Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.

S. L. Lim was born in Singapore, moved to Sydney at the age of one, and has spent a good part of her life toggling back and forth between the two places. After dropping out of law school she graduated with an economics degree and lived the life of a suit for a while before going freelance. Her manuscript, ‘Revenge’, to be published by Transit Lounge in 2020, was long-listed for the 2017 Epigram Fiction Prize. She lived for a period in the Slovak Republic, hates injustice, compulsory heterosexuality and the state, and has two pet birds almost as old as she is.

Real Differences – Synopsis
This is a story of a friendship so connected that without it one is not whole but lost. Middle-class, clever and white, Nick is a child of privilege while his best friend Andie is the daughter of Indo-Chinese refugees. Despite their very different backgrounds, they share a conviction they can change the world for the better. At the outset, Nick is pushing papers in a dead-end job while Andie is embarking on a secular crusade against world poverty. This generates conflict with her white husband Benjamin, who feels that Australians should come first. Meanwhile, Andie’s cousin, the teenage Tony is burdened by his parents’ traumatic past and impossible expectations. To their dismay, he finds solace in radical faith. S.L. Lim acutely captures the dreams and disaffections of a millennial generation. Real Differences is an emotionally resonant novel about idealism, ethical ambition, and love, filled with unforgettable characters. It ultimately asks us the most important question of all: What is our life for?

Photo of S.L. Lim


Whether I’m interviewing an author or not, I always do a quick Google search of the human behind my latest read. I suppose this is because I’m interested in their story and how it’s played a role in their work—unsurprising, given that I work for the Centre for Stories! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how your experiences have bled into your debut novel?

This is a difficult question. A lot of my motivation for writing is a generalised desire for personal disappearance, dissolution. I suppose other people often seem very exposed. My ability to observe their behaviour, identify their histories and track the process of cause and effect in their lives gives me a vantage point with a certain kind of epistemic power. Hypocritically, I am scared of intelligent persons like yourself exercising similar powers over me.

You can probably infer some stuff from that but biographically: I am queer, Asian and female-presenting. I was born in Singapore and spent a lot of time there when I was younger, but not anymore. A lot of my life has been lived with and around white people and will continue to be so. This entails certain compromises, the experience of which very much informed the writing of Real Differences.

I can, and I understand, to a degree, those compromises you’re talking about. I recently had the pleasure of chatting to Kit Scriven for Margaret River Press. He was an accountant for many years, and, although he wrote during this period, he didn’t leave the corporate world to pursue writing fully until recently. You also lived “the life of a suit” before making the decision to freelance. Can you tell us about the directions you’ve taken, and the motivations behind them?

I don’t like work and feel personally attacked by the expectation I exchange my labour for a wage. Come to that I feel personally attacked by people asking me to do literally anything apart from exactly what I want at any given time, including laundry and talking to other humans. However, I was raised to be terrified of poverty and with a set of implied financial obligations to my family, as well as without the expectation of a safety net which I think underpins the mental state of most middle to upper-class white Australians. So I bore it till I couldn’t any more.

One thing I will say is that although I’m very sympathetic to the fear of financial hardship—I certainly have my periodic money panics—I think a lot of people put up with dumb capitalist stuff they don’t need to. Of course money is important and makes it easier to care for yourself and those you care about. But I think on a psychological level, part of the implicit promise of “doing the normal thing” is that you can eliminate uncertainty, which is untrue. There was this ad for MLC insurance which made that explicit—the slogan was “Life unchanging”. This is obviously bullshit. You’re going to die, probably in pain, and so is everyone. So take steps to mitigate risk but be aware you’re gonna lose this game, so you might as well do what you need to.

Well said. And your response here is interesting, because it reflects your writing—I remember telling a friend that you looked at the world and then wrote about it without, or with less of, a filter. I think this is why the novel is filled with characters that will linger in readers’ minds well after they’ve passed the last page—because we know more about them than we feel we should. Where did this motley cast and their story come from?

My brain, some biographical details cribbed from the lives of people I’m close and less close to, and the Muse!

Cover of S.L. Lim's book "Real Differences"

It felt like you took a great deal of care in creating complex characters though. There were no heroes or villains in your work—each of them possessed endearing and nearly repulsive characteristics. This felt important, given the challenges each of them were dealt. What was happening behind the scenes as you wrote them? What difficulties did you face creating them? Did you lean in to Nick, Andie, or Tony too much only to find you had to lean out?

In terms of craft it was important not to become over-identified with the characters, particularly when their ideas and emotional lives are in conflict with each other. Inevitably I do take sides—I think my thumb is on the scale with respect to the relationship between Andie and Ben, for example. I did incorporate some experiences and views which originated with real people. One difficulty was seeking to maintain fidelity to the “truth” of a particular situation, while also clarifying and intensifying aspects so that they could “work” in a fictional context, and so that they could attain an independent life of their own which was detached from their originating circumstances.

