Wellington author Ashleigh Young was astounded to discover she’d won a $230,000 international literary prize in March for her collection of essays Can You Tolerate This? She is a speaker at this month’s Auckland Writers’ Festival.

1 Has winning Yale University's $230,000 Windham-Campbell prize changed your life?

No, apart from a lot more people have bought my book. We've done two reprints so far. The other thing is people come up and congratulate me in the street which is just amazing. It's made me see how nice people are.

2 Two years ago as a finalist for the $12,000 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize, you wrote about being "set for life" if you won this "almost limitless" sum of money. You were relieved not to win because of the pressure. What's the pressure like when you win $230,000?

The amazing thing about this prize is that there's no expectation attached. You just get this huge amount of money, you attend a couple of book festivals and then you're let loose. The pressure Eleanor Catton faced after winning the Man Booker Prize must've been awful. When you're in the middle of writing you really don't need the outside world interrogating you all the time. I'll probably just take a couple of months off to write because I love my job editing at Victoria University Press and know from experience I'd go crazy if I was left to my own devices for too long. I want to finish off my book of poetry early next year and start another book of essays about animals. I'm fascinated by human relationships with animals, our projections of personality on to them and ideas around cuteness. Fiction? Maybe. Probably.


3 Growing up in Te Kuiti in the 80s, did you always want to be a writer?

There wasn't much going on in Te Kuiti. I'd say I was born in Hamilton because that sounded more impressive. I used to make little books about a pair of middle-aged men called Pete and Roger who were basically versions of my father. Each title was "Pete and Roger fly an aeroplane" or "Pete and Roger climb a mountain". They became quite famous in my class. I also did the illustrations - Pete had John Lennon glasses and Roger was a nondescript, stubbly faced guy. My two brothers also wrote lots. We were big on ghost stories and made our own movies with a video camera dad hired from the local electrician. One was about killer socks that would asphyxiate people.

4 What were your teenage years like?

I found it really hard to talk to people my own age. I was constantly on edge, worried I would say the wrong thing. I stuck out a bit because I was quiet, liked to write and wasn't into team sports. I have my old diaries from when I was 15, 16 and they're just a torrent of self-loathing and misery. I tried to kill myself a couple of times but they were probably more cries for help than serious attempts. That was never talked about. My parents didn't really know what to do with it. It's such a relief people are talking about mental health more openly now. Being on medication has been genuinely life changing.

5 Do you think your mental health was tied to body image?

Completely. I strongly blame women's magazines, which I started reading when I was 6. I also held on to those vicious, offhand comments kids make to each other. It became a fixation in primary school. By university I was badly bulimic. It took me 10 years to get over it, through lots of things: a great counsellor, a supportive relationship and cycling, weirdly. Wearing those ridiculous lycra pants I got used to my legs and realised they're actually all right, they're really strong. I'm resigned to my relationship with food always being a bit fraught. I don't have to love my body as long as I can tolerate it on a daily basis.

6 The first essay in your book is about a man who donates his body to a medical museum after dying of a rare disease where his body becomes ossified by a second skeleton. How did you find out about that case?

I came across an article during my MA in creative writing. I read a lot about anatomy and physiology. Something about the unchangeability of that body fascinated me. The bone growth was relentless. The more surgeons cut, the more aggressively it would grow back. I was also interested in how bodies can be reframed for a specific purpose. His body was described so analytically, the fact he was a person was not part of the equation. Even though he gave his body to science voluntarily I still find seeing it displayed in a glass case quite sad.

7 Your book is described as "a collection of personal essays", but not all the stories are about you. How do you describe your style?

I like the idea of it being a book of "existential meditations" about myself and others. The term that gets bandied around a lot is "creative non-fiction", which is using techniques you see in fiction like metaphor, analogy, humour and characterisation to tell a true story.

8 You teach a Science Writing Workshop at Victoria University with Rebecca Priestley, who has just won the Prime Minister's $100,000 Science Media Communication Prize. Have you studied science?

No, Rebecca has the strong science background and I bring my experience as a literary editor. Some of our students come from the science side and some from the humanities. We've had a couple of professors and a few journalists who wanted to improve their science writing. We're taking this year off to focus on our own writing.

9 How did you make your break in writing and editing?

I did a writing workshop with Kate di Goldi, who passed my name on to Learning Media. Suddenly I was writing chapter books for kids in the US and Canada. From there I learned editing, which made me a better writer but also made it more difficult because it sharpened my inner critic. Annie Dillard advises in The Writing Life that it's easier to write when you're a bit tired or under the weather and your defences are lowered. I try to catch myself at times when my critic is looking the other way, like first thing in the morning when I'm in that strange fugue state.

10 You spent a year managing Katherine Mansfield's birthplace in Wellington. Do you agree that her body should be brought back to New Zealand?

No, I think she should stay where she is in France. She didn't even like New Zealand much. She hated that house where she spent her first five years - called it a "stinking cubby hole" - so it's kind of funny we've set it up as a memorial. A lot of visitors hadn't actually read her work. It was more about the culture that surrounds her, and the fact she was probably gay. I understand why that springs up around literary figures, we have a hunger to know who they were but that can overshadow the work.

11 In your blog www.eyelashroaming.com you've posted about coping with criticism when you have a thin skin. Is this something all writers need to learn?

Yes, it's tough but useful. The first time I was critiqued in a workshop I felt humiliated and also quite belligerent that they couldn't see what I was doing. Of course they were completely right. Part of accepting criticism is accepting you need to do more work and that's a pain but you just have to do it. As an editor I find it really hard to give criticism because every writer's got different sensitivities so you're stepping round a minefield.

12 Was your article about the correct spelling of the word "eh" for The Spinoff website last year the most controversial thing you've written?

Probably. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek but some people took it very seriously and felt I was too prescriptive. Of course there isn't an absolute correct spelling. I was just making a case for one and probably being a bit annoying along with it.

Ashleigh Young is a finalist in the Ockham NZ Book Awards announced 16 May.
writersfestival.co.nz Aotea Centre, May 16 to 21