Introducing Sydney based writer, author and activist Bri Lee. Bri has received widespread recognition for her debut book Eggshell Skull, an award-winning memoir based on her personal experience with sexual assault and the legal system. I distinctly recall reading the book on a Summer Holiday – I turned the pages feeling stunned that a woman, so relatable to me (same age and stage of life) had the courage to write a memoir that was incredibly honest, vulnerable and fierce all at the same time. Since then, I have followed Bri’s journey which spans essays, short stories, books, a PHD and more. It was such a pleasure to spend the morning at Ampersand bookstore with Bri, a voice that my generation of women is truly lucky to have.
You did a dual Law and Arts degree at university - did you ever consider doing a journalism or writing degree? Did you ever envisage this career for yourself?
Yes! I actually started university in a Journalism and Arts dual degree and had thought for years that I wanted to be a photojournalist. I got into the lecture theatre of hundreds of enthusiastic ‘Journalism 101’ students, and we were being told by cynical old retired practitioners that there wouldn’t be any jobs for any of us because of ‘The Internet’... It wasn’t great. So I swapped across to law and sank my teeth into it. I see what I do these days as the exact meeting of these things—journalism, law, and arts—and also I feel like the walking talking Venn diagram of a cop dad and an artist mother. It all connects.
You’ve achieved so much in the last few years, have there been any standout career highlights?
I’ll never forget the feeling (it was in lockdown of 2020) of finding out my first short story was going to be published in The Saturday Paper. Absolute elation. Fiction was a pipe dream for a long time, and something I felt I had to earn (which I don’t think people should feel, but certainly was an insecurity of mine). It gave me a colossal boost in confidence. Also, there’s nothing like getting letters and emails from readers who’ve been so affected by my work that they have actually made big life decisions. Those are more meaningful than awards and reviews.
I can imagine writing a book is a bit of a journey. Is there a clear starting point? What is your process like?
Every single book and essay and story and article is different. Writing one book in no way prepares you for writing the next one. And ‘process’ depends a lot on the time I have which depends a lot on the money I have and all kinds of things. I try not to get too precious about what my writing ‘space’ or ‘process’ needs to be. Also, for me, writing is a way of life. It’s a way of looking, understanding, and making sense of the world.
Your previous books have highlighted issues about unjust legal systems, societal constructs and privilege - do you have any other ideas niggling away at you that you’re interested in unpacking?
Tons. If I’m lucky I’ll get to write for the rest of my long life until I die. I know what my next two books are, I just don’t want to rush anything. Also, I write from real life events, so I don’t want to plan too far into the future. Life happens and I turn it into art. I’m trying not to pre-empt the whole life-happening part, you know?
Your past two books have both been non-fiction. Do you see yourself moving into fiction anytime in the future?
Definitely I’m already here—my new book is a novel and I think it’ll be out sometime next year. I started thinking about the themes and characters of the book back in 2018, and then started seriously plotting in 2019 on a residency in New York. It’s been percolating and getting added to and drafted over the years since. I’m now in the final editing stages.
Are there any standout books/writers that have inspired your career and helped shape your writing style?
I think a lot about which authors have careers and career trajectories I admire. Because I’m fully freelance (I do a PhD, but I also write for all kinds of different places, and write my books, and do events and my newsletter etcetera) I’m really making up my professional trajectory as I go. People like Zadie Smith and Hanya Yanagihara who balance their writing with other writing-adjacent jobs (teaching and editing, respectively) are authors I look to for professional guidance. I type their names into Spotify and listen to every single interview with them. Creatively, each different book and work presents me with different writers to admire and learn from. Part of what I call ‘reading deeply’ is diving into a genre or author’s oeuvre to find everything I want to either steal or avoid.
What do you do to relax and switch off? I can imagine your brain is a very busy place to be!
I’d say my inability to ‘switch off’ is simultaneously a source of great personal unhappiness and great professional ability. There’s a healthy tension there. Every single thing I see and hear and feel and learn and experience goes into my work. Part of my job is reading the news everyday, keeping up with the culture, knowing what’s happening in the arts and politics and blah blah blah. I love it, but it’s been a long time now that I’ve realised I need better boundaries. I’m working from home which I think is part of them problem—I need to get out of here and into an office space. Soon!
How would you describe your personal style? Has it evolved over the last few years alongside your career?
Definitely. I used to dress way more crazily. Multiple clashing prints, shapes, accessories… these days I’m a little less loud with it. Partially it’s because I’m 30 now, I guess? But I also think it’s because I don’t want to be noticed so much anymore. Something happened in my brain when I got sufficiently ‘known’ that I would be stopped on the street. It’s an honour and privilege, of course, but it also made me more desirous of anonymity and chill.
What’s in store for the future of Bri Lee? Any wild ideas that you’re dreaming about?
After the amazing Morocco trip with Aweventurer we’re discussing where we might go to next. I’ve got my fingers crossed for a big 2023 literary adventure. Stay tuned!
Imagery by Walter Maurice