Arts / Writing

Author draws on sights and sounds of Brunswick for inspiration

Justine Sless’s debut short story collection explores loneliness, place and identity

Justine Sless consciously placed a lot of importance on location and familiarity throughout Measured, Silk & Other Stories, and Brunswick landmarks feature prominently throughout the story collection.

Gemma Grant

HAVE you ever walked around the supermarket wondering what your fellow shoppers are thinking about? Or been curious about how your neighbour feels as they take out their bins each week?

For Justine Sless, these simple questions are the driving force behind many of her literary works.  An author and standup comedian who lives in Brunswick, she is a seasoned writer who utilises her community as a source of inspiration.

Sless was born and raised in Sunderland, an industrial city in the north-east of England, and moved to Australia as a 21-year-old in 1988. She’s been a proud Brunswick resident for three years, when she moved from the Preston area to be closer to her daughter’s school.

“I was actually amazed at how fabulous Brunswick is – it’s like an old pair of jeans, comfortable and unpretentious. I am close to Royal Park and walk there often to work out a piece of writing. I love the Union Hotel and often go there for a pint while I write, or to meet friends there.”

Sless is an experienced author, who has previously published two other works. One of these is a cookbook collaboration with her eldest daughter, inspired by Sless’ long career as a chef. But she credits Brunswick life with helping her to become a more confident writer.

“I suppose, really, I have spent most of my time in Brunswick ‘becoming’ a writer, the shape and feel of the place has enabled that … and has helped with embedding discipline into my work.”

Get more stories like this delivered to your inbox

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

HTML Button Generator

Sless’ newest book, Measured, Silk & Other Stories, is a short story collection which features 14 connected tales. The stories explore themes of loneliness, identity and domesticity, while also closely referencing Brunswick life.

“I’m a chronic bowerbird when it comes to story writing. The more I write, the more I recognise patterns. Whenever I see anybody, I think ‘what’s their story?’. You’re always talking from real life… it started from somewhere true.”

Notably, Measured, Silk & Other Stories features many locations from throughout the Brunswick community. Both Barkly Square and Union Square (the latter nicknamed ‘The Square of Despair’ in the collection) feature prominently. Sless consciously placed a lot of importance on location and familiarity throughout the cycle.

 “I like the idea that the streets are really familiar, and would be for a lot of readers. There’s something comforting and reassuring in that. Because a lot of the stories aren’t reassuring, they’re really sad.” 

These familiar settings also allow readers to form a closer connection with the narratives.

“By hanging it on something so familiar, you get a better payoff,” Sless said.  

“It felt resolved by writing about the very familiar with stories that have complex and difficult subject matter.”

Sless is also an established standup comedian, who has performed in many venues in Melbourne and even studied the discipline through an academic lens. She is particularly passionate about encouraging the development of this passion within the community.

“The thing I love most about comedy is teaching it. I’d love to open up my own school as there are so few formal avenues to teach comedy. A school would create a welcoming and supportive environment to learn joke writing and performance techniques, rather than in the competitive and sometimes hostile environment of a comedy room in a bar.”

Sless said that her experience as a standup comedian influenced the composition of the collection. For the multi-talented creative, there is a close relationship between the two different forms of storytelling.

“For me, short story writing aligns most closely with joke writing. Throughout my masters in creative writing, I used the short story form in order to articulate the link between joke writing and brevity of language.” 

This compact use of language is something that she particularly concentrated on while writing.

“I like using brevity of language and that lightness of touch. There’s something very beautiful about that for me as a practitioner. Every word must serve the next word. There’s no room to waste.”

One of Sless’s major objectives of the work was to explore the sensation of loneliness. The writer seeks to provide an articulation of loneliness, how it manifests, and the impact it has on the everyday.

“I’m really interested in the idea of loneliness and how we can talk about it … In essence I wrote it because I am interested in the texture of loneliness within a creative writing context.”

“I like to take the reader somewhere completely unexpected. Like good joke writing – the essence of good joke writing is the surprise.”

Specifically, the short story cycle aims to highlight the different ways in which individuals experience emotion. Sless emphasised that the sensation of loneliness can take on many forms, and may manifest differently within different people.

The collection seeks to demonstrate this variation through a gendered lens. All but two of the protagonists in the 14 story collection are female, and this served a very specific purpose.

“The reason why I put female protagonists in this collection was because I wanted to give a nod to the comparison between loneliness and solitude. Men are generally much more solitary, while women generally have much more of a social network.”

By emphasising the ways in which these gender identities experience isolation, Sless seeks to depict the separate sensations of loneliness and solitude. Much of this analysis arose from personal experience.

“As somebody who has encountered acute bouts of loneliness …  it’s that transition that you can make between the fear of loneliness, and the comfort you feel when it becomes solitude.”

While each story is self-contained, they connect through their use of motifs, settings and characters to create an overarching narrative.

“Originally, they were all separate stories, but the more I wrote the collection and honed it, the more apparent it became that they were all connected. I chose these stories because they all made sense together.”

Sless also emphasised the impact she intended for these links to have on the reader. 

“It’s an incredible lesson in life for me! I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. I can just signpost very lightly, it’s up to the reader to make that connection.

Ultimately, Sless aimed to utilise the short story format to examine the experience of isolation. She highlighted how even the smallest interactions can have reverberating impacts.

“In an increasingly connected world online, we’re disconnected socially… so those small moments of connection can have an effect on you.”

But perhaps above all else, Sless seeks to take the reader on an unforgettable and unpredictable journey throughout her literature.

“I like to take the reader somewhere completely unexpected. Like good joke writing – the essence of good joke writing is the surprise.”

Measured, Silk & Other Stories was released in October. It is available for purchase from Australian Scholarly Publishing for $24.95.

Latest stories: