This is the opening paragraph from a blog post called Radio, which she posted on January 3:

"I'm at my parents' house for a few days. The radio is almost always on. It's talkback radio. I think it's Newstalk ZB. New Zealand's #1 Talk Station. During the day, the talkback radio is overlaid with the tennis commentary from the television. This, in turn, is overlaid with my parents' commentary on the tennis, especially if there are female players and there is any suggestion of a tantrum."

In these seven sentences, which grow steadily in volume, we develop a surprisingly sophisticated, detailed picture of Ashleigh Young as both writer and person, of her parents and of the relationship between the three - or four - of them, although she never comments directly about any of those things.

The scene is so rich with the tension and oppression inherent in the visit of an adult to her parents' house over the summer holidays, and is so subversively acid, you'd be stupid to not want to read on.


As you do, you are rewarded by the steady unfolding of a story that reveals her many gifts: humour, unusual insight, a visual mind, the almost invisible accumulation of small details in service of a larger point, the warmth and generosity with which she guides you through her world. She is someone you want to spend time with, regardless of location.

She is one of this country's most brilliant writers, which is both subjective judgment and monetarily verified fact, as illustrated in 2017 by her winning the roughly NZ$230,000 Yale University-administered Windham-Campbell Prize, following publication of her fantastic, introspective, expansive collection of mostly personal essays, Can You Tolerate This?. By comparison, Eleanor Catton got about $100,000 for winning the Booker Prize.

Can You Tolerate This? received stellar reviews in The New York Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Guardian and from a host of internationally famous literary figures. It - and by extension its author - is one of this country's greatest modern literary success stories.

That is not necessarily the way she sees it. She is extraordinarily open about her life and what she reveals at the end of the blog post Radio is something she reveals over and over in her writing, both explicitly and implicitly: that she is both a powerful believer in, and possessor of, doubt.

This has meant that things have often been tricky for her in the two years since she won the Windham Campbell prize, jam-packed as they've been with international media appearances, Q&As at international literary festivals, speaking engagements and other places where your publishers require you to be confident about your talent and value and by extension to sell books.

She says, "Last year, I did I think five festivals overseas: Dublin, Melbourne, Cheltenham and a couple of others and at the last one I did, which was Cheltenham in October, I just had the feeling halfway through my last session: 'I'm not going to get out of this alive; I'm losing my will to live.'

"I saw myself from a great distance, saw my arms flailing around and I saw a man quite aggressively yawning in the front row. It was like a pantomime.

"After that I thought, 'I'm never going to do this again.' I was almost angry with how bad I felt it had gone."


She says she knows that part of being a writer is going out and talking about your work, but she's glad it's more or less over. "It's like you have to regrow your whole brain afterwards and your skin. You just feel stripped-down."

The doubt is pervasive. When asked about how she straddles the divide between poetry and essays - her second collection of poetry is due to be published in May - a question she is asked frequently, she says: "My mood is always shifting and I'm always contradicting the last thing I've said, so it's not even worth asking me the question anymore because every single time I'm just going to make up some nonsense and it's just not true. It's just me trying to sound like I know what I'm talking about, and I don't know what I'm talking about, because it's unanswerable - you just write."

New Canvas columnist Ashleigh Young. Photo / Nicola Edmonds.
New Canvas columnist Ashleigh Young. Photo / Nicola Edmonds.

Her life has always been fairly humble, as she documents brilliantly in Can You Tolerate This? She grew up quiet, bookish, and sometimes quite miserable, in Te Kuiti, the daughter of a teacher and accountant and the sister to two older brothers.

She twice tried to kill herself. She eventually found her way to therapy and antidepressants and to Victoria University of Wellington, where she took a short fiction course with Damien Wilkins in her second year and then went on to study under him at the university's lauded International Institute of Modern Letters, the launchpad for a shockingly large number of New Zealand literary careers. There, in 2009, she got her MA, and also won the Adam Foundation Prize for best student.

She spends most of her time now at work, at home or cycling. One of the things that makes her happiest is to read in bed with her cat and a giant pot of tea, although for that to be satisfying, to have "earned my slovenliness", she needs to have first physically exhausted herself, usually by going for a big bike ride.

She didn't quit her job as editor at Victoria University Press after winning the Windham-Campbell prize. She didn't even take a long period off. She doesn't think having a big break from work would be good for her.

When she goes out socially, it's mostly to poetry readings or book launches. Next week, she starts a new fortnightly column in Canvas and part of her reason for doing so is that she hopes it will force her out and into the world more.

Her first column is about laughter and about how she hasn't been laughing much for the last few months. "I tried to go to a comedy gig at the weekend and I failed because I just got too nervous," she says. "I didn't go."

She has a new poetry collection coming out in May. She was going to call it This Time in reference to an episode of The Simpsons in which puppies keep jumping up and stealing chips from Homer's hands before he can eat them. Each time, he says "D'oh!" but he never stops trying. After six or seven attempts, he says, brightly, "This time!" Again, inevitably, a puppy.

Young says: "I had this idea that This Time was quite good - it's the thing you say just before you're going to fail again. You think you've got it right but it's never quite going to work out the way you think." But she felt that was a bit too bland or anonymous, so she ended up choosing How to Get Ready, which she felt was more specific and memorable.

She loves writing but she says. "I'm constantly questioning: 'What right do I have to say anything?' Like, 'Why would anyone listen to me?'"

The thought of producing another hit book to follow the success of Can You Tolerate This? isn't on her mind: "I don't think about trying to match that or that people aren't going to like this - I mean, I do think they're not going to like this - but I guess I just don't care enough, especially because it's poetry and poetry's never had a big audience here."

Working for a book publisher has helped too. "I see so many more books going out into the world and it does give you perspective. There's always going to be something else to come along and shove it out of the way."

What matters to her in the end is not the fame or success, but the writing, which is a way for her to deal with life.

"I have this thing if I'm not writing much: I kind of feel a little bit unwell. I seem to need it. It's something about grounding me, not to get too ethereal. But, yeah, it helps bring some kind of clarity, even a very small measure of clarity."

Where to get help:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
Or if you need to talk to someone else:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• For others, visit: