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Cutting and Stitching: An Interview with Jenn Ashworth

Jenn Ashworth interviewed by Lee Rourke.

I first became aware of Jenn Ashworth when we were both shortlisted for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker’ Prize back in 2010. Both of us were debut novelists. Her novel — A Kind of Intimacy — I thought extraordinary and was by far the best novel on the list. Since then she’s published numerous critically acclaimed works, including three more novels, and now a collection of ground-breaking essays, Notes Made While Falling. Her writing is immediate, mesmerising, compassionate, and vital. This latest collection of essays is so utterly beautiful in its intensity and truthfulness that I felt compelled to speak to her about it. Our interview below was conducted over a series of email exchanges, in which I could have just continued to ask Jenn question after question after question, such is the depth of this new book.

3:AM: I just want you to begin by explaining where the idea for Notes Made While Falling came from? I feel these are ideas and feelings that you have carried for a long time and I just wondered if there was something that triggered your need to capture or take hold of them in the form of a collection of essays?

Jenn Ashworth: Notes started — and is partly named after — a series of diaries and notebooks I kept in the first year or so after my son was born. There were also the teenage diaries, many of them written in code, or backwards, that are referenced in the book and that I really do keep on the top shelf of my office at work. Additionally, there were some attempts at fictions — bits of a novel or a short story collection about post-natal mental illness. I keep everything. About four years ago, surrounded by a kind of paper compost of all these failed works — fiction, memoir, some more traditional critical essays that had never come to anything about prayer and creativity — I started to wonder what all this writing I couldn’t make work had in common. And eventually it became the book. The writing itself wasn’t therapeutic — I’m anticipating being asked that — but being able to approach all those failed works with curiosity and a gentleness that meant I didn’t want to turn them into something neat and tidy was a sign, I think, that I was starting to recover.

3:AM: Can you explain a little more about why this collection wasn’t ‘therapeutic’ to assemble? Was it hard to write? I mean, the collection begins with a wound and the trauma within, do you not feel you’ve been able to leave it behind with the shaping of this work?

JA: Well, it wasn’t therapeutic in the sense that I didn’t set out writing it with the idea that writing could help me recover, or I’d make something lovely and lucrative out of suffering, or that being able to tell a story about what happened would mean that I would stop feeling the effects of what happened quite as keenly. I was only curious. And pessimistic too: nobody is more surprised by the redemptive notes in the last essay or the fact the book achieved publication than I am. It was incredibly difficult to write: revisiting events and obsessions and delusions felt frightening and shameful, looking at my childhood from newer angles felt disloyal, and moving away from the novel into a different form felt artistically very risky. I don’t feel that I’ve left the material behind — only that, through writing the book, I came, I think, to understand the utter ordinariness of these kinds of experiences of pain and uncertainty and shame and anxiety. And through that, I felt a lot of compassion and fellow feeling for the parts of myself that are still in that place, and for other people too. The writing helped me to sustain that initial glimmer of curiosity — it was a process, or a position, that nudged me away from the resentment and self-pity and general misery that was going on for me before I could find a beginning, but what relation writing and recovery and recovery and leaving behind have to each other is still very complicated for me.

3:AM: I ask this because the collection is just so personal, it’s as if in the process of finding a common ground in all these pieces of your ‘failed’ writings you cut out any idea that people might read it once you put it all together?

JA: I had to write it that way. It took a very long time to write because I was beavering away at it hopelessly and without aim between other projects, and never calling it a book or a set of essays or even a project. It was a practice. I never thought of the writing as a product I was making, and the aim of that product having a particular effect on an imagined reader. I considered the act of writing as more of a place I would go to irregularly and — I don’t know what you’d call it — ‘play’ sounds like I was having fun and ‘experiment’ sounds like I was in control of the process and had a hypothesis about how it might work out. So not that. Work? Wait? Watch? Something like that. I didn’t want to publish, then when I finished it I thought, actually, perhaps this might have some value to other readers, though I didn’t expect a publisher would want to take it on. I don’t think I could have written it without cutting out that idea of being read — that privacy was essential.

3:AM: In fact, I see all those ‘failed’ writings you speak of as open wounds that you’ve stitched back together in Notes: is this an assumption too far?

JA: I’m not sure they are stitched back together — in that yes, there’s a rough narrative to the book about parts of my life, and alongside that, a rough argument about trauma and suffering and attention and creativity. I hope those threads make the book more or less hospitable to a reader. There are those ghosts of through-lines that give it a bit of coherence. But in the main I experience the book as quite a chaotic, three-dimensional thing. A maze to go into rather than a line to follow. I laid all these different types of writing next to each other — the memoir, the fiction, the autofiction, the criticism, the pretend lectures and essays and epiphanies — as a kind of collage, where the rough edges where they don’t stitch together are much more important than any seamless stitching.

Jenn Ashworth by Martin Figura.


3:AM: I think the structure of this collection is groundbreaking. You seem to have devised a way in which all the elements you mention above can exist on the page at the same time, or just to counter this, there’s a series of interruptions and interpolations, as in your deeply moving introduction ‘How To Begin: The Cut’:

‘I was falling. / I still am.’

‘’How did you get started with the writing?’ She asks / I’m alone with you and you’re not asking me for anything.’

‘I’m not a writer who shies away from waxing lyrical about where the ideas come from and I have a whole talk prepared to answer this question — how it begins — so there in the warm tent / here in my newly painted bedroom I give this woman, and everyone else, the spiel / I confess.’

There’s only two other writers I feel are comfortable with such incursions, maybe Jacques Roubaud and Hélène Cixous. I think what I’m trying to say was how did this structure come to be, are there any influences, and what does it mean to you?

JA: I don’t know if the illness that burst into my artistic and professional life was the incursion, or if the ‘apparent competence’ of my ‘not sick’ life was the real incursion. We think of a slash as presenting possible alternatives — either / or — but what it meant to me was always ‘and this too’: a kind of shattering of the present tense. Experiencing traumatic flashback and reading about the various scientific and medical models of how traumatic memories are processed and recalled fed into that a little, though I suspect being in two or three places at once is true of people more generally and isn’t only a symptom of a traumatised mind. The slash worked better than a footnote or a bracket might have done because it placed the different experiences and thoughts side by side rather than suggesting a hierarchical relationship. And yes, you’ve named these other writers who have that interest in what it is to think and remember and think about remembering and think about what it means to write and meet a reader through writing about these things. Barthes’ words about the writer as false holidaymaker — never actually stopping, but always being at their work in some way (he calls writing an ‘involuntary secretion’ and that it interests me: writing being something to do with the body being ill-mannered and out of our control) — got me thinking about the persistence of this doubling or tripling of experience too.

In practical terms, I remember spending many months trying to organise the material of the book using diagrams, and flow charts, and little scraps of paper I would move around on the floor, and whatever way I slid the paragraphs around, they seemed to form themselves into a line, a story, a thread or an argument that didn’t really bear relation to the texture of my experience. And yet they seemed to drift that way anyway, addicted to order and cause and effect. Slashes helped me, I hope, do both: to keep the sentences moving somewhere, but also to derail them, to give them another dimension. In an ideal world I suppose the book would be a maze, or hyperlinked to death, or all the pages would be transparent and lie on top of each other and you could read, or at least see, the whole extent of the thing at once, but using the slash seemed a method more welcoming to a reader than that. Not to mention all those obvious associations with slashing and cutting — the word ‘cleave’ in its double meaning is endlessly fascinating to me — that felt appropriate to the work and its originating subject matter; that first cut that opened all the earlier ones. 

Earlier — a couple of days ago now — you asked me about whether the stuff was ‘stitched together’ and I said not really, more collaged, but since then another part of me wants to say yes: the slash was about stitching but the stitching was also a kind of cutting. At the very centre of the book I quote from Jenny Boully (from The Book of Beginnings and Endings) who wrote ‘I too will slice open the belly of a great heaving’ except I read it as ‘healing’, and  that misreading and misremembering captures the paradoxical impression I have of what it means to write. This layered, non-unanimous way of being in the world isn’t probably a symptom of anything at all other than humanness, and that when we read or write (I think the two activities always happen at the same time, actually, like cutting and stitching) we’re playing that out.

3:AM: It’s funny you should mention this again, as I was thinking today about the happenstance of duality in your writing (that Boully misreading is perfect). There is a strange kind of calmness to these opposites you combine, which brings me onto your thoughts on prayer in this collection. I’m not implying this process gives you succour, but you write about prayer so uniquely, I find. For example, via the writing of Wilfred Owen in ‘Off Topic: On Derailment’:

‘Owen, who taught us that sometimes prayer and blasphemy are indistinguishable.’

Can this calmness only be experienced through pain?

JA: I was only able — after a very long time — to surrender to the facts of my own life and my own self, to the world not being as I’d want it to be, to me myself not being the way I wanted to be, and that surrender does allow me some fleeting moments of respite from the hopeless task of trying to improve myself, the world, other people. That changed relationship to the world eventually came out in my writing. I finally let myself off the hook of having to provide a narrative that ended in wisdom, or insight, or some kind of critical impressiveness. I just laid out the pieces for the reader as they were. I’m hesitant to over-egg my own experiences by emphasising the word ‘pain’ but let’s just say that I do not like things being not as I like them, and being stuck in that not-liking was and is horrible. It would be so much nicer to find a way to remake yourself and the world to your liking, wouldn’t it? Pain isn’t a way of earning calmness, but I think that when we have finally exhausted all our numbing and fixing strategies we are capable of making the craziest, maddest, most nonsensical leaps to get into a place where we can attend to the pain calmly. 

