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Friday, 3 January 2014

NEW SOUTH WALES "Samanlaiset linnut lentävät yhdessä" *

The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay set in Thirroul, NSW

A tender exploration of marriage and loss for a young woman and her child, living in New South Wales. From the early days of Mac and Ani's marriage, when life glows for the two of them, to the post war years when the couple has a young daughter Bella. 

Their marriage is the centrepiece of the narrative, beautifully captured as the couple relationship evolves and matures. Ani's family is originally from Scandinvavia and on the morning of her wedding to Mac, her Father writes in her daybook *"The same kinds of birds fly together"  in Finnish (as per the title of this post). The novel is set against the background of World War II and its aftermath. Melancholic in feel, the reader accompanies Ani as she takes up the job of librarian at the Thirroul Railway Institute Library, the thunder of the D57 steam trains punctuating the storyline with their hissing, demanding presence. 

"The trailing detritus of the war" has left its mark on Frank Draper whose memories are clouded by the people he encountered during his years as medic to the wounded. And Roy McKinnon, too, poet and ponderer, who struggles to find his creativity because of his own experiences of the last few years. Their love of the written word is at the heart of the interchanges that Roy and Ani have, especially "Kangaroo" by D H Lawrence, which Ani holds dear. It is set in the very same area in which they live, and she enthuses "I loved the idea that such a story could come from such a pretty seaside town". 

Bella skips her way through the book, preventing the book from sinking into real melancholia, and the reader is left with hope for the future.

Ashley Hay very kindly agreed to answer some of our questions, so we hand over to her. Enjoy!

TF: We had to look Thirroul up on the map! What inspired you to set your novel in this New South Wales location?

AH: I grew up in Austinmer, the next village up the coast from Thirroul, and I’ve always wanted to write about that landscape – it has an amazing escarpment that reaches down almost to the ocean, and combination of the sky and the mountain and the water always made it feel a special sort of place.

The novel is partly inspired by an actual moment in my family’s history (my grandfather was killed in a railway accident and my grandmother was given the job of Railway Institute librarian in compensation for this) and that story did take place in Thirroul – albeit with very different incidents and characters to those in The Railwayman’s Wife. And because I wanted to include the idea of D. H. Lawrence in the book (he wrote Kangaroo during a short stay in Thirroul in the early 1920s), I wanted to keep the fiction in its actual factual space.

TF: The novel has real psychological insight into ‘loss’. How did it affect you writing about loss and death and how did you keep you keep yourself buoyant?

AH: While I was writing scenes about Anikka Lachlan, the railwayman’s wife, hearing about her husband’s death, or the sections about the war experiences of the poet, Roy McKinnon, or the doctor, Frank Draper, it didn’t feel different to the mechanics or processes of any other pieces of writing – I was just trying to make the voices sound right, trying to make the narrative whole.

But I know that after I’d written out the scene when Mac, the railwayman, dies (which you learn about very early in the book but don’t read about until almost the end), I was incredibly anxious about my own husband’s safety and well-being for a couple of weeks. It felt like a nasty kind of chutzpah to go around killing off perfectly lovely husbands … and I made sure mine stayed well away from anything locomotive for as long as I could.

TF: The rumble of the railways is like a constant hum in the background. Do you have a particular interest in trains, as there is quite some detail about engines and so forth.

AH: I’m glad that sound – that rumble – came through, because sound was one of the ways I found this novel in the first place. I was listening to a talk in the library where my grandmother had worked when a train pulled into the platform outside and I realized how horrifically close and big and huge it sounded. I realized she’d had to work that close to the sound of the thing that had killed her husband, every single day for years. And I was fascinated by that proximity.

As for the detail about trains, I have to make a confession: I had a son while I was writing this novel, and he’s the kind of lovely little boy who loves trains – reading about them, watching them, playing with them, building his own tracks. So, really, a lot of my train-ish research came from reading him Rev. W. Awdry’s original Thomas the Tank Engine books – which are a very good source for these sorts of particulars. I could feel like a tops mother who was reading a huge number of books to her small person while I was secretly researching halts and footplates and boilers and guards at the same time …

TF: How did you come to writing? And do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

AH: There weren’t a lot of writers around on the south coast of New South Wales in the late 1980s – D. H. Lawrence was long gone – so I wasn’t sure how to go about becoming one. I did a journalism degree thinking that I might be able to get a job as a journalist and then work out if I was any good at this intriguing other sort of writing after that. It turned out to be a good theory and I made my way from journalism’s starting point through essays and narrative non-fiction to this seductive world of writing fiction and Making Things Up. But I still work as a freelance journalist – you get to enjoy having words appear much more rapidly than they can when you’re working as a novelist, which is nice.

As for tips for aspiring writers, read as much as you can – that’s the best way to learn. And write as much as you can too – regularly, and for its own sake, not just to try to publish. It’s an essential criterion for being a writer that you actually write. Also if you find a good editor, nail their feet to the floor and never let them out of your sight … they can help you make your stories sing.

TF: What are you currently working on? Will location be an important feature?

AH: I finished writing about Sydney (for The Body in the Clouds, my first novel) and Thirroul (for The Railwayman’s Wife) after we’d moved hundreds of miles north of both places … to Brisbane. When The Railwayman’s Wife was done, I said to my husband (whose job had brought us to the capital of Queensland in the first place) that I wanted to write a book about where I was for a change, and did he think we could sit still in Brisbane long enough for me to finish one? It’s set in Fairfield, the riverside piece of this city that we live in, and location is – again – very important to the plot. I think place has been important to pretty much everything I’ve written – in essays, in narrative non-fiction, and certainly in my novels and short stories. It always rises up like a character and makes a space for itself.

TF: When you travel, what is your choice of leisure reading?

AH: Anything from the teetering piles of unread books that sit like skyscrapers around my house; I promise myself at the beginning of each year that I won’t buy any new books until I’ve made a dint in the ones I haven’t read yet – and my resolve fails ten minutes’ later in the January sales.

The best match between a journey and a story that I’ve managed recently was reading Michelle de Kretser’s extraordinary Questions of Travel while I was away from home myself, and in Jordan of all exotic places. That gave an added punch to her wonderful meditations on our different ways and reasons for moving through the world.

Thank you to Ashley for her generous time in answering our questions. You can find out more about the author via her website

And if you would like more books set in Australia, then just click here to choose your next novel.

Tina and the TripFiction Team

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