Jenn Ashworth is one of the most exciting young novelists writing in Britain today. That’s not just my view, either. in 2011 she was featured on the BBC’s Culture Show as one of the UK’s 12 best new novelists. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy won a 2010 Betty Trask Award. Her second, Cold Light, published in 2011, was rapturously received. And she’s just published her third (last week, in fact). The Friday Gospels is beautifully written, bleak, funny and clever. ‘A set of brilliantly realized voices in a narrative of great energy and skill’ says Costa prize winning novelist, Andrew Miller.
It’s a treat to welcome Jenn to the blog, and to have her insights into the writing process, and The Friday Gospels.
Juggling writing with teaching and bringing up two young children must be a challenge. Can you tell us how you cope with these competing demands?
I’m not bringing up my children alone – childcare and housekeeping and all that kind of thing has always been as equitably split as we can manage to do it. Obviously there are times when the writing needs to take a back seat. And there are other times when the laundry and hoovering need to take a back seat. I find the rhythm of the academic year leaves enough space for writing and reading – perhaps not enough as I would like, but then the teaching feeds the creative side of me too, so all seems to hang together okay at the moment. If it didn’t, I would change it.
You wrote The Friday Gospels with the support of a writers’ group. What do you find most useful about input from other writers?
I know writing groups don’t work for everyone, and I know among some writers there’s an idea that meeting with a group means that the work is ‘written-by-committee’. But that really isn’t what it feels like for me and I doubt it’s like that for the other members of Northern Lines either.
The nature of the helpfulness varies depending on what stage of the process I am at. Sometimes all I need is a bit of encouragement, and sometimes I know something isn’t working, but I’m too close to the material to really unpick it and see why. Having a more objective opinion (or set of opinions) can really help. I need to know what it is I am trying to do myself before the feedback can be that useful. I still need to be in charge, the one making the decisions about the writing.
Often I learn as much from carefully reading someone else’s work and trying to figure out why it isn’t quite flying yet, as I do from entering my own work into that process.
There’s quite a Gothic quality to your work, in that your characters often inhabit dark places and are imprisoned by something they feel is bigger than themselves (grief, fear, or guilt, for instance). Where do you think this comes from?
I suppose we call it Gothic, or perhaps some people do. To me it is quite simply what it is to be a human being, and my work is the way it is because that’s my way of being truthful about what it feels like to be a person.
The Friday Gospels is inspired by your own experience of growing up in a Lancastrian Mormon family. How was it to draw on that autobiographical material? Did it make the book easier or more difficult to write than the previous two?
First I should say that the book is autobiographical in that it is set in the same place and the same community in which I grew up, but none of the events or characters are taken from life!
I had a sense all along about writing with a certain kind of responsibility – to be fair, to uncover the humanness of all my characters, to not allow myself to resort to stereotype. I think I always feel that when I write, but because of that autobiographical element I did feel it more strongly this time.
I also had to deal with my worry about how the book would be received – not critically – but by Mormons. I did a lot of thinking and soul searching in that area. There’s a tendency, within parts of the community, to dismiss the experience and perspective of Mormons who have left the church, or Mormons who have a story to tell that isn’t entirely positive, orthodox and faith-promoting. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that those other voices are silenced. In the end I had to write the book, and put it out there, and be at peace with the fact that some readers are going to struggle to find anything of value in it.
The book was a little easier to write than the first two, actually. I don’t know if that was because the material was so close to me, or because it was my third and I’m getting a bit better at it!
Writing the American scenes in the book involved a research trip to Utah. What insights did you glean from that? What surprised you the most?
I attended a Mormon Stories conference – that’s an organisation set up by Utah Mormons who discovered that while they found great value in their faith and their heritage, their own perspective are less valued by the mainstream church. They may be gay, or feminist, or unable to believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, have difficulties with the way the church teaches its own history – all kinds of things. That was a really moving experience for me – to see people who would otherwise have left the church, carve out a space within it, or alongside it, and have their perspectives matter. And the fact that it’s happening in Utah – often considered the home of the most conservative parts of the community – really heartened me.
I grew up in a community where it would have been a bit of a scandal for a woman to wear trousers to church. Where even now, gay people are excommunicated, and entry to the Temple is dependent on a regular donation to the authorities. Men are discouraged from growing beards! To meet Mormons who march in Gay Pride rallies – not tolerance, not acceptance, but Pride – that really was surprising and inspiring and it said something important to me about the fact that even when they’re inside institutions that don’t ask the best from them, humans will still find a way to do what they think is right. I tried to give some of this faithful unorthodoxy to Ruth – a character in the book – to make her into a kind of questioning, thoughtful, liberal Mormon.
Where do you like to write best?
In bed! It still feels like a treat to write, and I like to get tucked in with my computer and my books. Sometimes when I’m writing, especially working out a first draft, I feel very vulnerable and mauled. So bed seems like the best place for that reason too. Every flat surface in the room is either covered in papers, or half-empty mugs. I also write in my office at work, at Lancaster. This seems to surprise some people. But while I might prefer bed, anywhere with a computer and a door that closes will do.
Who is your most significant influence (literary or otherwise)?
My earliest, I think, was Kazuo Ishiguro. I was in my mid-teens when I first read a novel of his and I was really blown away by what he did with unreliable narrators. The doubleness of all of his novels – and the sheer exuberance of The Unconsoled – the peculiar impressionism of When We Were Orphans. I still admire his work very much. Even now I’ve read other writers who have affected me in just as profound a way (Shirley Jackson would be one, Flannery O’Connor another) I still reread my favourite Ishiguro novels every couple of years.
Name your favourite time-off activity….
I like watching Castle.
What’s the best thing about being a writer? And the worst?
The best is the typing, alone, for hours and hours and then, now and again, reading the pages back and realising that you’re on the right track. There a slippery space you sometimes get into – I just waft about the house in my dressing gown being horribly vague and absent minded and not really sure which bits of the world are novel and which are real life.
I suspect it’s terrible for the people who have to live or work with me when I’m in that state. But I like it. The worst? The fact that state – flow, I suppose you’d call it – doesn’t happen every time, or very often. Sometimes you’ve just got to muscle through and it’s boring and horrible. I can’t say I really like doing the promotion side of things either, although of course I’m grateful for the opportunity.
What are you working on just now (aside, obviously, from the promotion of The Friday Gospels)?
Something else. I think it might be about healing, and trees, and ghosts. No Mormons in this one. It feels like it might be quite a short thing. I read Flannery O’Connor talking about the South being ‘Christ-haunted’ and the phrase intrigued me. I can’t say this is a book about religious belief, though it may turn into one, but I am fascinated by what ‘healing’ and what ‘haunted’ means. So I think that is what the book will be about. But I can’t really tell yet.
If you hadn’t got into writing, what work would you have ended up doing?
I wouldn’t mind being a detective. But my idea of what that would actually be like comes more from fiction than reality! I think I always would have got into writing. Perhaps not published, but I would have spent my evenings tucked up in bed and typing. It isn’t possible for me to imagine it otherwise. During the day I would probably be a librarian. It is what I did before my books were published, and I do still miss it sometimes.
Where would you like to be in five years’ time? And in ten years?
Alive and able to read. Anything else would be a bonus.
If you had one piece of advice to give to your fifteen year old self, what would it be?
Hang on in there. In three years’ time you’re going to be having the time of your life. You’re not going to believe it. And in the meantime, stop smoking and eat something, for God’s sake.
Photo credits: Martin Figura