By Jodi Lee
“We tell ourselves stories to live,” muses author Ashley Hay, pondering on what drives her to tell stories. She echoes the words of acclaimed American writer Joan Didion who has written stories of dread.
It’s interesting that Joan Didion’s words resonate so strongly with Ashley Hay, whose latest novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, follows the story of a family torn apart and lives altered by a dramatic workplace accident. Her previous work, The Body in the Clouds, follows the tale of a man who falls from the Sydney Harbour Bridge during its construction. Both stories are hinged on dramatic accidents, circumstances that could incite a fair amount of dread.
Ashley Hay’s voice is elegant and warm. She speaks with a gentle strength and assertiveness that leaves the interviewer confident she could ask her anything but not certain she will always answer.
She is self-aware, family-oriented and private; she is deeply affected by place. She grew up in the coastal New South Wales town of Thirroul, a place she describes as a “stunning narrow plane of land that pushes itself between the ocean on one hand and this quite lovely escarpment on the other”.
As a young girl, she was overwhelmed by the natural beauty of her childhood town. She adored it with equal parts whimsy and deep sentiment. Yet despite the objective beauty of the place, she has an innate predisposition to appreciate her surrounds.
“I think wherever I’d have grown up, I’d have thought it was special.” She attributes this cognisance to genetics. “I grew up with parents who paid attention to the world around them so I probably grew up being a bit more observant of the world around me.
“My mother is a visual artist, she’s a painter primarily so I think I probably have a visual sense of the world because of her. My dad worked as an engineer and had sort of a huge imagination on top of that so I think I’m pre-disposed to soak up places in that way,” she says.
But Ashley Hay’s awareness of her surrounds seems to extend beyond an appreciation of beauty or a sense of belonging. Her first non-fiction book was The Secret, a book about Lord Byron. Then 11 years ago she wrote Gum, a story of Australia’s history told through those who had explored, studied, documented and championed the Eucalyptus tree.
“I didn’t think place was that big a deal for me; I just thought that Gum was an interesting project to work on and I was happy with how it turned out,” she says. After Gum came the text for two books, Museum and Herbarium, and an essay for an anthology of writings about nature compiled by friend Mark Tredinnick. It, too, was a roaring success, much to Ashley Hay’s surprise. “I just thought everyone was as interested as I was.”
When she finally decided to “take the leap out of journalism and try to be a novelist”, The Body in the Clouds was born. Both it and her latest novel hone in on stories developing in very specific geographic areas. So intrinsic is the environment in these narratives that each location in itself has a life of its own. Why?
“I can’t tell you where that come from,” she says. “It seems to be that if I sit down to write a story then paying attention to the environment is something that I seem predisposed to do.”
Despite speaking openly about her self, her family and her work, Ashley Hay never touches on any profound personal sentiment. She teeters on the edge but never explains how something made her feel. Perhaps this is out of a self-confessed need to keep certain things confidential.
“I’m a fairly private person and there’s a really huge tendency now in fiction to try and identify authors with their characters. As long as I keep setting my characters in pieces of time that I wasn’t alive in, I can try and sidestep it a bit and say clearly this has nothing to do with me.”
Ashley Hay is a woman who knows her own strengths and weaknesses. She is most at home with the pragmatism and quantifiable nature of non-fiction and has, more than once, used factual research as a means of tricking herself into composing works of fiction.
“I’ll set up the parameters of the research and get myself into writing the novel before I realise what I’m doing.”
Never could this process have been more helpful than during her time working on The Railwayman’s Wife. Not only is the novel set in her hometown but it is loosely based on her own family’s story. Her father’s father was a railwayman who was tragically killed on the job in the early 1950s. As part of the compensation for his death, his wife was offered the job of the librarian at the Thirroul Railway Institute Library.
It was the idea that the job offered to her grandmother put her every day earshot of the sound of the train that killed her husband that inspired the book. The novel’s protagonist Anikka is a loose representation of the author’s grandmother. Anikka loses her husband, Mac, early on in the story to a railway accident. Anikka is a stoic character, a woman who chooses not to wallow in the pain of her loss but just get on with it.
Interestingly, in interviews Ashley Hay has described the overwhelming anxiety she experienced killing off Anikka’s perfectly good husband when she herself had a perfectly wonderful husband at home.
This angst seems to embody the core of Ashley Hay – a fiercely intuitive woman with a complex understanding of the human condition.