Five Minutes with Isabelle Li

Isabelle Li 1. Where do you get most of your writing done?

I often write on public transport, the back of a bus, the quiet carriage of a train, the cramped aisle seat of an airplane. I write at home, and away – one writes well in the solitude of a strange city in a state of jetlagged disorientation.

I was in Varuna for two weeks in April and had a taste of writing fulltime. I loved it, walking 1.5 hours every morning, and writing for the rest of the day. I’m still recovering from the shock of returning to the real world.

2. Internet on or off while you’re writing?

Either is fine – growing up in a family of six sharing two rooms, I’m not so easily distracted. Once I was working at the dining table and my other half asked me three times from the cooking bench behind me, to look at his marbled cheesecake. Later he was flabbergasted when I blamed him for not showing me the cake before it was baked – honestly I didn’t hear him.

3. Which book/poem do you wish you’d written?

The English Patient and I bet I’m not the only one. I reread the book whenever I lose faith in literature. It has the kind of lyrical prose that fills the hearts of writers and poets with desire.

4. Which book are you constantly lending your friends? 

Most of my friends are very well read, so I’m usually at the receiving end. A friend of mine lent me Raychman’s The View from the Bridge, after he hadn’t lent anyone a book for 18 years! The book came in a plastic folder and smelled of mothballs. I read it thoroughly and returned it in a different plastic folder with the smell dissipated. Another friend lent me all her favourite Dorothy Porter. Another lent me Hartley’s The Go-Between. The latest borrowing is a book about clouds still bearing my friend’s bookmarks from his own study of meteorology, as if I’m tracing his footsteps in the sky.

Although I don’t usually lend books to others, in the past two years I’ve bought Mark Tredinnick’s Fire Diary and Bluewren Cantos as gifts for my friends. They are such beautiful and generous collections that everyone would love.

5. Which fictional character do you think you're most romantically compatible with?

Probably with the English patient, after he’s burnt beyond recognition. Like Hanna, I love reading and have a penchant for anonymous saints. I love reading out loud but nobody wants to hear me. If I want to read out a poem, most people want to know the length first, and I have to negotiate for anything longer than a page. The English patient is a very good listener, when his hearing aids are turned on, and I don’t mind feeding him dates and plums.

6. Best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

When I was small I asked my father what life is. He said, ‘Life is a struggle.’ That’s the best piece of advice I’ve received, for everything, including writing.

7. If you could only read and re-read one book for the rest of your life, which one would it be?

I’d have to bring with me Dream of the Red Chamber written by Cao Xueqin in Qing Dynasty China in the 18th century, a tragic love story set against the rise and fall of an aristocratic family, with 120 chapters, 40 major characters, and 500 minor ones. The novel encompasses magnificent prose and poetry, but also many aspects of Chinese culture, food, medicine, clothing, art, theatre, religion, history and philosophy.

8. Which book do you only pretend to like to look cool/well-read?

This question reminds me of The Naive and Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk. In one of the chapters he gives the example of reading for social identity: an intelligent girl queuing up for university registration is proudly reading Proust and she’s disappointed that another girl who looks rather shallow is reading the same book! Reading is so individual, like romantic love – no point in dating someone just because others like him. But I would like to read more philosophy books.

9. What are you working on at the moment?

On a macro level, I’m working on a novel. On a micro level, I’m wrapping up a number of stories and starting a new one, while researching on poetry in prose, writing the lyrical novel.

And if you dare to share, we'd love to see a pic of your writing space...