Connections, transformations and coming out as a writer: an interview with Jenn Ashworth
I first came across Jenn Ashworth when I was a very new MA student, and she was in The Manchester Review with an excerpt from her then work-in-progress, A Kind of Intimacy. I first met her in person when her next novel, Cold Light, was newly published and I went to a reading in Bury Library. Her third novel, The Friday Gospels, will be launched this Friday (of course) at Blackwell’s in Manchester. Back in 2008, I was in awe of anyone actually getting a book finished, let alone getting it published; with Jenn three books up, I have a novel finished and here I am interviewing her. Who knows what will have happened by the time she publishes her next? I mean, quite possibly nothing, but what are role models for other than following in the footsteps of? But before I get carried away with delusions of grandeur, let’s get back to The Friday Gospels, followed by the interview with the really very lovely Jenn Ashworth.
Gary Leeke has been in Utah for two years and today his sister, Jeannie, wakes up early, counting down the minutes until he’s home. Except she isn’t really awake early from excitement: it’s because she has a seminary class every day before school and her mind is trained ‘to wake up at five or earlier even on Saturdays.’ And she’s counting the minutes for other reasons as well. Not good reasons.
The day of The Friday Gospels unfolds through the eyes of each of the Leeke family in turn. Martin dreams of making an escape from his suffocating life as he takes Bovril the Labrador out for her walk. Pauline boils and fumes, trapped in the house, her horizons burning with the doings of the other families of the Chorley Fourth Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Julian is the eldest son: more than a disappointment, he seems to be ‘heading into darkness’. Jeannie can’t tell anyone what’s wrong. Each of them is holding onto the thought that Gary is nearly home, and once he’s back everything will be alright. Everyone except Julian. Julian already has his plan, one that he is about to put into action.
The characters’ voices play around each other, interweaving, filling in the gaps in the other narratives. As each layer is peeled back, we are given snippets of family history which put into context the traumas of this particular day. And the day itself picks up speed as Gary’s plane comes in to land, and the threads tighten around each other and nobody is where they should be and the dinner isn’t ready.
I found it a hard book to put down. And when I had to, because of driving to ballet or swimming, or because I needed to feed my children or talk to visitors, half of my mind was still in the story. My favourite moments? The salesman on the plane showing Gary how evangelising should be done; the making of the much-planned celebration meal; Julian and Gary working together to look after their little sister, just like big brothers should. The very neat ending brought with it a sense of the miraculous: the Leekes are going to wake up tomorrow with a lot of difficult questions to answer, but you have the feeling that at least now they have a fighting chance.
Jenn, I’ve just read A Kind of Intimacy and Cold Light back to back, so have been very aware of connections. Although they are very different books, they do have common threads: the setting in the North West, of course; the outsiders trying to forge friendships; the absence of parental care. Are these themes explored in The Friday Gospels? And how much do you feel a sense of progression from one novel to the next as you write?
The Friday Gospels is set in Chorley, Lancashire, and focuses on the members of one family. They’re all outsiders to each other, in many respects, but I think the book is more about belonging, the value and cost of belonging, and whether that cost is worth paying – which was a theme very important to Cold Light, too. I read Kazuo Ishiguro in his Paris Review interview saying that he seemed to be rewriting the same book, over and over again. I don’t think that’s a symptom of an impoverished imagination, but rather, if the book is truthful in any significant sense, it is going to reflect, a little, the obsessions of the person who wrote it.
On a more deliberate level, what I perceive to be the flaws of the last book are often one of the motivations for starting the next one. With A Kind of Intimacy I always wished I’d had more room to cover Annie’s school days. She’s friends with Boris, but not his sisters. There was something significant hovering over that book – about female friendship – I didn’t go into and although there’s more to Cold Light than that, the friendship between Chloe, Lola and Emma was where I started.
When I began The Friday Gospels I was very clear about wanting to write through a set of first person voices – to push myself a lot harder, technically, than I had done before. I think it’s quite a different book because of that. There’s not as much a sense of a lone individual trying to fit in, the focus is a little wider. Though in a different sense I was very aware of other novels about LDS / FLDS characters – usually about polygamy – and the ‘faith promoting’ strand of LDS fiction that exists, and wondering how my outsider book would fit into those contexts.
The book I am thinking about now has something to do with healing, and not being healed – and that’s come directly out of a subplot in The Friday Gospels that I don’t feel emotionally or intellectually finished with yet.
