Working with Words: Lesley Jørgensen
Lesley Jørgensen won the 2011 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for an unpublished manuscript for what is now her debut novel, Cat & Fiddle.
We spoke to Lesley about her first forays into writing, the buzz of having ‘a real, live publisher’ show interest in your work for the first time, and why you shouldn’t for a minute go into writing as a way to make money. ‘There are many, many, other ways of making money (and losing money) that are easier than this.’
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
In 2008/9 I was approached by Aviva Tuffield of Scribe, who had already seen some very early chapters of Cat & Fiddle in draft, and asked me to contribute a short story to the New Australian Stories 2009 collection. I said ‘I don’t write short stories’ and then remembered that I had written one a while ago for an editing exercise, so passed it on to her, and it was included in the anthology. I had previously published quite a few legal articles, in law journals and in conference, but I don’t think they count. No one reads them.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
I am fortunate in getting a lot of pleasure from the actual process of writing. However I find it physically very demanding: carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica and eye problems from too much screen time, are my writing-related work injuries to date! And it makes me fat. I have not yet figured out how to write without Fruchocs.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
A real live publisher showing some interest in the first place. Nothing beats that, the first time: not prizes, not even seeing my work in print.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Worst advice, or rather commentary: ‘What’s the point in going over the manuscript again?’ And: ‘No one likes long books.’
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
I’m not famous enough, or perhaps not complex enough, to be misunderstood. People seem to pretty much have tabs on me as I really am.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’m not a writer, primarily. Writing fiction is tremendously important to me, but my sense of purpose is very much tied to my profession as a lawyer. I love the law and my area, medical negligence, in particular. And to a certain extent, my writing is dependent upon my continuing to practice as a lawyer: I am always much more productive as a writer when I am working as a lawyer.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I do believe that most things can be taught, by people that do those things well. I do believe that a writing course taught by writers, not academics, and focused upon the process rather than theory, can accelerate the progress of most budding writers enormously. I took this path. Without the guidance of experienced writers and the pressure to produce, I do not think I would have achieved very much at all.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Do a reputable course run by writers: one that puts the pressure on to produce work every week, and has a strong emphasis on workshopping. And do it only for yourself: don’t for a minute think along the lines of actually making money from it. There are many, many, other ways of making money (and losing money) that are easier than this.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Due to the sheer ridiculous volume of my reading and an inclination towards the classics, I only buy second-hand. My home looks like one of those houses that are filmed in documentaries about hoarding, but at least I can admit that I have a problem. I also like to scribble and underline as I read, and delight in finding and deciphering other people’s scribble and underlining, as well as the odd pressed flower, bus ticket and crushed earwig.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
At the moment I’m still very caught up in the world of Cat & Fiddle, so I would love to go to Windsor cottage and eat one of Mrs Begum’s home-cooked meals. She would feed me too much and then give me excellent advice about my life, which I would follow to the letter. Shunduri and Thea would be there as well. Thea would advise me on how to dress, and Shunduri would tell me where to get designer clothes at half price and tell me that I should be wearing a push-up bra if I really want to get ahead in the world.
Outside the world of Cat & Fiddle, I find that I bond more with writers than characters. I would invite Virginia Woolf and George Steiner to dinner, and then be in far too much awe of them to do anything but listen. Mrs Begum would still need to cook for us though.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
How impossible to narrow it down to just one! And it changes as my life changes. Jane Austen’s Persuasion approaches perfection with its continual tension of yearning versus restraint. Virginia Woolf’s diary and her partial memoir Moments of Being, contain the best description of the writing process that I have come across. And Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation which, like all of Helen’s work, is full of nothing but the leanest, cleanest writing: an object lesson whenever I put pen to paper.