Why do you write?
Writing lets me explore the insides of things, the ordinary and the extraordinary; to record all the moments that pass by daily in life. It’s a privilege to have a job that lets you try to create connections between things, and try to explore the cracks and possibilities between them. And I think it’s important to tell stories. We need them – all sorts of different stories, in all sorts of different ways.
How did you come to writing?
I’m not sure. I wanted to be a school teacher or a travel agent when I was small. But I was a pretty avid reader as a child, and that must have been part of it. By the time I left high school, I was interested in writing, but I didn’t really know what it meant to be a writer, or how you went about being one. So I did a degree in journalism – which seemed like a practical sort of writing to start off with. And then I worked my way on from there.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
I worked as a journalist for a lot of years and I reckon that gives you pretty good training in terms of discipline – you sit down and work when you have to, and you have to hit deadlines. That’s useful stuff, no matter what you’re working on. I treat writing like any full-time job – I have set times that I do it, and I (try to) keep other things out of the way of those blocks of time.
In terms of motivation, working towards finishing something can be very motivating – you’re excited to begin it, and then you’re excited to try to make it better, and then you finish and you get to send it out to see how it finds its way in the world. In the years that I’ve worked on long-form projects – longer essays, and fiction or narrative non-fiction books – I’ve usually tried to write shorter pieces as well, just to feel like things are getting finished … and (hopefully) to get bits and pieces of feedback from their readers. That’s pretty motivating.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
I gave up full-time journalism more than twelve years ago – for a while, I freelanced pretty regularly, and I kept the days I wasn’t in a magazine office clear for writing work. Now, that writing is the thing I do. I treat it like a job – it’s not the thing that gets slipped in somewhere, or fitted around other stuff. And I treat it like a craft – I have to trust it’s something I might get better at if I do it every day. It’s a skill that I can try to improve.
There’s no magic about any of that. I think I see writing more like carpentry than wizardry. The alchemy of it comes from the actual doing of it; it’s not something you sit and wait for, if that makes sense.
Now, too, I’m very grateful that I can give most of my working time to long-form projects – I still do some reviewing, but I don’t write a lot of short-form journalism anymore. That’s not because I don’t want to; it’s just about realizing that it wasn’t possible to work simultaneously as a novelist, a journalist and a mother and still have time to breathe. I was very grateful to be able to slip back a bit in the journalistic stakes and focus on the long-form writing and the small person.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I write at home. At the moment, my desk is in the corner of my bedroom, which I’m not sure is optimal – Joan Didion says she likes to sleep with her books in the same room as her when they get to a certain stage of completion. I have to admit that I feel more like they’re glowering at me as soon as I wake up.
As a general rule, though, my desk is in our spare room, and that looks onto the garden we’ve been filling with trees since we moved into this house seven years ago. And it’s a helpful thing to watch that garden change and grow.
What are your essential writing tools?
I’m pretty attached to my laptop now, because I can type faster than I can write by hand now – although that said, in the process of writing two of my novels I broke my arm (the same one; twice) and had to go back to writing by hand, which did feel strangely useful at the time. I wouldn’t want to take that up as an essential part of the process …
Really, the essential tools for writing are time and space. You need to back yourself to do the work, and put yourself in the space where it’s all you can do. I guess in that way, the most essential writing tool is to make yourself the schedule that forces you to write.
I try not to set up particularly lucky or talismanic objects or places or conditions, because then I would always have a reason not to write when those things weren’t precisely in place.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
Shorthand and grammar.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I’ve had a run of years where I’ve read a lot of things for work, for one reason and another – and I’m very grateful that most of those things, whether I’m reading them for research or for review, have been wonderful. But I don’t feel like I’ve had a lot of free reading time for a while now, and that makes me a bit anxious about all the things I’m not reading. And haven’t read yet. I have a friend who’s spent a lot of time working on Moby Dick and every time I talk to her, I rush away convinced that that is the only book I must read right now. I still haven’t. But maybe 2017 will be the year for that …
There’s a wonderful quote by David Malouf from one of the essays scooped into A Writer’s Life where he describes a process “any writer will recognize, but one that can never, while it is happening, be analysed or later reconstructed: a sense, the moment a new work begins to seed, of the whole universe attending, taking an interest, turning itself as it were in the book’s direction, so that everything one comes across — in the daily papers, in the street, in what begins to come up out of the depths of memory — out of the depths, too, of an experience one may not yet have had — immediately finds a place there, in indissoluble connection … the points are beginning to connect.” And I think all my reading feeds my writing through that process – consciously and subconsciously.
I was talking to a friend about this, and she said that she thinks I read vocationally these days – noticing structure and architecture and things like that – rather than reading something purely for story. She called it reading like an engineer, which sounded quite useful if it is what I’m doing. But I also read a lot of books with my son now, and I love those in a completely unstructural and unengineered way – picture books like Jon Klassen’s series about hats, or anything by Oliver Jeffers or Mo Willems. Although reading Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series has been a surprisingly useful tonic to this new post-fact world we seem to find ourselves in.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
My small boy has a kind of conversational tic where, when you’re explaining something to him, he listens to everything relatively patiently and then says, “and then what?” I think it’s really liberating to realize that if you get stuck in one spot – or you don’t know what’s coming next – you can ask as fundamental a question as that and try to get yourself moving again.
A long time ago, I realized that it was better to have dreadful words on a page than none at all, because then you had something to work with – even if the only work you did with them was throw them all out and start again. And that’s a useful thing to remember too.
I think, for me, the issue is often not so much “block” as the days when you’re not so sure why you’re writing, or if you can do it at all. Sometimes reading something you think has turned out well is useful – revisiting some of your words that have done the best work they can do. Sometimes just setting yourself the simplest task – one you know you can achieve – is good: writing a single scene, or a list of plot-points, or a very detailed description of one character. That can open all sorts of doors.
Charlotte Wood talks about intention-setting, about coming to your work you’re trying to do with a sort of optimistic curiosity. And if it’s a rough bad day, I’ll take myself for a walk to look at the river and try to reset my intentions there, as it were …
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Pay attention to things. Try to be what Helen Garner calls a “good noticer”. And a bit of a bowerbird – write down the things that you see.
One extra last piece: read as much as you can and as widely as possible and from loads of different eras. When you find pieces that really speak to you or resonate, read them again, and read them aloud – and then copy them out. Transcribe them. I reckon you can get closer to them that way, and you can sort of feel the way their words sit against each other as they come onto the page, the way they sit together to make their piece work as a structure and a whole. That way you can examine it and inhabit it; you can pull it into yourself as close as you can, and maybe it will help you think about something you’re trying to do and how you might have another go at that.
Ashley Hay ‘s new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published in April 2017. Her previous book, The Railwayman’s Wife, was awarded the Colin Roderick Award and the NSWPLA’s People’s Choice, and published in the UK, the US, and in translation. In 2016, she won the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing. She lives in Brisbane.