Ashley Hay is a Brisbane author of both fiction and non-fiction books. Her latest novel is The Railwayman’s Wife, a story set in the NSW coastal town of Thirroul in the years following WWII.
Ashley’s first novel, The Body in the Clouds, was nominated for several awards when it was published in 2010, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
She has also written four books of narrative non-fiction and her essays, short stories and journalism regularly appear in Australian journals and anthologies. She has had stories published in The Monthly, The Bulletin, Best Australian Essays and Heat.
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* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability.
Hi, Ashley. Thank you so much for joining us today. Now, first of all, just tell us a bit about the latest novel, The Railwayman’s Wife.
It’s a story about a woman who’s living on the South Coast of New South Wales, just after the Second World War. She is the railwayman’s wife, of the title. She loses her husband in an accident quite early in the book and as part of their compensation for this she’s offered the job of the librarian in the Railway Institute Library.
The book looks at about a year of her life after that and looks at the ways in which she tries to make sense of her world, and also the ways in which of a couple of specific other people in the town, two men who were just back from the Second World War, are also trying to make sense of the world for themselves.
The book is set in Thirroul on the New South Wales South Coast, and that’s also where you grew up.
Yes, it is. It’s also a place with a particular kind of literary heritage, I guess, because it’s also the place where D.H. Lawrence wrote Kangaroo. So that also feeds into my book in some ways, it’s sort of seemed important to acknowledge if you were going to kind of have the chutzpah to kind of think you could set another book in Thirroul when someone had done it extremely well almost 100 years ago. It seemed, to me, you kind of had to make that part of the narrative in a way.
Yes, because I did wonder if there were other inspirations for you to set the book in Thirroul, and I guess some people would be a bit surprised to learn that D.H. Lawrence wrote this book in a tiny little country town in Australia.
I know. Look, I think from all of the research that I do about how D.H. Lawrence came to be in Thirroul, and it’s a place that I’m extremely fond of, because that’s sort of the landscape of my childhood, but it’s nowhere in particular, in a way. I think it was really coincidence, he arrived with not very much money and what he wanted was to find a house he could rent for a couple of months, and what he did, because he was D.H. Lawrence, was immediately sit down and write a book. He was incredibly prolific.
I think it’s interesting that Thirroul’s appearance in this novel is almost coincidental. In a way, some of the best parts of Kangaroo’s writings are the descriptions of the place, and they’re still very recognisable as this particular landscape today. It’s got a very distinct landscape, that part of the world, there’s an incredibly narrow plane of land that sort of pushes in between quite a high escarpment, the Thirroul escarpment, and the ocean, and so I think by the time it reaches Thirroul the plane is a few kilometers wide, but no more than that, and it sort of narrows and tapers as it heads for the north. So, it’s quite a dramatic setting.
I think one of the things that always interested me when I was growing, when I wondered if it would be possible to be a writer, and then as I found stories to tell, I always wanted to try to write about that place. Because it seems to me to be quite beautiful, and when I started thinking about this particular story of this woman, and this time, and everything that is happening to her, it became pretty clear that this was the setting it had to have, and I had to find a way of making sense of D.H. Lawrence.
Yes. It is a beautiful part of the world, I’ve been down there myself. Your descriptions, as well, are quite stunning. Your descriptions of the landscape and coming through the train tunnel and all of that sort of thing. Did you have to revisit Thirroul a lot, or was it something that was kind of there in your memory?
Look, I think those descriptions are pretty much burned into the retina of my mind, but I do still visit a lot. My family has a weird kind of providence. Both of my parents were born in Thirroul, and they still live in Austinmer, which is just the next village up. So I grew up there, I haven’t lived there for 25 years, but I go back a lot, because I go back to see my mum and dad.
So in one sense I could have probably written those descriptions without being there, but I am still a really regular visitor to that place. And I suppose that’s part of it, there were moments – there’s a scene in the book where Annie, the railwayman’s wife, is walking along the beach and sees a man sitting on the rocks, and she sees some surfers just beyond that, and there were little moments like that where they were specific sort of atmospheres, or specific situations that I saw while I was writing the book that I then borrowed and stuck into it. Fiction, but I’m sure there were also a lot of other things that I was remembering from my childhood and that I was remembering from that setting almost 40 years ago.
Yes. Obviously, it is a work of fiction, but based in a very real period of history and obviously a very real place.
What about the characters? Are they influenced at all by real people or real events?
The sort of narrative arc of this story was sparked by an actual incident. My father’s father was a railwayman, and he was killed on the railways and my father’s mother was offered the job of the railway librarian in compensation for this. And I had always been really fascinated by this story, I thought it was really amazing that in the kind of late 1940s, early 1950s an institution like the railways would offer this incredibly pragmatic compensation to a woman who had been widowed, and that kind of was me going away at the back of my imagination, I guess.
And then I started to think about the fact that this had happened just after the Second World War. My grandfather hadn’t gone to the war because he worked on the railways, so there was that sense that then it would have been a different kind of loss. He’d come through this period of time when a lot of women would have seen their men go away and would have almost expected them not to come back. And so this accident, this kind of random death makes it itself a different thing through the prism of those six years of war.
And the thing that really started me imagining a librarian, imagining a woman in this position was when probably eight or 10 years ago the building where the Railway Institute Library was is still there, it’s still on the side of Thirroul station, and one heritage league, or history league, or something like that, the people who kind of worked to preserve it and restore it had asked my Dad to go down and talk about what he remembered about the library and his mum’s job there. And I went along to listen to him talk.
While he was talking about remembering the shelves, and remember where the books used to come down in boxes from Sydney, remembering the garden that was outside and things like that, this enormous train went through outside. I mean it’s literally just a platform’s width away from the library itself, and I suddenly started to think about the kind of other side of this compensation that my grandmother had been offered, which was it was fantastic that she had a job, but this job put her in the way of this noise, the noise of this thing that had killed her husband. And I think, once I kind of had that idea, it really started to form in my mind.
So I spoke to my father, and I wanted to be very clear with him that I didn’t want to write this story of his parents, what I wanted to do was to borrow this accident, and this incident of the job afterwards, and try to imagine something from that.
With that said, you know, writers are horrible appropriators, honourable thieves I think is the polite term for it, I hope we’re honourable. And so I know that I did then borrow other bits and pieces of my childhood memory of stories that my parents had told me about their childhood, or things that I remembered from my two grandmothers and my other grandfather, who also all lived in Thirroul. I know that I sort of appropriated bits and pieces of moments, and situations, and biographies to… I guess, if these characters seem at all whole I think it’s those contributions that kind of helped that to happen somehow.
So just more on your process of writing, I suppose. So your first novel, The Body in the Clouds, it was a huge critical success, it was short-listed for lots of awards. Did that impact the way you approached writing your second novel? Did you have a bit more confidence when you went into this latest project?
I did what I thought at the time was a very foolish thing, but actually it’s probably quite good. When I was working on the earliest drafts of The Body in the Clouds I had written some non-fiction books before that, and I had this sort of… I think I was really excited to try and write a novel and I quit my full time job to do it and I sort of thought, ‘Great, I’ll get a draft of this novel done in a year. That will be fantastic’.
And so I applied… the end of that year I applied to start working on The Railwayman’s Wife under the auspices of a Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Technology, and I got accepted. But the problem is, of course, novels take a little bit longer to write. So when I got accepted to start The Railwayman’s Wife I hadn’t finished – I wasn’t anywhere with The Body in the Clouds, and I actually wrote the two books in tandem for a while. And that seems mad, you know? Kind of. It’s hard enough keeping one novel in your head, let alone two. And, The Body in the Clouds has quite a complex structure that runs over three very different periods of time, when The Railwayman’s Wife jumps around a bit too. So, I did sort of think it was bit crazy, and I went off and had a baby in the middle of it as well.
What was really great was that by the time I finished The Body in the Clouds and it was published I had a really strong manuscript for the second book, so I didn’t have that kind of hiccup that I think a lot of writers have if they’re fortunate enough to find a publisher that loves the book and they’re fortunate enough to kind of have some sort of success with their first novel. I think it might be a very daunting thing to kind of take a breath and sit down and get onto the next one. But I had already had most of the next one sitting there, and that had made it a much more enjoyable process. I could sort of work on solidly for six months or so and then put it away and then take a complete break from it and work on the other one. And so it’s not a working method that I would advocate, and I will probably never do it again, but it worked really well in the context of those two books, and in the context of just helping me to get over what I think might have been a hard thing of starting a whole new enterprise after The Body in the Clouds had garnered the success that it did.
Sure. And you mentioned that you were writing non-fiction before you started on the novels. What prompted the switch? And was that a difficult process to switch from non-fiction to fiction?
I think when I was growing up and was wondering if it might be possible be a writer and how you went about being one, there were no sort of dedicated creative writing courses in the way that there are now. You couldn’t do creative writing as part of HSC the way you can now. So I decided that I would go into journalist degree, and I thought if I did a journalist degree I might be able to get a job as a journalist, and I could sort of get paid to write in that way and work out if I could do this other stuff on the side.
And I think I began working on narrative non-fiction books, because that seemed quite a natural extension from journalism, and I had a publisher, Duffy and Snellgrove, who were interested in that kind of narrative non-fiction form. And I thought, “Oh, well this is a fantastic sort of training to write books that I’m interested in writing, but also to kind of learn what 60,000 words feels like, or how you kind of structure something that’s not a 5,000-word essay, a 2,000-word feature article, or something like that. But I always wanted to write fiction, I always wanted to try and tell stories that way.
And then I think I got to a certain point where I had the initial ideas for The Body in the Clouds, and I thought this seemed like a good sort of fictional project to try. And one of the reasons I liked it was because I think I’m a fairly tentative person, and so because there was so much historical research in The Body in the Clouds, it’s set in 1788, when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney, it’s set around 1930, when the Harbour beach is then built, and then it’s got a contemporary setting as well. So I could sort of trick myself into starting the novel, because I could go off and do all of the historical research that I was really comfortable about doing, that I sort of knew how to find what I was looking for, and I could sort of start writing the novel almost while I wasn’t watching. Again, I kind of got over the really fearful beginning part, without paying the kind of attention to it that might completely cripple you when you are trying to get underway.
And then with The Railwayman’s Wife, again, because it was – well, partly because its early draft was written as part of the doctorate, and partly because I suppose it is a historical novel in that way, again, I kind of had this research that I could jump into. So it sort of helped me make the book but also get me into the process of writing the book.
Right. On the research, it sounds like that’s something you quite enjoy doing. How much research is involved in a project like The Railwayman’s Wife?
I do love it, I really love sort of snooping around in old stuff, and I love the things that you find that are so perfect for what you’re trying to make, that you don’t know you’ve sort of been looking for, and all of those kind of serendipitous moments in research.
The Railwayman’s Wife, because I did it, as I say, because I wrote the early drafts of it as part of a doctorate, that manuscript had to be supported by an exegesis, which I wrote as a set of three essays, sort of exploring different elements of research. So I probably did more research because I had to write the exegesis than I would necessarily have done just because I had sat down and wrote the manuscript of the novel on its own.
It was interesting, I thought I would find it really easy to write about Thirroul, because it is a really familiar place, but I found it quite difficult. And so one way that I found to get around that was – I went back and read scientific papers that talked about Thirroul, so things like particular sightings of the particular worms that are being found that haven’t been found anywhere else outside of Antarctica, or sort of quite specific things like that to sort of try to get around the issues I was having about describing this place.
And one of the best kinds of research that I did for The Railwayman’s Wife, it is a book kind of necessarily about trains in a lot of ways. And I did go… there’s a great railway history association that has a lot of material and there were some really specific things that had been written on the Thirroul railways. So one of the best things was, because I had this son in the middle of all of this, and he is a completely Thomas the Tank Engine obsessed child – I spent all of this time reading those Thomas the Tank Engine books to him, and they were fantastic, because they just had all of this language in them about all of the specific parts of trains and railways, and you know all of the bits and pieces of tracks, and rolling stops, and they were brilliant.
And also gave me the illusion that I was working on the book at some subconscious level while I was sitting there reading for the third time that day about Percy and Thomas going off and delivering something, or getting lost somewhere. So I really have to thank my son for putting me onto such a brilliant source of railway language.
Fancy that. Yeah, and so unexpected too, no doubt.
Given that in the past you’ve had quite a varied writing life, obviously with the journalism, and non-fiction, and the novels, so do you have a daily writing routine you stick to? Do you need to put strategies in place to deal with all of these different kinds of projects?
I have a really different working life at the moment because I’ve got a four-year-old son, so he’s in kindy three days a week. So I have three solid days where I can work and so I just tend to sit down when he goes at about eight o’clock in the morning and go at whatever needs doing until he comes home at five o’clock at night. Because I know that the other days of the week I’m going to be doing things with him.
