An Interview with Romy Ash

Photograph by Lauren Bamford.

Romy Ash is a fiction writer and essayist. She lives in Melbourne.

Her debut novel Floundering was published in Australia in 2012, and has been the beneficiary of much acclaim. In 2013 it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, Commonwealth Book Prize, and won the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelists Award.

Her stories stretch from east coast to west and stations in-between, and the points of reference found within feel tactilely of this country: chip packets on sweaty car seats; the cool of a dank pub; the smell of a ripe mango in your palm.

The two young boys at the centre of her novel—brothers Tom and Jordy—are rendered with clear grasp of mental rhythms of childhood, a logic that Ash never loses hold of even as their unreliable mother abandons them in extremis at an isolated West Australian caravan park. This unfussy psychological acuity runs throughout her fiction. Her characters are familiar to us even as they are strangers to themselves and their loved ones.

Her pieces have appeared in The Big Issue, Griffith Review, Kinfolk, Meanjin, and elsewhere. Her essay ‘Shooting Lunch’ was anthologized in The Best of the Lifted Brow Volume 1. She is sometimes known as a food writer, from her work on the cooking websiteTrotski & Ash(now also featured on The Guardian’s Australia Food Blog).

The interview took place in my living room in Melbourne. An edited series of extracts from this conversation will appear in The Lifted Brow #22.

- James Robert Douglas

I. On Place

The Lifted Brow: There’s a real feel for nature in your writing, and I was wondering where that comes from? You have a sense for the names of the things you’re writing about—the trees and the animals—which I don’t have myself.

Romy Ash: Well, I grew up in Northern NSW—I was born in Byron Bay—and we lived in a rainforest, basically, on a sort of hobby tropical fruit farm. In relation to things having names, my dad is a tree buff. So when we would go for walks he would always tell me the names of the trees. I guess where we grew up he knew the names of everything. I think naming something gives you a bit of power over it.

TLB: Do you intentionally seek to evoke place?

RA: If I’m writing something I often start with a place. I definitely don’t start with a plot, which maybe you can tell in most of my writing. I’ll always have a place and a character. I might begin a story with something from nature, but often I have to delete that, because it doesn’t really make sense, in the end, for that character. I might have a character talking about cicadas, and how they have to spend seventeen years underground. That’s a passage I just deleted today from a story. Because I really think that’s interesting, but it’s an awkward metaphor, ultimately.

Floundering was born when I was travelling in the west coast of Australia and I saw places—like the caravan park where they end up—where it’s the end of the earth, really. They’re hours and hours from anything. There’s no running water. But people were living in these places, and they had TV aerials, and plants around their house, and a bucket for the kangaroos. And I started imagining what kind of person would choose that existence, which is where the Nev character comes from. And the story of the shark is definitely a story someone told me when I was on the west coast of WA – wading through a billabong and there being a shark in there.

TLB: Do you see travel as an essential part of your process, like necessary prep work?

RA: I don’t think of it as research, or prep work, it just happens. All the places I write about aren’t real, but the place where I begin writing from is real. They morph and shift – so that they end up being places I’ve never been, but they definitely are born in a place where I have.

II. On Founding Myths

TLB: There’s a short story on your website ‘The Grey River Rest Stop’ (first published in The Big Issue #319) which seems to be an early version of the Floundering narrative.

RA: Yeah, that’s definitely an earlier version. And that Grey River Rest Stop is where the man told me the story about the shark. That’s a real place.

TLB: I’m curious about the differences between the story and the novel. Jordy, the older of the two brothers, is the point-of-view character in ‘The Grey River Rest Stop’, but this switches to Tom, the younger, in Floundering.

RA: The short story is more just playing with voice – and the idea of the shark is there. There’s a hint of maybe what might possibly happen in Floundering, but I didn’t know what that was going to be at that point. That story was at the very beginning of when I was playing with writing from the child’s point-of-view.

I can’t remember when it switched from the older brother to the younger brother. But for Floundering to work it one hundred percent has to be that younger brother, because the older brother is too knowing, and the story is told through that naivety; that tension between what the child observes and doesn’t understand and what the reader understands.

TLB: What sort of decision was it to have the boys abandoned by their mother?