I’m reading The Hundreds by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart at the moment and there’s a line in it that says something like, ‘I am trying so very hard to want the world I have in front of me to want’ and it is writing and teaching that have taught me what the texture of that ‘trying’ and ‘wanting’ might most usefully consist of.  And this is the connection I make about writing and praying: I used to think both were about control in some way, about fixing or improving or solving problems (or getting someone else — God or the reader) to do that work for me (according to my own specifications, of course). And now — sometimes (I am still all the things I was) I think it’s actually something very different — that writing is about loving with curiosity and bringing the mind into awareness in a more sensitive way with the way things really are, and prayer might be a bit like that too. 

3:AM: This idea of ‘trying’ leads me to one of the central foundations of your collection: the struggle of writing. In ‘A Lecture on Influence’ you say:

‘I want to show you what my fiction cannot hold in its hands and this showing will either bring my fiction back to me or it will kill it.’

You’ve just likened writing to prayer, an offering of sorts, we place our hands together when we pray, like we’re holding on to our thoughts, but it seems to me you’re not interested in what we hold on to but what falls away, the detritus, or the failed message. Is writing for you failure?

JA: There are lots of hands in this book, aren’t there? Almost as many as there are holes in the head. As well as cutting and slashing those are the two central bodily preoccupations in the work, and they are to do, of course, with thinking things and making things — both of which were experiences or tasks disrupted by my illness (I don’t really want to call it illness, actually, but that word will do for now). 

I think the main failure happened before I set out to write / assemble Notes. I wanted to write a novel about a woman who had had a baby, and gone mad. And I could not. Notes became a way to examine that ‘couldn’t’. Why couldn’t I write it? Why couldn’t fiction hold it? The essays play around with all kinds of possible answers to that set of questions, which are about my own personal and artistic insufficiencies and limitations, and perhaps too those of the form, and of plot and language itself. But the book never provides a solid well-evidenced answer to those questions, so in that way, the essays are a bit of a failure too. 

I didn’t expect that in failing to do one thing (the novel) and failing to do another (understanding my own or the form’s limitations in a way that would provide some kind of ‘cure’) that something else would happen. But it did. And (this was a surprise) I did find my way back to fiction in the end. I think I’m different as a writer now. Less interested in my own hypotheses and intentions and ambitions. More curious to see what happens.

3:AM: So trauma/failure created a change in the entire way you approach writing?

JA: I suppose the other thing I’d say about trying and failing is this: it’s the first thing you read when you start rooting about and reading what an essay is or might be. The etymology of it. The attempt, the assay, the test, the trial. So you might say failure is built into the form — that writers and essays and readers are always supposed to fail each other. But what’s a bit more interesting is what the trying looks like. I used to think if I just worked harder at being a writer, and tried as hard as I could to be good, and to be well, things would be okay. But actually the work and myself in my own head got much worse. My best tries at anything seem to lead me into dead ends and disaster. Brian Dillon, in Essayism, said ‘the essay must have its target’ and he uses this metaphor, I think, of a hail of arrows. I really like that. You let your arrow fly and after it leaves your bow what happens to it is unpredictable, surprising, and probably not that much to do with you. I think good essays aren’t really about trying or failing, but they are about watching that arrow. It’s a habit of mind. I think that’s what ‘essayism’ means: a position or a perspective or a way of being in the world and with the writing. It’s sort of the opposite of trying. But then again, that’s just the sort of thing a failure would say, isn’t it?

3:AM: This connection with hands and delivery, your collection starts with a brutal account of childbirth and the PTSD that follows — your own descent into a kind of madness. Is this something you can’t help but trace everything you write back to: the traumatic event childbirth that has eventually shaped you?

JA: A lot of images that I use in the book — the cutting, the sense of falling, the sound of blood hitting the floor, the feeling of having something wrong with your heart, your head, your hands — they were all ways of returning to and dramatising my physical experience and allowing those injuries and pains to shape and structure the work. They were states that I thought with as well as felt. Sometimes I do think of the surgery as a kind of explosion that shattered or derailed me. Sometimes I think: no, it didn’t touch me at all, it only shattered all of my armour. A lot of the survival strategies to do with appearing competent and placating or pacifying the outside world or my reader feel less necessary.  I am in the world and at my writing in a more tender and raw way now. But a more real way. Sometimes I am grateful for that lack of armour; sometimes not.