I like working on journalism because writing a novel takes a lot of time, and there’s a nice kind of quicker gratification that you get out of being able to sit down and write 1500 words for someone and know that it’s going to be published in a month’s time rather than three years away, when you finally get it over the line. So I’ve always sort of liked juggling those things, but that said I’ve been working on my third novel, I spent most of last year working on the first draft of this, and the beginning of this year has been sort of pretty full of journalism. And I’ve been really lucky Railwayman’s Wife sort of got a lot of attention and enabled me to go to a lot of places and talk to a lot of people about it. It’s kept me very busy in that way.
But, I’ve found in the past couple of months I’ve just really been desperate to get back to the next book. And, so I’m thinking that in the next half of this year what I want to try to do is for the first time, and if I can actually hold myself to it, is stop a lot of the journalism and just really focus on the fiction. I love writing it, I love the kind of freedom of fiction, I love the stuff it allows you to play around with. And, I’m not sure I can say that I didn’t want to do journalism again, but at the moment I’m just feeling a bit too removed from the process of fiction, so I want to devote myself to that and then we’ll see what happens after that.
Sure. With your next novel is there anything you’re going to do differently? Obviously it’s going to be just the one novel that you’re working on this time.
Yes, just the one.
Are you excited about that? Are you going to approach it any differently to the way you did the others?
I thought that it was going to be an entirely contemporary novel, I thought that it was going to be just based now. It will be the first novel that I’ve actually written about the place that I’m in, because I finished both The Railwayman’s Wife, which is set Thirroul, and The Body in the Clouds, which is set in Sydney. I finished both of those while I was living in Brisbane. So I was really interested to write a book about Brisbane while I was in Brisbane. My husband promised that he wouldn’t get a job somewhere else and move me.
So that’s sort of interesting, but I thought it was going to be a completely contemporary book, and when I started working on it I realised very quickly that there were characters from a slightly earlier time that were going to come in, so it’s now set sort of in the early 1960s and in the present. So the thing that I thought I was going to do extremely differently was undone before I had gotten about a quarter of the way through the draft. So that’s been interesting.
I don’t know in terms of structure, this book seems to be forming… Each chapter, sort of, rather than being one kind of flowing narrative, each chapter seems to be quite a long and distinct almost short story, and they all kind of interrelate to each other. I haven’t looked at it for about six months, so I might open up the file and think, ‘I don’t know if that works at all’, but that’s what it was looking like in December last year.
Also my writing life will change after next year because my son will go to school, so I’ll get, you know… my whole sort of shape of days will change and things like that. And, I think there was something really great about having these three-day long focus days to just kind of run very hard at something, and I don’t know how that’s influenced the shape of what’s there in the first draft as well.
I did come up with an idea for the novel after that. Recently, but I’ve been really disciplined in not letting myself even think about it until I go back and do the second draft of this book because I don’t want to get myself back in that two-pronged situation again.
Sure. Just one final question, do you have any advice for budding authors?
I think one of the really interesting things about writing… I taught a workshop at the Sydney Writers’ Festival just this past year, which was about getting around blocks and problems, and hiccups and that sort of thing. And it was interesting to sort of think about it, and it was interesting to put it together and the people who did it seem to kind of get a lot out of it.
But the thing that intrigues me about writing is that the only thing that you can do is to write. The only way you can write a novel is to write the novel. It’s not that you might write a great novel the first time through, in fact you almost certainly won’t, but you’ve just got to keep writing and drafting, and reshaping and editing. Doing the writing is the only way to get the writing done in that way, which sounds so sort of obvious. But I like that about it because if you do get stuck on something you can just keep kind of working at it and trying different approaches and the actual writing itself is the one tool that you have, and if you enjoy it then it makes the job really enjoyable.
So, yeah, I don’t know. It sounds like a really obvious thing, but it interests me that lots of people say, ‘I don’t have time to wait to have this sort of inspiration only to wait for all of these things to be in the right place’, and it’s like, ‘Well, you can wait for all of that to be true, or you can think if I want to sit down and write, all I have to do is sit down and write’, and that sort of seems a bit more of an enabling thing, because, as I say, you might not get something that you think is fabulous, and most of the time you probably won’t, but at least then you’ve got something to work with, or even just throw away and think, ‘Well, that’s clearly not what I’m trying to do’.
So I think that’s kind of encouraging that it’s, you know, it’s this one tool and if you keep at it you can have all sorts of things at the other end of it.
Yeah. Absolutely. That’s excellent advice. Thank you so much for speaking to us today, Ashley. Good luck with this latest book.