RA: I was thinking about ideas of lost children, which is kind of a white person’s founding myth of Australia: a colonial myth, this myth that the landscape is menacing and something to be feared. In the first drafts of Floundering the story began on the day that she leaves. That was what I wanted to explore – what happens to children who are left alone.

TLB: Where did the mother, Loretta, come from? She pops out so vividly, particularly in her speech – like “nosey parker”, which she calls whatever adults are around who happen to observe her.

RA: In my first draft of Floundering nobody spoke, which is funny because the final book is so heavily based on dialogue, it’s like a play almost, really. Before I wrote Floundering I had this job where all day long I listened to police interviews – with people who were going to court, not necessarily guilty people as yet. In a lot of ways it was a really horrific job. I would get up in the morning, and ride to the city, and get to this office that had absolutely no windows in it at all. It was really old fashioned. In one room there were all these typists, and they were typing up these interviews that the police would send on cassette tapes, and then in the next room there was us, who were re-listening to that tape and checking that the tape matched the transcript. I had this little foot control for the tape machine, and all day long I listened to these people’s voices. I guess I got a real sense for the idiom. I think her voice really came from that year. Even though it was a long time after that when I wrote the book. Those people just lived in my head for days and days and days. Those tapes were amazing. But Loretta wasn’t a specific person from those tapes; she was just the culmination of listening to them all.

TLB: I’m also interested in how Jordy and Tom developed, or whether they have a similar origin? It’s interesting to me that your debut novel is told from such a distinctive voice, whereas a lot of new writers publish memoirs (disguised or not), or otherwise hew pretty close to their own selves. How did you end up with these young boys?

RA: The POV of Tom is not so far from my own, really. I see a lot of myself in him. Obviously I don’t talk like him, but he just felt natural to write. The dynamic between Tom and Jordy is quite heavily based on the dynamic I had with my own older brother when we were children. That felt easy to me too. But when I was writing Floundering—at the stage when I was writing everyday, all day—a friend did pull me aside and tell me I was beginning to talk like Tom in my everyday life. He was slipping out of the book, and into my world.

III. On Brutality

TLB: You mentioned that there was no dialogue in the original draft, and so I’m curious about the variations Floundering went through. You have an interview on the Wheeler Centre website in which you say that an edit should be brutal.

RA: When Floundering got first sent out it got rejected across the board, and that was the version that didn’t have any dialogue. And Michael Heyward, at Text Publishing, sent me a one-line feedback, which was: make them talk. And I was like “Oh, thanks”. But actually he was right. I threw away that draft and I re-wrote it from beginning to end. I changed the timing a lot, and they started to talk.

Caro Cooper was my editor at Text Publishing. I would not describe her as a brutal editor: she’s very gentle. But before Cooper saw it Anna Krien saw it, and I would definitely call her a brutal editor. She helped me a lot, and we did a lot of work before the publishers ever saw it again. And the work that Caro and I did then was not so much structural work, although I added some stuff in the middle of the book. The rest of the editorial process was mostly focused on voice – getting the voice of Tom right.

She also said I had a foot fetish, like too many descriptions of feet. You have to be careful, I think, because you can start looking at it so deeply that you get way caught up in it, and you obsess over things. You have to remember that you’re not reading it for the first time; you’re reading it for the twentieth time. So we left only the most important feet descriptions.

TLB: How did the edit for voice work? Did she point out instances where she didn’t think you were being sufficiently authentic to a child, or to Tom in particular?

RA: I think different publishing companies have different editorial processes. Text Publishing works by suggestion. They won’t ever change anything in the draft. They suggest changes to you, and you choose or don’t choose to take it on board. I like that way.

TLB: That sounds almost stressful to me, that if you don’t choose these particular changes then it will be detrimental to the relationship.

RA: Well, you would probably just have a conversation about that, if you felt really strongly against what they were suggesting for you. Something that Caro talked to me about—because she’s a young editor—is that she’s surprised that authors pretty much always do what she says. Editors need to be careful about the power they have, as well. Although, I love working with an editor. I usually do just do what they say.

TLB: Your prose style is quite plain language or sparse, but then these metaphors or images pop out every paragraph or so. Is that a product of deliberately pulling back your prose with a particular style in mind, or does that come naturally?

