A Night of Journeys: WWF program launch with Kate Evans and Ashley Hay in conversation
By Josh Mei-Ling Dubrau
The fourth Annual Wollongong Writers Festival Program was launched on Friday August 19 in the front bar of the Cabbage Tree Hotel at Fairy Meadow, to a full house. Festival Director Chloe Higgins reminded us how far WWF has come since its incarnation as a one day event held in lecture rooms at the University of Wollongong, fuelled by hot chips from the UniBar. Back then, for the closing event attendees were loaded onto the free shuttle bus to Fairy Meadow for literary trivia in the back bar of the same pub we were now in the front bar of – this time we didn’t have to wait until the lingerie waitresses had finished their shift. A lot of things can change in four years.
In 2016, the Wollongong Writers Festival offers a full five-day program, plus satellite events, which have already begun, leading up to the November main festival. The highlight of the program launch was a rich conversation between Kate Evans, presenter of ABC Radio National’s program ‘Books Plus’, and Ashley Hay, author of The Body in the Clouds (Allen & Unwin, 2010) and more recently The Railwayman’s Wife (Allen & Unwin, 2013), which won both the People’s Choice Award for the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize and the 2014 Colin Roderick Award.
The conversation, like the venue, felt like home. Like settling in to a comfortable place that still has surprising new feelings and insights to offer. Both Evans and Hay are Wollongong-born, and the Illawarra region has certainly informed Hay’s latest book.
Hay is candid and articulate about the way her journey as an author has been shaped, to some extent, by incidentals. “I wanted to ‘be a writer’ but I didn’t know how to do that,” she says. “So I went off to become a journalist.” Working for the Independent Monthly, she reflects, gave her time to develop her pieces. She came to science journalism feeling “alien” to it, but thought, “If I could have a scientist explain things to me, a non-scientist, I’d have a chance of making it interesting and understandable to others.”
The journalistic career experience of both conversationalists took the talk to some interesting places, such as Hay’s discovery of an unexpected love for weevils after interviewing entomologist Elwood Zimmerman for the Independent Monthly in the mid-90s. As Kate Evans afterwards pointed out, up until quite recently (in terms of human history) there were much closer connections between nature, philosophy, science and creativity than there are now.
The Railwayman’s Wife is a work that retains some of these journalistic aspects of fact-finding and reportage, but it is also one that Hay is intimately connected to – although much in the story has been adapted or altered, her father’s father was sadly killed in a railway accident, and his wife subsequently offered the post of librarian for the Thirroul Railway Institute, the heritage building of which still stands next to Thirroul Station. Hay talks about her difficulties with the setting, knowing that D.H. Lawrence had also written about the Illawarra coast in Kangaroo. She tried changing locations, and re-naming – but none of it felt right, and ultimately The Railwayman’s Wife made its way to harbour here in Wollongong, the berth for all the literary journeys of our fourth Wollongong Writers Festival.
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