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SaltWater by Lane Ashfeldt: the Sea in her Blood

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction

By Sara Crowley

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Lane Ashfeldt’s debut collection of short stories SaltWater launched in Skibbereen on 1 December. SaltWater is an unusual project. The ebook was supported by a successful FundIt.ie campaign, and a beautiful limited edition print book has just left the printers. Lane herself was born in London to Irish parents and educated in Dublin from the age of eight. As an adult she has lived and worked in several European countries besides Ireland and she is presently living in Wales. With her debut collection entitled SaltWater and a strong theme to match that title, when writer, bookseller and fiction blogger Sara Crowley caught up with Lane to chat to her for writing.ie, her first question was about Lane’s affinity to the sea. Sara filled us in on their conversation:

Lane told me, “The sea is very important to me. I cannot explain it in any logical way but if I cannot spend time by the sea I get a sort of illness that is about feeling penned in or enclosed.

‘My grandfather, Captain James Nolan, operated a ship out of Baltimore. As a child I was always told that I had to be a good sailor as ‘good sea legs’ ran in the family. I’ve never been seasick even on a night-boat from Dublin to Holyhead one night in a winter storm when everyone else seemed to be suffering and the deck floor was on a definite slant. The title story in SaltWater, about the bombing of a civilian Irish ship in 1940, is inspired by my grandfather Captain Nolan. But my granny’s maiden name was Shipsey, a rare name found in Waterford and West Cork and at one time on Sherkin Island and Cape Clear. The Shipseys worked in coastal occupations such as shipbuilding and fish buying, and were said to have been Europeans of uncertain origins, probably Jewish, who were shipwrecked off the south coast of Ireland with only a couple of words to their name. (I think you can guess which words.)
I adored the randomness of these family stories, the way they seemed to be saying that nationality or where you happen to have been born is only an accident. As a schoolchild I thought it would be lovely to run away to sea myself, but in fact the only time I’ve worked on board a ship was not on the open seas at all but on a cruise ship going up and down the Rhine in Germany. And the nearest I’ve got to Treasure Island was a ‘castaway’ expedition in Belize, where myself and my family were dropped on a small uninhabited caye (or coral reef island) and left to “fend for ourselves”, safe in the knowledge that we would be collected by boat in a couple of days.”
Lane Ashfeldt by Sissu

It sounded to me like SaltWater runs in Lane’s veins, to say nothing of adventure and travel, but putting together a collection of fiction, particularly a debut collection where a writer wants to make their mark, is not as easy as it looks: selection decisions can be tough. I asked Lane when she realised that she had a collection of stories? She explained, “It shows how much you know about writing, the way you’ve phrased the question. Because although realising I had a collection is exactly what happened, I didn’t at all expect it to be that way. I had a list of possible stories to write, for a different collection. Most of them needed heaps of research, some were probably squished novels rather than stories… and basically I hadn’t the time or budget to write them all, though one or two have made it in here.

‘So I had a couple of fails before the book took on its current shape. Although there were gaps in my list, I did have a few dozen stories, so I took a fresh look to see if the makings of a book were lurking there somewhere. Clustering stories under the theme of the sea, and the title SaltWater, it seemed there might be enough to make up a collection. But a re-read suggested that genre-wise, a couple of them wouldn’t fit. They were cut and a new story written to fit. And there you have it.”

There’s a wonderful sense of place in Lane’s work,  I read her words and can “see” where we are – for example in this from “Neap Tide”:

“Out here the tang of seaweed was strong, the ground jagged with shell fragments part way through their slow transmutation to grains of sand. Black and red rocks tumbled right to the water’s edge saying pliobarnach, pliobarnach as the waves thundered through their crevices and blowholes. From the low grey rocks by the water’s edge came the steady tap-tap of a boy collecting shellfish. One by one, he separated them from their rocky homes and dropped them into a bucket of salt water.”

Knowing how much she has travelled, I wondered if Lane had been to all the places where the stories in SaltWater are set? She told me, “Research visits are a rare luxury in the world of non-fiction, where I started to write; far too often, “facts” are sucked out of press releases unverified. I’ve had commissions to write articles about Nottingham, Southampton and Salford, with no budget to visit them and see for myself. And, as you know, you never get a budget to write a short story. But nearly all the stories in SaltWater are set in places where I’ve either lived, or have family connections: Dublin, West Cork, London, Greece and New Zealand. Haiti I’ve not been to, but I visited a neighbouring country with a similar climate, and drew on that in “Catching the Tap-Tap”. I think the only SaltWater setting I visited purely in order to write about it is Canvey Island in Essex. The geography of Canvey is odd (parts of the island are below sea level). Going there helped me to understand the layout, which is critical to the story. I kept looking for the sea, and realised you have to climb to the top of the sea walls in order to see it. Once I understood this, I knew this was the perfect place to put the central character in “Dancing on Canvey” as the story opens, and again just before the flood.”

With this background to the collection – the fact that Lane has lived in many of the places she writers about, and her affinity to the sea, I was interested to know if Lane felt her writing was autobiographical? “Not strongly – it is fiction after all. But like many writers I sometimes borrow a situation or an emotion or a snatch of conversation from my own life, or from something I’ve seen or read. As a story takes shape, things mutate and the characters take on their own quirks. Though I have to add, in a story inspired by my grandfather I wrote in a mutation too far for my mother. She was upset that the character chewed tobacco (mainly because when you chew tobacco you have to spit), so at her request I wrote this out of the story and had him smoke a pipe instead.”

Speaking of truth in fictions, Lane won the Fish Short Histories Prize with her story “Dancing on Canvey”, which focuses on a 1953 flood in the civil parish, a reclaimed island in the Thames estuary in England. This flood cost the lives of 58 islanders, and led to the temporary evacuation of the 13,000 residents. I wanted to know how historically accurate her story is. She revealed, “Pretty damned accurate, I hope. My research took in books, newspapers and websites. Canvey.org has a lot of photographs of the 1953 floods. I even went to Canvey Island and interviewed people who remembered the floods – although the characters in my story are not based on the interviewees. Though I didn’t know it, James Runcie was writing a novel set on Canvey Island at around the same time. I believe he completed it over roughly the same period it took me to write “Dancing on Canvey” — which doesn’t say a lot for the speed at which I write 😉 Oddly, through writing this story I met historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, who spent his childhood in Benfleet and remembered the storm from when he was nine years old. Cornwell gave me an excellent writing tip for future projects: ‘Never take more than five months to finish a book.’”

The SaltWater collection is truly varied, and I liked the daisy chain of “Airside”, where Lane gives us three different character’s stories. That’s a tough thing to do in a short piece. I wondered where she had found inspiration for this?
“There’s also a true story behind “Airside”, also. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group of islanders were forcibly removed from the Chagos Archipelago so Britain could lease the main island, Diego Garcia, to the United States as an air base. For years now, some of the people evicted then have fought in the courts for the right to return. I really identified with their story when I read about it, and I went to a hearing at the High Court to support them. Through this I met and got to know a few British Chagossians who live near Gatwick, and work as ground staff at the airport. The idea for the setting came from this, and the structural link between the characters evolved from the settings.”

Lane won the Global Short Story Prize with “Catching the Tap-tap to Cayes de Jacmel”, also included in the SaltWater collection. She explained its origin, “At the non-fiction website where I was working we ran a fundraising appeal after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and did updates on rescue news. Later that month I heard a group was putting together a benefit anthology of short stories for Haiti. The deadline was the following day. It was a Sunday so I wasn’t working. I sat and wrote all day. My story didn’t get in because they didn’t want stories about the quake for that book. I left it sit. Later I added to it and sent it out elsewhere. I was really happy to see it go in A Lime Jewel, a Haiti benefit collection put together by the Black Londoners meet-up group. Winning the ‘Global’ prize was good timing because I’d written “Catching the Tap-tap…” to raise funds for Haiti, so the prize money went to the Lambi Fund (as will a portion of SaltWater sales).”

For any short story writer there has to be a stream of ideas, I asked Lane if she  gets the Big Idea first and then write a story, or… ? She laughed,
“Rarely. As witness, my doomed Grand Plan for a story collection – maybe my brain is not suited to Big Ideas. Often, I’ll write and write, and when I read it back I sort of go: That’s weird, I thought that story was about one thing and it seems to be about something else altogether. But as long as the story works, I’m OK with it.”

Raising funds online is an exciting and very modern way to publish a book – like similar arts practitioners and writers, Lane has been very successful on reaching her target to bring SaltWater to the digital world. But I wondered,  of she could have chosen her dream publisher who would it be and why? “Good question but I’m not sure I know the answer. Some of the stories I’ve really loved have come from small presses. Publishers like Brandon Press in Kerry who first published Neil Jordan, Serpent’s Tail in London. I guess my ideal now would be a publisher that mixes elements of the past and the future, making good content both in paper and electronic formats. They would be ace at marketing and pay their writers enough royalties that there’s no temptation to defect and self-publish. And they’d do a very nice party… Do they exist? If so, tell me where to find them!”

At the heart of a good collection is damn fine story-telling, something Lane excels at, as her short story successes prove. SaltWater was launched at West Cork Arts Centre on 1 December 2012. To find out more about the book and how to order it visit www.ashfeldt.com


About the author

Lane Ashfeldt’s short fiction has been published in Ireland, England, America and Greece, winning a number of short fiction awards including first place in the Fish Short Histories prize. Lane’s book of stories, SaltWater, was launched in Baltimore, West Cork, because the early stories in the book which are based on her grandparents, have strong West Cork connections. As SaltWater progresses, it takes on a more international flavour which draws on her own extensive travels and the people she has met along the way.
SaltWater is available to buy here and you can find out more about Lane here: www.ashfeldt.com
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