Don’t worry about your ‘natural talents’. Try not to think about time overly much. I have come to believe that one of the most important qualities of a writer is patience. Whether emerging or developed, the need for it never goes away. Keep trying, keep learning. Embrace criticism and feedback. Keep reading!
NLK: Can you tell us what drew you to Elizabeth Gould’s story?
MA: John Gould, the famous 19th century ornithologist, known worldwide as ‘The Birdman’ and ‘The Father of Australian Ornithology,’ is renowned for creating the most sublime hand-coloured lithographs of birds the world has ever seen. But few people know that his wife, Elizabeth Gould, acted as his principal artist during the first 11 years of the family business. It was Elizabeth who created more than 600 of the hand-coloured plates published in his luxury bird folios. Yet her legacy has been overshadowed by her husband’s fame. Not only did John Gould’s name feature as the author of the folios the couple produced, but he co-signed his name to all of Elizabeth’s plates. Hence, today, many people assume he was the artistic genius who brought so many amazing birds to life.
Although born in the early 1800s, in some ways Elizabeth’s experiences parallel those of women today. She can easily be related to, juggling a successful career, and taking up her roles as wife, business partner and mother to a brood of seven children. She was also a passionate adventurer and, despite her demanding and ambitious husband, came into her own as a successful artist. With great courage, Elizabeth defied the conventions of her time, parting from her three youngest children to join John on a two year expedition, voyaging from England to Australia to collect, study and describe our wonderful bird species.
NLK: Was it satisfying to give Elizabeth Gould her rightful place in history?
MA: Absolutely. For me, researching and writing Elizabeth Gould’s fictional memoir was a kind of archaeology. I had to uncover enough layers to feel confident to write the narrative of her interior emotional life. Two hundred years of analysis of John Gould and his contributions to ornithology and zoological illustration have created a luminous figure, a colossus figure even. But time and again, Elizabeth is consigned to his shadow. Biographical descriptions of Elizabeth represent her as her husband’s obedient servant or supportive wife. And, maybe because she lived in Victorian times, all sorts of passive qualities were projected onto the sort of person she might have been: delicate, polite, elegant and deferent. Indeed, a few of John Gould’s biographers’ even suggested that she sacrificed her very life following her husband’s pursuits. Actually, she died in childbirth. Perhaps, more than anything else, in writing The Birdman’s Wife, I set out to overturn these outdated notions. To me, Elizabeth Gould was a woman well-ahead of her time, a person many of us would like to befriend. She was tenacious, courageous, resilient, fiercely loving, talented and adventurous. And it’s high time the spotlight was turned on her adventurous life.
NLK: You are a self-confessed research nerd, what do you see yourself researching in the future?
MA: I am currently 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.
NLK: How important is to connect with other writers?
(feeling envious because you know Inga Simpson)
MA: Very! If it wasn’t for Inga Simpson’s confidence in the manuscript, and recommendation that I send it to a publisher, I may have kept working on it, rather than letting it go when it was ready. Once it gets into your editor’s hands, a manuscript goes through a huge amount of editing, so the ‘book’ that you originally submit is shaped further by structural and copy edits and line-edits. An exhausting process.
I’ve worked with writers in my creative writing degree, and have long been a member of a critique group of other writers. They are invaluable in terms of support, in particular, for the difficulties of persevering with a writing career, which can take time to get established, involves lots of determination and not necessarily much money. And of course the feedback on your work, and learning to separate emotionally from your writing, can be helped by writing friends. And then there’s unwinding, debriefing and having fun with that special community of people.
NLK: Why are you fascinated by birds?
MA: It started when I fell in love with a poet, many years ago, and with his poem about a bird; a black-faced cuckoo shrike, a bird common in my neighbourhood. I didn’t know what its name was, and his poem and the potentials of writing about birds, opened in me an interest, both in their natural environments and as subjects for my writing. Over a long period I slowly became more interested in birdwatching, which intensified for The Birdman’s Wife. The idea of writing about Elizabeth Gould came after a friend lent me a biography of John Gould, who I had vaguely heard of, but I knew nothing about Elizabeth.
NLK: Is the Fairy Wren still your favourite species?
MA: Fairy wrens will always be a special family for me, much more so, because of the beautiful cover and case design of The Birdman’s Wife by the incredible team at Affirm Press. I have seen Elizabeth’s original pencil design for the superb fairy wren plate that features on the front of The Birdman’s Wife, which makes me love it all the more.
I also love that we can see superb fairy wrens and variegated fairy wrens in our own backyards, (on the east coast of Australia) because they are fairly common species. There are also other species of fairy wren that can be encountered without too much difficulty, the red-backed fairy wren, for instance. They are playful and friendly and such a pleasure to watch. I think it’s easy for people to like them, if they turn up in your garden it’s fun to watch them flitting about.
There are ten species of fairy wren in Australia, and they are found nowhere else in the world. Elizabeth, before her untimely death, painted nine of the species for The Birds of Australia. Her paintings of fairy wrens, when you look at the detail up close, are exquisite.
NLK: What was the biggest obstacle you faced in writing The Birdman’s Wife?
MA: I would say taking the leap to write it as fiction. I’m a researcher by training and I love nothing more than digging into files and archives. For Elizabeth’s story that meant 1830s London and Australia; ornithology, zoological illustration, voyages of exploration, childbearing practices. I’d outlined the plot but there comes a point when you feel an itch to start the first scene of the first chapter. I came to a stage where I felt I had spent enough time with printed books. I needed to follow in the footsteps of my heroine and get out into the field, go birdwatching, learn bird-stuffing and, ideally, to handle archival materials that Elizabeth Gould made herself, which I was finally able to do in the State Library of NSW. The discovery of her letter book in John Gould’s papers helped me to make that jump from the biographical Elizabeth to imagining her emotional journey, her personal experiences and challenges, as the narrator of The Birdman’s Wife.
Another challenge, which arose after I’d been writing for about six months – and the most rewarding by far – was finally finding Elizabeth’s ‘voice’. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the first draft that she began to take over the narration. And, from that point onwards, she was there with me as I wrote. One of the most valuable points of inspiration was the letters I discovered in my research that she wrote while in Australia and a small diary, both of which gave me a window into her personality. It took time for me to get to know Elizabeth, and to find her real voice. But, once that side of the storytelling came together, I felt a renewed confidence in telling her story.
NLK: What advice would you give to new and emerging writers?
MA: Don’t worry about your ‘natural talents’. Try not to think about time overly much. I have come to believe that one of the most important qualities of a writer is patience. Whether emerging or developed, the need for it never goes away. Keep trying, keep learning. Embrace criticism and feedback. Keep reading! At the end of the day, becoming a writer, continuing to write, making it a career, is about putting yourself forward, about not giving up. Tenacity. Determination. And lots and lots of writing and revising.
About Melissa Ashley
Melissa Ashley is the author of the historical novel, The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press October 2016), the fictional memoir of the pioneering nineteenth-century bird illustrator, Elizabeth Gould. As part of her research, she became an avid birdwatcher and learned to make taxidermied bird skins at the Queensland Museum.
Melissa has a PhD and an MPhil in creative writing and a first class honours degree in literature and teaches creative writing workshops at the University of Queensland. She has received research grants and awards for her work, including an Arts Queensland emerging writers’ grant, and an Australian Scholarship Award.
Melissa was born in New Zealand and moved to Queensland at the age of eight; she lives in Brisbane with her two children.
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