A life in words: CAL Scribe Fiction Prize winner Lesley Jørgensen

Lesley Jørgensen didn’t start writing with big ambitions, much less with the goal of picking up the CAL Scribe Fiction prize. Her entry, Cat & Fiddle, began life as the first piece that she had to write for her RMIT Novel 1 workshop. It grew into a humourous and touching multilayered portrayal of contemporary life, interracial love, and generational and cultural clashes, and picked up the 2011 award.

Cat & Fiddle explores the multicultural and generational culture clash in modern-day Britain when the lives of two very different families, the Muslim-Bangladeshi Choudhurys and the landed English Bournes, become entwined during the renovation of Bourne Abbey. Lesley’s own background is as diverse and fascinating as the cast of her novel; she’s trained as a registered nurse while also completing simultaneous arts and law degrees, and has worked as a medical-negligence lawyer in Australia and England. While in England, she married into a Muslim Anglo–Bangladeshi family.

We caught up with her to ask a few questions about the book, and what tips she has for aspiring writers.

What was the hardest part of writing? And the most enjoyable?

I found the actual writing of it quite easy, and very enjoyable, particularly when I was also working as a lawyer.  Full-time writing doesn’t suit me particularly: I just get fat and lazy. But ideas seem to germinate and develop very effectively in my unconscious while I am running a legal practice, so I usually find that lunch breaks and evenings are my most productive times to write.
While I am lucky enough to have never found writing painful or difficult, the process of organising my writing into a coherent whole, to see it as a whole, and of having to cut my own work, very difficult indeed. I would be nowhere without the necessary slashing and burning of my petite but ruthless editor, Aviva Tuffield.

Cat and FiddleWhere did this story begin?

I started with an image of a woman seen at a window, who is mistaken for a ghost, and who is in fact a ghost in her own life. I had no idea at the time as to where this image had come from, although with hindsight, it was very much how I thought of myself, in the last year of my marriage. In time, this character became Rohimun Choudhury and the rest ‘growed like Topsy’ with no particular plan or aim in mind. And when Mrs Begum and Doctor Choudhury came on the scene, they pretty much took over, and it was out of my hands from that point on.

Everyone in the book is struggling to reconcile their cultural clashes; were you worried about tackling so many religious and cultural viewpoints?

I think litigation lawyers deal every day with multiple truths and multiple points of view, all of which have some legitimacy. Every point of view has its own truth and its own validity and that was why Cat & Fiddle ended up as an ensemble piece, with nine major characters, rather than one or two.
I wasn’t worried about tackling multiple viewpoints, rather that I wasn’t tackling enough of them. I still feel quite a yen for writing a couple of chapters dedicated to the remaining minor characters, such as Mrs Begum’s friend Mrs Darby and her Lydiard Women’s Institute intrigues, not to mention Doctor Chaudry’s nemesis Professor Bertha Beeton.
As far as the religious and cultural differences go, they have always fascinated me, particularly where you have that tension between fairly extreme right-wing beliefs, such as fundamentalist Islam or born-again Christianity or cultish beliefs such as Scientology, and everyday life in a first-world Western society. The complicated manoeuvring and the multiple personas used by individuals trying to reconcile their adopted beliefs with their own lifestyle and their own needs, is impressive, moving and sometimes quite sad.

The book contains a great many tantalising descriptions of food and drink, especially Mrs Begum’s cooking. Is food and writing about it a passion of yours?

I am so not a foodie. Brought up with bad British cooking, I can cook just about nothing, but eat just about anything which is very handy in extreme situations like school camps, backpacking in Eastern Europe and cooking for myself with no packets available. People who can cook well and even invent their own recipes seem to me a race apart and it is certainly one of the reasons that I have so much respect for Mrs Begum and anyone else who can do that kind of thing.

What advice would you give to people who want to get their own novel from in their head to into print?

Bum on the chair is always the absolute first rule: nothing can happen without that. There are people who just write, and do it all off their own bats: I am not one of them. I took the path of doing a well-recognised course which was taught, most importantly, by working writers rather than academics. Writers know what they’re talking about, and they will bring out the best in you. And if they have a paid job lecturing, they don’t have to live on beans while they write. I can fully recommend the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course, which is heavy on the work-shopping (essential) and will also bring you friends for life and connections which may help you get published.

Lesley now lives in Adelaide with her two children and is working on her next book, a fiction murder mystery based on a real-life South Australian murder a few years ago. “And I’m trying very hard to keep those two pushy women, Mrs Begum and Mrs Guri, out of it!”