Alumni Feature December 2015

Alumni Interview with Leah Kaminsky

Interviewed by Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Leah Kaminsky The subject of our final Alumni Interview for 2015 is one busy lady. A practising GP, mum of three, chief domestic caretaker of a minor menagerie, self-professed nomad as well as a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, Leah Kaminsky’s debut novel The Waiting Room hit bookstores in September and has been garnering reader and critical acclaim ever since.

Talking to Leah, it feels like she knows everyone, has been published everywhere and has won practically everything – it would be awfully intimidating and/or extremely irritating were it not for her legendary humility, generosity and old fashioned work ethic. With endorsements from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks and best-selling, late-blooming novelist Graeme Simsion gracing the cover of her novel, the wait is over for this evocative story of the enduring power of mother love.



Waiting Room cover DJ: Welcome to the Alumni Interview Suite, Leah. How long did it take to write The Waiting Room and what else was happening in your life during the book’s gestation? From a creative process standpoint, what did that period look like in terms of getting the first draft done, redrafting, getting reader feedback, editing, looking for a publisher and so on?

The official version is 10 years, but I think its gestation began long before that. I moved to the Middle East in 1991 and raised three young children there. Life was pretty hectic and I had to set my writing life aside, but kept journals throughout that period, documenting my experiences living through such turbulent times. Many of these journal entries became starting points for The Waiting Room.

When we came back to Australia in 2002, I started crafting these into short stories, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I knew these somehow belonged together in the one story. I became determined to write the novel and I rented a room at the newly formed Glenfern Studios, hiding away there when the kids were at school and I wasn’t at the clinic. On a whim, I applied for a Varuna Fellowship and nearly fainted when I found out I had won the Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship the following year. It was then I finally managed to write a first full draft of the book.

Iowa From there, I went through countless rewrites, working with many generous writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Antoni Jach’s Masterclass program and eventually applying for an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the US. That was a major turning point in my writing career. My chief advisor, a wonderful Southern writer, Clint McCown, was a shining beacon in the dark. He believed in the novel and called me on my ‘fear of finishing’. I left with a solid book in my hand.

balloons After graduation, I worked with my US agent for another year to polish the manuscript. Jacinta di Mase sent it off to the lovely Meredith Curnow at Vintage and two weeks later she made an offer. I was a mess of tears when I got the email - all those rollercoaster years of disappointment and determination had finally paid off.

DJ: I can imagine, Leah (boy, can I!). I do love a happy ending to a writer’s long-term struggle with one project – well done you. I read your unsettling short story ‘The Waiting Room’ on your (rather impressive) website – when did you start to think that story had the makings of a novel? How did you arrive at the title for the short story?

Ragtime cover E L Doctorow LK: I started writing the story during a Summer Graduate program at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2009. The director, Lan Samantha Chang, was the workshop leader and gave me enormous encouragement to develop the story as part of a longer work. I’d known for a long time I was working on a novel, but just couldn’t see how all the pieces fit together. I was lucky enough to meet E L Doctorow back in 1987 at the NYU Summer Writers’ Conference, whose words were gems for a fledgling writer: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’

That mantra helped guide me through the dark patches and the sense of despair that often crept up as I wrote the novel, leaving me with a feeling that I was wasting my time. I was also lucky enough to be selected for Antoni Jach’s inaugural Grace Marion Wilson Masterclass, with a team of fabulous writers who all helped blow the book right out of the water.

Kollwitz Waiting at the Pediatricians The title came out of a conversation I had many years ago with the wonderful painter Yosl Bergner, who has been like a father to me. He once showed me some lithographs he has by Käthe Kollwitz, portraying mothers seated in a waiting room cuddling their children.

Kollwitz’ husband was a doctor and she herself was the moral conscience of Berlin in the 1920s. ‘Every day in Karl’s waiting room (I) register the patients, drawing them out as she draws them: the cloth-cutter with severed fingers, the fierce tiler crippled by a fall, a battered tanner-woman recovering from her third miscarriage, the bow-legged twins wheezing with consumption - I meet the women who come to my husband for help and so, incidentally, come to me.’ She also lost her son in WWI and her grandson in WWII. The Waiting Room is very much about the ferocity of maternal love, so I knew then I had my title.

DJ: What an affecting quote from Kollwitz. It just brings you into the room with her, doesn’t it? I notice the subtitle on the novel’s cover is ‘Love is More Ferocious Than Terror.’ Tell us about that sentiment, which might just be the mantra of our times, and about the waiting room as a site of special metaphorical significance.

intifada LK: Kollwitz’s lithographs were a reflection of how I was feeling at times, raising three small children in the midst of the ongoing threat of war. There is nothing fiercer than a mother’s love, but at the same time, when I became a parent I suddenly felt I’d never had so much to lose.

hope The narrative of The Waiting Room is set in 2001, when the intifada in Israel was at its height. Soon after, the events of 9/11 took place, which significantly changed the way we all viewed the world. Listening to the last voicemail messages people left for their family and friends was chilling, but also uplifting, in a way – all were declarations of love, made by people facing imminent death. It reaffirmed what I still hold to be true, even more so today in the current state of world affairs - that if we lose hope and love, we have lost what it is to be human.

The Waiting Room is modelled after my own clinic when I worked as a doctor in Haifa, with people from disparate cultures and religions thrown together in a confined space – a microcosm of Israel itself. And I play with the trope of waiting throughout the book - the country itself is chronically waiting for peace to come.

My main character, Dina, is heavily pregnant, and has been waiting her whole life for a time when she will feel happy and content. And ultimately we are all born and wait for death – it is the way in which we choose to wait that determines how we will lead our lives. Will we wait passively or can we wait with intentionality?

DJ: The action of The Waiting Room takes place over the course of a single day, though it time-travels across decades using flashbacks, memories and ghost visions, if that’s the right term. What were some of the main structural challenges for you while you were writing and editing the novel?

LK: Trying to juggle three continents and three timeframes, as well as a ghost who could only be heard by her daughter, had enormous challenges. All of those made it a struggle to pin the narrative together and maintain the tension and forward movement of the story. Structure was my biggest challenge in the writing of The Waiting Room and the main reason it took me so long.

Bergen It started off as a polyphonous novel, told by various characters seated around the doctor’s waiting room. Then it morphed into first person POV through the eyes of the main character, Dina, an Australian doctor. She is haunted by the memory of her mother, a sole survivor of Bergen Belsen, and when I shifted to a third person POV, the mother’s ghostly presence grew. She soon became an ‘eternal albatross’ of a Jewish mother – driving her daughter nuts with nagging, demanding she bear witness to her stories, and eventually (spoiler alert) saving her daughter’s life.

I wanted to create a world that reflected the experience of many second-generation children whose parents have been through unimaginable terror and trauma – not just the Holocaust, but Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia. The story is, sadly, a universal one. Dina is burdened by an overpowering sense of a ‘cursed imagination’ – despite herself, she feels she is actually reliving her mother’s experiences to a degree. It’s fascinating that recent studies in epigenetics seem to point to changes in the DNA of survivors of war, passed on to their offspring in a similar way that exposure to radiation or effect of toxins are.

DJ: How extraordinary. I’d like to learn more about that, wouldn’t you? Leah, the novel also traverses continents – tell us about your research for the novel.

Berlin Wall LK: The story jumps between Melbourne, Haifa and wartime Europe. I was in Poland when the Berlin wall fell in 1989. I travelled there alone, searching for traces of my mother’s family, visiting her hometown of Lodz, trudging through cemeteries, searching through paper archives at Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. It was pre-internet days and all I found was a mother-shaped hole there, not a remnant or trace left of her pre-war life. But it made me more determined to try and piece together her story, which led me to read voraciously and open up the gaping wound of my heritage I’d been too scared to touch until then.

fruit I watched survivor testimonies, and read history books, old newspapers, and trawled through archives as Writer-in-Residence at the Jewish Holocaust Research Centre. And I interviewed so many people, from many walks of life – Baha’i’s who were tortured during the revolution in Iran, battered Muslim women, Druze villagers who had fled Syria, Russians who had been banished to Siberia – each person an extraordinary inspiration.

