What the future holds for NZ author Ashleigh Young after her $235,000 prize

Ashleigh Young is a young writer who wrote a book and then unexpectedly won a huge cash prize from an American ...
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Ashleigh Young is a young writer who wrote a book and then unexpectedly won a huge cash prize from an American competition she didn't even know she'd entered.

Writing in the Sunday Star-Times last year, Grant Smithies wondered why Ashleigh Young isn't "being carried through the streets of Wellington in a sedan chair, borne aloft by adoring young disciples".

What a great vision. No one really expected it to come true about six months later, when Young won nearly a quarter of a million dollars for her writing. 

Money! That gets the media interested in that otherwise neglected species, the New Zealand writer. Especially the nonfiction variety.

Young, a 33 year old poet, editor and essayist, was phoned out of the blue by representatives of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, connected to Yale University in the US. They told her that her essay collection, Can You Tolerate This?, had won a nonfiction award worth US$165,000 – which is around NZ$235,000. 

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"I'll have to make some grown-up decisions soon. It is the strangest thing. I've always carved out quite a small space ...
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

"I'll have to make some grown-up decisions soon. It is the strangest thing. I've always carved out quite a small space for my life," says Young.

"With honest, insightful prose, Ashleigh Young offers intimate and playful glimpses of coming of age in small-town New Zealand," the selection committee said.

They compared her favourably to Anton Chekhov and Joan Didion. Which is lovely and entirely deserved praise. Long and affectionate essays about her family in Te Kuiti mix with shorter and less personal pieces that add up to meditations on solitude and memory and writing, among other things. It's often funny and if there is one complaint, it is that the title suggests something miserable. The book is not miserable. 

Ahead of a busy period of being a public writer, Young generously offered to answer some questions by email. First, the money. Has it changed things?

"I haven't got it yet, but in the last month or so I've been pretty reckless at the supermarket and buying things like limes. Loads of avocados. Fancy chutneys. Also I bought a pair of giant woolly socks. They're my writing socks.

"Beyond that, I don't know! I'll have to make some grown-up decisions soon. It is the strangest thing. I've always carved out quite a small space for my life." 

In a way, the book is about the outlines of that small space. And how the space is surveyed in childhood and into young adulthood. But the Yale judges put it much better: Young is "relentless in her examination of herself and endlessly curious and compassionate in her consideration of the world". 

The prize means that she has to go to the Yale Literary Festival in New Haven, Connecticut, in September. She will watch Norwegian sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard deliver the keynote address. Her schedule is packed with panel discussions and workshops. 

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"I'm hugely excited but also very aware that I'll be way, way out of my comfort zone and will have to work quite hard to get a handle on my nerves. The organisers seem to realise this – well, they've read my book – and have taken pains to describe each of my events to me as, 'A small ...', 'An informal ...', 'A very small, casual ...', 'A fun conversation ...' They seem incredibly nice." 

In short, they identified that the book "came out of an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness about the way I was and am in the world". 

Before New Haven, there is Auckland. Told that everyone is watching the nonfiction category in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards this week, where she is up against Anthony Byrt, Adam Dudding and Ben Schrader, Young's response is: "Is everyone watching it? Arghh. I thought they were watching the fiction! I feel like fiction is like the IMAX of the book world. Nonfiction is one of those little cinemas tucked around the back of Cinema 1. It's nice there; they have cushions. It's just not as big." 

Fiction as blockbuster, nonfiction as cosy arthouse. But she agrees there is some exciting nonfiction in New Zealand right now. Much of it is online. She singles out Steve Braunias writing about Peter Hooper at The Spinoff and Talia Marshall's essays at The Pantograph Punch. "Maybe it's just me but I do see a hunger for this kind of writing." 

CREATIVE NONFICTION

She started doing this kind of writing 10 years ago when she took a creative nonfiction workshop with Harry Ricketts at Victoria University. One of her inspirations was a "mesmerising" book called Brainpark by Anna Sanderson, that "seemed to hold my gaze with such calm directness". She says it gave her the courage to write essays about her own life. 

The creative nonfiction label seemed helpful initially, but she grew sceptical. "When you think about the incredibly diverse and sometimes mind-bending reports on experience that exist all through history, is the 'creative' qualifier necessary? Telling a story, even if that story is true, is creative. 

"I just call it nonfiction now, even though I kind of have problems with that term too. It's a sad word, defined by what it's not. But, you know. It's easier than trying to explain what creative nonfiction is." 

Poet Bill Manhire nails it when he says, in a quote on the back of Can You Tolerate This?, that Young's essays feel like beautifully told short stories that happen to be true. Or "true-ish". But what does that mean, really? What is "true-ish"?

"They're truths that I felt," Young says. "A lot of the time I'm more interested in the 'ish' of the 'true'. I'm not talking about verifiable facts but experience as it is lived." 

But for essays about other people, whether it is her musical brother JP Young and his notorious jacket, "big red", or Ferdinand Cheval, she is careful to get facts and timelines right. Cheval was a postman who devoted his life to building an obscure monument. Readers can figure out why writers might identify with that.

"Out of solitude can come something that rises, something that can be occupied," as Young writes in the essay "Postie".

She has recently been rereading one of the best current practitioners of the essay form, Teju Cole. "He's like this strobing light of intelligence and also a deep comfort," Young says. She will also be on a panel with Cole, talking about the art of the essay, during her action-packed week at the Auckland Writers Festival. 

"This will be the biggest event I've been part of. Even thought it's an incredible privilege, and I genuinely am looking forward to it, I do get extremely nervous about these things – not just the events themselves, but also the other stuff. The crowds. The milling around. The 'buzz'. I'm thinking about trying hypnosis or something so I can get through it.

"It's quite funny how writers, if they're going to have any kind of public profile, need to be pretty good performers, of their work, of their personalities, of their lives. I'm very much a novice at this side of it." 

Some of the enduring images from the book are about solitude or, in the essay "She Cannot Work", a longing for it. On a solo walk in Te Kuiti she imagines she sees Paul McCartney – the 1968 White Album vintage. Or she takes the night train from Wellington to Te Kuiti as a student, listening to the White Album on headphones. 

This means that there is an important Beatles question that requires Young's attention before we go. The 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper is nearly upon us. You will hear no end of waffle about how it's the best album ever made. Is Young in the enlightened minority who think it's over-rated and not even the best Beatles album? 

"I think it has brilliant, brilliant moments, but the problem with Sgt Pepper is that it has When I'm Sixty-Four. That's an unspeakable song. It's almost as bad as Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da. I think my favourite Beatles album is Abbey Road, even though it's got Octopus' Garden (I feel like the Beatles made an art form out of ruining things). Also lately I've been listening to this very simple, stripped-back piano version of John Lennon playing Real Love and I love it."

CAN YOU TOLERATE THIS? by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, $30) is a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The winner will be announced on May 16. Young is in two events at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 20.  

 - Stuff

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