Book Club / Culture

In conversation with Bri Lee on art, ambition, unreliable narrators, and her debut novel ‘The Work’

It was late 2018 and I'd recently joined a friend's impromptu book club, hosted in the grassy backyard of her Queenslander sharehouse, about ten of us perched on a swathe of mismatched picnic blankets in the late afternoon sun. We were gathered to discuss our first book assignment – a newly-released non-fiction memoir called Eggshell Skull, written by another young Brisbane writer not much older than we were at the time, one named Bri Lee.

Lee's scorching take on her experiences as a District Court judge's associate overseeing cases of sexual harassment and assault – and of her own experiences with those topics on a personal level – quickly burned into our brains. If you haven't been so lucky as to familiarise yourself with Lee's writing before, let me first and firmly assure you that you should find the time to do so. She is biting, intelligent and uncompromising in her pursuit of more nuanced conversations on complicated topics. And voraciously I consumed her follow-ups, like 2019's Beauty, and 2021's Who Gets To Be Smart?.

This year, however, Lee turned her attention away from non-fiction, penning her debut novel The Work, which was released last week. I was lucky enough to not only get an advance copy to devour, but to get the chance to catch up with Lee while she was in the midst of her weeks-long book tour. Down the phone line – her in her Castlemaine AirBnB, me in the thick of Sydney – we spoke about art, love, greed, writing and our mutual soft spot for a 'Sad Girl' novel.


I hope that we’ve caught you at an alright time?

BL: Yes, we’ve just checked into a cute little B’n’B situation in Castlemaine. I’m in week two of four of the tour. We’re just going all around!


Well, I just wanted to start by saying that I finished the book – and I loved it. It’s exciting to see you step into new territory here.

BL: Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say! Thank you!


What prompted you to write a novel as opposed to your usual non-fiction?

BL: Well, it took five years to write, and I was thinking about it in late 2018 and then I started seriously writing it in early 2019.

I don’t really think about fiction and non-fiction as a binary so much. I know a lot of people are interested in what they see to be the change or the pivot – but I feel like all of my first books, although they were non-fiction, they were very, very different types of non-fiction. I just tend to start with a question, or a set of questions – or an issue that I really want to explore – that are so important to me that I think it could sustain a major work.

The questions I had for this work were about money and art and love – and there was no way I was going to write non-fiction about money and art and love. A novel is the perfect container for those sorts of questions and enquiries, and that was pretty obvious from the beginning.


Aside from the obvious, how was your approach different?

BL: I knew how to research, so I just started with research – reading books and listening to things, and also in real life I spent five or six weeks in New York in early 2019 and went to a whole lot of local, independent galleries in the area that I would then set Lally’s gallery in. I went to the Armory art fair and got absolutely bonkers, outrageous people watching and eavesdropping material to put straight into the book. I knew how to research and turn that into a major project. Basically, it was just a lot more fun.


Are you someone who has a strict writing routine, or do you let that process flow more intuitively?

BL: I would love to have a strict routine, but I pay my bills with my writing work. For my whole career until now, that has meant doing all kinds of other work for money and then finding stolen hours to work on my books. It’s pretty hard to make a living as an author in Australia from books alone. Basically, that’s the dream: is that every year of my life – I’m still in the first decade of my career – I hope to get closer and closer to the stage where I can mostly do my books.


And what keeps you motivated going toward that goal?

BL: Well, it’s my dream. It’s not even a question of motivation. There’s nothing else I want to be doing and it doesn’t matter what profession you choose, you still start at the bottom and you work your way up. When I look at, say my previous profession like law, or the creative industries, sometimes the biggest difference between the people who quote-unquote “make it” – it’s a simple question of perseverance.


I'm a subscriber of your Substack News and Reviews – are there any Substacks that you particularly love?

BL: Mmmm! I think a really great one is a daily one called Feed Me by Emily Sundberg. She is, I think, a really great example of somebody who has a special niche and a really great voice, where she’s communicating insider knowledge and valuable breaking information but in a chatty, conversational, compelling way. I really like it. And how she manages to churn that out every day is extraordinary.


I’ll have to give it a read. Jumping lanes here a little bit, I wrote down a bunch of notes from when I was reading the book. I only got a copy on Friday, so I’ve been voraciously reading over the weekend.

BL: Thank you for the hustle! [Laughs.]


It was a page turner, so it was helpful in that regard! In the book, Pat has a couple of favourite paintings which he shows Lally at one point: the Comtesse D'Haussonville and The Heart of the Andes. Are these paintings that you have a personal connection to? How did you come across them for the purpose of the story?

BL: It is quite difficult to write about art in a fascinating and compelling way. There is a lot of art writing out in the world that is like – snoozeville. And it was really important to me that there was not a single paragraph in this book that lagged. Like you just said, it was a page turner – it takes so much work to get your book to that status, and thinking about every part where somebody’s interest might wane.

I needed to be able to talk about certain artworks and certain artistic concepts in the book, and I was wracking my brain for how to make sure none of those slowed the action down. I just thought to myself, well what are the artworks that I’ve seen in my life – not necessarily that are my favourites – but that I had really strong emotional responses to.

Those two artworks I had felt extremely moved and compelled by when I stood in front of them. Often, [in the book] the artworks are not so much described in detail in any objective sense, but the characters describe how the artworks make them feel, or what the artworks make them think about, and actually the passages that are about works of art – either real ones or ones that I have imagined – tell us a lot more about the characters than they do about the works of art themselves.


Lally’s character in particular grapples a lot with this binary between having to choose between love and being successful; this idea of family life and complacency versus pushing on and being ambitious.

It’s a question a lot of women in particular mull over, myself included. I wanted to know what drew you to write about that topic of love and ambition in tandem?

BL: I was thinking about the ambition part of it. There are a lot of things I was writing towards, but there were also a lot of things I was writing against. In particular, in the years of 2019, 2020 and 2021, when I did the bulk of drafting of this book, it was when I was reading a WHOLE lot of contemporary fiction that we would now classify as the so-called ‘sad girl novel’. Now, we can sort of recognise the wave and understand that it is a particular phenomenon of a time and place in culture. But in 2019 and 2020 in particular, I just kept reading so many of these books in which the characters, who were supposed to be from my cohort in terms of age and demographic, just somehow either didn’t have real jobs, or didn’t really care about their jobs and weren’t particularly motivated by anything in their life and were just rambling around in melancholy.

That just did not reflect my life or the lives of, really, any of my friends or colleagues. What I was having really fascinating conversations about – especially with other women – was ambition; hustling really hard to try and make a go of it for yourself, but also because you needed money. And how far was too far to push it? And about burnout.

I do think in particular, in your late 20s and early 30s, it’s hard to know when a good type of motivation has tipped over into a kind of unhealthy obsession with work. To what degree is the ambition a good thing? When is it too much and the ambition is a bad thing? Like, what’s the difference between ambition and greed? It’s impossible, context-specific and different for every person – that to me, is really fascinating.


Which 'Sad Girl' novels were you reading back then?

BL: I couldn’t even tell you off the top of my head [laughs]. I wasn’t even writing against one in particular, it was just a pattern I was exhausted by.


Do you think that there’s a character, out of those two main characters in your novel, that you relate to the most?

BL: I love them both and loathe them both in equal measure [laughs].


Like children, can’t pick!

BL: Yes! What is interesting that I hadn’t thought about until I started having conversations about the book really recently is that, when I started writing the book I was in my late 20s and in a rental and just like, dreaming of one day getting an apartment just so I could get a dog – like Pat. Now I’m in my early 30s, and have reached a really different stage of my career and life and work-life balance and am much more like Lally. It has been interesting working on a single project for such a long period of time and feeling like I have almost grown with the characters or learned from their mistakes.


The Work, as a title is quite ambiguous. Was the title something that came to you really early on, or at the end?

BL: At the end. I actually had a different working title for it, which was extremely earnest and conceptual... well, it was a title for the book I started writing.

What I can tell you is the way we decided on The Work. Even from the very beginning with the drafting process and thinking about the structure of this novel, I wanted to leave certain deliberate gaps and ambiguities – so that smart readers could meet it in the middle. For example, not only do we have alternating chapters, right, between Pat and Lally, but there is never any scene or conversation that you see from both characters’ perspective. So it is built into the bones of this book that the reader is like, having to imagine the other side of each scene, because you never get given that. I really like the idea of having a title that enables a smart reader to project onto it what they wanted to and what they got out of the book.

Something that I have been really, really gratified by – frankly, relieved and excited by, even having toured for like, less than two weeks – is that every single conversation I have with someone about this book, it’s like they’ve read a different book. People are bringing so much of themselves to this work, and that was my wildest hope and dream: that every reader would have a unique chemical reaction with this book.


I appreciated that you never saw the same situation from two perspectives. It does make you wonder how reliable each narrator is under certain circumstances.

BL: Yes! Exactly! Yes, thank you!


Do you think you’ll write more fiction in the future?

BL: Oh! I'm already underway. One in Antarctica – my next book is set there.


Wow! When do we think we’ll see the light of day on that one?

BL: [Laughs.] I don’t know when it will be done – another year or two.


What’s coming up next for you?

BL: The book tour is huge – I have another two or three weeks left of it. Then I will take some time to work on my next novel – that’s going to be a priority. I have another one of my big international trips in September, and I’m supposed to be doing my PhD.


In between?

BL: Yeah! On defamation law!


Wow! Very cool!

BL: [Laughs.] I don’t think I’d use the word 'cool'…



BL: Interesting! Yes!  [Both laugh.]


Bri Lee's debut novel, The Work, is available to purchase now from all good book stores, and online.


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