Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Emma Ashmere’s debut novel, The Floating Garden, was recently published by Spinifex Press. Emma’s short stories have appeared in various publications including The Age, Griffith Review, Sleepers Almanac, Etchings and Mud Map: Australian Women’s Experimental Writing Anthology, with another forthcoming in 100 Love Letters.
She has worked in the arts, universities, and as a research assistant on two Australian gardening history books. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide and a PhD on the use of marginalised histories in fiction from La Trobe University. These days she lives in northern New South Wales.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I wrote the beginnings of stories as a child. When I was in my twenties working as a cook and travelling overseas, occasionally a typewriter would come my way. I’d eagerly perch it on a fold-down wall-bed but didn’t know where to start. When I returned home to do a BA in the 1990s, I attempted my first “proper” short story. In the late 1990s I enrolled in the newly established Creative Writing MA at the University of Adelaide. I remember sitting in the first class in the stifling February heat, knowing that was where I was meant to be.
Some of my MA short stories were picked up for publication, but the first real break came when I was awarded second prize in The Age short story competition, followed by a mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
The Floating Garden is about the people who were evicted for the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I heard about this forgotten slice of history when a friend mentioned her grandmother’s Milsons Point boarding house was demolished to make way for the bridge. Her grandmother received no compensation, and survived the Great Depression by selling flowers from a suitcase outside Wynyard Station.
I’d always been interested in the kind of people you don’t find in history books, and knew that the gaps between the facts can become fertile spaces for fiction.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
There’s my faithful old desk in the corner. At one end of my street, traffic thunders past the sugar cane fields. At the other end, there’s the bass-tone mooing of grazing cows. There’s the occasional glimpse of dragon lizards skittering along the window sill. And there’s the reward of a walk along the river or by the sea, only a short drive away.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
Morning is best but I’ve learnt to “make hay”, to grab those brief moments even if I don’t feel like writing, or it’s late in the day. That’s often when the ideas flow.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
Variable and elastic. If my luck comes in, a pithy title or first line will arrive, and the makings for a short story will follow. Sometimes a scene that’s been eluding me snakes its way into my head while I’m busy doing something else. If this happens, then it’s a dash to a notebook to catch it before it disappears. For historical pieces, there’s a huge amount of time spent chasing facts and following tantalizing leads. The challenge is knowing when to stop, to sort and cull, to try to alchemise what remains into plausible characters and plots. When it’s finally time to print out a few chapters, I mark out the overwritten and underwritten sections, while asking repeatedly “Is this word/sentence/character/plot line necessary?”
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
Because writing has everything: imagination, facts, avoidance, confrontation, tragedy, comedy, satisfaction, discomfort, triumphs, disappointments, boredom, obsession, compassion, solitude, friendship, and above all – perpetual learning.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
There might be a quip overheard in the queue at the bakery, a photograph in a magazine, a baffling word in the dictionary, or stumbling across startling claims about the benefits of using arsenic-based face creams in a 19th-century newspaper. Whenever I feel at a loss, I turn to classic or contemporary novels and short stories that will stretch the mind.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
To accept there will always be that pesky pillion passenger: doubt. To not get distracted or disheartened by what does or doesn’t happen “out there”. To just keep plugging away at those sentences.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
That time is short, or as Priscilla Long says in her book The Portable Mentor, we only have an allotted time span – so make every piece as good you can. That while you need patience and perseverance, remember to enjoy the ride even if the scenery is frequently dull. That there will always be more drafts than you think. Some days you’ll add and the next day you’ll subtract. The piece will survive, or it won’t. Either way, nothing has been wasted. You sat down and wrote. That’s the reward. And the point.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
To keep trying to improve. To see much more diversity in what’s being published ie. books from all sorts of women from every kind of cultural and economic background, and corner of society. And to see those books reviewed, promoted, highlighted at festivals, in book clubs, and in the media.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
The list is long! My favourites have that combination of genius, empathy, risk-taking, and an eye for absurdity: Ali Smith, Toni Morrison, Janet Frame, Jeanette Winterson, Alexis Wright, Christina Stead, Virginia Woolf, Deborah Levy, Arundhati Roy, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Strout, George Eliot, Dorothy Porter, Andrea Levy, Elizabeth Harrower, Kate Grenville, Hilary Mantel, Jenny Erpenbeck….
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Emma Ashmere!
— Nicole Melanson
Like this interview? Follow WordMothers or Subscribe to meet more great female authors!