DJ: No wonder it took 10 years, Leah. You must have amassed incredible amounts of material. How much autobiography is woven into The Waiting Room?

LK: I first set out to write my mother’s story when I was in my twenties, after she died – she came to Australia as a refugee from Europe after WWII, the sole survivor of her entire family. To my shame, I found I could only fill two or three pages, consisting mainly of scraps of truth. I had spent my youth trying to be like any other Aussie kid, and was reluctant to engage with my heritage or listen to my mother’s stories, so I was left with only scraps of memory, which I have woven into the book.

70s Melbourne The Waiting Room is my attempt to bear witness to my mother’s life, only I’ve had to take those snippets of truth and weave a fictional ‘what if?’ I wish it was more autobiographical – that would mean I knew more about my mother’s life than I do. Having said that, the setting is autobiographical, the smells, places, people and streets of Haifa are real – I lived there for 10 years. And the streets of the 1970s Melbourne suburb I grew up in – well, they are there on the page too.

DJ: You’re part of the Jewish diaspora, something many Jewish writers tackle – what’s been the effect of ethnic and spiritual displacement on your life and identity? Where’s ‘home’ for you more than anywhere else?

home spirits LK: Geraldine Brooks was kind enough to endorse The Waiting Room, calling it ‘haunted and haunting’. Listening to her 2011 Boyer lectures about ‘home’, I was fascinated to learn that the origin of the word ‘haunt’ comes from the old Norse word heimta, which means ‘to lead home’. So the book is my way of honouring my own ancestral ghosts by bearing witness to their stories. It has brought me back to my own heritage – in a strange way, the dead have led me home, or rather back to a spiritual sense of belonging and being comfortable in my own skin. Home is somewhere that I feel loved, so I am very fortunate to have many places that afford me that sense of belonging. Even so, Australia is my birthplace and where I feel the greatest sense of home.

DJ: You’ve won many awards, grants and residencies – honestly, that list of acclaim is longer than my leg – but the one I want to know about is this: Inaugural Writer-in-Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York. You just can’t make this stuff up! I need to know about this place NOW.

museum LK: Ha! It comes from spending way too much time on Facebook. In researching my next book (see below!), I stumbled across the museum and was fascinated. It’s as quirky as it sounds and they were very welcoming. It brought out my inner middle-aged goth girl. I wrote a small article for The Wheeler Centre, 'Call me in the Mourning', if anyone wants to find out more. The photos say it all: two-headed ducklings and diaphanous bat foetuses in jars of formaldehyde. Yep!

DJ: I recommend readers click on that link for a fascinating and quietly hilarious read. Leah, you were the museum’s inaugural writer-in-residence; what advice, if any, can you offer new and emerging writers about the value of entering competitions and applying for grants and residencies? Do you think success begets success or is it more about being that potent combination of prolific and proficient?

LK: As a part-time GP I specialize in being general. That means I’ll try my hand at anything – well, maybe not brain surgery! But I’m also very impatient, so when I set out to write a novel, which turned out to be such a long, arduous process, I needed some short-term gratification along the way. Winning fellowships, awards, etc reassured me that I wasn’t mental to think of myself as a writer. It certainly boosted my self-confidence and made me raise the bar as a professional. It forced me to take myself seriously and suddenly made me accountable, to myself more than anyone else.

It’s a crapshoot, and my advice is apply for anything that draws you, especially if it means travel and fun! And it’s a great way to develop a community of writers – when I first started writing as a kid, I felt a bit like Harry Potter when he discovered he could speak Parseltongue. I thought I was the only one who felt this kind of magic of being able to conjure up words onto the page. But it also felt so horribly lonely back then.

