Meet Elizabeth Tan

Elizabeth Tan is a writer from Perth. She is the author of a short fiction collection, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, and Rubik, a novel-in-stories.

How are you looking after yourself during this time?

I’ve been trying – with only a little bit of success – to adopt a ‘better done than perfect’ attitude to commitments and chores, and be satisfied with whatever counts as my best effort on a given day.

I’ve been eating consoling food, like two-minute noodles and kimchi. I’ve been making chilli oil and adding it to everything I cook. I’ve been baking and eating honey joys, and experimenting with a variant of honey joy which uses sultana bran (which my partner has dubbed ‘raisin joys’).

Can you speak a little about your creative process while writing?

My creative process tends to be messy and inconsistent from story to story, and this is especially the case when looking back on Smart Ovens for Lonely People. The oldest story in the collection was written in 2010, and the youngest in 2019 – there were several upheavals with my living situation, mental health, relationships, study and work in those years. But what doesn’t seem to change is that I write best in bed, in the morning, when I’m still foggy in the head.

I idle a lot during my writing. I go down Wikipedia rabbit holes, watch YouTube videos, scroll through pop culture blogs, play games on my phone. I’m always distracted. If I can get 500 words down, that’s a pretty good writing session. The things that I encounter during my idling tend to make it into my fiction eventually – ASMR, meet-cutes, Neko Atsume – so it isn’t all wasted.

Sometimes I think of a phrase that would make a good title – because it has a beautiful sound, or it makes me go ‘hehehe’ – and then I write a story that fits that title. I used to be embarrassed about this – I was worried it meant I was a shallow writer – but I’ve kind of embraced it now. A story exists on the page where there wasn’t one before – what does it matter how it began?

Has the pandemic changed the way you approach your art/writing? Are you creating or absorbing, or both?

After finishing my PhD (which culminated in my first book), I had a little fallow period during which I wasn’t working on anything new, and I was actually at peace with the thought of never writing anything again. So it’s hard to say whether my lack of creative drive right now – in the wake of the publication of Smart Ovens – is part of that natural dormancy that comes from finishing a big project, or whether it’s caused by anxiety about the current situation. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Either way, I think it is safe to say I am doing more absorbing than creating at the moment.

What are the most important literary and non-literary forces that shape your writing?

Sonya Hartnett’s novels have always stayed with me throughout my adolescence and into my adulthood – the evocative precision of her sentences, the way she treats both her very young characters and her elderly characters with dignity. The short stories of Tom Cho, Julie Koh, and, more recently, Wayne Marshall have taught me that there’s nothing too peculiar to write about, and also, that just because something is funny doesn’t mean it can’t be poignant or devastating.

But really, I think it’s the safety of being nestled in a found family that allows me to write or be creative at all. There was this one time, some years ago, when I was knitting a blanket that I intended to give to a close friend as a wedding gift. I was still a new knitter back then, and I was fretting that I’d chosen ugly colours, or that the blanket would turn out to be too amateurish and wonky to pass as a wedding gift. But eventually, a voice in my head just put a stop to all that: ‘Look, there is no way you can mess this up. It is impossible that this thing will not be loved.’ And I think it crystallised for me how sweet and precious that is, how freeing, to be among people with whom it is impossible for me to be unloved.

Which artists are you most intrigued by at this current point in time?

Aside from Yumna Kassab and Jo Lennan (my fellow panellists on Let Me Be Brief), I’ve been really interested in LIMINAL’s GLITCH series of digital art and writing, following their excellent launch at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I like the playfulness of many of the works I’ve explored so far, and the way they have been crafted specifically for the online space.

And, lastly, on a lighter note, what’s your favourite book-to-TV / book-to-film adaptation? Or is there a book you’d like to see adapted into a TV show / film?

Oh goodness, I hope this counts: Little Angel Theatre’s puppet adaptation of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, which aired earlier this year on YouTube. Everything about it is delightful.

Don’t miss Elizabeth Tan in conversation with Yumna Kassab, Jo Lennan and Veronica Sullivan at MWF Digital. Book Now.