Melissa Ashley - author of The Birdman's Wife
Tell us about your book, what inspired you to write it.
It all started when I fell in love with a poet, and with his poem about a bird. We became avid birdwatchers together. Writers, too. When he rescued a ringneck parrot and we adopted it as a pet, a friend gave me a book about birds and a biography about John Gould, the famous ‘father’ of Australian ornithology. That was how I discovered that his wife, Elizabeth, created the beautiful images of birds he wrote about in his exquisitely illustrated folios. She was portrayed as such a shadowy figure yet her work as an artist was so key to his fame and the history of birds that I became enthralled with her. I began researching Elizabeth’s life in earnest and the more I learned about her, the more determined I became to uncover her story.
I’ve always loved stories about women who are overlooked by history, and I find creative artistic relationships fascinating - Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley; Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – so Elizabeth and John Gould’s intimate creative relationship added an extra spark of interest. Elizabeth Gould was such an intriguing enigma that I became convinced that she would be the ideal protagonist for an historical novel so I made her the subject of my PhD. Her story became a labour of love and my first novel.
Do you use your own experiences when writing?
I have drawn upon my experiences as a mother, as a writer, as a woman, and partner in writing The Birdman’s Wife. However, I wouldn’t say my personal experiences enter the writing, it is more that these roles, in their complexity and fluidity, have informed both the creation of the character, Elizabeth Gould, and my choice to explore her forgotten story. More of a general, human application, than anything specific in terms of personality or scenes.
Which author, living or dead, would you like to have dinner with?
My favourite living author is probably the British writer Rachel Cusk. She writes both fiction and memoir; all her work is brilliant, inventive, reflective and layered with complexity. She writes about family and relationships with a searing honesty. Her memoirs A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath, which explores her experience of divorce, are both controversial texts, in terms of their brutal candidness and penetrating interiority, but it is these characteristics that I respond to as a person and as a writer. I have read that in response to the outcries and charges regarding the ethics of Aftermath, Cusk stopped writing for a period. When she returned to writing, she published two novels, Outline and Transit which upset the boundaries between fiction and memoir, and, in my opinion, brought her the world-wide readers she deserves.
That said, in the presence of my literary hero, I’m not sure if I’d be able to speak (or eat for that matter)!
How and Where Do you Write?
It varies. During the stages of an early draft, I write quite erratically. I do follow a basic discipline of writing in the morning, usually for no more than a few hours. I then read and research, and, if all’s going well, I write again in the evening. I can write at my desk, in bed, on the couch, it varies. This writing is done is short bursts, no more than two hours (if that) at a time. But I can pick up the text at any time, if a solution or an idea comes to me when I’m doing something else. But the other, much long stages of writing a novel: revising, editing and rewriting generally take place in my study, and, depending on deadlines, I can work for periods of up to ten hours in a single sitting. Phew!
What was your favourite book as a child?
I wasn’t a big reader as a child, but I do remember an exquisite reading experience. Our family had immigrated in Australia from New Zealand, and I had gone to school in Sydney for six months. We then moved to Brisbane. I went to three schools in a single year, and, as you can imagine, this was a challenging experience. I recall feeling incredibly comforted and stilled by my year three teacher in Brisbane, who everyday read to us from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I was utterly spellbound and couldn’t wait to come to school each day for the next chapter.
We know you are a talented writer, do you have any hidden talents?
I have a good eye for a retro bargain. I like to throw spontaneous dinner parties.
Can you tell us what you are working on now?
I am immersed in late 17th century Paris, in the salons of the female aristocrats who invented the literary fairy tale. They also contributed to the development of the novel and travel memoir, but were written out of the literary canon, ridiculed and mocked even, during the Enlightenment. There’s murder, affairs, intrigue aplenty in their stories. And, as with Elizabeth’s story, I’m pursuing my passion for uncovering women’s hidden creative and artistic lives.