The Windham-Campbell Prizes were recently awarded to lucky novelists, playwrights, and poets. Norah Myers interviews one winner, Ashleigh Young, here.
1) Huge congratulations on winning a Windham-Campbell Prize. What does it mean to you?
Thank you very much, and it’s hard to sum up what this means for me, because truly, it means everything. I always knew I would write, because that’s when I felt most like myself, but I knew I would need to do it on the sidelines. My mother had this phrase she’d often shout to get my brothers and me off to school in the mornings: ‘Time is marching on!’ I always got morose when I heard it, because it meant there would never be enough time for the things I really wanted to do. And now, suddenly, I can pause for a moment. I can write out in the open, while time marches on all around me, and it will be OK. Nothing will be lost. That permission is pretty extraordinary.
2) How will this help your writing?
Mostly, the permission to write will help me to focus, because my concentration will not be splintered by all of the things I should be doing instead. It will remind me: this is the right thing; this is something you can do with your full self.
I think also this prize will help me to be a little more ambitious in the subjects I choose to write about. If I ever decide to write about those huge terrifying robot dogs or about the giant w?t? that live in caves in New Zealand (w?t? have been described as ‘like crickets, but steampunk’), I can take the time to do some research so that I can write about them.
3) Money aside, how is this prize different from others you could win?
It celebrates writers without bringing along all the usual baggage of prizes – the longlisting and shortlisting, the sleepless nights, the teeth-grinding. The prize circumnavigates all of that and leaps straight into the moment of celebration. There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Lisa wakes up to find a pony sleeping in the bed beside her, and she lets out a huge scream but then embraces the pony. It’s a bit like that. It genuinely changes the lives of writers. I think also it must be the only literary prize that recipients regularly confuse for phishing or spam – but, I mean, it’s understandable.
4) What do you look forward to most when writing your next books?
Mostly, the pure fun of it. I look forward to that moment when you know you have found the right thread of the story and you feel sure that you’ve managed to articulate or evoke something that you just couldn’t before now. It’s that feeling of optimism that you’ll reach your reader. I’m working on a poetry collection right now, and another essay collection will follow after that, and I’m really excited about both.
5) What advice would you give your younger self when you were just starting out as an author?
Don’t try to be certain about anything yet. Be uncertain for just a bit longer. Don’t be afraid of having questions about everything, especially about things you’re supposed to already know. The longer you can ask questions, the more interesting the answers might be later.
Also, stop sending your stories to real writers and asking for their advice. They’re busy.
Born and raised in Te Kuiti, New Zealand, Ashleigh Young is the author of the critically acclaimed book of poetry Magnificent Moon (2012), as well as the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (2016), which is a finalist for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. An editor at Victoria University Press, Young is also a creative writing tutor at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington.