Interview with Jenn Ashworth
Jenn Ashworth is a full-time writer and freelance literature development worker. She is currently working on her second novel and her first, A Kind of Intimacy, has just become available as a paperback. She also teaches creative writing and blogging workshops, organises literature events and projects and edits manuscripts. Her blog can be read at http://jennashworth.blogspot.com/
(Jenn Ashworth, photographed by Martin Figura)
Jenn, you completed a creative writing course. Indeed, quite a bit of your first novel was written while enrolled on this course. How did you find the experience and would you recommend it to fledgling writers?
I'd actually completed a first draft of my novel before I started the course - and I think this was a good thing, as it meant I already had a clear idea in my mind of how I wanted A Kind of Intimacy to turn out. Not that I was impervious to criticism - getting feedback on how to do the subsequent five drafts the book turned out to need was my main reason for going on the course, as well as the luxury of being able to write full-time - but because I had a draft in place, I was able to avoid the 'writing by committee' effect that many creative writing courses are accused of.
I very much enjoyed the experience, and still have regular contact not only with current students at the Centre of Creative Writing in Manchester, but also friends I made during that year. I'd certainly recommend a Creative Writing MA to anyone who is interested in the workshop method of getting detailed feedback on works in progress. Since leaving, I've never been able to find anything quite like it and as I've just finished writing another novel, 'on my own', it's made me realise how valuable that experience was.
I thought that Annie Fairhurst bore a resemblance to Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes from Misery (and perhaps Carrie too?). Did you find inspiration from these (or other) female characters in fiction? Was she modelled on anyone from real life? Is there much of yourself in Annie?
Yes - Annie is named after Stephen King's character, and also Orphan Annie - I'm a big Stephen King fan and Annie Wilkes is another character who is unhinged, and who has been corrupted or damaged by her books. Emma Bovary - who is described as a victim of too many romance novels was another inspiration, as well as a very overweight woman I used to see on the bus on my way to work at the Bodleian library in Oxford - her nose always stuck in a Mills and Boon, and too shy to look up or say hello to anyone who sat next to her.
I worked the year before in the central library in Cambridge, just as The Surrendered Wife became popular - which I read. I think even then I was wondering what a certain sort of person would make of a book like that, and what damage could be done by trying to apply it to your life. Annie is also a sort of anti Bridget Jones, although that's not something I set out to do, and has only been pointed out to me afterwards by readers. The main inspiration was autobiographical - I have nothing in common with Annie's life or history, but her gnawing feelings of inadequacy, of not ever knowing if it's okay to serve pickled onions with wine, was something I felt a lot as I was setting out to write this book.
The novel attempts to reveal Annie’s thoughts. Her characterisation is presented in the first person. This may be considered an attempt to engage with a very real problem in society: those labelled insane. Were you trying to deal with society’s (often poor) relationship with those on the margins? Or do you consider the book a damning indictment of suburbia? Pity poor Neil who never knew what was coming when Annie moved in!
I've worked closely with people who have been labelled 'insane' in various settings, and all it's taught me is that no matter how bizarre or unattractive the behaviour, everyone is on their own side and is acting according to their own internal logic, even if that logic is skewed by normal standards. I'm interested in that logic, in making incomprehensible or bizzare acts meaningful to the reader by allowing the reader to experience the meaning these acts have for the character. So yes, you need a close, claustrophobic first person for that. My second novel is in first person too.
When I was writing Annie, I had to get into her head and see her behaviour as reasonably as she did. The ending becomes almost inevitable, because what else would someone like Annie do in a situation like that? And while none of the characters in the book are blameless or really that sympathetic, it's hard to put your finger on what anyone could have done to fix Annie.
A reader described the novel as an examination of the consequences of not being loved - I think that's true, but I think you could also describe it as me trying to look at what happens when someone's words are not heard - either because they've no-one to talk to, or because language itself is all we have to get that intimacy with each other, and it's too unreliable for that. Annie I think gets her understanding and her real intimacy with her reader, who she's really aware of. Maybe that's a little bit of intimacy and a happy ending for her!
Throughout the book, Annie constantly ‘learns’ from reams of self-help literature. Were you consciously making the point that such books are unhelpful?
