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And the winner is a genius: Steve Braunias interviews Ashleigh Young

Steve Braunias interviews literary sensation Ashleigh Young, who won the award for best book of non-fiction at last night’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Feature image courtesy of Fergus Barrowman.

Ashleigh Young was sitting at her Wellington home on the couch last Thursday evening with her cat Jerry (“He’s looking at me a bit disconsolately. Now he’s eating his Dental Plan biscuits”) while playing the new album by Perfume Genius and taking part in the revolutionary live email interview as practised pretty much only by the Spinoff Review of Books, because who else has the time or the stamina? The interview began at 8.15pm and ended at 12.26am (“Am off to bed covered in cat dribble”).

The reason it was conducted was because we had foreknowledge that Young had won the 2017 Ockham New Zealand book of the year award for her remarkable book of personal essays, Can You Tolerate This?. She only found out last night, at the awards ceremony; when I arranged the interview, I told her the bare-faced lie that it was just one of a whole bunch of interviews with other shortlisted authors…I never intended talking to anyone else. The only writer I wanted to talk to was Young. She’s a star. On March 1 she was named as one of eight writers around the world to win a Windham-Campbell Prize at Yale University with a cash prize of $US165,000, or $NZ229,837.07.

And so I placed the needle on “Number One Lowest Common Denominator”, the first, mind-blowing track on Todd Rundgren’s 1974 LP Todd, and composed my first question while Young, and Jerry, got comfortable on the couch with the Dental Plan biscuits.

 

Hello Ashleigh Young and welcome to the latest breathless instalment of the Spinoff Review of Books live email interview, the practise which combines inquisition with a literary dimension and yet is just as risky as any encounter with a journalist. Because you can just as easily write the wrong thing as say it. So, now, what a year – the Yale thing, then the Ockham shortlist, then your book about to be published in the US. It’s been fantastically successful and glamorous and wonderous, and I wonder what kind of relationship that might have with self-loathing – “Oh these people think I’m quite good but really I’m just blundering about and I don’t know where my next sentence is coming from, PS I’m a total wretch.” Anything like that?

Well, I was hoping we wouldn’t reach the self-loathing until right at the end. I was sort of hoping that you’d pull on the exactly right loose thread, and things would all fall apart a bit delicately and interestingly, and the core of self-loathing would be revealed. But there’s not much point pretending it isn’t already revealed. For a start I guess my writing is saturated with it, in some places. I think I’ve said things about self-loathing on twitter, although I try not to anymore. I wish I was more composed and could hold myself back from being like this, because it’s a drag. It’s really boring. But, well. I do struggle with it, and I think the feelings are intensifying. Which is embarrassing to admit to because I don’t want to come across as ungrateful for all of the wonderful things that have happened to me. I’m very grateful (and still disbelieving). It’s just that quite often I feel they should have happened to someone else. Someone who can stand on a stage and be a sort of beacon.

Ashleigh Young, Waitomo News, 1993: “I like writing a lot” (Image: Supplied, Pun: Provided)

To practise journalism is to bang on the door and demand that self-loathing shows itself at once, no hanging about, come out now please. Have you ever thought of being a journalist? Have the possibilities attracted you?

Yes. I did seriously think of being a journalist. I liked the idea of writing people’s stories, and I liked the idea of seeing my own name in print. That’s about all. It seemed like a thing I might be able to do. But what put me off was – I went to this Careers Expo in Hamilton, with a school group. I was probably in fourth form and the pressure was coming on already about what to do when school finished. I went to the “What’s it like to be a journalist?” talk. And the journalist who came to talk to us, I can’t remember his name, but he genuinely seemed miserable and in a hurry to get away. He talked about all of his deadlines and how organised you had to be. I seem to recall he had wads of paper sticking out of his pants pockets. And some sort of huge phone – like a ‘car phone’, one of those ones you had to carry around in a puffy little case. And he said he how always had to be talking to people on the phone. That was the nail in the coffin for me. I didn’t want to talk to people.

From time to time over the years during uni I would think, “I could go to journalism school” and then it was like the ghost of that guy came back and hooted, “you’ll have to talk to people” and then the thought would be over for another few years.

Was that me who came to talk to you? I spoke at a secondary school in Hamilton once. There had been a terrible scandal that week – a girl from Ethiopia took an exotic weapon to school, a big sword, and ran amok. I got the class to remember every single detail of the attack, the victim, where it happened, the colour of the sky, and said, “You’re all journalists now.” They regarded me with horror. But actually I can imagine you writing about that incident, the adolescent violence, the setting, the lessons. I can picture you in a courtroom. A murder trial, or something merely shabby, and there you are, observing, taking notes. Can you picture that?

 It definitely wasn’t you; I definitely would’ve remembered. This guy reminded me of an early character in The Simpsons, the psychologist Marvin Monroe (but way less smiley than Marvin).

I don’t remember hearing about that incident at all! Holy heck. It makes me think of something out of Going Solo by Roald Dahl. There’s that scene where Roald Dahl’s servant (Mdisho?) steals Roald Dahl’s fancy sword that was hanging on the wall and then runs through the countryside brandishing it. I think he decapitates someone with it because he wants to help in the war against Germany.

Anyway. Yes. I can just about picture myself doing that side of journalism – the observation, and then the stitching things together, and seeing a story emerge out of the mess of details. But you know how when you’re really apprehensive about something, which in my case was the idea of going around asking people questions, it overshadows all the things that you could actually really enjoy and maybe be good at.

Also, I’m not quick enough to have become a decent journalist. I take too long to write anything. All my features would come out like six years after the event. And even then they would only be okay. They’d have lots of gratuitous similes in them, and there would be long sections where I’m just thinking things through laboriously. (I don’t know what paper exactly I’m imagining would publish these news items.)

Jerry (left) and Ash: “Dental Plan biscuits”

Pshaw! I think your writing seems to contain very few similes, and even less metaphors; and when they do occur, they’re spectacular, never gratuitous or, you know, even worse, literary.

You and your not wanting to talk to people – is this ordinary, kitchen-sink shyness? Or something else? I’ve written somewhere about the first time we met – at a literary event thing in Wellington, we were both guests, and before we had to go onstage you were very, very nervous, and in fact by the time they called your name, and you tripped on the stairs going up, I thought, “My God! This person who I have just met may be about to have a nervous breakdown.” But you didn’t and indeed you made this incredible speech, so lucid and fluent, and then I thought: “Hm. I am in the presence of genius.” But one thing you mentioned in that speech was how you used to find a secret place somewhere at school, a kind of crawlspace, where you could lie down and no one would know you were there and all sign of you would be obliterated. What was that about? I mean – you know – excuse me for asking – what’s the deal with you?

That wasn’t the first time we met! We met after you’d chaired that session with CK Stead and Charlotte Grimshaw at the Auckland writers’ festival one year. I tried to go up to CK Stead at the signing table and persuade him that I’d written to him once (it was for a Booknotes article) and I think he didn’t know what I was saying. Then you came up and said, “Ashleigh Young!” And introduced me properly. So you sort of rescued me.

The crawl space – I had two of them. The main one was this little art room behind the stage in the school hall. I was allowed in there because I was painting some kind of special canvas for sixth form art and my art teacher gave me the key so I could go in there at any time and work. It was tiny and kind of triangle-shaped. I’d just lie down in there on a bench and could see kids’ feet going past above, near the tuck-shop. The other crawl space was the music room – it was better because you could hide behind drum kits and any big instruments, like the double bass, just in case anyone came in.

It does sound totally ridiculous. I think I was just really full of fear, mostly fear that people would find out what a dork I was. I somehow hadn’t really learned how to be around people properly, at least not without putting on some sort of act. I still don’t really understand what happened and why I became like that.

I’ve just remembered one tragic detail: I’d take a thermos of Continental low-fat tomato soup into my chosen crawl-space for lunchtime, and I’d drink my soup in there. I’m so angry at myself for doing that. I can forgive myself for hiding, but the soup is so needlessly punishing.

