Jenn Ashworth is part-way into a busy schedule of promotional visits, travelling to and from her North Lancashire base spreading the word about newly-published, critically-acclaimed novel Fell, a haunting, mysterious tale set on the edge of Morecambe Bay.
Born in 1982 in Preston, Lancashire, Jenn studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge, before a creative writing MA at the University of Manchester. Her first novel, 2009’s A Kind of Intimacy, won a 2010 Betty Trask Award, while 2011 follow-up Cold Light brought recognition for Jenn as one of the UK’s 12 best new novelists from the BBC’s Culture Show.
Her books have since been translated into French, Italian and German, and published in the USA, and her short stories, reviews and articles have appeared in various publications, including The Guardian. She also wrote the prize-winning blog, Every Day I Lie a Little.
Three years ago her Chorley-based third novel, The Friday Gospels, arguably shed light on her experiences growing up in the Mormon church (as was the case for fellow North-West based author Carys Bray’s 2014 debut novel A Song for Issy Bradley). And now the former prison librarian, who also lectures in creative writing at Lancaster University, is back in Chorley as a guest of independent bookshop ebb & flo, talking about Fell at the town’s central library.
And at a time when so many libraries are under threat of closure, Jenn’s more than happy to speak out in praise of these local centres of learning that played such a key part in her own life story.
“I hated high school, and many times when I was supposed to be there, I was actually in the Harris Library in Preston. I remember sitting there one weekday morning, leaning against a radiator reading Melvin Burgess’s The Baby and Fly Pie in one sitting.
“It was my safe and happy place – a good place to be alone, and read whatever I wanted. I was too young to know anything about book hype, the cannon or what books were suitable for a teenage girl of my class and background. So I read whatever I wanted. I cherish those memories, and later on became a librarian because I wanted to help facilitate that freedom for others.”
“Indie bookshops are incredibly important for readers and writers: I’ve been visiting a lot these past couple of weeks – from Plackitt and Booth, Lytham, to Broadhursts, Southport, and Pritchards, Crosby.
“Each one is different – each bookseller knows their own readers and gives something of themselves in selecting and promoting the books. They are labours of love. I love to visit them.”
Jenn was at Waterstone’s in Deansgate, Manchester, for her most recent Fell event. How did that go?
“It went really well – a lovely audience asked lots of interesting questions and were very patient with me turning up gibbering and slightly late after having my car rear-ended on the way.
“This is my fourth book so there were familiar faces, readers who have become friends over the years – as well as some who’d perhaps never heard of me or my work before. I think this is what bookshops do best: bringing readers together, facilitating interesting conversations.”
You’ve written very eloquently about your education, not least years of ‘school refusal’. Yet you passed your exams and went ‘up’ to Cambridge. Did you feel an outsider there, or did it help you seek out fellow creative minds on your wavelength?
“I was happy there. The workload was phenomenal but all those libraries … and that sense of dizzying freedom within the structure of a very broad and demanding course. There were some difficulties – I wasn’t by any means the only free-school-dinner kid there, but it felt like it a lot of the time, and Cambridge is an incredibly expensive place to live.
“I cleaned and worked in bars to help feed myself, which meant I wasn’t able to do lots of the other amazing things the city and university has on offer. That was difficult sometimes. But my overall memories are happy. I was surrounded by people as curious about reading and language as I was, pretty much for the first time – that experience outweighed all the other differences I noticed and experienced.”
Has your writing about your school days inspired others to relate their own similar experiences and traumas?
“The article I wrote for The Guardian about my experiences with high school had a huge response. Lots of teenagers and parents wrote to me about their own experiences and I was massively proud of being able to bring my own experience into the open, letting children who could not ‘do school’ know that there was no reason why they couldn’t go on and be successful.
“I certainly wouldn’t use the word trauma though – I was just a bad fit for the kind of education that was on offer.”
When you did your master of arts at Manchester Uni, did you already know where you were heading, career-wise?
“I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Doing an MA in creative writing isn’t the only or even the best way to make that happen for many writers, but it was formative for me – the very first time I’d shown my work to a group of strangers and heard what they thought of it. After you’d done that for a year, reviews hold no fear at all. It both toughened me and made me a more sensitive reader and writer, an experience I hope to give to my own MA students.”
How did your librarian spells at the Bodleian in Cambridge and a Lancashire prison compare?
“My work at the Bodleian was behind-the-scenes, checking in new acquisitions, rarely meeting readers. I enjoyed it, but it taught me that what I really wanted to do was be a public librarian and work directly with readers.
“The prison work I did, at HMP Garth, Leyland, remains one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, though sadly the worst paid. I worked with men on long sentences – some of whom only just learning to read, some of which studying OU courses. It was my job to support them all, and I hope I did.”
How do you fit family life around your writing (Jenn has two school-age children)?
“I work it out the same as most parents – I juggle. I think I have it easier than many working parents because my work is flexible, and I don’t need much special equipment to write – only a chair and a computer or notebook.”
Is yours a house creaking under bookshelves? Have you a study or writing shed where you work? Do you write in silence, or with music in the background?
