I meet Justine Sless for an early morning cup of tea at a café that’s just waking up. Justine has a packed schedule: she’s Creative Director at the Jewish Comedy Festival, she’s working part time at a non-profit and she’s writing her thesis. Today is one of her busier days, but she can spare an hour to talk about the one subject that brings us both together: writing.
Justine’s writing ‘journey’ is like a novel. It has twists and turns, downfalls and shining, life-clarifying moments. For ten years, Justine wrote comedy shows for the Comedy Festival and various Fringe festivals across Australia. “One day, I asked a friend how comedy works, and after our conversation, I was immediately captivated, beguiled, obsessed – addicted to the idea that I could illicit laughter from strangers. I set very lofty goals for myself,” she tells me, “writing intelligent shows about intelligent subjects. I had the ability to change my act – it could be totally different in the second week from the first.” As time went on, Justine enjoyed the writing more than the performance and she slowly gravitated towards writing stories rather than stand up.
It was at this point that she approached her co-worker, author Angela Savage (recently appointed Director of Writers Victoria) to be her writing mentor. “I had always written down my thoughts as a matter of necessity so I had all this stuff on my laptop, and I had no aspirations to be a writer, I just needed to get it all onto the page. I always thought that I couldn’t be a writer because of my grammar, spelling and use of tense.” However, Angela was complimentary and encouraging, and suggested that Justine become a member of Writers Victoria and enter the Grace Marion Short Story Prize in 2016. “[Writers Vic] was quite a revelation, like I landed in a big group hug, compared to ten years of comedy with no support. It’s a great platform, with fantastic programs and workshops, giving opportunities to writers at every level.”
One of these opportunities, the Grace Marion Short Story Prize, came through for Justine, and she won the Prize in 2016. “It was like Pandora’s Box,” says Justine. “It opened up a whole new world for me.” Justine went on to engage an editor before applying to study a Master of Creative Writing in gender and comedy at La Trobe University. She was accepted into the course last year and feels blessed to be studying and writing under her supervisors. “The last year has been pivotal in helping me understand it’s OK if your grammar is pretty ordinary. It’s all about telling a story.”
In telling her stories, Justine focuses on evoking space and landscape. She’s recently completed a writing trip for her latest story that took her to Krakow, Jerusalem and the north east of England. “I wanted to put myself into the space of my characters, so I got out of the car, felt the ground beneath my feet.” When Justine is sitting at her office at La Trobe, she loves the challenge of description; “It’s like solving a problem. I can sit and think of what a seagull sounds like and then make those sounds sit still on the page; bring a moment of reflection and beauty in this world of being bombarded and saturated with information. “
Another pivotal moment came in 2015 when a family member showed Justine her father’s side of the family tree, which included many family members who perished in Auschwitz. In a homage to her family, Justine created the Jewish Comedy Festival, a yearly non-for-profit festival celebrating Jewish culture. The festival allowed Justine to give back to others; “It’s the ultimate in creativity, different from every comedy experience I’ve known. Everyone gets payed the same, there’s no registration fee for artists, there’s no precedence to established performers – anyone can enter and perform.”
Through all her creative endeavours, Justine is a big believer in sticking to a deadline. “To have a purpose is fantastic for my writing. I have an office in which to write, I have a purpose at uni. I research prizes and write to the deadline of that prize. You can expend so much energy wanting so you don’t put all the energy into actually doing the work. But when I create that discipline for myself, it doesn’t matter if I win or lose, I don’t need to win the Man Booker Prize to be a good writer. In the end, if you want to do something, you’ll find the time.”
Our time today is up, and I leave Justine to finish the rest of her tea and continue with her writing journey.
Justine will be talking with her friend Abdi Aden in ‘Two Degrees of Separation’ at the Butterfly Club on Wednesday 22-25 November.
You can find out more about her work at her website justinesless.com