Something Remarkable, By Your Own Measure: An Interview with Ashleigh Young

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

The essays of Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? are lithe, sure-footed things, some companionable, wild-eyed new species of familiar that leads us to their considerations with tenderness and nerve. In language that is lush without ever compromising its precision, Young’s essays travel through and outward from her native New Zealand in exploration of feelings of smallness—of solitude, of lostness in place, of the humble triumphs and consolations we pin our hopes on—with a generosity of spirit that makes the world feel cradling even as it dwarves our concerns. It was an honor to speak with her about these essays, and the particular balm of the world’s tallest stack of waffles. 


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: When did you first start writing the essays in this book? Did this project feel like a movement away from the work you do in other genres, or in some way an extension or reimagining of it?

Ashleigh Young: I started writing these essays in a scrappy way around 2008, which feels like a world ago. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to live and what to do with myself, and I think I had too much choice and not enough courage. With this writing, at least I could say that I definitely wanted to write this book, and it was good to feel certain about one thing.

I can never figure out how much my poems have to do with the other writing I try to do. Maybe it’s that in an essay I’m trying to speed my thoughts up and in a poem I’m trying to slow them down. Someone asked me about this at a festival event recently. ‘How do you know when you’re writing a poem and how do you know it should be an essay?’ and I froze and started blathering that the two forms are entirely different in my mind, that my intention for a poem is always entirely different from my intention for an essay. I thought I should sound definitive in the moment, so that people would think I knew what I was doing. And it’s true that with an essay I start with a more defined idea or a question or problem, and a sense of where I want to dig. With a poem I usually, tragically, start with a feeling that I want to unravel. But the truth is I don’t know! All I can say is that the moment I start writing, I do know. I feel the form there, like it’s looking over my shoulder.

EKH: Did anything change for you as a writer over the course of writing the collection? Did your aspirations for the project evolve at all, or your sense of what the essay could do or what you wanted to use it to do?

AY: Ahhh. So many things changed! A lot of time passed and I grew up a bit. After I finished a first draft of this book in 2009, I had to put it aside. My brothers had some objections to what I’d written – and they were right; I’d written my first draft quite recklessly, telling some things that weren’t truly mine to tell – and I didn’t know how to solve those problems; I didn’t know how to recalibrate the essays and still have them be honest. I felt in the end that it was too hard, and that I wouldn’t try to publish the book. I would focus on a book of poems instead, and on writing new essays, which I did. I made a big move from Wellington to London, and that changed my writing I think. I started writing a blog, and something about the temporal, pencil-sketchy feeling of a blog helped me write more freely, with less agonising about whether it was any worthwhile. It was probably as simple as having a new text box to write into. I think lots of writers are like magpies, only instead of shiny things it’s a new text box that gets them all excited. (At my job – I’m an editor at Victoria University Press, in Wellington – we’re often sent these pristine, blank dummy books from our printers, so we can get an idea of the form of the book we’re about to make. They’re perfect for writing notes in. I love it when a new dummy arrives.)

After a while, I felt bold enough to come back to this book and see if there was still any heat in it. Because time had passed, the events I’d been writing about in my first draft felt less raw. I could think about them without demanding of the reader that they share in my anguish and if they didn’t what was wrong with them?! I had some perspective. I also had some new pieces I wanted to include. And then I could see a better shape for the book. I’m so, so glad for that first obstacle.

EKH: Your essays speak with such dignity and affection both for all manner of creative aspiration, however ultimately humble the results. I suppose I’m thinking particularly of the mailman from “Postie,” who spends his lifetime collecting beautiful white rocks as he perambulates his route in the French countryside, then building various grandiose monuments out of his finds—but I’m also thinking of your dad as he guns his plane across the Cook Strait, racing for a new personal best, or the spirit in which the Washhouse Tapes are recorded. What is it that moves you about these efforts? What made you want to write about them? And what kind of work do they make you want to do as writer?

