Ashley Hay's latest book is The Railwayman's Wife. She is the author of five previous books including Gum, Museum (with visual artist Robyn Stacey), and The Body in the Clouds - her first novel, which was shortlisted for a number of prizes including categories in the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the New South Wales and West Australian Premier's Awards, and longlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Why did you choose to set your book in the NSW seaside town of Thirroul?
I grew up in Austinmer, the next village north of Thirroul, and I’ve always wanted to try to write about that part of the world – I think it’s a beautiful landscape. The idea for the book was triggered by an accident that happened near Thirroul – my grandfather was killed on the railways south of there, and his wife, my grandmother, was offered the job of librarian at the Railway Institute Library as part of her compensation for his death. This isn’t their story – it’s an imagined story that grew out of those facts – and for a while I did think about setting it in a fictional place. I thought about keeping the physical attributes of the landscape but making up a name, to underscore its invention. Then D. H. Lawrence and Kangaroo asserted themselves; Lawrence wrote the novel during a short stay in Thirroul in the early 1920s. Once I realised that they were going to be part of the book, I couldn’t really set it anywhere else.
Your book has a strong sense of time and place. Did you have to do much research into the aftermath of the Second World War?
I wrote the first drafts of this novel under the auspices of a Doctorate of Creative Arts at UTS and I was lucky enough to work with Professor Paula Hamilton, who’s done fine work on memory and the time beyond war. She was a wonderful source of things to read, and things to think about. I read quite a bit about grief in general, and war widows in particular, and some amazing first-hand accounts from the first Allied doctors to enter the German camps. When I was further down the track, I found a film John Huston had made with WWII veterans for the US War Department – shot in 1946, but not released until 2012; that had some amazing interviews in it.
I did read around the history of Thirroul and the South Coast – there’s a wonderful book by Joseph Davis called D. H. Lawrence in Thirroul, and that was invaluable, albeit talking about a time more than 20 years before my story is set. But what I realise now is that a lot of the anecdotes that flesh out both the time and the place of the novel come from stories I must have been told as I was growing up – both my sets of grandparents lived in Thirroul; both my parents were born there. And bits and pieces of their stories must have lodged in my imagination over the course of my life. When I came to write the story, I found I had moments stored up and ready to use – things like the aeroplane landing on South Thirroul beach, or the line of albatross stretching up the coast, or the effigies that were burned on the football field during the war.
But I have to confess, on a lighter note, that a significant amount of my knowledge of railways and trains came from Thomas the Tank Engine – my son was born while I was working on this novel, and he turned into a complete train junkie. You can learn a lot of useful railway parlance from the books of the Rev. W. Awdry – and I’m sure that much of my appreciation of lines and rolling stock was honed immeasurably by having constructed and driven on so many tracks, all over the floor of our house …
Your book draws on a number of written sources including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Why are these crucial to your story?
I carry a torch for stories. I treat that famous quote of Joan Didion’s as literally true: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”. And I think it’s perhaps more true when you’re grieving or mourning the loss of someone. The one chance you have of securing them some kind of immortality is to keep telling stories about them – to keep them alive in that way.
Because of the library’s role in the novel’s plot, and because of this sense I had of the importance of stories, I wanted my main characters – Anikka Lachlan, and her husband, Mac – to be readers. Readers tend to carry bits of texts around with them like talismans, and for a story about separation and longing, there’s a scene in Jane Eyre when Mr Rochester is talking about the physical pain he would feel if Jane was sent away from him, that is absolutely perfect.
Kangaroo became another crucial text – it gave Ani a prism through which to learn about and talk about Thirroul; she talks about using it like a kind of “literary Baedeker”. And there’s another book, a memoir by William Beebe, Half Mile Down, about the first deep-sea dives in a bathysphere. Giving Mac an affinity with that book gave me another way of talking about him.
There’s a wonderful quote from Borges – “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library” – which always seemed to pin down a lot of what the book was trying to be about.
What is the significance of the epigraph by Stephen Edgar?
For a long time, I had that Borges quote as the epigraph for the novel, and for a long time, the poem that is central to the narrative itself – the poem Ani finds on Anzac Day – was one that I had written. I’m not a poet, and when the manuscript was getting towards its final stages, my publisher rang me and pointed this out and pointed out that the poem I’d written wasn’t very good. Which was true. She said I’d need to find a poet who could write the poem for me – which sent me on an odd hunt for bespoke poetry.
Stephen Edgar was the first person who was suggested to me as someone who might tackle this weird commission, and when I hunted down some of his poems, to see if I thought his tone might fit the rest of the book, the first one I found was “Nocturnal” which contains these lines:
It’s not what we forget
But what was never known we most regret
I felt like I was reading a précis of some part of this novel I was trying to make – it seemed to speak of Ani, and how she tries to hang onto Mac after his death; it also seemed to speak of Roy McKinnon, the poet she meets, and their glancing and incomplete relationship. I contacted Stephen, who not only accepted the challenge of writing a poem for my fictional poet, but made one so whole and perfect that it was quite extraordinary. There were a number of resonances between his verse and my novel that were quite magically coincidental – he didn’t read the novel before he wrote the poem. And they made the story, and the character of Roy, seem richer and more complete.
Replacing the Borges epigraph with this quote from Stephen seemed to complete an extraordinary circle.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope that they enjoy it, and I hope they don’t mind its ending – I did try a lot of different outcomes before I settled on one, although I think it’s the only one that could have felt right. It’s not a very traditional ending, but I think it is still quite beautiful and strangely life-affirming. There are all sorts of collisions in life – some wonderful, some tragic – but there are near misses too, and they can be just as powerful things.
I’m never much good at describing books, but I like this line we came up with for The Railwayman’s Wife, that it celebrates love in all its forms, and the beauty of discovering that loving someone can be as extraordinary as being loved yourself.
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