Jenn Ashworth‘s debut novel, A Kind of Intimacy, has garnered excellent reviews from the critics and public alike. It’s the story of a lonely, obese woman who moves home and begins stalking her neighbour. Imagine if Kathy Bates moved to a quiet cul-de-sac in Fleetwood and you’re half way there. Despite the air of menace there is something very funny and likable about the character of Annie, who guided by self-help books is able to justify her bizarre behaviour. Local author Jenn has just completed her second novel Cold Light which is set in Preston. I wanted to find out more…Advertisement
When did you get the idea for A Kind of Intimacy? I started writing a short story about a tea party in the summer of 2004 – the novel as it is now was finished three or so years after that, with a new baby, a masters degree and a few house moves thrown in.
Why did you set it in Fleetwood? I wanted to write about Lancashire, and the sea-side. Fleetwood seemed perfect – an isolated, disappointing place that is as hard to get out of as it is to get into. I also don’t know of any other books set in Fleetwood – there’s plenty out there about Blackpool. I realise this isn’t a flattering description of the area and is hardly likely to endear me to die-hard Fleetwooders… all I can say is that after lots of research trips there I developed a fondness for the place!
And how long did it take to get it published? I found an agent shortly after completing my MA, and about a year later, we sold the book to Arcadia. I’ve no idea what the average time scale is for finding a publisher. The book didn’t actually come out until a year after we’d done the contract – publishers tend to plan their schedules for printing and publicity that far in advance. During that time, I was working on Cold Light.
A Kind of Intimacy has been very well received in the press and online. How does it feel to read good reviews and see it on the shelves? Very exciting, still. It was a long journey for me and although I always knew I wanted to be a writer and I always knew I would be writing, in one way or another, I was never certain that I would be published, or that other people would like the book as much as I did. The book is coming out in the US in June and I’m just now getting the advance reviews – they seem to like it too!
Do feel like nudging strangers in bookshops and saying ‘I wrote that’? Nope – not yet. I think I’d be far too shy! And what if they didn’t believe me? It’s certainly the kind of thing I’d be tempted to lie about, just to see what would happen…
You completed an MA in Creative Writing. How useful has it been? Very useful – it was the first time I’d really shown people my writing and received critical feedback. You develop a thick skin and a sense of your own voice and how far you’re willing to edit. You’re also showing a willingness to write and rewrite and rewrite again – something that’s essential for most (maybe not all) writers if you want to get published.
The main character, Annie, is extremely lonely and is often unsure how to act in social situations. She turns to self help books for guidance. How much research did you do before writing A Kind of Intimacy? I was in my second year of training to be a counsellor at night school, and reading lots of self-help books, psychology – lots of it aimed at women. I was interested in a book called The Surrendered Wife which was popular at the time. I didn’t feel like I was researching a novel when I was reading these things – but looking back I think the fact I found most of these books so horrifying helped the story to form.
Annie is the neighbour from hell but she is also very entertaining. Her bizarre behaviour is funny and also familiar. How do you make a character who commits horrible acts likeable? I think we like her because we notice, almost in spite of ourselves, how much we have in common with her. She does extraordinary things but she’s an ordinary person and the thing she wants is the same thing as everyone else wants. Her difficulties with her social life and making friends is exaggerated and unique to her, but I think most people suffer with uncertainty to some extent. At least, that’s what readers have told me.
How much of yourself do you write into your characters ? All of my writing is autobiographical to some extent. I make up the plot and the events but the emotions are all mine. I write about things I feel – I’m not a good enough writer (yet, though I’m working on it) to make up the emotional content of my books. I’ve not done half the things that Annie has done (or even a quarter of them!) but I’ve certainly felt a lot of the things she has.
How disciplined are you when writing? Do you unplug your internet connection and set a timer? It depends – I’d say I’m fairly disciplined. I get up in the morning and treat it like a job. I book the time into my diary and make sure the people around me know I am working and this is my time not to be disturbed. Having said that, there’s also a lot of faffing around on blogs and facebook, and procrastinatory google searches for facts I don’t really need to do any more research on. I’m still learning techniques for handling this, and being more disciplined. I’d like to be better, but working myself too hard can backfire.
How do you switch off from writing? I don’t, ever. I treat it like a job, but it is much more than that. Once I’ve got a story on the go I carry it around in my head always. It’s my excuse for being so forgetful and useless at the general tasks of life – although when I’m not writing I’m like that too…
You worked as a librarian. When did you give up the day job to dedicate your working life to writing? Summer last year. I do a mixture of things now, splitting my time between writing, editing, teaching and project work. The amount of time per week I spend on my writing varies from all of it to none of it depending on how far I am into a project and how much money I need to earn that month!
You teach creative writing and your blog is packed full of useful information and musings on writing. What three top tips can you give to aspiring writers? Thank you. I’m doing a tips for writers series on my blog, which seems to be tips I’ve gleaned from other people rather than ones I’ve written myself. I still find it difficult to see myself as an authority on anything, and unfit to dispense this kind of wisdom. What works for me probably won’t work for others. But seeing as you asked, my three (which I struggle, sometimes, to take on board myself) would be:
1. Learn to be polite. Good writers listen more than they talk. They watch other people. They listen to feedback, even when they don’t agree with it. They read more than they write. They accept they’ve still got lots and lots to learn. They don’t leave live lit nights as soon as they’ve read their own piece.
2. Rewrite. You can almost always improve a piece. If you don’t see how you can improve it, put it away for a couple of months and come back to it later or ask for feedback.
3. Make time in your life for writing. If it’s important to you, it’s more important than nights in the pub or in front of the telly, or Saturdays wandering around clothes shops or healthy outdoor hobbies or afternoon tea with your grandma. And sometimes, this won’t be possible and there will be no writing for months, but believe that you’re still a writer even during the times when you can’t, or aren’t writing.
What advice would you give to bloggers wanting to make the transition to print? I’m not sure about that. There are publishers who specialise in Blog-to-Book (The Friday Project, although there are others) but with the rise in e-books and readers I’d say that the distinction between print and on-line publication is becoming much less important. I’ve had short stories published on-line and in print, and to be honest, although I get paid more for print publication more people read the stories I’ve had published on-line and the profile and audience is more attractive to me at this stage than the money. For me, the best kind of on-line writing is writing that exploits the collaborative, interactive, non-linear form – 217 Babel Street is a great project, for example. Why would you want print publication for that – it would lose so much being presented as a book? They are different things and I think a lot of the time it is a mistake to view on-line storytelling and publication as a stepping stone to print publication.
How useful are modern technologies such as blogs and twitter in marketing your work? It’s useful to me because I’m interested in on-line writing and storytelling as a form in it’s own right, and not just as an advert for the other things I do. It’s also a form I feel comfortable with because I’m interacting with the outside world through writing – much better if, like me, you get tongue tied in front of an audience. I’ve got a lot of work and made a lot of friends through my on-line antics, although how that translates into book sales is something you’d have to ask my publisher. I don’t think on-line marketing ever hurts, except when it becomes so time consuming that it takes away from the core of my work – which is the making of novels.
What do you like about Preston? I like where we are in the world, I like what our accents sound like, I like the park and the river and the bus-station. I like how ordinary and ugly and anonymous parts of this city are. It suits me. I was born here and I’ve been able to be fairly creative here – perhaps that’s helped by the lack of night-life!
And what could you do without? I don’t know if it’s exclusive to Preston or if it’s a feature of small communities everywhere, (I suspect the latter) but there’s a streak of ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ here – and an inward lookingness that doesn’t do us any good. I can’t compare too much though, because apart from a four year stint down south while I studied, I haven’t lived anywhere else!
Is there a literary community or scene in Preston? I don’t think there used to be – when I finished my MA I remember looking around for the other writers here and was not able to find the ambitious, creative writing communities that characterise places like Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster. I wasn’t attached to UCLAN, didn’t want to do another course, and most open mike nights seemed focused around music – which Preston has always been very good at. I think there is a scene developing now – with projects like Preston is my Paris, the Lancashire Writing Hub and the work UCLAN is doing with CETH etc, there are certainly lots more opportunities for writers to publish, perform and meet each other than there used to be. I’d like to see that grow and for us to challenge ourselves to develop without trying to copy literary communities in other places, but as writers are by nature fairly solitary creatures that might take a while!
You have just finished writing Cold Light, your second novel which is set in Preston. Tell us a bit more about that. It’s set in Preston and there are two parallel narratives – it starts in 2008 with Lola, my narrator, watching North West tonight in her flat. There’s supposed to be live coverage of a ground-breaking ceremony for a memorial for a girl – Chloe – who drowned ten years previously. As they dig into the ground, they uncover a body, live on television. All the other programmes are cancelled and the coverage stays with this programme and the exhumation and examination of the body. Lola knows who it is straight away, and, she reveals, has always known. The other narrative focuses on six weeks between Boxing Day 1997 and Valentine’s Day 1998 – the last six weeks of Chloe’s life. Lola was her best friend and only she knows the truth about her death and the link between the two deaths. You can read a little extract of the book here, where it was published in the Manchester Review.
What next? I’m about to take a few months off for maternity leave, so I’m planning a quiet, domestic summer to catch up on my reading and hide in my house for a bit after a full year of relentlessly promoting my novel, developing a freelance business and writing Cold Light. I have an idea for book three, but I don’t want to start writing it until the Autumn. I have a feeling that book is going to be set in Preston and Chorley – and will be quite different in structure to my previous two books, centring around one important day for a family rather than an individual remembering secrets at a time of crisis. I’d also like to do more teaching work – either in prisons or universities, both of which I’ve done a fair bit over the last year and really enjoyed.
Jenn Ashworth photographed by Martin Figura
Sleeve artwork A Kind Of Intimacy