Lily Brett on the ability to love

Lily Brett is a German-born Australian writer who lives in New York City. Her incredible life story started in a displaced persons camp in Germany as the daughter of Auschwitz survivors. After emigrating to Melbourne her writing career began alongside Molly Meldrum at Go-Set, Australia's most renowned music magazine at the time. Since then Lily has published seven volumes of poetry, three collections of essays and six novels. Her latest, Lola Bensky, has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I didn't have a plan. I found the idea of the future a very nebulous notion because I came from people who had their futures taken away. Both my parents were in Nazi death camps and both lost huge families; siblings, parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. When you come from that past, it feels a bit dodgy to think about the future. Not that I thought about it like that when I was a kid, I just never had a plan. Even when I got to High School I didn’t have a plan. I think most of my plans consisted of plotting diets. 

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
It truly would be the man that I live with, my husband. There's nobody else in the universe that I would prefer to be with on a desert island. As long as we’re together we could survive anywhere.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
My immediate instinct is to have my husband, my kids and my best friends but if I could have anyone in the world, outside of my own family, I’d invite the Israeli poet, Dahlia Ravikovitch, the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva and Jon Stewart and his wife. The two poets both wrote prose that moved me to tears and Jon Stewart is brilliant. He talks with such grace about very important social issues to a huge audience and I'm very curious about who he's married to because I’m sure she must be very, very smart and very, very nice.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
When I was about 30 I was introduced to Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. I hadn't read a lot of poetry and was absolutely stunned by the fact that poems written in the 9th century were contemporary and utterly relevant to our lives today. It struck me, over and over again, that we all have so much in common.

I've spent a lot of my writing life, writing about the danger of deciding that someone else isn't quite like you because of their skin color or their religion or their sexual orientation or their language. What a slippery slope it is to seeing people being different to being indifferent to others.

A small poem I loved in Kenneth Rexroth’s book of poetry is called An Excuse For Not Returning the Visit of a Friend. It was written in the eleventh century. It's such a simple poem and it's something that almost anybody could relate to.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I try to go to bed and be asleep by 11:30pm but I'm a terrible sleeper. I used to love being up very early, but it doesn't seem so enticing now, so I get up at about 7am.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
My career is inexplicable and it's a career path that nobody should follow! It basically starts with an 18-year old refusing to go to university because that was the one thing that my parents wanted of me, that and to be slim. So I defied both of those desires. 

My mother said I had to get a job, which shocked me. There was a new newspaper opening up in Australia called Go-Set and I walked into the office and I started work the next day. I don't think this would happen today. The world is so much more rigid in terms of job requirements. Nobody asked me if I could write. Nobody asked me anything. My father thought that all Australian boys got drunk so he didn’t want me driving with an Australian boy and subsequently bought me a secondhand car. In my interview the editor asked me if I had a car. I said yes and he asked me to start the next day. So I have always thought I got the job because I had a car, which was probably true at the time but today the editor, who I still know well, tells me they could see how clever I was, which I think is a lie!

I discovered that I just loved writing. So I consider myself really, really lucky.

My job at Go-Set involved doing profiles on rock musicians. Later on I wrote profiles about other people. My husband encouraged me to write whatever I wanted to write. I didn’t really know what he meant but I thought I would try. It was the beginning of something extraordinary for me because I didn't know that I had a subject. I didn't know that I had a voice. I didn't know that I wanted to say something. I discovered all of that and I can't imagine now having had any other life. 

Can you talk a little about how you approach your writing?
I like rhythm and regularity and have a lot of structure to my writing day. For instance, I do work emails very early in the morning and I do personal emails late at night. I exercise first thing because I know that I'm not going to move for the rest of the day, then I shower and then I work. I stop for lunch, and then go back to work again. The time flies. Sometimes I look up and I can't believe I haven't moved in several hours.

I’m reasonably disciplined with my time. I used to be really disciplined. At one point I knew exactly how long it took me to shower and exactly how long it took me to shower and wash my hair! I used to allow something like 17 minutes for my lunch and that was about the average time it took me. Thank God I’m more flexible now. I don't like writing at night but I work until I feel that I'm not working well. I generally stop by about 7pm because I need to switch off.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
I don't see my life as having obstacles. I think everybody's life has bumps and hiccups but I don't see my working life as having obstacles because I feel incredibly lucky. I think when you do something that you love doing, you're a very, very lucky human being.

Being a writer in itself can be an obstacle. It's not a life you want to enter into if you think you're going to get a steady income or if you think you're going to be famous. It's a life you can only go into if you really have a need to say something and a love of putting words together.

What motivates you?
What motivates me to write is the huge love I have for it. I daydream about words. I can go off into a daze and think over a beautiful sentence or remember hearing somebody put several words together in a way that I thought was fabulous. I go over conversations in my head by myself. I just love it. My children always tell me that I am at my happiest when I'm completely immersed in my writing. I love writing anything including my shopping lists! They are ridiculous. They are all carefully written down and I never abbreviate. You'd think I was writing to somebody else because I put so much detail in as though I, myself, won’t know what I mean.

What are you most proud of?
I'm probably most proud of how much I love my husband. We've been together a very long time. I'm really proud of my kids and their kids. I'm proud of the fact that my kids actually like me and I feel very at home and at ease with them. I don't have 500 close friends, I have a very small number but I feel really proud of them because they are wonderful human beings.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I have no idea. I write as honestly as I can. When readers tell me they feel they know me, I'm absolutely sure they do. Some of the things I've written about are impossible to read aloud at readings, without cringing or weeping. I very often choose humorous passages to read. I think I write in order to connect with people. I don't have anyone particular in mind. I think when you grow up with very few relatives, and the dead feeling more present than the living, you really want to connect with people. It's a very deep need that I have.

What is your life motto?
I try to be a better human being rather than a lesser human being.

My parent’s past had a huge effect on me. It was the single most defining aspect of who I became. My mother used to say to me, they can take everything away from you but your heart and your head. It took me a long time to work out what she meant. Both of my parents lost everything that anyone could possibly lose. They lost their families, their homes, their country, their culture, their youth, their education, but they didn’t lose the ability to love. I have been in awe of that for a lot of my life.

What's next?
Celebrating my father's 99th birthday.

And another novel, I hope. That’s what I am working on at the moment. 



As told to Caroline Hugall over the phone on Friday 26th June 2016. Lily lives and writes in New York City.