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Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the author of The Love of a Bad Man (Scribe, 2016), and Beautiful Revolutionary (Scribe, 2018). She was a 2017 Asialink artist-in-residence at Komunitas Salihara (Jakarta). In 2018, she received a Neilma Sidney Travel Fund Grant to develop her forthcoming novel The Newcomer (Scribe, 2021), based on a 2002 murder on Norfolk Island. She was recently awarded a 2020-22 Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship for prose.

Why has setting been so important to your own fiction?

I often write (and read) about confronting subjects, but I prefer an element of escapism when doing so. Experimenting with setting gives me a ‘place to go’, a sort of playground for ideas and characters and events distinct from my own life. While reality is present in my fiction, I find it easier to confront real-world issues if I get to escape to a fictional island or a commune at the same time. By taking me outside my day-to-day life, such settings give me a sense of adventure and creative freedom. I can inhabit a new character more fully once I’ve discovered the world this character inhabits.

Given many of us can’t travel right now, what advice do you have to writers trying to capture the authenticity of a place without being able to visit it?

The internet is your friend. We have so many tools available to us that writers didn’t have a few years ago—from online archives to Google Maps to social media. While there are things you can only discover from travelling in person to a place, you can also discover things in weird corners of the internet that would likely be inaccessible to you as a visitor.

How do writers avoid cliché when describing familiar settings?

Setting isn’t only about describing what a place looks like. In fact, too much description can slow down a story or lead to clichés. So much about a setting can be established organically, through dialogue and action, rather than simply relying on physical descriptions. My course explores these techniques in great detail.

Which writer has most influenced your work, and why?

Vladimir Nabokov was the first author to get me really excited about the possibilities of language. Reading him as a teen made me eager to experiment with the visual and rhythmic aspects of prose, as well as expanding my vocabulary. It also led to some very cringe-worthy, overly florid writing and ‘art for art’s sake’ snobbery. These days, I tend to favour simpler language and I believe that art can be political and still be ‘art’. Yet wordplay and rhythm remain important to me, and I still return to Nabokov for mind-bending sentences.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?

Olivia Sudjic wrote in Exposure (2019): ‘Writing and publishing a novel are antithetical experience.’ While writing is private and inward, she argues, publication is a form of over-exposure that can lead to extreme vulnerability and self-doubt. I find this distinction really valuable. Unpublished authors are often expected to feel excited about publication without being prepared for the anxieties it brings up. Now that I think of writing and publication as separate processes, involving separate mindsets and skills, I appreciate a lot more writing as an ideal state in and of itself. I’m also slightly more prepared for an identity crisis every time I publish something new. 

You can find Laura’s latest writing course here: