Ashley Hay is the author of The Railway Man’s Wife, a novel set just after the end of the Second World War in coastal New South Wales that focuses on three people trying to rebuild their lives. Her book is out in January and will be reviewed here soon, but today she’s answering a few questions for our Novelicious readers.
For the past four years I’ve only had two or three days a week to write – I have a little boy who was born while I was working on The Railwayman’s Wife and is now five. These days, he heads off to daycare for lovely long eight-hour stretches, and my plan has been to sit down as soon as he sets off and write until he gets home again with his dad at the other end of the day. I’ve managed to keep up with all the writing I’ve wanted to do in this part of a week – in terms of fiction, and journalism. But in February, he starts school, and the whole shape of my writing day will change – short days, but five of them a week. I’m looking forward to seeing how that changes what I do.
I’m pretty pragmatic about getting on with writing: one of the great things about training and working as a journalist is that you treat writing as a job that you sit down and do, rather than something that waits for particular conditions or inspirations.
When you are writing, do you use any celebrities or people you know as inspiration?
Do you mean for characters? I’m a terrible bowerbird and I steal bits and pieces of all sorts of places and people and moments and circumstances … and hopefully combine them into some new whole thing so that nobody notices themselves and objects. I did borrow the idea of the accident that happens in The Railwayman’s Wife – the death of a railwayman – and the job his wife is subsequently offered in compensation from my own family’s history. But the characters and circumstances in the novel are all the stuff of imagination.
I don’t think I’ve ever borrowed a celebrity for a story, although the English novelist D. H. Lawrence made a very shadowy appearance in The Railwayman’s Wife and I imagined a version of an actual British Navy astronomer, Lt William Dawes, in my first novel, The Body in the Clouds. Actually, the central incident in The Body in the Clouds was a man falling from the Sydney Harbour Bridge while it was being constructed, and surviving. Now, this is a true story – a worker called Vincent Kelly fell from the bridge in late October 1930 – and I kept the name and the date of the accident in the novel. I didn’t really use Kelly as a character; he only had a walk-on (or fall-off) role. But when I was talking about the book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, a lady stood up in the audience and said that she was Kelly’s niece … I think it was the first time I’d really confronted the idea that Kelly had been a real person rather than just a plot point for a story I wanted to tell. Fortunately she said that the family had really loved the book, and my heart slid out of my throat and back into my chest.
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
That’s such a huge question – I don’t think I’ve ever chosen a book specifically as “women’s fiction” although as a writer who’s sometimes mistaken as a man (it’s my name), I’m interested in whether you can read something and genuinely not know if the author is male or female.
I’m a simultaneously fickle and greedy reader, and I tend to love whatever I’m reading at the moment – and hope that my favourite book is going to be the one I open next! If I had to narrow it down, in terms of “women”, I’d nominate Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion for all of its lyricism and its impossible possibilities. I re-read it on the pretext of answering this Q&A and loved it all over again. Anything written by Alice Munro, as well: you carry her women with you forever.
What is your writing process? Do you plan first or dive in? How many drafts do you do?
It depends on the book – I wrote an awful lot of drafts of The Body in the Clouds before I found its rhythm and its structure. I wrote The Railwayman’s Wife from start to finish as a pretty linear single-character narrative – and then went back and interrupted it with flashbacks and other characters’ perspectives.
The new novel I’m working on I conceived originally as a suite of short stories – this was the first project I’d started afresh after having my son, and I was conscious of possibly having to enable myself to work in a more fractured way. I’m working on the second draft of it now, and I wonder if it’s actually a much more cohesive thing rather than the independent pieces I first imagined.
The novel that I hope will come next has a first and last scene at the moment – in my mind, and on bits of notebooks – and I have all the limitless possibilities of blank space in between with which to connect them. I’m not sure yet whether it’s a thing I’ll map out or a thing I’ll discover by writing it.
What was your journey to being a published author?
When I was finishing school I secretly wanted to be a writer but I wasn’t sure how you went about being one. I did a journalism degree because I thought if I could get a job as a journalist, I might be able to work out if I could do the other sort of writing after that. I was very fortunate in the editors and mentors I encountered in my first years as a journo – they let me play with long-form journalism and sent me from there along the path to narrative non-fiction, which led me to my first book, The Secret: The Strange Marriage of Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron, published in 2000.
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That we stay in our pyjamas all day every day because we work from home. Really, it’s only once in a blue moon …
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
Try! There are dozens of quotes from authors along the lines of “the only way to be a better writer is to write”, which is true, but it’s even simpler than that. The only way to be a writer at all is to write – every day if you can, and not just to publish. Writing is a craft that does get better the more you do it, just like any other: you’d never trust a plumber who hadn’t spent time learning to weld pipes before they visited your house. Also try to read as much as possible, and as widely as possible. And look for people who’ll read what you write and help you to see how to make it better. They’re worth their weight in gold.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the second draft of a new novel that’s called, at the moment, Three People are Reading This Now. It’s set in Brisbane and spans two sets of lives – in the 1960s and now – in the same part of the city. I’m also thrilled to have just been asked to edit next year’s Best Australian Science Writing anthology, which will deliver a whole stack of new and exciting reading to me.