Lee Tran Lam, Writer
Lee Tran Lam is not only an amazing and accomplished writer, she's one of our own personal heroes and saviours. She is the ultimate resource to have on hand when it comes to where to eat and drink in Sydney! We love her passion and drive (as well as her impeccable taste).
What do you do?
For fun, I run a blog and podcast called The Unbearable Lightness of Hungry. It’s led to some interesting experiences – I now have a sandwich named after me at a great Sydney cafe! (It was great before that sandwich appeared, so I’m not being biased, I swear!)
I’ve also hosted my show Local Fidelity on FBi radio for the last 10 years. It’s about Australian music, so I’m often knee-deep in demos or download links, finding great local artists to play. FBi actually played Flume’s first demo when he was 15 years old (recorded under the name Harley) and, a few years ago, I enjoyed interviewing him about the first time he heard himself on radio (on FBi, while his dad was driving him to the beach)!
I’ve also been making zines for the last 20 years – it’s involved a lot of paper cuts and fights with photocopiers, long hours with sticky tape, paper clips and binding pages together. I grew up in the '90s, so zines were like what blogs are today: anyone could make one and they could be as personal as possible. I’ve made issues about Japan (where I discovered there’s a bakery that has a seven-year wait for its bread!) and short stories and food and Sydney. You might have seen me shilling my zines at the MCA Zine Fair, I’ve had a stall at every single fair they’ve held – bar one!
To pay the bills, I write. I finished covering someone’s maternity leave at the Good Food site last year and I was managing editor at Inside Out magazine before that. I’m a freelance journalist at the moment (my stories have snuck into the Sydney Morning Herald, Time Out and Gourmet Traveller) and occasionally I get an interesting leftfield gig – I was recently the MC at Sydney Table, where chefs collaborated with artists – O Tama Carey made herbs the rock stars of her menu, to match a 30-metre-long living sculpture made out of herbs, pods, flowers and fruit by Tracey Deep; Craig Waddell's artworks fashioned from recycled paint resonated nicely with James Viles’ way of using every part of an ingredient – even elements that other people might throw out (like leftover whey). James bravely turned up to cook, despite a recent accident involving his knee and a nailgun!
Do you have a maxim that you live and work by?
I guess I’m ruled by a sense that you should be nice to everyone – especially interns and people starting out. Also, I think everything is training for something else later in life – even if it seems boring and menial. (I remember not loving working behind the counter in my parents’ corner store when I was a kid – the hours were long and you got paid $20 a week! But I think constantly having to greet strangers definitely forced me to be less shy and more curious about people – and being that nosey definitely came in handy when I became a journalist later!)
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
I’d really love to write a book or two. But I don’t want to be that person who keeps going on and on about a book that they’re working on, for years and years, and have nothing to show for it! So I’d love to have the time to just really knuckle down and make it happen. We’ll see.
What is your dream project?
I love interviewing people, so I’d love to get to quiz lots of interesting people from around the world. I’m amazed by people who are extremely dedicated to their work – I remember once interviewing someone who spent decades trying to invent an Australian harp! Probably one of the most fun stories I’ve ever worked on was a history of fake blood and how it’s made and used in theatre.
What is the best advice you’ve been given, or wish you had been told sooner?
My friend, Beth Taylor, has done lots of amazing things (she created a massive solar system out of breadtags – literally – and was interviewed on TV and radio about it), but she also has young kids – so time is not something she has luxurious amounts of. So she’s taken a “near enough is good enough” approach to her creative projects. I think that’s a pretty healthy attitude, especially as everyone is scrabbling for time to finish things. Of course, it’s important to aspire to do the best with everything you take on. But it’s better to start something and fix it and have it close to 100%, rather than be frozen with your perfectionist ideals and not make anything at all. Her husband Jeff Edwards runs this project called the 20th: on the 20th of every month, participating musicians write and record a song entirely from scratch. Everyone who participates gets a CD with everyone’s contributions on it. The low-stakes approach means people don’t feel too stressed if they do something that’s just OK – and at most, they’ve only spent a few hours on it, rather than months or years. It’s easy to spare such small amounts of time. But often there are really good songs that come out of it. It’s a great example of just getting stuck into something, rather than waiting for the perfect moment that never comes. (That “'some day' is not any day of the week” warning does haunt me a bit, but I guess that’s a good guilt trip!)
What places are important to you?
I was inspired to start my blog because – despite having a big crush on international cities like Paris – the reality is that most of my time will be spent in Sydney. So why not enjoy and talk up and be awed by what is in my actual home town? Why not enjoy it like a tourist – and apply a tourist’s open-wide curiosity to the place I live in? It has been endlessly rewarding, seeking out what makes Sydney unique and surprising. And every time I eat overseas – even in “fine-dining capitals” like New York – I am reminded by how Sydney really holds its own. It’s not an empty brag to say our food is up there with the best. There’s a reason why international chefs flock to even our most casual places, like Chat Thai, Boon Cafe or Golden Century.
What do you want to be asked about that no one ever asks you?
Because I’ve had a food blog and podcast about food and I’ve worked at a food website, people seem to think I can only write about food. But I’ve written about a range of things over the years – the different types of fake blood they use in theatre, profiles of female comic-makers, the back-story of how they produce the Macquarie Dictionary, etc. So as much as I love covering food, it would be awesome if people could consider thinking outside the box a little and ask me to write about things that might actually have nothing to do with food.
What are the three milestones that have led you to where you stand?
* After finishing uni, I knew I wanted to work for a magazine, so I wrote to the editor of my favourite publication (“HQ”, which sadly isn’t around anymore – it was like a cross between “Vanity Fair” and “Good Weekend) and asked if I could do some work experience. I worked one day a week for free for six months while also holding down a minimum-wage job (plus also working in my parents’ shop!) and I really enjoyed the mix of work – from very admin-style tasks like transcribing and scanning material to actually writing photo essays and articles in the magazine. It was all unpaid and I never expected to get a job at “HQ" because it was run by a very small, independent publisher. Then one day the business went into administration, which was shocking for everyone – particularly people who lost their jobs and saw their magazines close. But there was a sliver lining, because the business was bought out by another publisher (Pacific) and I got offered a job as an editorial assistant – that was my first proper full-time publishing role.
* I started my blog in 2007, purely for fun and as a way to zoom in and experience what's unique to Sydney – its many one-of-a-kind restaurants and cafes. Chasing food is an excellent way to discover (or rediscover) different corners of your own home town. I did “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry" in my spare time – sometimes finishing posts at 3.30am and going to work the next day – and it led to lots of really surprising pay-offs. I’ve been interviewed by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, a regional German newspaper and even contributed to Turkish Vogue. It also led to work for the Good Food Guide, Sydney Morning Herald, Time Out and a role at the Good Food site.
* I began my podcast in 2012 - many years after “This American Life” but before the “Serial” explosion. It’s been a fantastic experience – I’ve squeezed my recording gear into a car to interview Ferran Adria – one of the world’s best chefs – en route from the airport to his hotel (this was the only interview slot I could get!) I’ve been lucky to interview big international chefs, like Christina Tosi (she invented crack pie!) and Dan Barber (he advised President Obama on nutrition and runs the life-changing Blue Hill At Stone Barns!), but some of my favourite experiences have been talking to local chefs – like Nick Smith about how an incident with the bomb squad inspired his love of cooking (yes, the story is as crazy as you’d think). It’s been a very DIY experience – I’m not a fancy sound engineer! – and I’ve definitely spent 9-hour blocks of time watching the sun go down as I try to finish editing an episode. But it’s led to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry” podcast being archived by the National Library of Australia and also interesting gigs interviewing people (like the Sydney Table series I mentioned).
What’s something surprising about you, that we might not know?
I was once hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing. (I hit the car’s headlight with my head, but was totally OK – I was shaken, but lucky the driver was only going 50 km per hour).
