Ashley Sievwright is the author of The Shallow End (‘A steady freestyle commentary on sex, celebrity and suntanning’) and Walter. He is interviewed by Bent Street publisher, Gordon Thompson.
GT: Bent Street 1 recently published the opening chapters of Slightly Foxed, your ‘novel in progress’. What was the effect of seeing the ‘almost finished’ work there on paper? Did it make you re-think anything about the novel, which I understand is still in its first draft stage?
AS: Yes – that’s a good question. I am constantly re-thinking the novel. I think the problem with sitting on something too long is that your thoughts keep going, your mind keeps ticking over, your ideas develop or simply change, and what you would have written last year isn’t necessarily what you would write this year. My mind does tend to rush on to the next thing. It’s annoying.
GT: Does that mean substantial rewriting?
AS: I’ve recently re-written a good part of the opening chapters, so that they lead us straight into the mystery from the first line which is now: “She died in winter, but wasn’t found until spring.” Start with a body – good rule of thumb. And I guess that’s how it’s changed mostly. In my last couple of books there has been a strong mystery element, and yet the stories themselves are not, perhaps, satisfactory as ‘mystery stories’ because they don’t focus on that. Here, I want to give the readers a good old-fashioned murder mystery, starting with a body and finishing with a culprit. This time I promise I will do that. BUT, in the middle I can go wherever I want.
GT: And where is that?
AS: I will be exploring a couple of ideas – jealousy and unrequited love, intergenerational relationships, the passion of the collector – or hoarder. And I’m really interested in the idea of Australian Gothic. Gothic tropes are so much fun – the mad woman in the attic and all that. I love the idea of giving those a modern Australian spin.
GT: I get the gothic tropes – ghosts, fascination with death, plus the body horror. But what makes up ‘Australian Gothic’? It has been used, for instance, to describe anything written in and about Tasmania.
AS: Well, I think traditional Australian Gothic is based entirely around the disconnect between colonial Australia and indigenous and natural Australia. There is usually a healthy dollop of fear of and fascination with the unforgiving nature of the land itself. There’s a great deal of Australian Gothic in things like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright, and even a lot of the Arthur Upfield Bony novels – a palpable malevolence that comes from the land itself, and the disquiet colonial Australians feel when faced with – well, with everything – with being here. But of course the real monster in anything gothic is the monster within.
GT: Gothic also has the characteristic of flamboyance – I’m thinking of the outrageous qualities of a gothic cathedral. Is there a kind of gay aesthetic in Australian Gothic that attracts you?
AS: In literature it definitely has its camp elements, which we see now as melodrama, and I will enjoy playing with a few of those ideas, but I’m more interested in the malevolence and pre-horror-movie horror of the gothic traditions. It gives you quite genuine shivers.
GT: Your previous novels, The Shallow End and Walter give what I’d call ‘poetic shivers’ – moments of cool, sublime wonder … I’m very keen to see how the new one turns out. Keeping with the gay aspect of the discussion, it’s worth noting your first novel – The Shallow End – was full-on gay in the world it conveyed, but the second was a very straight suburban world. Was that a deliberate choice?
AS: It was deliberate in that the story and the characters required it, but it wasn’t like I decided to write a ‘gay’ novel and then a ‘straight’ novel. The Shallow End started out as a love letter to the summers I spent at the Prahran Pool, sunning myself and flirting and watching other men – it’s a very gay pool, so it made sense that it turned out to be a very gay book. Walter, the main character in the second book, was always a straight man. He is VERY straight – it’s part of what defines him and what makes the story possible.
GT: I ask because from having read the opening chapters of the new novel, we can see that we’re getting ‘the best of both worlds’, so to speak. Do you have a readership in mind?
AS: Yes – readers of discernment the world over.
GT: Well said. Speaking of readers of discernment, did you have any favourite pieces in Bent Street 1?
AS: I think the one that I keep thinking about is One Day by Sally Conning. It’s such great immediate writing, and quite sure of itself. It picks you up, takes you through a day and puts you down at the other end of it. It’s heartfelt, and happy and sad all at once. I thought that was remarkable writing. I also love Guy James Whitworth’s blue hair portrait on the cover.
GT: We’ve had great feedback. The challenge for the publishing team is to solidify that great start – by making sure we reach out to contributors in areas that are not just the urban east coast. And to create an ongoing creative space through ‘venues’ such as the online Bent Street Cafe. That’s the publishing challenge. As a writer, what are your biggest challenges?
AS: I think the biggest challenge for LGBTIQA+ writers is the same as it is for all writers – just doing it. I mean, sitting down and writing it. Getting something finished and polished and ready to go.
GT: So, basic slog?! Is that a lonely business?
AS: Yes, sure. You sit there and sit there and nothing comes out, but you make yourself sit there some more and then, pop, there it is – totally unexpectedly you’ve shit out the most perfect, glittering Faberge Egg of a phrase or a sentence or something, and it’s all worthwhile again.
GT: Right. Well, on that happy note …
AS: No, but seriously, it is a lonely business. The hardest thing is not necessarily the loneliness, but maintaining motivation. Bent Street provides a platform to get that new writing out there, and that can be a massive encouragement, especially for writers who haven’t yet been published.
GT: So what’s the best thing about being published?
AS: That’s easy – the longevity of it. When something you’ve written almost 10 years ago is read with fresh eyes by someone new, and they respond to it like it was written just yesterday. That feels amazing. At that moment the story belongs more to the reader than the writer. I will always write, one way or another, because I know it makes me feel fantastic, but I do think of myself much more as a reader than a writer – so I get that.
GT: And the worst thing about being published?
AS: Exactly the same. There is a very short moment in The Shallow End that haunts me. Just a sentence or two, but it’s quite dirty. I don’t know where it came from. I just wrote it. It was just there. And absolutely everyone comments on it with a smirky little look on their face. Everyone. I confess I’m a bit embarrassed by it. That paragraph will haunt me forever. Now that’s modern Australian Gothic.