AY: There’s something in my family that really respects strange feats and traditions. For instance every January my brother JP holds a commemorative swim out to a rock to mark the first (and only) fatal shark attack in Wellington (a young trombonist named John Balmer was killed in January 1852). Similarly, JP’s story of walking one hundred kilometres from one city to another at night with a friend became kind of legendary. And my dad and his friends would stage their own Olympic Games in the backyard, when the real Olympics was on. People just get really into things. My dad is also very proud to have won a plane-landing competition a few years ago and to be featured in the local paper. It’s a funny scene – all these men sitting out in deck chairs in a field, roaring their approval as little planes land. It’s a very NZ-spirited thing – this effort to do something remarkable by our own measure. It’s hard to describe this well but it really moves me when I’m watching someone carry out some small tradition that’s meaningful or joyful to them but not significant to anyone else. I want to write about these things because I don’t want them to disappear. Also – the best and funniest stories in my family always seemed to come from the guys, and part of writing this book was saying (desperate as this sounds) that I feel a part of those stories too.

I guess with the short essay about the French postman Ferdinand Cheval, and with the essay about the Washhouse Tapes, although those people really were aiming earnestly for greatness and posterity, they also believed that their ideas were really interesting, and that being quite geographically isolated had nothing to do with it. I don’t want to over-egg this, but, secretly, I try to work in that same spirit. It still takes me a long time to decide that I might have anything worth saying, though.

I also have this sense that maybe people are turning towards smaller stories – maybe to momentarily shield ourselves from the torrent of massive and awful news stories. I followed a story a few weeks ago about a bunch of people making the world’s tallest stack of waffles. A reporter was spending the day with the waffle-makers and was tweeting about the day as the waffle-building progressed, and it was captivating. They just seemed like the loveliest bunch of people, all standing around this big waffle tower. Another one that got me recently was a story about this Scottish woman who came across a bumble bee that had no wings, and she decided to take care of it, feeding it sugar water and stroking it, until one day the bee died. I get completely pulled in by these stories. I was crying everywhere over that bumble bee. It’s funny, how quickly I can feel like I own a random story from the internet, as if it’s mine and nobody else really understands it like I do – but how it takes much longer to feel that there is worth in the stories I already know.

EKH: Again and again, your essays capture so brilliantly the particular kind of companion pop music is to solitude. In “The Te Kuiti Underground,” you imagine Paul McCartney taking your hand as you walk up a lone country hill; Paul and by proxy his music become intimate companions, sharers in loneliness, and at the same time you say you conjure him up to “make an ordinary place, an ordinary moment, more intense, more like a film, something driven towards meaningful conclusion.” You follow this image with the story of the first pieces of writing you sent off for hopeful publication, all the way back in primary school. What do writing and music have to do with each other for you? Are both about ways of approaching solitude? About articulating your own story?

AY: When I was a kid I used to barricade myself into my room and dance to music, or I would run around naked, bopping away. If a song was on, it meant either ‘celebration time’ or … ‘deep sadness time’. (I would’ve been one of those people in the 1800s in France who went into hypnosis when a neurologist banged a gong or waved a tuning fork in front of me, or something.) I took music very personally. A hidden track on an album felt like a secret between me and the artist; how you could be lying there on the floor after the album proper ended, and after a few minutes of silence, staring into space, some new, mysterious thing would begin. It’s sad to me that hidden tracks are pretty much obsolete now.

It took me a long time to stop taking taste so personally. A workmate in a bookshop once said to me gently, when I’d started sputtering because he said he didn’t really like Quentin Blake’s illustrations, ‘You know, if someone doesn’t like the same things you like, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.’ (And then – my head exploded like a chicken in George’s Marvellous Medicine.)

Growing up, I was desperate for my life to feel like it meant something. Obviously it did mean something, or kind of, but I wanted clear signs that this was the case. I wanted tearful-face-filling-a-movie-screen levels of meaning. Listening to music, writing songs, and writing stories were ways of injecting drama into my situation and imagining myself into another, bigger life. I think all of this is probably really basic – I was just hyper-sensitive, and wanted to be comforted.