DJ: Ghosts. Spirits. The after-life. Tunnels and white light. Seeing yourself on the operating table. We’ve heard the stories. You’re a doctor. What do you think? Anything ever happen to you in the line of duty that science can’t explain?

Endora LK: Isn’t that why we write, to explain things to ourselves that we don’t yet understand? That’s the spookiest thing for me – sometimes I look back on what I’ve written and honestly can’t remember how it got onto the page. I don’t believe in ghosts, beyond their metaphorical presence. We hold the dead in our hearts and our minds, so their presence is always there for me, but not in any supernatural way. I wrote my entire MFA thesis on haunting in literature, starting with Endora from the bible. Fun fact: Endora from the TV series Bewitched, Samantha’s annoying mother, was in part inspiration for Dina’s mother in The Waiting Room.

DJ: Oh, who doesn’t love Endora? She’s one of the greatest TV characters of all time. I can still see her withering Darren with one well-aimed stare. Now, Leah, you hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA from Deakin – where did you complete your medical studies and which came first, the books or the blood and bones? What did your MFA teach you about writing that you’ll never forget?

LK: I got into Medicine at Monash University largely due to my French and English marks at school. I had been a fierce reader as a child and teenager. I emerged six years later feeling like I’d been through a sausage factory, my creativity and love of reading and writing squeezed out of me by what was then a very dry curriculum.

History of Books cover As a cure for my tunnel vision, I took some writing courses at New York University one summer and then enrolled in a diploma of professional writing at RMIT. I had been starved of the humanities as a med student and young doctor, so hungered for books. That’s when I did a BA in Literature and took my first fiction writing class, with the wonderful Gerald Murnane as my tutor.

My MFA, many years later, was such a turning point. It taught me how to improve my craft by reading closely to see how the magic is performed – learning to look behind the magician’s curtain. The focus was entirely on the craft, not the business of writing. And it helped me distance myself emotionally from the novel too, so I could focus purely on craft and structure – the first few drafts before that had been written from inside an ocean of tears. It also taught me the importance of community and how generous writers can be to each other. Books have always come first, although in Grade 2, we had to make ping pong ball puppets of what we wanted to be when we grew up and I made a ‘sturgeon’, stethoscope and all.

WriterMD cover DJ: Speaking of ‘sturgeons’ (very cute), let’s talk about the diversity of authors and subjects covered in the anthology Writer, M.D., the collection you edited of fiction and non-fiction written by doctors. The material must be endless – do you think that’s part of why doctors write, both because it’s therapeutic and because there’s just so much to say about the human condition when you’re confronting life and death on a daily basis?

LK: We are a privileged lot in this business. I love that people are willing to share their incredible stories with me - each patient is a walking poem. Along with that, though, comes enormous responsibility and professional demands not to reveal anything that I have not been given clear permission by a patient to write about.

When I came up with the concept for the anthology, I thought how wonderful it would be to invite these brilliant writers I’ve always admired – [the late] Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman, Danielle Ofri, Atul Gawande, Jacinta Halloran – to join me on a literary ward round and raise money for the Starlight Foundation, to give something back. I’ve seen the breadth of human experience during my three decades as a doctor. Medicine feeds my writing, but more importantly, I think literature helps a doctor become more empathic.

DJ: I think there’s a book in ‘doctors after-hours’ – so many medical practitioners seem to have whole other careers, oftentimes creative. I know a psychiatrist who’s a professional artist, a doctor who’s an opera singer and another who might have been a concert pianist before he decided to specialise in radiology. And there’s you, Leah! Your output as a writer is a bit shocking considering you work as a GP… It’s a bit rude, really (I feel a crushing sense of inadequacy) – where on earth do you find the time and energy?! And why, why, why is it that so many doctors make things after-hours? Art, music, stories…

LK: I don’t think doctors have any more special creative juices than anyone else. Maybe we are more drawn to these pursuits as an outlet or expression of the daily existential struggle we see our patients having to confront. As for the time, etc. – Carmel Bird was another one of my first tutors at RMIT and I will never forget her sage advice on our very first day – ‘If you want to become a writer, give up the housework.’ I listened to her assiduously…Vogue Living will never be doing a photo shoot at my place, that’s for sure.

DJ: What’s the role of discipline in your success? Maybe as well as natural gifts and intelligence, what really separates doctors who do so much more with their time is that they’re unusually disciplined – or maybe they’re just more keenly aware than the rest of us that the clock, she’s a-tickin’? Discuss!

LK: Oh, I struggle tooth and nail to get my bum on the chair and stay there. My kids yell at me when I have a deadline near and they find me suddenly sorting out the bathroom cabinet for the first time in five years. I don’t have a study at home, so the times where I’ve had a fellowship that allowed me to write in a studio were great – no distractions, so I was forced to focus. Once I do eventually sit down and engage with the work though, I can sit there for hours and not notice the world going past. I also hate watching TV and don’t go out much, so maybe that helps.

DJ: I hate watching TV too. I need to get back to a place where I leave my husband to it if he can’t bring himself to switch it off. It helps him unwind after work but has the precise opposite effect on me. One of the countless things I adore about Varuna is the absence of TV. You’ve had a long relationship with Varuna yourself, Leah – tell us about the impact of those residencies, and the writers you’ve met, on your development.

Leah at Varuna LK: Varuna is my writerly family. The fellowships I have won came at a critical point in my writing life and for the first time I allowed myself to be a rotten mother and leave the kids to focus entirely on my work (thanks to my husband!). Playing insane games of Scrabble till midnight with Kate Holden and Sarah Knox, learning all about galah behaviour from Tracey Sorensen, and talking about everything from Ethiopian contortionists to good Jewish girls branding cattle with my wonderful writing group – Catherine Therese, Alice Nelson, David Carlin, Hayley Katzen and Amanda Skelton have been [part of] such precious times in my life. Sheila, Vera, Jansis – there isn’t anyone at Varuna I don’t love. The lovely Lee Kofman helped me with revisions of early drafts of the manuscript. And Peter Bishop has been such a passionate believer in my work from the first minute I set foot in the house – telling me in his quirky, oracular way that my work is ‘pungent and plangent’ (I had to go look that up in the dictionary!).

DJ: You’ve got an established career as a GP as well as being the busy author of medical writing, poetry, fiction and non-fiction – to what extent do you actively apply yourself to the task of building and/or engaging with multiple platforms for your writing, or is it just the way you’re made?

LK: My kids just roll their eyes. I’m a born multi-tasker, but it stems more from getting bored if I spend too much time focused on one thing. I set out to work on a novel one day, and, like naughty children, out pops a wayward poem or an intrusive essay. ‘In the end, it’s not the genre or the specialty that counts: It’s the truth of the story and the journey that matter most.’ (From an article I wrote that’s available here.)

DJ: Your website is very polished and comprehensive. Have you added Crack Website Builder to your list of accomplishments, or have you had someone assisting you with that? How important do you think a professional website is for today’s authors?

LK: Isn’t that why we have kids? My daughter’s talented schoolmate Margot Fink designed the site and my son Alon keeps it running. I’m a total luddite – can’t even figure out how to use a remote control. People tell me a website is important, so I just do what I’m told. It’s pretty cool, though, to have a little home for all my writing under one roof and I love it when people visit and leave comments and messages.

DJ: Your next book is non-fiction, the irresistibly titled We’re All Going to Die, out next June. Tell us a bit about what we can expect.

LK: Well, it’s a joyful book about death. The one certainty about life is that everybody is going to die. Yet, again and again, we deny this central fact of our lives. We ignore it, hoping it will go away, putting our heads in the sand, doctors included – to have a patient die is seen as a failure in my profession. I wrote this book to set about challenging myself: to confront my own fear of death and dying [by] looking at some of my most inspiring patients, who were confronted with their mortality and chose to consciously embrace life.

DJ: What’s your opinion on the value of gallows humour in the hospital?