“I keep most of my books in my office at Lancaster University – I don’t write there very much because it’s a busy department, but if inspiration strikes at work I’ll sneak off to my car or the library and get a few hundred words down when I can.
“Most of my writing takes place in bed, though that’s not too good for my back, so I’m hatching a plan for a garden office, hopefully containing a comfy day-bed and blanket, and will be the place where the next book is written.
“I don’t need silence to write. My family are almost always around. But I can’t listen to music and imagine at the same time.”
Is your lecturing post at Lancaster Uni a good way to keep in touch with emerging writers and channel creative energies?
“It’s important to me because teaching forces me to collect my thoughts around a particular topic and articulate them in ways I might never have before: it makes me decide what I think about things.
“It also means I’m working with people struggling with the same things as I do – with confidence, with motivation, with a technical problem or with anxieties about literary worth and influence.
“It isn’t always easy to get the balance right and some weeks I get to the Friday and realise I’ve been helping everyone else with their writing but not spent enough time on my own, but I’m learning to manage that better.”
Your first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, won a Betty Trask Award. What did you do with the £1,500 prize money?
“I was writing full time and expecting a baby, and I think I spent a little bit on repairing my laptop and the rest on rent. It was a bit of a life-saver, that prize money. My landlord certainly appreciated it.”
What came first for you – finding an agent or a publisher? And have you stuck with the same representation?
“I’ve had my agent since the very beginning of my career and he nursed me through that first year when everyone was rejecting my first novel and it was finally published by a small publisher – Arcadia – who did an amazing job marketing it.
“I’m happy with Sceptre and hope to stay there for a long time, but it’s true that many authors change publishers a number of times during their career while staying with the same agent from the outset.”
After 2011’s Cold Light (partly written during Jenn’s HMP Garth lunch hours), you featured on the BBC’s Culture Show as one of the UK’s our 12 best new writers. Was that a big moment?
“It was a very, very strange moment. I don’t think many writers set pen to paper because they nurse an ambition of being on television! It really helped sales of the books, and I was glad for that. And when the fuss died down a bit I could return to my darkened room to toil away in the usual obscurity.”
Was there a specific moment when you realised you’d truly made it?
“I think the moment when you see the book as an object – that by a magical process it gets taken from the hard-drive of your computer and turned into an actual thing with a cover and title page – is hard to beat. And it’s always been a moment of celebration when the author copies arrive in their box from my publisher.
“I’ve never seen anyone on a train reading my book – I think if that ever happened I’d be pretty excited about it. But I don’t think of those things as ‘making it’. I write, so I am a writer. Everything else is a bonus.”
Your novels have been translated into several languages and published stateside. Are those all slightly surreal moments for this Lancashire lass?
“I often wonder what people in Paris or Istanbul or Frankfurt or New York make of my very Northern, very domestic novels. But we all write from the place we start, don’t we?”
How much did your Mormon upbringing shape you, not least in questioning beliefs and faith and becoming a writer? How much of your upbringing was in The Friday Gospels or any other novel?
“I don’t write autobiographically. I’m a fiction writer. But of course my own perspectives and interests have been shaped by experiences. And I didn’t really need to do much research on British Mormon culture after having been brought up firmly embedded within it.
“I think I’ve always had a very curious and critical mind. That made it impossible for me to be a good Mormon girl, but it certainly helped me become a writer, and my interest in faith, family, awkwardness and odd characters is a gift that came from my childhood.”
Were books your way of escape? Were there a lot around the house? And do you remain an avid reader among all your other roles today?
“Books were my world: they weren’t only my safe place, they were the place, even in the most fantastic fiction, where I felt I was being told and shown truths no-one else would tell me. And I’m still an avid reader – a couple of hours a day if I can. More if I have the chance.”
Fell has earned rave reviews, not least from The Sunday Times and various online sites. You mention Grange-over-Sands’ former TB hospitals and convalescent homes for wounded First World War soldiers – building on the idea of recovering from illness. Are Morecambe Bay and Grange places you knew well from your earliest days?
“Yes – I remember going on days out when I was a child – walking around Grange-over-Sands, eating ice-creams by the duck pond. I didn’t know about the old lido until I was much older, but as soon as I heard about it I think I knew I was going to write about it. I’ve always loved the sea and seashores. They’re such strange places, aren’t they?”
The crumbling house and desolate coastline – its shifting sands and treacherous tides – are key to the novel too. Did you always have that specific area in mind?
“Yes, right from the beginning. It is a book about change, decay and transformation. There could be no other landscape in which to set it.”
There’s certainly a haunted feel to the area, whether we’re thinking ancient history or more recent events like the tragic drowning of the Chinese cockle-pickers. We also recently had a successful Gothic horror story set there, Preston author (a fellow former librarian) Andrew Michael Hurley winning the 2015 Costa first novel award for The Loney, an amazing success, not least considering its initial print run was just 300 copies.
“Andrew Hurley is an amazing writer – I remember when The Loney first came out, the wonderful Tartarus Press wanting to push the book into people’s hands.
