Emma Ashmere’s first novel, The Floating Garden, has just been published by Spinifex Press. Set in 1920s Sydney, it tells the forgotten story of the people whose houses were demolished when the Harbour Bridge was built. A thoroughly modern Australian love story, it is also about the universal themes of resilience, the hidden price of progress, and the search for truth, self, and home.
Emma’s short stories have been published in The Age, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac, with another forthcoming in 100 Love Letters.
For more see: http://emmaashmere.com/.
If you are a member of the NSWWC you can find an interview with Emma in Newswrite, discussing the joys of living and writing in a regional area.
What was the turning point in your writing career? When did you get your first big break?
I’d just moved to Melbourne and was working and studying full time. I’d had a few minor successes with short stories, but my first ‘practice novel’ was beginning to yellow in a drawer. Then the startling news came through I’d been awarded second prize in The Age Short story competition. People had been saying to me repeatedly: ‘keep writing’. Finally I understood what that meant – and hurried back to the desk.
Could you please tell us a little about your writing technique? What is your routine like? Where do you look for inspiration?
My routine varies, as I tend to write in isolated bursts. If it’s not possible to get to the keyboard, I try to do something towards a project to keep connected to it, even if it’s just looking up what 1920s hats were all the rage, or nailing a name for a character before they slip away.
There’s always lots of rewriting, editing, thinking, cutting, pasting, culling, setting aside and rewriting again. It can also change from first person to third person, and from present tense to past – and back again. I never plan or follow a formula, but I do keep notebooks to jot down words, plot twists, or alternative exits for those seemingly inescapable stalemates.
Who knows where inspiration comes from? Recently I heard Elizabeth Gilbert say that artists are visited by ideas that swirl around the world looking for a good home. When one comes knocking, she suggests you either thank them and embrace them eagerly, or politely refuse and suggest they try someone else.
Very occasionally a title or a first line snakes its way into my head, and off the story goes. But most of the time it’s about tussling with thoughts that intrigue, trouble, or elude me, and trying to knock them into shape. Reading widely and often is my replenishment.
Tell us about The Floating Garden. What inspired you to write this novel?
The Floating Garden is set in 1920s Sydney and is based on the forgotten story of the people who were evicted for the building of the Harbour Bridge. An artist friend had mentioned her grandmother lost her Milsons Point boarding house when half her street was demolished. There was no compensation, and she survived the Great Depression by selling flowers from a suitcase outside Wynyard Station. I knew instantly this was the story I wanted to write.
One morning we walked around the north pylon in the shadowy roar beneath the bridge trying to work out where the house was buried, between the layers of history.
My aim was to give voice to the kind of people who rarely make it into the history books. A love story with a gardening bent, The Floating Garden is peopled with bohemians, charlatans, and fly-by-nighters, and is about shedding secrets, seizing second chances, and finding love amongst the ruins.
What was the research process like in writing The Floating Garden?
Because this story was not so well known, I expected to find the archive almost bare so it was always very satisfying to stumble across traces and tantalizing threads. These often led me to unexpected places – which is the serendipitous beauty of research. There was lots of whirring away on newspaper reels, scouting out dusty journals, leafing through delicate diaries and letters, and reading well-known and obscure books written in, or about, the 1920s. After the harvest, came the sorting, discarding, ordering, and trying to synthesise the facts, gaps, and silences into three-dimensional characters and plausible plots.
What author has had the biggest influence on you and why
There are so many – so I’ll settle for Janet Frame. Her poetry, short stories, memoir and novels seem to sail effortlessly and unpredictably between reality and imagination, the familiar and the strange.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
At last year’s Byron Bay Writers Festival I was lucky enough to attend a masterclass with Jeanette Winterson. After two and a half hours of entrancing us with her irreverent, philosophical, witty and pragmatic advice about the writing life, she ended the session saying: ‘Remember to enjoy it!’
Author? Toni Morrison for the clear-eyed lens she holds up to the past and present to reveal them poetically, precisely, and anew.
Book? ‘Lilian’s Story’ by Kate Grenville – which I read when it was first published. The subject matter, language, structure, compassion, menace, imagery and humour have stayed with me.
Time of day? Morning.
Music? Instrumental – when I’m writing.
Location? At a weathered old desk, with a comfortable new-ish chair.
Excerpt from The Floating Garden
Ellis stood at the top of the escalators leading down to the ferry terminal. She turned her head away from the frantic activity of the bridge, from the changing angles of the harbour. It was like catching sight of a dead loved one’s likeness in a crowd. For those few seconds, the curve of a cheek or the flash of dark hair brought the stab of recognition, followed by the chilling realisation that what once was, is no more.
Only last week she’d passed a line of abandoned houses, their broken shutters creaking in the wind. She’d known they were marked for demolition but the next day when the houses were gone, their absence opened up strange new vistas. Everything looked larger or smaller, more raw or decrepit. A line of shirts and dungarees might have flapped for sixty years in the slow-moving shadow of a corner hotel and suddenly the hotel with its yeasty smells and hosed-down tiles had disappeared. Now the whole world could see into the mossy backyard of the neighbouring house. She couldn’t help but look in too, at the woman stirring the laundry boiling in a copper, at the husband blinking at the fierce new light burning in his shaving mirror.
Visit ABC’s Radio National’s Book Plus program to hear Emma talking about The Floating Garden. Emma will also be appearing at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 7-9 August.