Character concerns: Ashley Hay on The Railwayman’s Wife
Ashley Hay’s second novel, after The Body in the Clouds, follows the lives of several characters in a NSW coastal town, including a doctor returned from the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, a former soldier who can no longer find the words for his poetry, and a librarian who matches books with people and their dreams. This my Q & A with the author (first published by Bookseller+Publisher). You can read my review of the novel here.
There is a very strong sense of place in this novel. Have you spent a lot of time on the south coast of NSW—the setting for The Railwayman’s Wife—or were there other sources that helped you to build it?
I grew up on the south coast of NSW—in Austinmer, the next stop up the railway line from Thirroul; my parents live there still, so I visit often. I love that landscape and I carry it with me; I wanted to write something that celebrated it. But I’ve also accumulated all sorts of different stories from that part of the world along the way—famous ones, like D H Lawrence coming and writing Kangaroo; smaller ones, like the miles-long line of albatross off Thirroul beach one day in the 1950s; and one of my grandmothers was a railway librarian. I wanted to see what sort of a new story I might make up around these other, older pieces.
Poetry features prominently in this novel. Are the poets you include some of your favourites?
I do love the poems that are quoted in The Railwayman’s Wife—particularly Siegfreid Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’ and that lovely Yeats line, ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. But they went in more because of their fit with the narrative. That said, at the very core of the novel there’s a poem written by Roy McKinnon, one of its main characters, and when the book was heading towards its final drafts, my publisher pointed out very politely that I wasn’t a poet and that the poem I’d written for Roy just wasn’t up to scratch. I went on this fantastic hunt for a poet who could make me a bespoke poem—one that would fit Roy’s character, and fit the narrative—and I found Stephen Edgar, who not only undertook what I would imagine was quite a strange commission but made such a perfect and elegant thing that it took my breath away. It rounded out Roy’s character, somehow, as well as doing all the things it needed to do in the context of the plot, and that felt astonishing. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because it complemented the experience I’d had when I was reading some of Stephen’s poetry—ahead of contacting him about doing this—and realised that in one of his poems, ‘Nocturnal’, he’d written the ideal epigraph for this novel I’d been working on for several years. I like those moments of synchronicity. And now I have a new favourite poet to add to my list.
As a reader, it wasn’t always easy to travel with the characters through all they endured. Not wanting to give too much away, how hard was it as a writer to put your characters through these hardships?
I’m very fond of all the characters in this book, and I did feel for them in terms of what I put them through. More than that, I started feeling superstitious about writing something into being; I had a stretch of profound anxiety about my own husband after I’d written a section about my main character’s husband—it made me anticipatorily fearful. Joyce Carol Oates talks about this in A Widow’s Story, where she says that in her writing she had ‘plunged ahead—head-on, heedlessly, one might say—or “fearlessly”—into my own future: this time of utter raw anguished loss’. And it’s a creepy feeling, wondering what sort of emotions you’re imagining for these characters, and whether you might have to accommodate them in your own span of living.
Once you’ve finished a novel, do the characters you’ve lived with for so long remain with you or are you able to let go?
I don’t know if the characters stay with me, but bits of my books do—they manifest sometimes in the real world, like little bits of affirmation or realisation. When I’d finished The Body in the Clouds, I saw a tall ship appear out of nowhere in the mist off Sydney, very early one morning, and it felt as if a bit of that book had come to life. When I’d finished The Railwayman’s Wife, I walked past a particular arrangement of fishermen and surfers on one of the beaches I’d written about, on exactly the sort of silvery morning I’d imagined. It felt like I was walking through the page.
What was the last book you read and loved?
Generosity by Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)—an exhilarating story; an engaging cast of complex characters; a mass of only-just-slightly-futuristic scientific quandaries to think about; and the kinds of perfectly formed paragraphs you immediately underline and transcribe, to try to hang onto them or assimilate them somehow.
© Bookseller+Publisher 2013 © Paula Grunseit 2013