“Tartarus did what small presses are so brilliantly good at – taking a chance on a strange book by a new writer. The fact that it’s become so popular – and justifiably so – demonstrates how much we need our small presses.
“That’s where the innovation and risk taking in publishing is coming from. There is always hope, I think, for a writer to find their readers. We won’t all be bestsellers and not every book is going to make money. That’s fine. But writers can and should always hope they will find their readers.”
Bookmunch said of Fell it’s a ‘fascinating and original way to tell a story’, the idea of using spirits as narrators. Is that right that it took a few redrafts before switching from first-person narrative?
“I always knew the book would be narrated strangely – that it wouldn’t be the same as the other first person narratives I’d worked on before. I wanted to try something different, and the subject matter of the book demanded something different. But the idea of ghosts, and the first person plural omniscient – which is a mouthful! – came after a few trial-and-error drafts where I tried other ways of telling.”
Have you always enjoyed spooky stories and paranormal tales? What were the big literary influences on you in those formative years?
“I think one of the first stories I wrote was a ghost or zombie story. I’ve always had a taste for the weird and scary. One of my favourite writers is Shirley Jackson – she manages to combine the domestic and the strange, the uncanny and the everyday, in a way that I can only be envious of.”
At a time when the world seems obsessed by chasing Pokemons, you write a tale with a nod to the myth of Baucis and Philemon. Are you a big fan of Greek mythology?
“I am, yes. These are our oldest stories. There are good reasons why we’ve remembered them and reinterpreted them for so long, and it’s fitting that some of my work involved transforming an old story, one which itself was about transformation.”
Before A Kind of Intimacy there were two unpublished novels – the first written aged 17. Ever consider reworking it or getting it published as it is?
“Oh God, no!”
Is that right that you lost your second novel when your computer was stolen?
“That was when I was living in Oxford. I was devastated, but consider it a stroke of luck now. It allowed me to abandon a project that wasn’t working – a huge plotless thing about a woman who made a hot air balloon in her garden shed – and start on A Kind of Intimacy.
“I probably would have been working on that novel now if a kind thief hadn’t taken it away from me!”
The Spectator called your writing ‘so sharp and vivid’, ‘meticulous and mournful at the same time’. Looking back at your first unpublished novel, how do you feel you’ve developed?
“I think – I hope – I’ve got much better. More subtle in exploring character, more precise in the way I evoke setting. I hope so. The way I use humour in my novels has become, I think, more careful, less cruel and more humane, without, I hope, losing its satirical edge.
“Then again, the writer should never have the last word on a book: that belongs to the reader.”
Does your writing day involve a lot of hard graft to get to the finished product?
“Yes. Lots and lots and lots of drafts, and thrown away pages, and entire rewrites from scratch. I used to think I would move away from that process and write fewer drafts, but I think that is just the kind of writer I am.
“It takes a long time but slowness isn’t a bad thing when it comes to writing. And when it is going well, it doesn’t feel like hard work, it feels like playing.”
You write novels, short stories, interactive fiction, reviews and features, you’re a freelance editor and writing mentor, you lecture on creative writing, you blog, and so much more. Does that leave enough hours for your leisure-time love of knitting and origami?
“Of course! All work and no play, etc. … It’s also very good for my brain to be creative without using language. I’m interested in patterns and repetition. I suppose that’s where origami, knitting and spirograph takes me.”
You’re a co-founder of The Curious Tales Publishing Collective, and were also behind the Lancashire Writing Hub and The Writing Smithy literary consultancy. Tell me more.
“Curious Tales is a small collective aimed at working collaboratively on writing projects where the writers and artists involve oversee all aspects of the work – from writing and illustrating to marketing and publication.
“It’s an incredible amount of work, and not always easy – but it’s taught me a lot about collaboration and what a myth the lone solitary writer is: we always work in dialogue with other writers and artists, and with our readers.
“The Lancashire Writing Hub and The Writing Smithy were freelance projects that I don’t work on any more: I play to my strengths these days, which mainly lie in writing and teaching.”
On the WriteWords website in 2009 you wrote, ‘I don’t seem to be able to think unless I have a pen in my hand and I can’t ever see myself stopping’. Is that still the case?
“Yes. Writing and reading are how I meet and try to understand the world.”
You also class yourself as a ‘Twitter layabout’. Is procrastination and surfing social media an important part of your day?
“I love the way it connects writers and readers to each other – but all the bad things people say about social media are true too. I don’t sign in when I’m writing. I find it too distracting.”
Finally, what are you working on next?
“I’m writing a collaborative novella with Richard Hirst, another Curious Tales member I’ve written with before, and some personal essays.
“I have an idea for a new novel but I’m not ready to start yet. I need a breather!”
Jenn Ashworth’s ebb & flo bookshop author event/book signing is on Thursday, August 11 (6.45pm for a 7pm start) at Chorley Library, Union Street, Chorley. All her books will be on sale, with tickets £6 from ebb & flo, Gillibrand Street, Chorley (£4 redeemable against a copy of Fell) and early booking recommended.