Jenn Ashworth by Chris Thomond.


3:AM: This is a deeply personal collection of essays in which you speak about family, your upbringing especially (these themes have influenced your writing in the past), do you feel it’s important for you to write about your own experience this way? Outside of fiction, so to speak. I know you eschew the idea of therapy in the process of your writing, but have you been able to move on from certain aspects of your life?

JA: When I thought ‘moving on’ was what I was supposed to be doing I indulged in a lot of distraction and bypassing and numbing strategies — all of which I’m still tempted by and some of which were actually more damaging to me and other people than the original traumatic events I was trying so hard to ‘move on’ from. You see this same dynamic at work in certain genres of novels and memoirs about illness — particularly mental illness — which are really stories about how to get better or look better or act better told from the point of view of the expert: the ‘success story’. You see the same things with stories about class too: the working-class childhood told as a rags-to-riches story from a narrator in much more comfortable circumstances. I tried really hard to use writing as another one of those bypassing strategies and write a ‘moved on’ sort of book, but I wasn’t capable of doing that. I always felt the pressure to provide it because, as readers, we want to hear from the people who study the mess in the rear-view mirror, not the people who are still in it. I don’t mean to dismiss the value of those other forms, nor to make a virtue out of my own limitations — only to emphasise that to me it is important that at least some of our stories are from the ‘now’ of the experience, rather than the aftermath of cure or acquired wisdom and that there’s something about writing as a process that seems to dismantle any sense of having ‘arrived’ at wisdom or the ‘moved on’ space anyway. Maybe writing is the opposite of therapy or perhaps I just don’t understand therapy properly.

3:AM: Finally, there is a much needed rise in women’s writing, especially essays. Where do you see your work in terms of this? Are you aware of this as you write? Is this a political collection?

JA: Everything is political. These are ‘personal’ essays that explore all kinds of wider issues through fragments of my own experience. These aren’t essays that blame, but they are interested in the systemic deficiencies of medical and social care in pregnancy and the postpartum period and spiritually abusive systems in patriarchal religions. The essays are interested in the domestic economics of creative practice and early motherhood. They explore class and education — specifically what it is to teach creative writing in the neoliberal university as a working-class woman academic who has lived experience of both local authority care homes, pupil referral units and Cambridge University. They are also about love and activism: how can those of us who have been hurt (all of us)/ how can I meet the world on its own terms, without manipulation or violence, while still being of use to others?  

But when I think about the politics of this book and the wider context of its genre I come again and again to the knowledge that the pains of the ‘white and well taken care of’ (I’m quoting myself here, which is a little disgusting, I admit) always garner a disproportionate amount of the reader’s attention, that’s the origin of much of the new women’s non-fiction writing you mention and I would absolutely include myself and my own work in that category. With that in mind I’d direct any reader of this interview first towards the work of Renee Gladman, who writes about art, identity and work through her experience as black woman creative writing teacher in an American university: her book Calamities is a stunning, ambitious, intricate piece of thinking and feeling. I also urge readers towards the work of Johanna Hedva — artist, writer, cultural theorist and queer disability activist — who writes about art, care, activism and inclusion in ways that have been inspiring and instructive to me. Both of these writers have given their own experiences to the world with fearless generosity.

3:AM: What can we look forward to from you next?

JA: I have absolutely no idea. In Notes Made While Falling I start the book lying on an operating table being hacked at, and at the end I am lying on a couch being painted. It would be nice, I think, to evolve from the supine and get myself out of the frame. I am interested in stillness and movement.  I would like to write about what it is to look at and love the world and what kind of action that love inspires. I thought I was done with fiction but in this, as in everything else, I was wrong. I have a colleague at Lancaster — Brian Baker — who is writing a series of articles at the moment about failure and love, and they’re helping me to think about vocation a bit. The call. About what my ‘job’ is and how I might best do it. About who calls to whom and how the answer is made. About how to love well. I have a problem with my eyes that has flared up quite badly recently and I need to wean myself away from screens so I am thinking of trying to ‘speak’ some writing into my computer and wondering about voice and machines too.


Jenn Ashworth by Martin Figura.

Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a librarian in a prison. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) and her fourth Fell (2016) are also published by Sceptre. Ashworth has also published short fiction and won an award for her blog, Every Day I Lie a Little. Her work has been compared to both Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith; all her novels to date have been set in the North West of England. Her latest book is a memoir-in-essays about reading, writing and sickness called Notes Made While Falling. She lives in Lancashire, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

Lee Rourke’s most recent novel Glitch is published by Dead Ink Books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 20th, 2019.