Underground Junior Editor Lauren Pratt speaks with Laura Elvery about women in science, inspiration, and her new short story collection Ordinary Matter.
Congratulations Laura Elvery on your recent publication of Ordinary Matter! How has it felt having a second short story collection out in the world?
Thank you! Trick of the Light came out in early 2018 and it’s been a busy two years since then. In a loose way, I started writing Ordinary Matter before my first book was published, so both collections have informed each other in many ways.
Ordinary Matter is inspired by the 20 times women have been awarded the Nobel prize since 1901. How did the inspiration of the Nobel prizes come to you? And what do the twenty Nobel prizes awarded to women mean to you as a woman?
I did science at school, although not to any stellar degree. My high school was built in the 1960s and I studied Biology in a typical state high school lab – Stanley-knifed benches, black curtains across all the windows, and up the back were rows of small animal bodies in jars. All these things have stayed with me, even when I didn’t realise it. Years ago, I was taken by the story of the so-called “radium girls”. Became totally obsessed with it, in fact. That obsession became the title story in Trick of the Light, and that story led me to research Marie Curie, which led to the Nobel Prize, where I was struck by two things: around 600 men have won in the sciences but fewer than two dozen women have won. The second thing that really sparked Ordinary Matter was finding the name Elizabeth Blackburn – she’s the only scientist in my collection who was born in Australia.
One of the short stories in the collection that stood out for me was ‘Corn Queen.’ How did Barbara McClintock’s 1983 Nobel prize for her discovery of mobile genetic elements inspire you to write ‘Corn Queen’?
All the stories in Ordinary Matter are inspired by these women who won in physics, chemistry and medicine, but they’re not biographical ‘eureka!’ stories. Sometimes the women make cameos, and other times I was far more interested in the work they did and how that appears in the worlds I know and can imagine. Barbara McClintock gets one of these more distant stories – Barbara spent decades studying corn, and was a bit maligned for her before-her-time ideas about genetics. And so she gets a story about a town obsessed with corn.
A lot of the stories deal with the relationship between a parent and their child—often a mother and their daughter. Do you gravitate towards writing about this particular relationship?
Most certainly! I have two small children, including a daughter. I also have a wonderful mother. I grew up with a brilliant sister and grandmothers in my life. For all my daughter’s life I’ve been working away on these two short story collections. I feel very natural writing from these points of view.
Do you see reflections of your own upbringing and life in these stories? Or are they completely separate from your own reality?
It’s safe to say that elements of my own upbringing, past and present, exist in all my stories. If it isn’t me on a page, sometimes it’s a version of myself that I wish existed. Or a version of myself that I don’t like. I also have a good memory and lots of details can emerge while I’m writing where I think, I can change that a bit (or a lot) and put it in my fiction.
There are quite a few short stories in your collection that are based in Queensland and you are from Brisbane, Queensland, yourself—how has living in Brisbane influenced the stories you’ve written?
The most obvious example I can recall from Ordinary Matter is the story ‘Growth’, which was inspired by the Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini. It was the final story I wrote before the book was published. Outside my window and on my walk to work, at the exact time I was writing ‘Growth’, were all these enormous purple jacarandas. So those trees are in the story, locating it at a very specific place and time in Brisbane, and for the reader.
You are the winner of the Margaret River short story competition in 2017. How did this impact you as a writer to then go on to publish two short stories collections? Trick of the Light in 2018 and Ordinary Matter in 2020.
That story was ‘Joiner Bay’ and I was lucky to have Ellen van Neerven choose and edit my work for that prize. ‘Joiner Bay’ is also in Trick of the Light and it’s a clear example of the way I often write. It’s a story that has several small details that I’ve collected over the years. Each on its own is not a story, but combined, they seem to work, and a plot emerges from those details.
Do you think people are becoming more interested in reading short story collections rather than longer novels?
Last week at a book event I signed several copies for very nice strangers who all told me, “I don’t really read short stories” (I get that a lot). I think it’s wonderful when people read outside their regular practice. Personally, I adore short story collections and I also adore novels.
As a reader, do you find yourself consuming short stories like the ones you have written or do you have a completely different reading preference to your writing style?
That’s a great question. I think my reading list of short story collections from the past few years would cover several continents, and writers at different stages of their careers. But, on the whole, I suspect that list would not surprise readers who’ve read my books.
Lastly, for our readers, what books do you highly recommend and why?
So many! I’ll make it a bit easy (for me) by listing the last three books I read and loved: Pewby Catherine Lacey, Kokomo by Victoria Hannan, and This is the story of a happy marriage by Ann Patchett. And just to cheat and round out a list of five, I’d say two of my very favourite books I’ve read this year are Hamnetby Maggie O’Farrell and The White Girl by Tony Birch.