LK: It’s a defense mechanism to help process some of the hideous things you witness as a health professional. It needs to be appropriate and non-offensive though – certainly not at the expense of the patient.

Travolta Every profession or trade needs some kind of release valve. I have a dear friend who is a genocide studies scholar. She tells the story of being at a conference about wartime atrocities. At the end of one particularly grueling day, she and her exhausted colleagues were heading up to their rooms in an elevator, and spontaneously busted some John Travolta moves to the background muzak of ‘Staying Alive.’

DJ: How, when and where do you work and what's your biggest distraction?

LK: I’m nomadic. I dearly wish I had my own study, where I could be surrounded by all my books and shmontses and not have to lug myself around. I need solitude and quiet to write – there’s not much of that at home with three kids, a dog, a cat, rabbits and fish. I move from the dining room to the kitchen and have even been known to lock myself in the bathroom, put the toilet lid down and sit there until I’ve finished writing a scene. Sometimes I go to a café or the library – I always carry earplugs in my bag.

I hate noise. That’s why I adore Varuna. I try to carry a little bit of Varuna inside of me wherever I go and draw on the sacred energy of the place.

DJ: And finally, Leah, what’s next for you? Can you tell us anything about the next project on the boil?

Never give up LK: I’m itching to get back to a novel-in-progress. I’m about 40,000 words in, but have been busy with three books out this year. The Waiting Room comes out in the US next October, so I’m hoping I’ll find some quiet time to write before the next pub date. Meanwhile, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have my work touch so many people. If there’s any take home message for Varuna-ites from my own writerly journey, it’s this – work really hard and NEVER give up!

DJ: Everyone got that? Duly noted here at Alumni HQ. Thanks for playing, Leah. It’s been fabulous chatting with you.

To all Varuna Alumni, staff, board members and other very welcome visitors to this site, my very warmest wishes for the end of 2015. It’s been a long, hard year for many people here and around the world – as I write this, America is dealing with the immediate aftermath of yet another gun massacre, and that awful feeling that nothing will change is utterly deflating – so I wanted to finish the year by saying how very, very privileged I feel by the job I do here. I love Varuna, and I am especially grateful for the opportunity this role affords to connect with so many extraordinarily talented Australian writers who love the place too. Amidst a world gone stark raving mad, it is an enduring refuge of peace, creativity and boundless good will. Despite my limitations as a writer and my countless flaws as a human being, I strive to be worthy of such a special place.

Read often, write well, stay safe and thank you for all your comments and participation throughout the year. The Varuna Monthly Feature will return in February 2016.



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In the past month we have added a profile for Jenny Blackford while Laurie Steed upated his.

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  • Love what you do Leah ( and thank you for being my FB friend!) I'm always so excited to hear about what you're doing

    Jennifer Scoullar Friday, 04 December 2015 22:43 Comment Link
  • Fabulous interview, Diane. My admiration for both of you juggling so many tasks. You've given me some great ideas for Christmas presents. Best wishes of the season meanwhile. With best Tangea

    Tangea Tansley Friday, 04 December 2015 23:12 Comment Link
  • Another great interview Diana! Totally enjoyed it, and Leah's amazing writing journey and dedication. Good on you both.

    Andrew Y M Kwong

    Andrew Y M Kwng Saturday, 05 December 2015 07:41 Comment Link
  • Thanks Diana for such a generous and thoughtful interview. I am so privileged to have such a wonderful writing community at Varuna who all nurture each other. (And Jennifer, Tangea, Andrew - no slouches yourselves!) Here's hoping 2016 brings more love into the world. Lx

    Leah Kaminsky Saturday, 05 December 2015 20:42 Comment Link
  • Thanks, everyone. Apologies for the extremely tardy response. I got caught up in the silly season and life became, well, silly indeed. I very much appreciate your taking the time to comment, Jennifer, Andrew and Tangea.

    Leah, it was a pleasure discussing your work with you.

    Diana Jenkins Friday, 12 February 2016 17:13 Comment Link

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