As seasoned readers of my blog might know, I am a Jenn Ashworth fan and I think it’s fair to say that her short stories are not only things that I’ve enjoyed but have also had a considerable influence on my own writing. So I’m thrilled to have her here on my blog, to talk, chiefly, about her debut novel, A Kind of Intimacy, and other things, like typewriters, shampoo aisles and what dashing across a busy street is similar to…
So, Jenn, A Kind of Intimacy; who’s it for and what’s it about?
The book is about Annie, a very overweight and lonely woman, who moves house and tries to make friends with her new neighbours. The neighbours aren’t as amenable to her advances as she’d hoped, and her past keeps bubbling to the surface no matter how much she tries to forget about it. It’s been compared to Notes on a Scandal and We Need to Talk about Kevin – so if you like slightly sinister female narrators and character driven plots, this might be the book for you. I’ve jokingly described it as a cross between Bridget Jones’ Diary and Silence of the Lambs, although there is a little bit more to it than that (and even though Annie is a very big person, she doesn’t actually eat people!) I won’t give away the ending, but the cover blurb talks about a ‘compelling and bloody climax’. It isn’t a thriller or a crime novel although it contains elements of these. One of the things it is, is a love story gone wrong.
How many different kinds of intimacies are there?
Oh, that’s a hard question. I don’t think Annie can ever really describe what it is she wants – and whether that is because she’s never experienced it, or because the sort of near-telepathic contact with someone she is after isn’t really possible, is one of the main questions of the book. Some of the intimacies that are explored in the book are friendship, parenthood, romantic relationships, marriage and sex. All of these fall a little bit short, in my mind, to the magical kind of intimacy there is between writer and reader.
Are you a meticulous planner or do you write by the seat of your pants?
I write and write very instinctively, and then get scared at what a mess I’ve made, stop, try to do a plan, write some more, have ideas that aren’t in the plan, panic, write some more. Then I start again, five or six or seven times. It is a messy, frightening process. I wondered if it would be different with the book I’m working on now – now I’ve had the experience of finishing a novel and doing the MA. But no, it isn’t. I’ve got a lot of faith in the process, I’ve been working on book 2 for about a year and I can see how it’s going to be now. That’s exciting.
How long did the book take to write? What’s the Jenn Ashworth Writing Process?
I started it in the summer of 2004, and it was finished in January 2007. That seems like a long time, but during that time I also had a baby, moved house three times, did a masters’ degree and started work as a librarian. The process involves lots and lots and lots of rewriting – I think there were about seven drafts in the end. I write fast, but I throw lots away. It felt wasteful at the time, but it did mean that after I signed with an agent, and again, after I started working with my editor at Arcadia, there was very little in the way of editing that I needed to do, and I was free to carry on working on book 2 while they got on with the business of publishing it.
I’m a huge fan of your short stories. How does writing/reading them compare to novels?
Thank you, that’s really nice of you. I think I try to make my stories very potent so the writing can be very intense and exhausting. I think of a feeling or a memory or an emotional state. There’s a certain brand of shampoo whose smell reminds me of a really vivid experience I had when I was growing up. Even now I avoid the shampoo aisles in supermarkets because of how powerful the re-experiencing is for me. I want my stories to be like that – little pills I can take to re-experience an emotion or a memory or an idea. I hope it works like that for the reader too. The novels might start out with that same intensity, but I pay a lot more attention to structure and plot and the development of the idea – they are, for me, a slower and roomier form so the writing of them is more like a cross country hike than a mad dash across a busy road. I hope that makes sense.
You once said, and it was something that I thought brilliantly concise: “I like to write about odd things happening and try to make them realistic” – can you expand on that for us?
I’ve recently done an interview with a magazine that was all about Annie’s character. She does some pretty odd things, but because I’m telling it from her point of view, I have to make sure that for her, and for me, the odd things she does are completely believable. That involves building up a history and a logic for a character. I think my work in the past as a counsellor and now in the prison really helps me with that. People can do all sorts of strange things, but once you stop judging them and get inside the way they see the world, it’s clear that to them, even the most troubling things can be very sane and normal.
Talk to me about fountain pens, ink and typewriters.
A Kind of Intimacy was written on my computer – almost completely. I wore the letters off a keyboard with all that drafting. Then I had a year where I concentrated more on my short stories, and reading, and generally recovering. Then I started writing the novel I’m working on now, but found I couldn’t do it right onto the computer as I had before. So I have a very nice Lamy fountain pen with a bold nib, which was a present from a friend, and a collection of scented, indelible and unusual coloured inks. I’ve also got an almost vintage turquoise Silvereed typewriter, which I use too. And big calluses on my hands. Sometimes I think I’m writing the novel only to give myself an excuse to buy more ink.
What qualities do you think you have that make you a good writer?
I suppose I am a fairly introverted person – I’m more likely to write something down in my journal than I am to tell it to someone else, which means there’s often a bit of pressure building up inside – ideas, images, conversations I’d quite like to have. Every now and again these things, along with some half-made up memories, tend to erupt in a story or a novel. It’s a very personal process for me – most of it happening inside. Being lazy is good too. I sit in a chair all day and the only thing that moves is my typing fingers. I am a secret sloth and no other profession but writing would allow me to sit still for so long.
Are there other qualities you wish you had?
Every day something happens that makes me curse my slow, woolly, foggy, fuddled brain. Ideas and thoughts and possibilities that I can’t quite catch hold of. So I’d like to be much, much cleverer and I’d like to be able to do without sleep.
Any tips for struggling writers reading this blog?
What is that poster? Keep Calm and Carry On? I think it is normal, somewhere during a big project, to be gripped with guilt and terror. Just keep on with it. Write even when you don’t feel like it. It will wear off. And if it doesn’t wear off, stop doing it and do something else instead.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing another novel, still working in the prison library, and taking on some freelance literature development work with a local arts company. Up to now, there hasn’t been much of a literary scene in Preston – especially when we’re compared to other nearby cities like Manchester and Lancaster. I don’t think that’s because us Prestonians aren’t creative, it’s because there hasn’t been a focal point – no venue or blog or person to link everyone together and promote them to the outside world. So I’m setting up an online network, there are going to be writing workshops and live lit nights, and what I’d really, really like to do is co-ordinate a Preston Reading and Writing Festival. Great things are going to be happening and I’m really excited about them. Watch this space for more. www.prestonwritingnetwork.blogspot.com
Anything you’d like to add?
Just thank you for having me, and a curse on your head for introducing me to piston filling fountain pens. I’ve a wish list that’s half a mile long now!
Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, is published by Arcadia books. As well as writing she works in a prison library, collects cacti, tells lies, loses cats, fails to wash up and spies on the neighbours in Preston, Lancashire, where she has lived, on and off, since she was born there in 1982.