BooksMade possible by

Ashleigh Young conquers America

Gemma Gracewood follows New Zealand essayist and poet Ashleigh Young as she appears at the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York. 

In February, Ashleigh Young received the phone call of a lifetime telling her she had won a massive cash prize for being a great writer. Now it’s September and she is in America to fulfil her winner’s duties: appearing at the Windham-Campbell Festival in New Haven (featuring Karl Ove Knausgård!), and a main stage slot at the Brooklyn Book Festival (alongside Eileen Myles!).

Her US trip has been terribly glamorous, except that Young packed all the wrong dresses (“too wintery”), has kept sweating her slap off (“I don’t understand how makeup works”) and has been sort of permanently on the verge of a meltdown from the “relentless socialising” involved in being The Winner of a Big Thing.

It’s easy to forget, back in New Zealand, that when a Big Deal like Ashleigh Young flies off to do something spectacular, there’s no tour manager making sure she’s eaten, no stylist putting her together for the big events. A seemingly small thing like not being able to check into a hotel room right away can lead to a crying fit so overwhelming, her swollen eyelids would force her to skip a Brooklyn Book Festival mixer. This sort of stuff really matters when you’re expected to be “on” for most of the day. On top of that, she cheerfully admits feeling like a bit of a shambles.

“It’s like they’ve walked out of another dimension,” Young says of the insanely beautiful people in this city. Her publisher, Riverhead, had organised a fancy cocktail party at The Musket Room with a guest list drawn from Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. “It was ridiculous. I’d taken the subway and then I’d walked and I was just sweating massively. I was wearing sneakers and just a shitty outfit because I was too hot to wear any of the pretty dresses I’d brought! Even my agent, a wonderful woman, she looks like a model. It’s too much.”

(At this point, a woman with an incredible manicure leans across to reassure us: “I mean. As long as you take care of yourself, hydrate, moisturise, you can’t worry about the other things that people do. You keep yourself together.”)

Young did roll out a flash number for the Windham-Campbell prize-giving: a Zambesi dress that she’d deemed “too booby” for the Ockhams (she didn’t have any “special boob-tape” at hand that night). It’s not the one pictured in this photograph with Knausgård, though. The special boob-tape she had remembered to pack gave way, so she swapped it out for a Moochi dress for the dinner.

What’s Knausgård like? “He was exactly as you would expect Knausgård to be. At the reception before the ceremony he smoked outside and looked over his speech notes, always alone, and then he came in and sat in a chair and stared into the middle distance. He has one of those faces that always seems to be receiving the world rather than approaching it.

“He seemed happy enough but I also thought it must be a lonely thing at times, being Knausgård. People probably feel too nervous to go and speak to him. I wish I had now.”

Young was comforted to discover, during Knausgård’s keynote lecture, ‘Why I Write’, that he sweated possibly as much as she did. “It seemed like a physical endurance test for him to do the speech. I noticed he kept caressing the sides of the lectern and swaying. He seemed completely spent after it.”

Speaking in public is a funny thing when you’re a writer. We force these most indoorsy of people out in the open, perspiring and anxious, to entertain us. Well okay, they come willingly, but still. Events like The Moth have almost fetishised “storytelling” over the simple pleasure of reading aloud. “I remember hearing David Sedaris talk about that once,” Young says. “As he’s writing he’s thinking about how an audience will respond to him, where the laughs will be, the rhythm and pattern of the audience’s response. Which must be quite a pressured way to write.

“I sometimes wonder if it’s really enough to be ‘just’ a page writer anymore, if you wanna be popular. If you’re not good at performing your work, and speaking entertainingly about it, it’s harder to persuade people to read you. It almost feels like a competitive sport over here, to me. Or maybe this pressure has always been there for writers, to some degree, and I am only just realising it now because I have to be in it.”

The thing is, Ashleigh Young’s Brooklyn Book Festival gig was the most exciting event in my week as a work-from-home mum, and she was just reading aloud, no bells, no whistles. It was a midday slot on the main stage (a small marquee by the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall), in front of a crowd that was mostly there to see Transparent poet-muse Eileen Myles (who opened by thanking “the people on whose land we are standing”, a gesture they picked up in New Zealand).

Young confessed that she was “flailing” and she accidentally spoke well over her allotted time, cutting into Myles’ slot. (“Being the person who reads too long is my worst nightmare. And I was the person.”) But she held the audience in her thrall, and the elderly New Yorker next to me had conniptions when the moderator tried to cut Young short. “How rude! She’s the best thing here!”

I tell Young later that something about it reminded me of when the not-well-known Jon Spencer Blues Explosion supported the more-famous Beck at the Powerstation back in 1994. By the time Beck appeared, his stage had been razed by the Blues Explosion. They reappeared at the end of his set, climbing the speaker stacks and fighting with the security guards and causing giddy rock’n’roll mayhem. As a fan of both bands, Young enjoys this comparison. (Later, I come across the Beck chapter in Young’s essay collection Can You Tolerate This? and high-five myself. It’s the little things when you’re interviewing a Very Big Thing.)

Young didn’t climb the speaker stack, but as Eileen Myles stood to read from their new memoir about their dead dog – having conspicuously set the timer on their iPhone so as not to go over time (or to make a point?) – we were, most of us, still busy thinking about Young’s deliciously drawn-out essay ‘She Cannot Work’. You could have heard a pin drop while she was reading it. No really, you could, and this was outdoors in NYC above two subway lines with noisy drummers up the other end of the plaza. I reckon most of the audience would have been writers, or would-be writers, and here was an author getting to the heart of the matter: how to just bloody sit down and write. Attention was paid.

Once all the official pomp is done with, Young concludes her Very Big Week with completely not-literary activities: an eyebrow makeover in a Bed-Stuy salon (“It was incredible; it almost felt like a psychic release”), getting drunk in a jazz bar, casting her overseas vote at a party in Williamsburg, some shopping. Actually, a lot of shopping. As we talk, we’re in Century 21, a designer knock-down department store. I’m buying $6.99 leggings. She has found an armful of clothes to try on, some gloves for lifting weights at the gym, a pouch to put her iPhone in when she runs. I’m wondering how the Windham-Campbell payday has changed things for her.

“The money hasn’t actually come through yet, but my immediate response has been to be completely frivolous on my credit card. Buying all of this stuff, I never would have been able to do this with such abandon before. And I keep thinking about trips I might be able to do, where I could write for a few weeks.”

So she’s not thinking she’ll just sink it all into a house?No. I can’t bear it. I’m not saying I won’t definitely, but I don’t feel ready in lots of ways. My life is in flux. I don’t know where or what I want to be.”

Next, Young flies to London, where she breaks out in hives upon landing. I’ve been curious about how somebody who projects as so self-deprecatingly shambolic has become so effing brilliant. Actually, she is disciplined and ambitious. The clues are right there: in the workout gear she buys, the Soul Cycle she attends on disgustingly humid New York days, the writing she continues to do even while on “holiday”. It’s in the paying attention to her surroundings. It’s in just bloody Doing The Thing. I suspect she Does All The Things because of the anxiety that chases her. She confirms that the writing and the workouts are a “sheer necessity”, the only things that really help keep depression at bay.

In which case, even just turning up is a heroic act, and that makes Ashleigh Young a goddamn hero.

Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, $30) is available at Unity Books.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.