Melissa Ashley is a writer, poet, birder and academic who tutors in poetry and creative writing at the University of Queensland. She has published a collection of poems, The Hospital for Dolls, short stories, essays and articles. What started out as research for a PhD dissertation on Elizabeth Gould became a labour of love and her first novel, The Birdman’s Wife, which has been printed in three formats and sold more than 30,000 copies since release.
Melissa’s second novel, The Bee and the Orange Tree, is out now with Affirm Press. Check out my review here.
Why The Bee and the Orange Tree? Why was this the story you wanted to tell?
I found out about the main character, Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy, many years ago, so she's been with me for a really long time. And I love fairy tales. I'd been researching to write about fairy tales and it wasn't working, and I discovered these French fairy-tale writers who existed in the seventeenth century. I'd never heard of them, and Marie Catherine had a very interesting, mysterious life. I thought her story needed to be told in the sense that she contributed so much to the archetypal fairy tales we have today. And also, she has an interesting biography and I was just fascinated by the period, and it just a dug a hook into my imagination. I let it sit for a while and then it came back to me, and I thought she would be a good character for a novel.
Was it always your intention to write historical fiction?
I'd written two contemporary novels that are in drawers and won't be published, and I always thought I'd write contemporary. But I discovered Marie Catherine first and then Elizabeth Gould. When I found Elizabeth Gould, I was a very passionate bird-watcher and I just really wanted to write about her. I thought she was so forgotten, I was quite passionate about telling her story. That project went well, and it gave me confidence to go even further into the past, which was more challenging in terms of the research and it's a different culture. The challenge is finding that voice; it's so important to have a voice that encapsulates something of the era so the reader feels like they are transported there, but you're also expecting a contemporary reader to engage and you can't have language that's too distancing. I'm very aware of that and it's a fine balance that, for me, I reached through a re-drafting process. Into the third draft, I start to get the voice. Dialogue was one of the things where I really tried to strike that balance so that it rings true to the reader and it’s readable as well as seeming authentic. It took about two years to research and write, although the idea was with me for much longer. I wrote some of it when I was in a residency in Paris. Without that opportunity, I wouldn't have had the confidence to write the book.
How did you know that writing is your purpose? Did you have to search for it, or have you always known?
For a long time, writing has been my meaning in life. I've felt that way since I was 20, when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I didn't want to be a writer as a child, but it's been about 25 years now and it hasn't ever changed. I started writing poetry and figured out I wasn't a poet, but that was my grounding. Writing is the way I can make sense of complexities. That's why I love Marie Catherine's story. Lots of people, lots of women, who are interested when they hear about her are glad to have that story told and want to read about it. What was so great about these women in the seventeenth century was they couldn't work and they didn't have a lot of freedom but they developed intellectual salons and communities where they made meaning in their lives through writing and performing poetry and reciting fairy tales and publishing books. There are parallels there with women who write today.
In December, I will start writing my new novel and I have a feeling that I just need to. I am building up a head of steam, the desire to just go back and do that is getting strong, and that's part of the process as well. For me, part of it is romanticising being a writer and also the professional side of it. I'm very excited to begin my new book because the second book had a lot of pressure, but with this new book I'm about to write I feel reconnected with my old writing self, that deep part of me that knows writing is what I do. I've got a bit more confidence now.
Writing is both your profession and a vocation that gives you purpose and joy. Is it hard to balance the two?
I'm fortunate that I'm very much a part-timer with everything I do. When I teach, I'll do it for one semester or I do a series of courses or workshops. I dip in and out of it. I've been teaching for quite a while, but I feel I've hit my stride with it just recently and I get a lot of nourishment out of working with other people, no matter what level they are at, and talking about the process. That fills me as well, and it's a very regenerative experience. I know I couldn't manage being a full-time teacher and a writer.
This second novel has taught me a lot about process, about drafting, to go in for six weeks or three months and just focus on the novel and try to rid myself of other things, and then come out of that and deal with those other things, then go back in. It's like an obsessional process and you have to compartmentalise depending on what you're tending to at that time of the year. That's how it works for me. I've read articles where people say "I write every day", and I've read other articles where people are unable to write and feeling like the well is dry, and having a period of time when they don't write, and coming back to it. I think that I'm like that, I take a break from it then go back deep into it. It's very personal, whatever works with the individual.
What advice would you give to people who think writing could be their "why" in life? How can they honour it and explore it?
It doesn't matter who you are, how old you are or where you're positioned: have some sort of a practice or process or discipline, like finding a time of the day when your mind works best and when you can write.
Commit to something: write a story, write a poem, enter a competition. Have a project and start small if you're not experienced.
The other thing I would encourage is for people to connect, through writers centres or university courses or online course, all of it is helpful. Connect with the community, support other writers and they will support you. It's a cliché but writing is a solitary activity but you make friends with the community and it's got that whole other nourishing wonderful side to it.