‘Have you read my book?’
It’s the first thing Julie Koh asks me as she takes a seat in the cosy booth I’ve reserved for us at the exclusive Pancake Parlour in Bourke Street Mall.
Koh looks stunning, as always. She’s wearing a close-fitting pantsuit with fabric custom-made to match the texture of the cover stock from her groundbreaking anthology, BooksActually’s Gold Standard.
Koh slips off her hand-embroidered ‘Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities’ satin bomber jacket – ‘I know the most darling designer in Mosman – did I tell you I’ve moved to Mosman?’ – and reaches for the menu.
I ask her, perhaps indiscreetly, if she’s had any work done lately. She looks so magnificent that I simply can’t resist. Luckily, Koh is happy to have the chance to sing her surgeon’s praises.
‘Sweetie,’ she grasps my hand then drops it hastily when she feels the greasy residue from my Aesop-knock-off moisturiser, ‘as soon as Taylor and I set the date for our Maldives nuptials, I booked myself in right away. Just a little off here and here’ – she runs a perfectly manicured fingernail along her jawline – ‘and a little added here’ – and across her plumply luscious lips.
Koh’s impending wedding to celebrity dentist Taylor Amberson was the talk of this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne. Despite being one of Australia’s most-lauded up-and-coming authors, Koh announced at the festival that she was giving up writing to become a lady who lunches.
Her tinkling laugh turns heads when I suggest a short stack and hot balls mark an auspicious beginning to her new career as a kept woman. But before we move on to the future, I say, perhaps we could spend a little time discussing the huge name she has already built for herself in literature.
‘Of course it’s notable that I was probably the first Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist to have never written a novel,’ she notes wryly as the waiter delivers our Swiss Malts and Koh asks for the fifth or sixth time whether I’m definitely paying for lunch.
‘Smart money is on my forthcoming collection, A Book Set Entirely in Singapore in the Future, which is set entirely in Singapore in the future, winning the 2017 Miles Franklin.’
‘I know, I know,’ she says, as she waves away my insistence that the Miles can only be won by a novel that shows Australian life in any of its phases, ‘but those rules weren’t made for me.’
The collection will be Koh’s last, she reminds me as the waiter reappears with her chicken tenders and my Bavarian apple short stack. The chicken tenders are coated with panko-style crumbs, chosen by Koh because, as she tells me, she won’t eat anything that isn’t a facsimile of another dish. She eyes my Bavarian apples and notes she could as easily have chosen them, given the entire absence of southern German ingredients. Ersatz or not, the short stack melts provocatively in the mouth, taking this writer back to Canberra winter nights and long, heartfelt discussions over whether John Taylor or Nick Rhodes was the most delicious of the Duranies. My heart beats a little more quickly and a mist rises in my eyes.
Koh – aware that my focus has shifted, however briefly, from the topic of Koh – pulls me back.
‘It was Amanda Lohrey who suggested it,’ Koh confides in a panko-coated murmur. ‘She advises all emerging writers to marry a dentist.’
Sensible advice, as any young writer would attest, but I’m curious why a writer like Koh who, let’s face it, was on the brink of actual emergement, would decide to turn her back on her personal brand.
‘You’ll have heard about the murder charge,’ she says, taking a sip from the Florence Broadhurst hip flask she always carries with her.
Koh’s arrest for the murder of celebrity debutante Adelaide Hegarty hogged the headlines in Verity La, The Lifted Brow and Pencilled In for most of the writers’ festival season – I’d clearly be lying if I said I hadn’t heard.
When Hegarty was found dead after attending a New Year’s Eve writers’ party, suspicion fell on Koh. Hegarty’s breakout collection, Mallarmé’s Pupil, was due to hit the shelves any day and had positioned her to take all the major awards, even the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. She was heavily backed to be named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist, despite only having a collection of stories to her name.
‘I have to say,’ Koh says, taking another swig from the flask and sliding it across the table to me after I asked for the third time, ‘the lowest point in my literary career was being taken into police custody. As I said to Fenwick when he visited me there, not only does prison not provide for conjugal rights, it produces an excess of uncomfortable existential questions: how, for example, would I keep going as a writer?’
J Fenwick Anderson had been Koh’s teacher and, she tells me, the first to spot her genius. In return, she had been his muse; according to her, it was a poorly kept literary secret that she was the inspiration behind his prizewinning novella, fifty-nineteen. Many said they saw her in the heroine of Anderson’s latest release, Bush Tart, but there had also been whispers that the eponymous Tart bore traces of Hegarty.
Koh’s next comment eludes me as the staff at The Pancake Parlour forcefully eject us from the premises, but as we pass the bottle of Malibu we picked up at Dan Murphy’s on the way to Melbourne Central Station, Koh clarifies.
‘Going to prison was definitely a creative obstacle. More than that it was a brand obstacle. You saw what happened to semi-novelist Ryan O’Neill,’ she reminded me.
O’Neill had beaten an arson rap, but soon after his release from prison people started referring to his latest work, Their Brilliant Careers, as a short-story collection rather than a novel in stories and his Miles Franklin longlisting never blossomed into a win.
‘I couldn’t afford that kind of bad press,’ Koh said, ‘so I asked myself, how would I turn this to my advantage? How would I find my angel of positivity? How would I hear the celestial message the universe was trying to send me?
‘A thread I am discovering is the value of courage to give things a go. Be curious. Find what you love. Explore. Or, to put it another way, quit writing and marry a celebrity dentist, one with enough liquid assets to fund a drawn-out legal defence.’
Our liquid assets were running low by that point, and Koh had executed one of the more elegant regurgitations of panko-style crumbed tenders I’d seen in my long career as a Style writer. I had only one more question: what are you reading?
‘Reading is for consumers. I’m a creator,’ Koh corrects me as she stumbles lightly through the doors of the 3.12 Craigieburn train. ‘The next book I read will be my memoir. I don’t want to give the game away, but Donna Hay has signed on as a ghost writer.’
As the doors are closing, my phone alerts me to a text message. Koh has sent me the URL for the Goodreads listing of her forthcoming memoir with a brief message: ‘Feel free to leave a review – five stars is usually considered appropriate.’
Julie Koh’s memoir, Not That It’s Any of Your Business, is due out in May 2018.