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Big Dada: Will Ashon interviewed

Charlotte Stretch interviews Clear Water author Will Ashon.

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I arrange to meet Will Ashon in a South London pub on the first day of the smoking ban. Those around us are alternating between drinks inside and quick cigarettes outside. I’m struck by how incompatible the two have become.

It is a fitting precursor for my interview with Ashon. While his debut novel, Clear Water, is an unsettling and bleakly apocalyptic tale, Ashon himself bears no relation to his pessimistic narrative voice. He is lively, chatty and enthusiastic, even when he is talking about frustrating or disappointing incidents. Mostly, though, he expresses a real passion for writing, one that has kept him going since beginning the book in 2001.

Ashon began writing soon after he left college, before forming Big Dada Records, the London-based record label. “I wrote a novel when I was twenty-five that nobody wanted to publish. I was a music journalist for three or four years before I started the record label, so I always knew, and I always thought, “I’ll soon get down to my new novel, I must get the time to do it.”’ Ashon eventually found the time on his daily commute, penning most of the book on a Palm Pilot while travelling on the underground. “I’ve got young kids, I was working full time — it was the only spare time I had really.” The idea of being creatively productive on the much-loathed tube suggests a remarkable determination, but Ashon insists, “It’s a good place to work. I wrote most of the second book on the tube, just because there are no distractions. You can’t even get up and make a cup of tea; you’re literally just shoved there and you want to get off as quick as you can, so you work really quickly.” The book traces the connections between a set of characters, but there is nonetheless a strong sense of isolation dividing them. Did the writing conditions have any influence on the narrative? “I guess it [the tube] exemplifies that idea of lots of people together, not talking to each other, not interacting at all. I think yeah, it did have some effect.”

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It is this lack of community which Ashon identifies as one of the key themes of Clear Water. ”None of the characters have any friends – they’re all completely separate. Jimmy has his friend who’s really horrible to him, but besides that there are no friendships in the book at all. I’m quite fond of the characters, some more than others, but no they’re not very likeable. I think King James is quite funny; I like Verna, she’s probably the nicest character in the book, just about, I guess.”

The characters in Clear Water are loathsome, it’s true – but they are also deliciously painted, from the ex-army soldier with a God complex to the amoral, dallying lifestyle writer. James Hawes, writing in the Guardian, praised the book for its “seriously good character writing.” Ashon is proud to have fought his corner, dismissing the importance of likeable heroes. “It’s not about liking them anyway.I spent months with my agent telling me “We need to give people something to hold on to; for the book to work, there has to be a sympathetic character you can identify with.” And I just thought that was bollocks.”

Clear Water, set largely in an oversized shopping centre on the outskirts of Kent, captured the imagination of readers everywhere. I mention Clear Water, and the innovation of using a shopping centre as the main backdrop, but Ashon is quick to discount this view. “If you call a book Clear Water, and you have a shopping centre called Clear Water, that’s what people tend to focus on as somehow the centre of the book, and it is and it isn’t.” He goes on to discuss critical responses to the book, and his frustration at certain critical responses towards the book.

“One of the odd things I found was that people treated it as if it was a satire, and actually a lot of people said, “Oh, it’s not a very good satire.” But Clear Water wasn’t meant to be a satire on consumerism; everything that I talked about to do with Clear Water happens on websites. You buy something, that website will run through its database of everyone who’s ever bought that and tell you what else they bought; it will tell you “If you like that, then you’ll like this.” That’s how Amazon works – we consider that to be a service, in a way. Putting that in a shopping centre makes the feeling of how that works to be a bit more concrete. It’s not meant to be satire, it’s meant to be how things actually do work. Maybe turned up a little, the odd exaggeration and silliness here; but my aim wasn’t to satirise culture.”

Before he leaves, Ashon tells me about “The Last Ape House”, an online project combining fascinating and artistic photographs with a typically fragmented, compelling narrative thread. It’s an engrossing work, and the perfect showcase for Ashon’s talents. It also shows a gentler, lighter side to Ashon’s writing, which will perhaps welcome readers looking for something warmer than Clear Water. But that, of course, is just the way Will Ashon likes it. “You’re not going to take any great comfort in the book,” he grins. “It’s not Ovaltine.”

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 9th, 2007.