UQP Writer's Room: Laura Elvery
Why did you start writing?
I was keen to be a student again, and to do something creative for myself. I ended up leaving my job as a high school teacher to enrol at QUT in a Master of Creative Industries in Creative Writing, which turned into a PhD where I wrote a novel. From the very first days of returning to study creative writing, I was hooked. On less practical terms, to answer that question, I wrote a lot when I was a girl, filling notebooks and making up scripts for plays for my friends. So I feel lucky I’ve been able to return to that little love that I had when I was small.
How did you decide which form or genre was right for you?
Short stories are often set for creative writing university students; I read them in class and therefore wrote them and I ended up falling in love with the form. I’ve written a few novel manuscripts though and – fingers crossed – my next published work will be a novel.
Where was your inspiration for your latest work?
Ordinary Matter is a short story collection of 20 stories where I took inspiration for each from the 20 times women have been awarded a Nobel Prize in the sciences (it’s something like 600 times for men). Before I started Ordinary Matter I was looking for a new project – Trick of the Light was about to be published and I like to have multiple things on the go. I’m always interested in the lives of women, of sisters, mothers, grandmothers – both extraordinary and ordinary. I was taken with the life of Marie Curie for years and so that research led me to the Nobel Prize, which led me to Elizabeth Blackburn, the only Australian woman to win. Elizabeth’s became the first story I wrote for Ordinary Matter, and from there I was off and running.
How do you get started with a new project?
My next project is a novel that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years. I start by seeing whether the central idea has legs, whether I remain interested in it. I take lots of handwritten notes, whenever they come to me, in the notebook I always keep close. But the most useful thing for me at the start is to chat to other writers – nothing helps me get to the heart of a project and see its potential like talking about it.
Do you have a routine? What tools do you use?
I absolutely do not have a routine! But I like what Elizabeth Strout says about routine which is that (to paraphrase) she does not have a routine but she feels compelled to write. That’s how I feel. In terms of tools, I write everything on google docs (pros: auto save, can access from anywhere, solid backing up, easy to organise my versions and folders).
How do you handle writer’s block?
Writing notes by hand sometimes helps. Really scrawly and messy so it feels low stakes. Reading is useful. Talking with my writers’ group. And it’s true about going for a walk or run or cooking with a podcast on – that can shake something loose.
How important is research in the writing you do?
I did a lot of research while writing Ordinary Matter – some of it’s in the book but heaps is off the page. Luckily I love researching, especially getting details correct: the exact location of a French multinational power company before it went insolvent, the minutiae of the lives of women working sideline jobs on the Manhattan Project, the price of a Coca-Cola across the US in 1921. That’s all fun.
How much planning is required when it comes to structuring one of your books?
Compared to a lot of writers I know, I don’t do a lot of planning!
What’s the editing process like?
I’ve loved being edited for both my books. With Ordinary Matter I went back and forth with my excellent editor Cathy Vallance. My publisher, Aviva Tuffield, gave me brilliant big picture structural notes while I was early on in the book that were all about shaping the collection. I loved the copy edit stage for Ordinary Matter, either by myself or sitting with Cathy in her office. It’s a real privilege and joy when you can see it coming closer and closer to fruition.
How did you come to be published?
UQP showed interest in my first book, Trick of the Light, after it had been shortlisted (with a different title) in the Queensland Literary Awards unpublished manuscript prize. I still remember where I was (level E in the Myer Centre) when I got the message that my manuscript had, yes, been acquired and would, yes indeed, be published.
Social media – like it or loathe it?
I use Instagram and Twitter quite a lot (and happily). Although Twitter is much more of an open and professional thing for me as a writer.
How do you handle the reviews?
I read them all! I read them with my eyes half-closed and I don’t breathe but I do read them all. I’ve had such beautiful reviews for Ordinary Matter and – up to a point – I love hearing readers’ favourite stories and least favourite stories. But not goodreads. Don’t do that.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
If we’re talking in terms of spare time? I think I’d be one of those people who exercises way, way more.
What is your number one tip for aspiring writers?
Okay this is more than one, but here goes. Read often and widely. Read for pleasure but also read critically and deliberately, observing closely. Show your support for other writers and their work. And remind yourself that even if you think somebody is a ‘better writer’ than you, nobody else can write precisely what you can.
Plotter or pantser?
Tea or coffee?
When I’m not writing I’m…
Working, reading or parenting.
My favourite place to read is…
Ebook or physical book?