RA: I think that’s a process of pulling back. It would be edited down to that. I used to write quite differently. I was quite enamored with language itself. But—I don’t know who said that famous quote, if it sounds like writing you should re-write it—I often find all the pretty things I write just get pulled out. Maybe my next book will be different. Floundering is by necessity really sparse, because it is so close to Tom’s point of view. Even all the description and all the metaphors are things that are within his world. I’m hoping with my next book to be allowed to be a bit more sophisticated.

IV. On Being Read

TLB: There’s this one image that seems to have been re-written in the progress from short story to novel. In ‘Grey River Rest Stop’ you have Jordy feeling a headache “waiting in the back of his brain”, but it “booms” in Floundering.

RA: You know what’s scary is someone reading your text that closely. I don’t think I would have been conscious of making that change.

TLB: So you never went back to ‘Grey River Rest Stop’ to pick it apart?

RA: No.

TLB: That ‘scary’ comment hits on something I’m interested in, which is how an author experiences the audience’s reception of their work.

RA: I think it’s better not to get too caught up in the reception of a book—I think it could be paralysing. And it’s something you have little control over. The book is written. It can’t be changed.

I did feel separate from it, once it was published. At one point I remember talking to someone who’d read the book, and they were asking me about the shark and I was like, “What shark?” Obviously the shark is a huge part of the story and I lived for so long with that shark right there with me, creatively—but I’d just forgotten.

But I guess what I was referring to—that it’s scary to have a reader read so closely, for me—is that a lot of the time I don’t really know why I make a decision in a story. In the final editing stages decision are made specifically, but in the creative process a great deal of the time I’m just working with what feels right, what sounds right. Also my work, though not often autobiographical, is deeply connected to who I am so it feels intimate to be read.

V. On Preparedness

TLB: Is this the first novel you’ve written? Are there other novels in your drawer?

RA: There aren’t other novels. I wish there were, because maybe it would be easier to write the second one. I could just re-hash one of the drawer novels.

TLB: I was imagining how hard it would be to write a second novel. If I were to ever write a first novel I believe that I would be making it up as I go along. I would have no confidence in my knowledge of how to write a novel.

RA: I feel that people have different experiences. But the second one is notoriously difficult to write, especially if your first novel has been successful. I’m kind of writing two novels at the moment. I got a bit frustrated with my second novel, so I started writing a third. And I’m back to the second one again. So maybe that will be my drawer one, the one that I can just think about for a long time and bring back out.

TLB: That’s a sneaky way around the second novel problem – that it will actually be your third novel.

RA: That was my plan. “I’ll just write this other novel that doesn’t seem as hard.”

TLB: Did you feel mentally prepared to write a novel when you started Floundering?

RA: I guess I was quite ambitious. “I am going to write this novel, and it better be good, and if it’s not I’m just going to keep writing it until it’s good.” I think these stories get in you and don’t let you go. The story of the child in Western Australia that I started playing with in ‘Grey River Rest Stop’ just wouldn’t let me go. And the character, which became Tom, was really alive and vivid in my mind. When it gets to that point it’s quite easy to write. But the beginning of the book, for me, is not like that. I normally play around quite a lot in the beginning stages, to find that voice.

VI. On Ambiguity

TLB: Here’s another close reading sort of question. There’s a certain dynamic in your short stories and novel where they are often told from the close first person perspective of a primary character who is paired with a secondary: a sibling, or someone they are in a relationship with.

RA: The other day I was thinking about my stories and about how often there’re only two characters, really. Maybe I’m just lazy. Only two at a time!

TLB: You have this character-based perspective, in a relationship, and the other person in the relationship is presenting mysteries; their motivations and what they’re thinking are ambiguous. Is that something you’ve intentionally been exploring?

RA: A lot of the time I have to pull back from being too ambiguous. I think that’s a problem with my writing. But it’s a fine line to walk. I do like things to be open to interpretation, and for there to be a mystery at the heart of things. I don’t think I do it intentionally; it’s just something that intrigues me.

