Working with Words: Laura McPhee-Browne

We spoke with writer and social worker Laura McPhee-Browne about naming her characters after gemstones, writing mascots and Wile E. Coyote's court documents.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Laura McPhee-Browne

The first thing that comes to mind is something my dad used to periodically read when I was younger, that made him absolutely lose it – silently heaving and sobbing with laughter, wiping his eyes with a tissue and clutching his stomach before he doubled over again. I saw my dad laugh often; he was always reading things and chuckling, or making jokes for me and my brother and encouraging us to joke back, but this was different. It was a pretend court document bringing a suit for damages from the Looney Tunes character Wile E. Coyote to Acme, the company that made all of the items he used to try and capture the Roadrunner, including an Acme Rocket Sled, Acme Rockets Skates, Acme Firecracker and Self-Guided Aerial Bomb.

I remember finding it very funny and laugh-crying as I read it when I was a bit older, but I think that might have been partly because I wanted to love it as much as my dad did. Googling it now, I see it was published in the New Yorker in 1990, so would have been delivered to our house in Northcote when I was six years old, remaining crumpled nearby for years so dad could read it over and over. It’s still very clever.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I've had a lot of jobs! I started working when I was 15 at the Kangaroo Ground General Store. I would catch the bus from Warrandyte High with the kids who lived further out once a week for my shift, and got free pies to take home with me if they hadn't all been purchased. I then moved on to work at a bakery, a number of supermarkets, a number of cafes and restaurants and a number of video stores.

Since finishing my social work degree in 2009 and my counselling studies in 2013, I’ve worked in the mental health, family violence and homelessness sectors. I think every job I’ve had has influenced my writing. I think working when you are younger can open up your eyes a bit, and my roles in the welfare sector have certainly shaped how I understand humans and the stories we all live and tell.

Working when you are younger can open up your eyes a bit, and my roles in the welfare sector have certainly shaped how I understand humans and the stories we all live and tell.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I think I’d be spending more time on other people! Writing can be a solitary and selfish pursuit. 

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Overrated: I find that every time I watch anything by David Lynch, I get a strong urge to punch a wall. I find his work gratuitous and self-indulgent, and I don’t believe a woman or a person of colour would have been given the creative opportunities he has been given. 

Underrated: A writer I think writes wonderfully about women and love and relationships is the American writer Alice Adams, who wrote hundreds of short stories and many novels from the mid-1960s until her death, at age 72, in 1999. I don’t hear people talking about her writing, though she was highly regarded, and prolific, in her day. 

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I write in bed a lot, and like to have a little writing mascot, or good luck charm, near me. It used to be a tiny ceramic owl, but then I gave that to a friend, so now it’s a gemstone, usually a piece of polished carnelian or aquamarine. Gemstones are one of my countless instruments of superstition, so much so that in my new novel, all the characters have names that are gemstones (Coral, Beryl, Jasper, Amber).

I also don’t push myself too much, because I find that when I keep working long after I’ve lost the impetus, the writing almost always reads later as eccentric and flowery or dull, and I end up deleting it.

I find that when I keep working long after I’ve lost the impetus, the writing almost always reads later as eccentric and flowery or dull, and I end up deleting it.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Oh, so many things! All the 'poetry' I wrote from 2012 – 2013, and many of my earlier short stories. Every tweet I’ve ever tweeted, every Facebook post I’ve posted. Really anything I’ve ever written I should go back and destroy or change to some extent, but I also know I am quite lazy, and probably wouldn’t if I had the chance. 

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

When I was little, I wrote a 'series' of 'books' that I called 'The Shapes'. There were heaps of them, and I both penned the scintillating narratives and illustrated each one meticulously with my texta set. Characters including Sally Square and the very stylish Penelope Pea (curiously not a shape but a vegetable) went on adventures to the shops, and across the road to the park. I made them into 'real books', too, by stapling them and designing matching book covers.

Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?

I’d like to have dinner with the late artist Sylvia Sleigh, because she was so passionate and beautiful and cheeky. I would ask her to paint me, and to borrow some of her clothes. I would also ask her to tell me what she knows about colour and bodies. 

Portrait of Laura McPhee-Browne

Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker living in Melbourne, on Wurundjeri land. Her short stories have been published widely in Australia. Laura also volunteers as a fiction editor for the literary magazine Verity LaCherry Beach is her first novel. 

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