But now, the escape is more ordinary. It’s relief. Music and writing both give me a feeling of being on the brink of something, at the same time as being suspended in a given moment.

EKH: Some time ago, I was lucky enough to live in New Zealand for a while, and it took only one trip to the local bookstore for me to sheepishly realize how little I knew about the singular rich and wild and inventive landscape of New Zealand’s literature. Even now, I think many American readers will know only Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame—what contemporary New Zealand writers should we be reading? What essayists and poets?

AY: This is bad because I know I’m going to forget some important writer or other and next day I’ll bump into them at the supermarket and they’ll give me the stinkeye. Well, most of our books just aren’t in reach of the US radar. You have to seek them out especially. I am very excited about some new young poets here. Sam Duckor-Jones has an incredible – hilarious, clever, beautiful – first book of poems out, and so does Tayi Tibble; her work is full of light and grit and this amazing swagger. A lot of brilliant essayists are writing online. I love Talia Marshall’s essays, Madelaine Chapman’s brilliant hilarious journalism, and Anna Sanderson’s book of essays Brainpark is an old favourite – her book was one of the books that made me think maybe I could try to write this kind of nonfiction too. A more recent love is this breathtaking memoir by Diana Wichtel, Driving to Treblinka.

I always get the feeling that the world is slightly rearranged after reading work by these writers.

The New Zealand poets I read when I first started reading poetry are still huge presences for me. Jenny Bornholdt feels like a homecoming. Bill Manhire feels like he’s either talking out of my bones or from somewhere in the ceiling – he is also an astonishing live reader of his work; if you ever, somehow, have a chance to hear him, do. And James Brown … how to describe James Brown? His poems just feel like old much-loved pets to me. Here’s a short piece I wrote about him a few years back, when we went for a bike ride.

I also think the poet Geoff Cochrane should be world famous. I’d actually recommend you read this review by Pip Adam of one of Geoff’s books, as a way to begin.

As a matter of urgency, you should all be reading Hera Lindsay Bird. Start with this poem but do buy her book, Hera Lindsay Bird.

One of my favourite writers in New Zealand is Pip Adam. Her novel The New Animals just won our national prize for fiction. Pip is fearless as a writer. Her work is full of weird darkness and joy. I am getting so happy all over again remembering that Pip won that big prize.

EKH: How did you approach the sequencing of this book? What kind of reverberations and echoes did you seek to cultivate as you found the order for the essays? It occurs to me that process might even be a little like structuring a poem—but perhaps that’s the false metaphor of a prose writer!

AY: People will read things in any order that they feel like, but I still like to fuss around with the sequence of things to see what effects I can make. After writing a book you just want to fuss around a bit. You can change your mind so many times and not do any real harm.

There were logical things – for instance I wanted to show a few glimpses of each family member before they appeared more fully in an essay. I wanted them to kind of wander through the background first. And I wanted a timeline of sorts to be easy for the reader to get their head around. I also did not want the most personal pieces to be upfront and to parade themselves. I wanted them to be like hidden tracks.

But mostly, I wanted to create a sense of continual unfolding. Not of a plot, exactly; but of a scene that keeps unearthing a little more of itself.

EKH: I’m in particular admiration of the conclusions you find for your essays—never on-the-nose, never self-explanatory, but trusting of the reader and of the material itself in its meaning. How do you pull this off? How do you know when a piece has found its end?

I’ve never really known for sure that something is finished, and if not for a deadline, I would gorge myself on revisions. I’m like a dog that needs to have the bowl taken away otherwise I won’t stop eating. The best I can do is judge it by a feeling of having spent everything. But I also think a good ending, in the exact moment that you know you’ve definitely reached it in a book, is already turning into another beginning. It’s started to spin another cocoon before your eyes. All my favourite books suggest that another story is about to happen.

Ashleigh Young is the author of the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? as well as a book of poetry, Magnificent Moon. The recipient of a 2017 Windham Campbell Prize in Nonfiction and an Ockham Award, among other honors, Young is an editor at Victoria University Press in Wellington, New Zealand.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is associate editor at Tin House magazine and Tin House Books.