FWF Q&A: Laura Elvery

Laura Elvery is the author of Ordinary Matter.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism inspires me to spend a lot of time considering women’s right to safety from domestic abuse, women’s reproductive rights, education for girls, incarceration rates in women’s prisons. I also think a lot about women’s right to secure and safe employment, the rights of little girls to see themselves represented in a rich way in books and movies. I’m an educated, middle class white woman with a job, and safe and secure housing – I try to focus energy on unpacking how these things should inform how I can be helpful. It makes me want to keep learning and reading and listening. Lots of things that are done to women make me livid and I strive to channel this anger somewhere useful.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

Once, when I was a young high school teacher, I stood in the assembly hall surrounded by a thousand teenagers. A colleague, Deb, who I really admired – who is more switched on and far bolder than me – stood and spoke about a fundraiser coming up, which was for the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation. I remember Deb speaking very clearly, in detail and without shame, about obstetric fistula and the perils facing many women during labour.

The hall was dead silent. It was a risky thing to say. I remember this moment, I think, because it wasn’t about the discomfort of the principal or the staff or students. All of us being a bit gobsmacked was far less important than learning the truth about women who have no medical help while they’re vulnerable. I realise now that in my own time as a high school student, I too had female teachers who espoused this same sort of carefree daring in their quest for us teenagers to try to understand injustice and work towards equality.

Ordinary Matter is a short story collection inspired by the twenty times women have won the Nobel Prize for science. What did you discover while researching the book that was damning, pleasantly surprising or hard to believe?

Many things! Maybe the most well-known is that Marie Curie was almost denied her first (of two) medals in 1903. Her husband told the committee that he would refuse [for that to happen], and a Swedish mathematician also lobbied them till she got the nod. That first medal was for work Marie significantly contributed to, a lot of it entirely by herself. I thought of this anecdote, and Marie’s brilliance and devotion to her research, when I was at the dentist one day, and he leaned in and said, ‘But everyone knows it was all her husband, wasn’t it?’.

You do a skilful job of juxtaposing the extraordinary (the sheer feat of being a Nobel Prize-winning woman in male-dominated STEM fields) with the ordinary (the simple fact of living) in the book. Can you speak more to this?

I always knew it would be a given that these women might have been, say, the only woman in their chemistry lecture, for example. But the sheer number of them – particularly those who won in the mid-to-late 20th century – who couldn’t get jobs was kind of remarkable. Or they were finally employed but [the jobs they had] was way below their skill level, or they found out, Sorry, it’s actually unpaid? Add to that the xenophobia and racism some of them fought against (fleeing the Nazis comes up a bit) and here’s a group of nineteen women who epitomise brightness, resilience, tenacity and intellectual curiosity.

Much of your writing focuses on the intricacies of women’s lives, be that through illness or care work. There’s a sense of loneliness that permeates some of your characters’ lives too. What impulses do you think drive your work, and where do they come from?

I was pregnant with my second child when [my first short story collection] Trick of the Light was published in 2018, so I was writing a lot of Ordinary Matter while my baby was lurking around somewhere or I was trying not to wake him up. So I was thinking about all the terrible fates that might befall him, and I was thinking about how much we ask of women physically and mentally.

And maybe the sleep thing sounds like a cliché, but heaps of my life now between my day job and writing is trying to find brain space to just sit with an idea and see it through to the end – even for five minutes! But writing brings me a lot of happiness and I feel accomplished when I do it. I still remember the first 1000 words I wrote after I had my son, when I wasn’t sure my brain would remember how to write again. The relief felt physical. And those 1000 words are in the book.

Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors and books are you reading right now?

I’m reading Dreams They Forgot by Emma Ashmere, a very smart, sharp collection of short stories that’s just been published. I’m also reading Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (plus I can recommend this podcast interview with Ellmann). And a couple of weeks ago at work I got to meet Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson. For the rest of the day, after hearing her speak, I walked around feeling a bit stunned. Her book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is utterly superb.

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