Working with Words: Laura Elvery

Laura Elvery is a writer from Brisbane. She spoke with us about writing school stories, the importance of first drafts and the history of pineapple upside-down cake.

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

Photograph of Laura Elvery

When I was little, my dad read Roald Dahl’s Matilda to me at bedtime and I made him do voices for all the Wormwoods. That used to crack me up.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years?

Absolutely. I wrote lots of school stories. Girls at boarding school, pining for home, being outsiders, hiding secrets, that sort of thing. It would excite me for a short while but I could never, ever finish them. During high school I wrote a lot: all very serious creative-writing assignment work, only ever showing my teachers. I loved English class.

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

Ice-cream shop, coffee shop, homewares shop person. Admin person, teacher, PhD candidate, tutor and lecturer. I guess I’ve retained memories of interactions with customers, students and colleagues that can feed into a character.

Doing a PhD gave me the time and space to think and write that I’ve never had before. I could play around with drafts and ditch ideas and re-work plotlines for literally years.

In another sense, doing a PhD gave me the time and space to think and write that I’ve never had before. I could play around with drafts and ditch ideas and re-work plotlines for literally years. That time was also where I met several writers who are my most trusted readers now, and whose own progress really inspires me.

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

Writing is something I do only in my spare time, so when I’m not writing, I’m reading or (sometimes a bit reluctantly) playing schools with my daughter.

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

One of the most useful pieces of advice is about crashing through your first draft and letting yourself write rubbish before it gets better. Know someone who can help you see the story you want to write, and accept their help. You can’t edit an empty page, one of my uni tutors was fond of saying.

The others are simply to read as widely and as often as time allows, to persevere and to practise resilience.

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

Know someone who can help you see the story you want to write, and accept their help.

When I was a kid, yes, for poems and confessions, but that was more about the object itself. It had a padded floral cover and a tiny padlock and key. It was fun to think someone like my sister was going to steal it. That diary was less about writing and more about possessing a thing that someone else might find tempting.

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

Recently a friend lent me Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. It’s probably not obscure to a whole bunch of people, but I’d never heard of it. It is a beautiful and unusual love story. Deceptively clever, really moving in its ordinariness.

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

I always have an A5 notebook on the go. If I write notes elsewhere I have to stick them into the main notebook at the first opportunity. And I can never, ever throw these books away.

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

This happens when I see typos in my work, or when I’ve mentioned something I should have fact-checked better. My editor for Trick of the Light questioned the type of cake from the early 1920s that characters in one story were going to eat (a pineapple upside-down cake for those, like me, interested in cake).

However! Pineapple upside-down cake wasn’t first listed in American recipe books till the end of the 1920s, so we managed to catch that before my collection went to print. Phew. Life and death. No one else cares about these things, obviously.

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

If I narrow it to just fictional characters, Briony Tallis from Atonement would be fun. I could talk to her about how to end a novel. Or Matilda Wormwood. Or Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.

Portrait of Laura Elvery

Laura Elvery is a writer from Brisbane. She recently won the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. Her debut short story collection, Trick of the Light, is out now with UQP.

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