Does Not Play Well With Others
Jenn Ashworth interviewed by Alan Kelly.
Jenn Ashworth’s debut A Kind of Intimacy was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. A domestic noir about the consequences of isolation which was narrated by Annie Fairhurst, a morbidly obese woman whose fascination with her friendly neighbour led to a shocking and unexpectedly violent climax. Cold Light, her second novel, is an unsettling and darkly comic story of teenage girls in a predatory world, no less chilling and narrated by Lola. As she watches her hometown gather to remember Chloë, another body is unearthed. Lola’s first person narration – alone in her knowledge of the dark story which links these deaths – curves around the reader like a noose around a hangman’s neck. Reading Ashworth is akin to trying to find your way through of a dangerous maze blindfolded; her writing is as full of all the red-herrings, the hold-your-breathe-suspense and the psychologically remote characterisation of anything Patricia Highsmith ever conjured up in her wildest nightmares.
3:AM: Cold Light is complex, layered and intense. Before you started writing the novel did you outline a story arc? I ask because you spent three years working on it, and in my opinion it has paid off: it reads like a blackly comic and sinister collaboration between Julia Davis (Nighty Night) & Alfred Hitchcock.
Jenn Ashworth: I didn’t plan – the first scene that came to me, fully formed, was the Boxing Day scene – Lola and Chloe with Carl in the car park of a nature reserve on a cold, quiet afternoon. And then unexpectedly, Wilson appeared out of the hedge holding a football and unsettling the very delicate dynamic between the three of them. I wrote this scene and had no idea what came next. Donald and Barbara appeared and I was so interested in all these characters that I needed to find a plot for them. I wrote and wrote and did a gruesome amount of deleting and rewriting until I felt it was ready. It took a long time. I worried my agent, I think. It would be a bit easier for everyone, I expect, if I had planned it out first but when I am working I feel like I am discovering a story rather than creating it. So I don’t know if setting it out in advance would work for me. And it’s a shame, because I love crime fiction and I’d love to write a very tightly plotted, suspenseful novel with red herrings and blind alleys and all sorts. I’m glad you found bits of it funny – it’s a different sort of humour to the laughs I put into A Kind of Intimacy – Lola isn’t mocked in the same way as Annie is – they are very different narrators. But I’m still in there, behind the scenes, giggling inappropriately at the sad parts.
3:AM: The novel takes place within two time-frames and you’ve said you did a lot of rewriting with Cold Light. Did you write in a linear way – beginning, middle and end – or do you find certain scenes, characters and events in the story coming to you before you’ve reached a certain point in the plot?
JA: I didn’t write in a linear way at all – I just wrote as and when scenes occurred to me. There didn’t seem to be much logic to it. I had a bunch of chapters and I shuffled them around and a story emerged. And that was a very bad first draft – when you write like that there’s no consistency of voice or characterisation. So all the drafting and rewriting – and reimagining some scenes that were nothing more than place markers in early drafts – is the real work. It was like that with A Kind of Intimacy too. And sometimes when I teach writing, all I am teaching is courage and faith in the process – acting as a kind of cheerleader and encouraging writers to keep at it and it doesn’t matter how many drafts, how many times you change your mind – the people and the story will emerge. It does take a lot of faith. And now I am writing another novel and I have a plan, and I started on page 1 chapter 1, and now I’m on about page 60 and it is plodding along in chronological order and I’m really kind of amazed by how it’s going. Is this how proper writers do it? I am enjoying the process. I don’t know if I’ll need to get rid of it all in a month or so – but for now it all seems okay.
3:AM: Cold Light offers a profound insight into the strange, claustrophobic and emotionally fraught world of teenage girls. Lola, much like Annie, leaves gaps in the story which we the reader are left to fill in ourselves. Was Lola a more difficult character to create? From your previous answer, I am guessing it was a waiting game with her?
JA: Yes – she was more difficult. In some ways I think she’s a more complex character, and certainly a more reticent one than Annie. I knew the idea of reconstruction would be important – she’s doesn’t witness many of the events that she attempts to describe – and so right away the reader needs to evaluate how complete and accurate her account of things really is. The whole novel is like Melanie and Dawn’s crime reconstruction – there’s no real accuracy or objectivity. With Annie I was always very clear about the distance between what she described and what the ‘real’ deal was – that distance is where most of the humour exists. It doesn’t work in the same way for Lola. It’s a much more impressionistic world. I really like how Kazuo Ishiguro – in his interview with January Magazine – described the process of creating his narrator Christopher Banks. Lola’s not really lying about her world – her world has taken on the shape of her inner life. It’s everything that’s unreliable, not just her. That was a much more difficult thing to get hold of – a harder voice and perception to create. I always liked Annie, but I’m still not sure if I like Lola.
3:AM: This is one of the aspects of your writing I find thrilling, that the reader isn’t quite sure who they are dealing with, that we are having a conversation with somebody not quite giving us the full picture. You said earlier you like crime fiction and your work is domestic noir, why do you think you’re drawn to characters who aren’t what they seem, who could turn on you any second?
JA: The cynical part of me would say that my experience with people so far has shown me than none of us are who we seem, and we can all act in ways that surprise ourselves and our nearest and dearest. I love domestic settings, writing about families and what happens inside our houses because I do think it is within our own little castles we are at our most real and we feel we can let the bad sides of ourselves out. I’m certainly interested in human beings at their most authentic and truthful – and the truth about what we are is not what we say but what we do. Violence is very instinctive – very honest. The thing I love about crime fiction is that it covers the whole spectrum of what I want as a reader. The more formulaic versions of it are terribly comforting and conservative, and there are times when I need to believe in the fiction that the answers are always discoverable and discovered and that in the end the bad people get put somewhere away from the rest of us. And at other times, I need to immerse myself in writing that examines who we are and how we cope with living together – the structures we set in place that try and fail to contain the most unpredictable aspects of ourselves. And crime fiction does that too. Among many other things.
3:AM: Would I be correct in saying that Lola and Chloe where always aware of their own vulnerabilities? I think society has this misconception that all teenage girls are innocent, and Chloe and Carl’s relationship is doomed from the outset – we know no good can come of it. Yet Terry’s press-coverage and the surrounding communities’ reaction to events in the aftermath of Chloe and Carl’s deaths reveal just how hypocritical people actually are. Would you agree?
JA: I think the answers to those questions are at the crux of the novel – and something that Lola struggles with as she remembers, reinterprets and comes to fresh understandings of that short period in her past. None of the characters, I hope, are so two dimensional as to be put into boxes – Chloe isn’t a victim, Donald isn’t entirely foolish, Barbara isn’t as tough as Lola at first thinks she is. Terry is the force that likes to simplify, to give easy answers and in getting rid of ambiguity he loses the essence of what the story really is.
3:AM: In Cold Light you return to motifs which where present throughout A Kind of Intimacy: obsession, death, psychosis, isolation, the emotionally remote and the frailty of human connection. What motivates you to explore such weighty themes?
JA: I’m just writing about the world as I see it. That’s how things are. Terry-like, a lot of the time we pretend otherwise.
3:AM: Your description of Lola’s world is eerily affecting. A haunted and wounded snapshot of a teenager’s life. To a certain extent the landscape mirror’s her own inner torment. Is location as important as plot and character for you as a writer?
JA: Yes – very much so. I am most interested in people, and where we are is such a powerful influence over who we are. And you’re right – Lola’s world is skewed by who she is and how she feels – the idea of the big freeze came about because I wanted the reader to experience Lola’s numbess. I never set out to write a realistic depiction of Preston, (the place the City in the novel is loosely based on) – but used Preston, a struggling, fairly ugly, and anonymous northern town as a backdrop for what it felt like to be her and what the frightening bit between being a child and being an adult feels like. I bet the Prestonians are going to love reading this bit.
3:AM: The novel does have moments of terrifying realism though. There was something especially heartbreaking about the childlike Donald (with his inventions and delusions of grandeur) and the long-suffering Barbara (who was only ever a few steps away from falling apart), and about Emma and Lola and where they end up in the story. Where there any parts of the book which you felt was difficult to write. If so, why?