TLB: Observationally, it seems like a strong way to drive and structure a story. I don’t know whether you’ve ever made those sort of decisions about what sorts of stories are and aren’t easy to write and structure. Your narratives all seem well-conceived in terms of the form they have: this first person perspective with close voice—which is also a bit objective as well, in terms of the things you’re describing—and the developing mysteries presented by the person they’re paired with. It seems to me to be a neat way of unfolding information within a narrative. I find that the main difficulty in writing is knowing how to unpack whatever information I have in mind throughout the course of the prose. This form you have almost seems like an elegant solution, although I don’t know whether it’s really a solution for you or just something that happens to re-occur.

RA: It seems elegant at the end when it’s perfect and you’re happy with it, and it’s not very elegant in the beginning when you’re trying to make it behave in a certain way. When I am beginning to conceive a story I like to get to a point where it’s quite close to the subconscious, or unconscious, where I’m not thinking too much about a story. There is a time to think too much about a story, but I don’t think it’s in the beginning.

TLB: I think of a narrative as an equation to be solved. You have these things that you are wishing to communicate, and you set out a structure and find the most efficient way to distribute this information and to place your characters. But, that doesn’t really sound remotely close to your process.

RA: No I’m definitely not doing that. Often I will write a story and then get to the end of it and go, “Oh that’s what I’m writing about”. And then I will re-write it with that knowledge in mind.

TLB: So it’s a process of refining, once you’ve noticed the most important elements in what you’ve written.

RA: Yeah, and what I was saying earlier about getting most of the prettiness out, and taking out the writing that feels like writing.

VII. On Speech

TLB: You mentioned in our correspondence that you don’t love doing interviews. Why is that?

RA: I’m a writer for a reason, and it’s because I’m not great at speaking. Which is a terrible thing for a writer in this day and age, because you have to do so much public speaking. So, I’ve had to learn.

TLB: You’ve been going around festivals speaking.

RA: Just talking about your work is—I can handle that. When you get to be a very successful writer that’s mostly what you do. But in the festival scene, for example, when you aren’t super well known, you often get on a panel with other very well known people, and you get forced into talking about an abstract topic, like love. Or, I did one recently in Beaconsfield about an imperfect childhood. And I find it hard to articulate myself in those contexts. Ultimately you want people, at the end of the panel, to buy your book. So you’re performing. I guess you can’t really think about that, otherwise you might get paralyzed, but that’s what a festival is: you’re promoting yourself and your book. I don’t know if I’m great at that.

TLB: Is that a mercenary decision for you, going around to festivals like that?

RA: Not really, because the festivals are fun as well. And I’m thankful that I’m being programmed, because not everyone is. And I haven’t been to every festival, either. You want to be programmed on to festivals. Floundering isn’t the most festival friendly book, either.

TLB: Why is that?

RA: Because the topic is quite dark, but it’s not dark in a way that’s easily talked about. Books that are researched, or historical novels, or non-fiction are easier to talk about at a festival. You have facts and anecdotes. Whereas, with Floundering you can’t reveal much.

TLB: Is it tiresome, having to find new ways to recapitulate your work for new audiences?

RA: Your brain does tend to follow the same path. You find yourself saying the exact same sentences. You do have to learn how to tell the story of your book: that’s something I didn’t realise, as a first time novelist. With the next book, I will think about how I am going to tell the story of this book. People have these anecdotes about the genesis of their book, the process.

TLB: It’s like if you’re pitching an article you have to have a narrative about what the piece will be, which might be different to what you intend to write.

RA: It’s that process in reverse.

TLB: In writing this second book are you consciously thinking about how to explain this product, once it exists?

RA: I’m not consciously thinking about it, but it does go through my mind sometimes. I wouldn’t want to choose a subject for those reasons. I just write about what interests me.

TLB: I suppose that would be a dangerous direction to go down, if you start writing things only for the anecdote about writing things.

RA: Because the book then has to back up that anecdote. You want a book that people are giving to one another and talking about.

VIII. On Time

TLB: The reason I’m asking about these business aspects is there was a profile of the band Grizzly Bear in New York magazine a few years back, by Nitsuh Abebe, in which he spent a lot of time focusing on the economics of what it is to be a mid-sized band. They’d essentially hit the ceiling of the indie scene, but they can’t move into pop radio. They get attention in New York publications, and elsewhere, but little headway into the ‘mainstream’. The income from the band wasn’t quite enough to cover a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Some members didn’t have health insurance, for instance. I feel like this is a worthwhile area to pursue with writers, as well.

