Working with Words: Libby Butler

We spoke with Melbourne-based screenwriter Libby Butler about Beaches, bolognaise and The Babysitters Club.

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

Black and white photograph of writer Libby Butler

The movie Beaches written by Mary Agnes Donoghue. I remember sobbing after Hillary died and being surprised that a film could make me cry. I must’ve been about ten; my female friendships were everything (they still are). It was a comedy/drama with a heavy dose of grief, sentiment and Bette Midler. Pretty much everything I’m about, really.  

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

I was ecstatic when I got into the Extension English program in Grade Five. Once a week we were whisked away from boring regular class and got to go write about whatever we wanted. I was weirdly obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and how she died. To this day, I swear it was a conspiracy. (The doctor did it. Don’t quote me).

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

The not-writing guilt is worse than the letting-them-watch-too-much-TV-guilt. If you really want to tell a story, you must push it out of yourself.

I was a waitress through my twenties and loved it. Cleaning bar mats at 3am sucked but entertaining the wild St Kilda clientele made up for it. I wrote a play about the experience, which set me on the path to writing for a living and buying coffee instead of making it.

Between jobs I was a publicist, which helped my writing hugely. You’re constantly tweaking pitches, emails and press releases for niche audiences or outlets. It taught me to write quickly and understand the key points of a brand. Helpful when developing pitches for TV.

Split image. One photo shows a young man in a colourful shirt standing in his kitchen. The other shows a smiling young woman standing in her own kitchen.

Stills from Libby Butler's web series, 'Loving Captivity', starring Lewis Mulholland and Christie Whelan Browne

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

I’d open a little wine shop that served one dish per night and a selection of pickles. I always loved the idea of creating a little community place where people could come have a glass of wine and tell stories. Extremely unlikely to make any money, but I’d be happy doing that. 

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Best advice: sit down and effing do it. After the kids go to bed. The not-writing guilt is worse than the letting-them-watch-too-much-TV-guilt. If you really want to tell a story, you must push it out of yourself. If it’s hard, find someone you like and creatively respect and do it with them.

Worst advice: tell, don’t show. Weirdly heard this in a few TV writers rooms.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I’m confident my bolognaise is better than yours. Not so much my dialogue.

Yes, all through my teenage years and I kept them all, alongside the letters from girlfriends, boyfriends and my mum. They’re all brilliantly embarrassing time capsules and I re-read them every couple of years to remind myself how far I’ve come and how I’m still exactly the same.

Nowadays I write notes to myself and save them in my draft email folder. Mainly when I’m sad or struggling, so they’re painful to re-read. I had a purge recently and deleted most of them. It made me feel lighter. I’ll regret it in a few months when I’m seeking inspiration.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I could not finish F Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned. I found it so vacuous. Which is maybe the point. But I am not a classics girl. I was raised on The Babysitters Club. The book that I remember loving hard and re-reading is Zigzag Street by Nick Earls. An Australian romantic comedy that should have been made and never was. Hmm…

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

Before I begin a script, I will do all the admin – the formatting, the numbering etc. I’ll make bolognaise for my neighbours. I will do anything to not write. Eventually I’ll get into it but it takes a lot. I’m sure it’s a confidence thing. I’m confident my bolognaise is better than yours. Not so much my dialogue.

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

No – all the clangers and embarrassing fall-flat lines are learning opportunities. I’ve taught myself to not look back; or just not watch them.

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

Ariel Levy; we’d talk about love, birth and trying to be unconventional on the outside while feeling conventional on the inside. Diablo Cody; I’d make her bolognaise and try to steal her life. Oh, and Lindsey from The Lovely Bones; I read that book the week after my mum died. Lindsey showed me how to be a heroine when you feel like anything but. 

Portrait of Libby Butler

Libby Butler is a television writer/script producer, born and based in Melbourne. 

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