger Lee was deifying cafes. Growing up in a provincial and religious town, they symbolised civilisation and urbanity - things to aspire to.
Now Lee comes to Neighbours two or three times a week to write. She hates first drafts and though she needs the quiet of home to edit, she's good at all sorts of procrastination when something needs to be started. Lee has a love-hate relationship with writing, but being served good coffee and food in a cafe certainly helps to take the work out of it.
Cafes are important to Lee as a writer and also as a person. Her work is often an exploration of something she's been thinking about, or a question she wants to try and answer, which has led her to write about the relationship between writers and cafes herself. She's excited telling me about the role cafes have played in history, as places where rebels have plotted (in Turkey and Persia) and as targets to be closed down by governments forcing control. In person Lee is the curious and a little bit mischievious character I'd imagined.
While it's not quite scheming or inciting rebellion, I admire Lee's writing for challenging how we think and for sharing what she finds on her personal journeys to understand. Taking this approach means that her work doesn't follow a linear structure, something I described as potential for mess when I wrote about 'The Dangerous Bride' last year. Apparently there were plenty of people that didn't share Lee's vision as she was writing, but she believes in authors that write from their personality - I found her branching and digging intelligent, well-linked and an approach that I've enjoyed in her short stories as well.
Her favourite favourite book ever (no, she's not afraid to say that there is one) has helped Lee to not be afraid of writing from her own experience. She's read 'The Master of Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov many times, in three different languages, and calls it the "epitome of a non-linear novel." Thanks Lee, another addition to my Must Read pile.
It's not surprising that Lee is someone who gets bored and has therefore escaped to write in plenty of cafes. She used to be a regular in a place in Port Melbourne (which I won't name) that had everything a cafe-writer needs - "comfortable couches and cushions, quiet, atmospheric music and an owner who is nice but not intrusive."
It's a balance that I too have found and lost, and I share her frustration with new owners and their need to change our special places. We discover that we also share a fierce love for Melbourne when Lee asks me about my own work. She remembers reading a piece I wrote about my relationship with Melbourne, and tells me about falling in love when she was living in Sydney and came here for the weekend. Taken straight from the bus station to Acland St, she had a first-sight-fall-hard hit.
Lee's love of Melbourne is matched with the enthusiasm she has for her work as a writing teacher and mentor. Some writers resent time they spend in other occupations, but though she doesn't give herself credit for the generosity and bravery in her own work, Lee finds other writers inspiring and courageous and loves working with them.
When I listen back to the time I spent talking with Lee there's laughter, rain and more of me talking than there should be. She's a natural mentor, and is kind but firm when she suggests that despite my passion for short stories (fiction), I should consider writing more creative non-fiction. It's an exciting area right now, and she believes there's strength when you write about what you know. "You should try it," she tells me. "I really think you should try it."
After Lee's left I notice that it's quiet. Most people have eaten and gone, the rain's stopped and it feels a bit like the schoolyard before the bell rings, because I'm thinking about all the things I might try to work on next. I think, "You should try it" might be a maxim that Lee applies to her own life as much as her writing and teaching, and I think it might be a little bit contagious.
* * * * *
Words Out is a series of interviews with writers in the cafes they like to work in.I'm making Melbourne's future literary map for tourists in the years to come.
Lee is the recipient of many literary awards. She judged several writing competitions, served as a member of the Varuna Fellowship Selection panel and organised several festival and conference panels, including the International Non-Fiction conference. Lee is the blogger-in-residence for Writers Victoria.
Lee's first book in English, the memoir 'The Dangerous Bride' about non-monogamy and migration, came out in October 2014 with MUP. Find more about it here.
Lee's written about 'The Master and Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov here.