I see—I’ve had a similar issue in my own writing. I suppose that difficulty is compounded by the fact that there is a lot going on in this novel—the characters are occupied by past trauma, world poverty, the subtle racism of a white Australia, radical religious faith. Yet you present it deftly. What sort of process did you undertake to achieve this?

That’s very kind of you. The most accurate way I can describe the process is: I beginninged, I middled, then it ended. I think that everyone’s mind is a soup with a lot going on and so my process was almost a lack of process. I would have a particular idea or experience that I wanted to evoke and I would do that in an episodic way and then seek connections later.

Wonderful! I have a similar process and I thought it was too unstructured or ineffective, but here’s hope for me yet. I also found hope in Andie. I found it startling how perfectly your articulated the specific difficulties that people like her face. She is visibly Chinese, yet perceived by those closest to her as un-Chinese, as “deracinated” because she was “brought up in a white cultural environment”. Racism against Chinese people and others of Asian ethnicity in your novel are considered by white characters as simply “un-PC” and they remark that this is about them and not her, Andie—who has been afforded the privilege of being granted us status. Not only have I experienced this, but when I was younger I internalised it. You get used to it, as Andie did, but it was wonderful to receive a character like her—who came to a point where it wasn’t . What inspired her strength of character?

I’m really sorry, though not surprised, to hear that you have experienced this, especially the internalisation of prejudice. I applaud your strength in reversing that process and would love to hear how you did it as this is something I have struggled and continue to struggle with. I don’t know if I conceive Andie’s resistance as strength of character, more the kind of reflex that occurs when your hand is on a convection plate that gets hotter and hotter and eventually you can’t stand it anymore.

When I was younger I internalised it more, is what I should have said. I suppose its an ongoing process if we’re being honest. I was at a housewarming recently where a table full of white people played “guess his ethnicity” and I smiled politely. So I like that—that it’s a reflex. There’s something more tangible about that. On more strength: you tap into a really interesting subject—a drive in people to make the world better, who are inevitably overwhelmed by how they can make a difference. Importantly, you touch on how class plays into this, and a week or so before I read your book I was having a really interesting conversation with a colleague of mine about how class often goes unmentioned in a lot of discussions. Have you had similarly disillusioning experiences, or did something else prompt you to write about this?

Oh my God, those wypipo. I don’t blame you for staying quiet given how they would probably have responded if you pushed back. I have this almost pornographic dream that one day a white person I care about will see someone being racist towards me, some other white person they are also friends with, and they will say something to stop it or signal it’s not okay. Publicly. In a way that shows they’re on my side, that they prioritise my wellbeing and feelings more than their relationship with whoever is doing or saying the racist thing. It’s happened a couple of times privately but they’ll never do it in front of others. This has literally never happened. And it’s not for lack of opportunity.

I have thought about what it would mean to be decolonised on a personal level, and I think my threshold would be if this particular dream didn’t have currency for me anymore. This has informed the directions I have taken in my work post-Real Differences. I am less concerned with explaining “us” to “them”, and more with finding a way to write “as if we were already free” and such explanations were unnecessary. Either because the people I cared about, understood, or were willing to do the work to understand without me dragging them which is a waste of my time and intellect. Or because I just didn’t care anymore.

On class: I could go on about this for years or just write another book about it, which I in fact already have —my second novel Revenge, which is out next year! I have certainly had similar experiences and think there is a tendency, particularly in Western literature and literary circles, to regard the material and artistic realms as quite separate. Art is seen as something which “rises above” economics and politics—questions of how we allocate money and power. My nuanced and considered opinion is that this is messed up. Access to money and to the imaginative possibilities this creates is a necessary precondition, not of wanting to make art—I think yearning for beauty and truth is universal—but of having the time to do so and the wherewithal to make yourself heard. It is not an accident that class goes unmentioned, but the result of a deliberate and largely successful process designed to remove it from the conversation. Google the CIA and its influence on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for example.

Sorry to go on, but in the context of the election: I think there has also been a move—sometimes stealthy, sometimes not—towards redefining class as a set of aesthetic and cultural signifiers. As opposed to being about access to resources and control of those resources. There’s this idea that to be working class or a “battler” means being a plumber or a truck driver who eats lamb and stuff (and is also, I think, implicitly white and male). Even though a plumber who owns their own successful business lives under much less precarious conditions than, say, an aged care worker on contract, regardless of education or consumption preferences. I think this fucks up our ability to engage with injustice, as well as with reality in general. Class is a material condition not a preference with respect to soymilk.

A pornographic dream I’ve also had. And well said againI—I’m glad you wrote about it class. And I can’t wait for your next novel! I hope it leaves me as Real Differences has—with the strangest feeling, or feelings. It ended how I had feared it would, even though I expected it to end how I hoped it would. I felt dissatisfied and yet wholly content by where the characters left me. Did you always know that your characters would end up where they did, or were you surprised by their journey?

Thank you again for your lovely words. I always knew pretty much how they

Jay Anderson is a professional writer and editor, with a background in Literary and Cultural Studies. He’s currently completing an Honours of creative writing at Curtin University—where he is the Chief Editor of the campus’ student publication, Grok Magazine.

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