Do you have a supportive female network in your field? Was it always this way?
Yes, I’m lucky that publishing is a really female-friendly industry (the women really outnumber the men) – but I’ve also come out of community radio, the world of zines and other places where people are really supportive and inspired and enthusiastic and champions of other people’s work. I’ve not had to deal with a viciously corporate or backstabby kind of atmosphere. I mean, if you love writing, you also love reading – which means you really value and champion other people’s writing, instead of taking other people’s work as a slight against you.
Can you share a creative experience that you have found defining?
I remember in year 12, we were learning the poems of John Donne – and his religious work is very Catholic, all about reconciling yourself with God’s judgment. It made me think, well, I don’t really believe in heaven and hell – my parents are Buddhist – so what do I really think happens after we die? It made me confront the reality that nothing happens – so everything matters now, there are no second chances, you really can die tomorrow and it’s all over. (I had a similar experience with “Hamlet” – thanks HSC Syllabus for making me confront mortality head on!) So if you only have one shot, how will you spend it?
What are you listening to, reading, watching of late, that is inspiring or entertaining you?
I love the recent Land of Talk and Waxahatchee albums and I’m constantly hitting play on lots of Australian music (IV League, Hoodlem, Sloan Peterson and OK Badlands have all released great singles recently). But I’m also a massive podcast listener – I currently subscribe to 127 podcasts and “Slate Culture Gabfest”, “Pod Save America”, “The Mitchen”, “Replay All” and “The Watch” are among my (many!) favourites.
Like everyone else, I’m watching “Game of Thrones” (it’s the most social TV show you can watch, because you can spark up a conversation with almost anyone about “Thrones” and get way deep into your nerdy theories about the program), but I’m also a little over “prestige” TV (eg long, boring and overly serious shows fronted by anti-heroes) and am enjoying lots of underrated and fun programs like “Younger” (which is basically a bookworm's version of “Sex And The City”) and “iZombie” (which is like “Buffy” meets “Veronica Mars”).
“The Rules Do Not Apply” by Ariel Levy is one of my favourite books of this year. To be honest, I was a bit of a wimp and avoided it at first – because I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle how emotionally full-on the book would be (given that it covers a devastating miscarriage), but once I heard the author's amazing interview on the Longform podcast, it was clear that her life hadn’t stopped because of this terrible thing that had happened to her. The tragedy will forever mark her, and she’ll never be able to fully shake that grief (nor would she want to), but hearing how she came out of the other side made me think I should at least read the book. And it is as delightful and funny and insightful as it is devastating and emotionally full-on. It’s also inspiring to follow her career throughout the book, from her early entry-level days to realising that this amazing writer for “The New Yorker” even has her moments of doubt (like the time she got on a plane to South Africa, after convincing her editor to let her profile Caster Semenya – only to realise that she had no contacts for the athlete and had absolutely no idea what she would do once her plane touched down).
What is one facet of your field that you want to see change?
I’m amazed that some pay rates have not changed for 10 years! Some of the word rates are exactly the same as a decade ago – which is crazy when you consider how life is so much more expensive than 10 years ago. Some places pay even LESS than word rates from 10 years ago!
In 2002, when I finished uni and started looking for work, there were entry-level publishing jobs with $30,000 salaries. And these were at the bottom of the salary scale. Nowadays, it amazes me to see popular websites offering the exact same salary – a wage that was already low 15 years ago!
How can we find our more about your work?
You can hunt down my blog The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry, find my podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and all the places you can binge-listen conversational mp3s, and follow my 140-character bursts on Twitter, or pixel-stalk me on Instagram.
Who would you most like to answer these questions next?
Amelia Lester, who was executive editor of The New Yorker website and managing editor of The New Yorker magazine (she put together some of my favourite food issues of the mag), and most recently was editor of the Good Weekend. I highly recommend listening to her episode of the Penmanship podcast. She is an impressive overachiever (but also, most importantly, also a nice person).