Yes, up to a point. Not that I'd say these books shouldn't exist, or that most people are too stupid to see through them - of course not. It started as a bit of fun - I had a great time making up the titles - and then ended up as being one more way of the novel saying that words, even words with the best intentions, can be slippery and dangerous. Annie follows the instructions precisely, and things still go wrong for her. There's something between the lines that she doesn't get, always.
Annie is a complex narrator. We can never be sure if we can trust her version of events. Are you making specific claims about authorial instability? Perhaps there is no narrator, not even a supposedly omniscient third-person, who can objectively convey all aspects of a story?
Annie is motivated by her need to be understood - for her reader to see the world in the same way as she does. Sometimes she's lying, sometimes omitting the truth, and sometimes - more often - relating what happened exactly as she sees it. Her perspective, like all first person narratives, is unreliable because it is partial. I tried to put enough in there so you could imagine how Lucy or Neil or Sangita would relate the same events, and that gap between Annie's perception and the assumed perception of the other characters is where the humour in the novel happens. I think. So I'd certainly agree that there's no such thing as an objective narrator – that all narration is partial and unreliable. That's what makes it so interesting. There are all these other possibilities - like the shadows of voices that might have spoken if it had been someone else's story. I'm interested in trying to find an omniscient voice, but not sure I'm ready to abandon the fun I'm having with first person just yet!
Annie becomes obsessed by Neil, who she ties like an umbilical cord to her past in an event at a bus stop. Yet, she is trying to escape her past: her husband, daughter and father. You seem to be making the point that there is no escape from the past. It is not a ‘lost world’, as Salman Rushdie might say. Is this a fair judgement?
I would say that I don't think you can escape from the past, but also that I agree with Rushdie that what has gone before is 'a lost world'. We're constantly in the past - or at least from our own impressions of it. That's the idea behind the John Banville quote at the start of the book. Our experiences have formed us, and most of us spend a lot of time in the present narrating our pasts to ourselves through remembering - just as Annie does. But of course interrogating these memories is as unreliable as a way of any at finding out what really happened. The facts - the truth of events - might be a lost world, but our obsessive re-experiencing of our cobbled-together versions of them is obsessive and inescapable. How Ishiguro handles remembering and nostalgia in his novels and short stories has always been very interesting to me, and a real inspiration for my own work.
What do you think of the ‘opposition’ between literary and popular fiction?
I don't care about it. It isn't something I'm interested in at all. I suppose it makes a difference to how much you earn, or what the covers of your books look like, but not always. As a reader, I want challenging books with good plots - books that grip me and hold my attention, and give me something to chew over afterwards. That's what I try to write. A thrilling storyline or an experimental style can all do their job in holding my attention - my tastes, as you might have gathered, are very wide, although tend towards the darker, more melancholy types of books. Other people, if they are so inclined, can decide what sort of writer that makes me. When I'm reading or writing, which is how I spend most of my time, I'm not aware of any opposition that makes any impact on me. There are good books and bad ones. I try to avoid reading or writing the bad ones.
Finally, how is the writing going at the moment for you? You’re writing your second novel, is that right? Anything you can tell us about it?
I'm on the very, very last few days of work for my second novel – Cold Light. I actually really appreciate the distraction of this interview, because fact-checking and proofreading is slow, dull work! Cold Light is another book set in Lancashire - with scenes in odd versions of Preston and Morecambe. Lola is the narrator - at the start of the novel she settles in front of the television to watch a memorial ceremony for her best friend – a teenage girl who drowned on Valentine's Day ten years before. During the course of this ceremony, live on television, a new body is discovered. Lola is the only person in the world who knows the stories that link these two deaths, and that, as well as many other unsavoury events she wasn't aware of at the time, come out through the novel - which is set on Valentine's Day 2008 and the weeks between Boxing Day and Valentine's Day in 1997 - 1998. It's about the tense, competitive, nasty friendships fifteen year old girls can have. It's been a really hard slog, this one - same as the first one. But I'm excited about it now. And the third one, I think, is going to be a sort of strange detective novel featuring lots of Mormons.