JA: Emma was very tough to write. I could see the pair of them, (Lola and Emma) still sitting and drinking in the park and not realising that it was time for them to grow up, but Emma remained a very hurt, very guarded and very shadowy character. A lot of the facts we have about her adult life aren’t facts at all, but just stories Lola imagines about her. I wrote, always, through Lola’s eyes so I think my difficulty there was that Lola never really paid that much attention to her as a teenager, and never fully understood her as an adult – even right at the end, she’s still trying to mould her into a replacement for Chloe.
3:AM: Are there any autobiographical elements in your writing?
JA: Not really. The girls are the same age as I was in 1997 and obviously they hung around the same kinds of places I did, but I didn’t really go to school and didn’t have any intense friendships with other girls in the same way as Lola did. The character I felt most kinship with was Donald… what that says about me, I don’t know!
3:AM: Both A Kind of Intimacy and Cold Light are quite filmable, I could easily see them on the big screen. Have any producers expressed interest in optioning A Kind of Intimacy?
JA: There have been a few producers – British and US that have expressed an interest, but nothing has come of it yet. I try not to think about it too much and leave all that to my agent. From what I hear, it is a long and uncertain process so I don’t think it would do my writing life much good to get too wound up in the outcome of the enquiries that we’ve had so far. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t be thrilled to see what a screen writer and a director would do with my novel. I don’t have any interest in adapting it myself, but I’d certainly like to see my story made into something new in someone else’s hands. And I don’t think I’d have any trouble handing it over either. The US edition of A Kind of Intimacy will, however, be a prop in a new film by Demi Moore and Miley Cyrus called LOL. I don’t know any more about it than that, but the idea of it still makes me smile.
3:AM: A Kind of Intimacy has been nominated for a number awards and your blog remains one of the virtual stalker’s most interesting pastimes. Can you tell me a bit about any strange writerly rituals you might be partial to?
JA: None that I can think of. I like stationery and I prefer to type on a proper keyboard rather than a laptop because I like the sound it makes better, but if you want to write, you will – rituals or not. I wrote the first draft of Cold Light on a series of A4 pads sitting in my car while on lunch break at the prison where I work. I’d prefer to have a shed or an attic or something, and a desk where the drawers aren’t falling apart but I don’t and I can still write. Pints and pints of tea are essential though. But that is for life generally, not just writing.
3:AM: You mentioned earlier about starting a new novel and adhering to a linear narrative. Can you tell me a bit about it and where it might be going?
JA: It’s a multi-point of view novel. Is that the term? Five first person narrators, and they are all narrating the same day. They’re all members of a family. And they’re Mormons. I have a plot, but because I don’t know if I’ll change my mind or not, there’s no point going into detail about it yet. I’m having fun with them all so far.
3:AM: Do you ever see yourself trying your hand at a particular genre of writing?
JA: Well, like I say, I’d really love to write a crime novel. I think both A Kind of Intimacy and Cold Light were, in some sense, crime novels that got a bit distracted. It is something I’d really like to master, but novel number three isn’t it. I’d also like to try a radio drama, just because I love listening to them and the economy of the form really appeals to me. But no concrete plans as yet.
3:AM: What other lit groups or projects are you involved in which you would like to bring to our attention?
JA: I’m the Writing Fellow at Manchester University, where I did my MA, for this semester – so teaching and reading and talking is taking up a lot of my time right now. I love it though, teaching is becoming more and more a part of my process – I’m still not sure how, but I know I write more often and the words come more easily when I am teaching. I’ve also started up a small literature consultancy called The Writing Smithy with the poet Sarah Hymas – and I’m taking part in a kind of performed short story commission set in Manchester Piccadilly train station this May – it’s run by David Gaffney and it is called Station Stories. So really looking forward to that. The other thing is my writing group – we’re called Northern Lines and there are six of us – short story writers and novelists, who meet every three weeks to discuss each other’s work. We take turns and run it very like the Tindal Street Fiction Group, which was a bit of an inspiration for us. It is invaluable – the best thing for my writing I’ve done since my MA, I think.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 10th, 2011.