But what a great advertising jingle they had! “Nobody makes .. soup in a cup .. like Continental .. cup of soup!” It was almost ska. A faint trace of Bob Marley, even. Do you remember?

Yes I remember the soup jingle!

Jerry update: he’s on the couch with me now and is drooling luxuriously. Also he’s got fleas at the moment.

So – you have fleas too, at the moment?

I don’t have fleas yet.

Again with the you and your not talking to people – Joan Didion writes somewhere about being sent on magazine assignments, and lying on her hotel bed for hours, staring at the phone, and willing herself to call people she has to interview, but being unable to, and collapsing back on her bed with a sigh. What do you think of her writing? Is she an all-time hero? I’m imagining you prefer all sorts of essayists who I’ve never heard of, which would make me cross. But please tell me about your thoughts on Didion, who has a new book out, well not really a book, a notebook of old writings, with this incredible opening sentence: “In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, over-ripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology.”

I haven’t read South and West yet but it does look brilliant and also – that opening sentence. Man. I don’t know how she can write a sentence like that and how it can be good. Is it something to do with her particular voice and how, because it’s a familiar voice, she can say almost anything and it sounds inevitable? She has that ability to see things right at their core.

I came to Joan Didion quite late… I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem on a whim. I remember finding it difficult and not easy to love – until I reached the more personal pieces, you know the essays about self-respect and marriage and home. I loved her frankness. But there’s something about her voice that I’ve always found quite terrifying too. The spikiness in it. Maybe it’s a similar quality that you see in some of Janet Frame’s autobiographical writing, that gives me chills sometimes. I call it the “pine-tree effect”. Looking up into the dark lonely alien pine trees.

For some reason her essay “In Bed”, about migraines, has always stuck with me. That moment at the end where she wakes up finally clear-headed and gets out of bed and eats and drinks. I love the peace of that.

I’m just rereading her essay “On Morality” right now and I’d really forgotten how incredible and disturbing it is – when she describes the stories travelling at night in the desert, and how the description of those stories moving from person sort of blurs into an image of divers searching for a body. She takes us right down into the water, right down to a “single translucent fish” (some unclassified fish), and the divers having been searching for ten days.

You saying earlier about how we first met, apparently, at that thing with CK and Charlotte – I don’t remember that, and so I’ve probably also got it wrong when I think of the first time I read you. But in my mind it was on your blog when you wrote an essay about the Herald book reviewer David Hill. As I sat down to read it, I thought patronising things – being an Elder Statesman of non-fiction, that is just some old columnist – along the lines of, “This will begin to veer off-course and be quite twee and not take the subject seriously, and it will be predictable and disappointing.” But it didn’t do any of those things. It was a fantastic piece of writing and you didn’t make a single wrong step; it had a narrative arc, it had a wonderful sense of comic timing, it had twists and turns – I wish it were in your book, actually. That must have been oh I don’t know 2011, 2012, not that long ago I suppose; you were living in London I think. I think the same things of the essays that are in Can You Tolerate This? – nothing dumb or overt or lame, everything just really beautifully poised, including “Anemone.” The one where you write about your brother’s partner taking her own life. That piece reads like it is white with shock. Was this the hardest one to write?

I loved writing the David Hill piece! I’m not sure why it was so fun. I guess I have a thing about when an experience sort of circles in on itself – like, with David Hill, he came to visit my primary school and to talk about being a writer, and I sort of idolised him; and then many years later I ended up editing one of his stories for Learning Media. I know there’s nothing really interesting about that, because we live in a small place and everyone edits everyone (that sounds a bit euphemistic I guess). But it felt like time was doing a cheesy card trick.

Ashleigh Young at the Ockhams: “I have fleas” (Image and caption courtesy of @FergusVUP on Twitter)

I wrote “Anemone” when I was in London. I was staying in a little Air B’n’B flat in Brixton, to give my brother [Neil] and his family space (also my parents and other brother were over, and quite a few other people). It was quite grim in the flat. Very quiet and grey. I just sat in there writing in between going out to visit everyone and hopefully do helpful things. Writing it felt really lonely, somehow, because there was nothing I could say that would make it make sense or be fully real. My brother helped me with a few parts of the piece that he thought could be phrased better. He was OK with my writing about what had happened. But I still wonder if I should’ve written it or if I should have left it alone, because it was so raw and so unbelievable. I guess that sounds very irresponsible: it’s published, now. But I don’t know if I could write it differently.

You recently showed me a copy of that fantastic story Neil sent to me at the Listener when I worked there – the one about a mysterious stencil artist making Banksy-ish art in Whanganui. Re-reading it was amazing, actually; it was such a pleasure working with Neil on that story, and he wrote such a terrific piece, but re-reading it was a revelation – it was even better than I remembered. So detailed, and funny. Do you remember when that came out? What did you think of that, as a nascent writer, that he wrote something as good as that and it was published in a magazine which at the time was first-class? I guess you were like, what, 17, 18, or something; did it make a big impression on Ashleigh of Te Kuiti?

Yes, I remember when that piece came out. This is a bit embarrassing but I actually have that page framed, in my flat, in an effort to preserve it. It’s just about falling to bits but hopefully it’ll hold on for a bit longer. There’s this one bit I particularly love from that piece – where Neil goes to meet one of the stencillers, a guy called AFo. The guy cruises up punctually on his skateboard and Neil notes that the “angular fade of his goatee seemed familiar – I realised I’d seen the same deft edge on some of his work.” I think I like it because I can imagine Neil saying it out loud and then doing a sort of twisted laugh.

I thought it was brilliant he was being published. It was so exciting. He really agonised over those pieces, though. I remember this hilarious thing – Neil and I were flatting together when I was around 20 and one day he came inside from the granny flat and he had this stormy look in his eye and gradually it transpired that you’d said something he’d written was “shit”. “Braunias said it was shit.” But he also said you were right about it being shit. I can’t remember what the piece was on.

I was inspired though, and tried to write for the Listener too. I remember submitting this review I’d written of a book called A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down. I just thought it was the most hilarious book about tea and biscuits. I gave this book to everyone as a gift because I thought it was so funny. I pored through the accompanying website. I just really wanted everyone to know about this great book. So I printed my review and posted it to the Listener and then got a nice rejection letter.

Did you keep a copy of the review?

I’ll look.

But that’s terrible about Neil. I said that? Really? I’m totally ashamed.

No no! Don’t be! He thought you were right, and agreed. He also really appreciated the honesty. It made things much more meaningful when they went right. That was always my sense from him anyway.

I remain totally ashamed.

OH WAIT. I’VE JUST FOUND THE REVIEW.

AH WAIT. No. Shit. It was something else. False alarm. It was a piece I’d written about trying to give up tea. It’s really terrible.

How terrible?

Sample sentence: “Tea leaves you as yourself; perhaps more yourself than you were before. How it does could be a matter of science – the caffeine encourages a gentle upsurge of dopamine in the blood, improving mood – or it could be because drinking tea promotes mulling, and mulling is vital, the brain’s equivalent of brewing.”

Jesus.

Hm. Sometimes I think my worst writing is like a parody of everything I write – it mocks, and it also illuminates just how bad my writing really is. Do you know what I mean? Discuss.

But that’s just when you get a bit tired isn’t it? When you don’t know where to go, so you fall back on whatever seems to have worked before. It’s like sitting back in a nice old corduroy armchair and then when you try to put the footrest up (not sure where I’m going with this), it gets stuck halfway and so you end up in this very dissatisfying position.

But also – maybe someone coming to your writing for the first time, unfamiliar with your other work, they might love that writing that you think is your worst. They might find it moving or true or just the right thing at the right time.

I think my worst writing is always when the feeling gets in the way of the art. (I don’t like saying ‘art’ but I had to say it just then.) That happens a lot. I have a lot of unpublished blog posts and a lot of abandoned poems. At the same time, I often like reading things by others that are unfinished, flawed, lopsided things. Their bad work. A lot of Frank O’Hara’s early poems feel very hurried and slapdash, and I love that. I know it’s a fine line, but I do think sometimes the worst writing is the most interesting. Too much polish and too many right notes distance us from what was interesting about the writing in the first place. It’s got to have some fleas. What’s that saying? Fleas make the dog jump.

So you do have fleas.

Hey I know someone who has bad things to say about you. I was speaking to a woman poet a little while ago at some ghastly literary thing in Auckland, and your name came up. She actually rolled her eyes. Then she said, “Ashleigh Young.” It was a good italic – emphatic, scornful. “Well,” she continued, “she’s the literary darling right now, isn’t she. But the poems – no. No.” And she slaked her powerful thirst by draining her wine in one gulp, like a heron swallowing a fish.

Now what interested me about this was the jealousy, which for so long now has been felt towards you lot at VUP and the IIML – you know, rolling off the factory floor of the creative writing workshop, all golden and gleaming, ready to be published. The resentment is fair enough to some extent. It seems so gilded, that whole Wellington literary experience. An elitism or something. But the other side of that is just the plain fact that so many really, really good writers are coming out of the IIML and into VUP. Emily Perkins and Kapka Kassabova were like the start of it and in recent years there’s been Eleanor Catton, Hera Lindsay Bird, you, and what I want to ask about this is what it’s like to be among it? Is it exciting, with Eleanor in the same firm, so to speak, winning the Booker, and now Hera being a sensation – does it feel like a golden age?

Ha! I love this anecdote. I’m glad her thirst was made more ravaging by the mention of my bad poems. I guess it says something quite bad about my self-esteem that, if I’d been there I probably would’ve grimaced apologetically and gone, “Oh my god, I know. I KNOW.”  I’m working on more poems now, though, unfortunately.

I really dislike that term like ‘literary darling’. It’s gross. I feel like it has nothing to do with me. I feel slightly disturbed someone called me one.

But yes anyway, it’s a really good question, though. It’s hard to say properly whether it feels like a golden age, because I am embedded in it and don’t have much perspective yet; it’s just my routine. A routine that I really love, but still a routine. I ride my bike to work and our little building is kind of falling down and it’s often cold and a bit leaky. Last week Fergus had to break down a door because Elizabeth got stuck in the loo. (It was my fault about the loo. I accidentally broke the door handle off one day and got trapped. I got out, but now the loo is a hazard because you can get trapped in there again.) And the week before that a big tree fell down and crashed through a window.

But at the same time there’s this real excitement about the work writers are doing, and it is, genuinely, a freaky privilege to help make these books real and to get to know some of the authors. I guess, on the other side of things going so well, there often tends to be a resentment running parallel – that you’re taking attention from other writer and publishers. But I’m not sure I subscribe to that. Attention isn’t a finite resource. Also, there are so many moving parts in publishing, including whatever’s happening in the world that you have no control over – it’s not as easy as just lining everything up and hitting go and you have a success.

I don’t see it as a gilded experience. Or at least, I haven’t personally seen what I’d describe as a gilded experience. Most of the time it’s just so unpredictable. It can be kind of time-consuming and painful to get things right.

What do you make of Eleanor? What sort of writer are we dealing with?

Well, the sort of writer who people will read and read for years and years and years, and the sort of writer whom people will continue to discover way down into the future. I think she’s the sort of writer you can reread and see new things each time. There’s an almost spooky richness in her work. I feel that way about writers like Colm Tóibín and Teju Cole – she’s a writer you come back to. I have this thing about the work of writers I really love – I’m always a little bit scared of it, because it feels like it’s messing with my molecules or something.

If you do not win the award on Tuesday night, how do you imagine you’re likely to feel the next day?

Probably a bit hungover and hoarse from being talked into doing karaoke. Also, I worry that this will annoy people, but honestly I will be a tiny bit relieved.

If you do win the award on Tuesday night, how do you imagine you’re likely to feel the next day?

I really don’t know. Of course I’d be happy. But I might be quite anxious because I’d have to go out and do media and possibly have my photo taken again. I know it’s shallow, and I’m trying to get over it, but I find it hard getting my photo taken. Also by that time it will be evident that I have full-blown fleas.

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