RA: It’s definitely tougher to be a writer now than twenty or thirty years ago, when advances were larger, and you could sell extracts for a lot of money, and the publisher took you out to lunch all the time. It’s hard to relate to that when you haven’t experienced it. Maybe it’s different for authors who have watched that process change. But I feel incredibly privileged to be able to do what I do. I mean, I don’t want for anything. I definitely don’t have a lot of money, though.

TLB: Are you writing full time?

RA: I often teach at the University of Melbourne during semester. I had some time off last year, but I’m teaching creative non-fiction this semester. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for a writer to not be writing full time. Although I think there’s a point in a novel where you do want to be writing full time, I don’t think that it needs to be for an incredibly long time.

TLB: How much time did you spend full time on Floundering?

RA: I don’t think I spent any full time on Floundering. Maybe two months.

TLB: So you find it necessary to have other income: an additional job, but specifically one that you’re able to leave.

RA: Definitely for Floundering, because my advance was terrifically small. But last year I won a Creative Australia Book2 grant, which is fifty thousand dollars, so I don’t necessarily have to be working right now, and that’s why I was able to take time off last year. And I will be able to take time off again. But I like to work, as well. I think it’s fine to structure my writing around other things, as long as they aren’t too strenuous. It’s nice to have an excuse to get dressed in the morning.

TLB: The writer Elmo Keep speaks quite persuasively about the necessity of writers thinking abut themselves in terms of a business proposition: how much income they’ll bring in from writing; how much time to spend on it; what their expenses are; and what their savings will be. Whether the time and labour and income equation of their work is a sensible one.

RA: I think about that if I’m doing a piece of non-fiction. I’ve done a couple of interviews for The Saturday Paper, which pays very well. I keep in mind that it’s this much money, which I don’t want to spend more than a day on. Or the work I’ve been doing for the Guardian, the food writing work: it’s a day. It might not be as perfect as I want it to be, but I’m not willing to spend more time on it.

I’m better at writing now than ten years ago, when I would have spent days and days and days on something. I think a lot can be said for experience. But in regards to fiction, I think that goes out the window, because it takes so long.

I was on a panel with Alex Miller, recently, and it was about the future of fiction. He was like “I don’t care. I’d be on the dole!” And, well, I don’t really want to be on the dole, but I do feel lucky to be able to spend my time doing something that gives me so much pleasure. I don’t have to get up at seven in the morning and work for the man. That’s got to be worth something.

TLB: Do you feel that you’ve reached a sustainable professional equilibrium?

RA: Umm, I bought quite an expensive couch the other day. I feel like a grown-up. I feel very comfortable at the moment because I have that grant, and also I won money last year from Floundering as well. Even though I didn’t win any of the prizes, you often get money from shortlisting, as well. I definitely have more money than I’ve ever had before. I think if I was a bit faster with the new book, and it was a good book, I would feel very much like this was something that could pay my bills.

TLB: What about your habits as a writer? You mentioned that you try to give a limited amount of time to your non-fiction work, but with the fiction do you try to work to an open-ended schedule, like a nine-five sort of thing, or does it happen in fits and starts? I suppose this is really a question about how you manage creativity, like, whether the work of writing is a nose-to-the-grindstone activity for you, or something that happens in bursts of inspiration?

RA: If I waited for inspiration, I’d still be waiting. I’m not a believer in inspiration, but I am a believer in taking notice of the world around you.

I love to work in the mornings, as soon as I wake, and the earlier the better. I wish I were even more of an early riser. I’d love to have hours and hours of uninterrupted writing time before the world wakes. I can’t really write in the afternoons, I just ruin things, so I try to do edit in the afternoons, or schedule other work, and meetings. The thing is with fiction, I don’t really understand the process – it’s just about getting to that point in my mind where it is like a waking dream state, and that waking dream state is the other world of the characters. I was reading an interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan and he was talking about how writers never know how they do it, and when they do talk about it they’re just fibbing, filling in the blanks. That writers are only really writers in that other space, when they’re living in that world of the characters, living in the prose. Sullivan quotes Faulkner, who when asked how to create a convincing character, apparently said: “Believing that she exists.” I can relate to that.