I was particularly gripped by Cold Light, and found the relationship between the girls to be hauntingly believable. It was also a bit spooky, as my own first novel has teenage friendship, split time narrative, father dying and box of keepsakes emptied into water in the final stages. Do you think there is any limit to the number of times a similar story can be told? And are you aware of following in other writers’ footsteps as you write, or is it only later that the connections become apparent?
I don’t think I’m an excellent plotter – and one of the reasons why I find that aspect of writing very difficult is because most character-in-action type events have been done before. Of course they have. No matter what genre you’re writing in, it’s very difficult to come up with a set of engaging events that isn’t going to feel familiar. And in some ways, that familiarity is okay, is something to hope for. Writers have always followed in each other’s footsteps, after all.
I had Cinderella in mind when I was writing A Kind of Intimacy. Little Red Riding Hood and a few other stories when I was working on Cold Light. There were lots of well-worn story arcs about conversion, and sacrifice, and miracles that I’d ingested as a child and wanted to tinker with a little as I developed The Friday Gospels. These shapes are probably not visible to anyone else, once the book has been published, but as I’m working on it, keeping them in mind is more helpful than not.
I heard David Vann say, recently, that writing is an act of transformation. I took it to mean a little bit about changing your mind, about not writing with a sense of a moral or a point of view you wanted to push on your reader, but allowing the act of writing to transform your own views. But that makes writing sound a little too much like therapy. I also think the transformation can come in the ways writers work with their source material. The process of taking bits of old stories and working them into something that belongs completely to your characters and gives something new to your readers has also been a useful way for me to think about plot.
When did you first feel that you could name yourself as a writer (as in when people ask you what you do)? And was there a single event that made this happen, or was it an accretion over time?
When I apply for car insurance or meet people at dinner parties I tell them I am a university lecturer, mainly as a way of avoiding questions about my work-in-progress that I never feel entirely equipped or inclined to answer. More seriously, I think I felt comfier confessing what I was doing during the day once my books were actually in the shops, rather than just in my head. They became something solid I could point at. A sort of proof. On my more confident days I don’t think ‘being a writer’ has anything much to do with publication. One of the first things I try and get my students to do is to start calling themselves writers. I think it helps to call the writing ‘work’ too, and I try to remember to do that.
With The Friday Gospels, you’re showing a world from the inside out. The problems faced by the characters are universal, but the setting is very distinct and personal. Is there an element of explaining to those still within the church why you left?
That’s a tough question. I tend to think that the author is the person least qualified to speak about the ways a book might be read, but I will take a stab at this. First, when I was still turning over the idea of writing about Mormonism I knew it wouldn’t be a good book if I came at the characters with a motive, or considered the book as a vehicle for saying something I felt wouldn’t be received more directly. If I’d attempted this particular novel earlier, then perhaps it would have been a little more like that, a little more defensive, and less generous than I hope it is. So no, the book isn’t about demonstrating why a person would not want to be a member of the LDS church.
But while I always tried to privilege the beliefs of my characters over my own experience and perspective (and yes, I know what an impossible statement that is) I was always aware, and had strong feelings about, the way that stories that aren’t relentlessly positive or relentlessly faithful are often silenced by the LDS church. Similarly, when members who leave have something to say about the church, the saying about them is ‘you can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone,’ – it is very dismissive and so the worth of those voices is diminished and that is another way of silencing, I think. There are plenty of stories published by the church (look up the ‘I’m A Mormon’ PR campaign) about what being a Mormon feels like. I hope my novel adds to those stories without taking away from them.
I wanted to ask you about mentoring, both from a received and given point of view. Has this been significant for you as a writer? Do you still need it? And do you think it is an area that some creative writing courses are missing out on?
It has been, very much. I’m a member of a writing group now, and although life gets in the way much more than I would want it to, it’s been one of the most valuable things I’ve done for my writing for a long time. I hope, very much, that I am able to give some of that to the students and mentees with whom I work.
The reason I need it, and why I think it can be useful to some writers, is something to do with being acknowledged. It’s been a gift to have other writers say, ‘yes, this is bloody hard, and you’re not there yet. But carry on.’ It is also something to do with widening horizons – getting a really intimate understanding of the way someone else comes to their writing, their methods and techniques – is a powerful tool that always prompts me into asking my own writing process difficult questions. Is this just habit or did I make a choice? Is this really what I think? Is there a better way to do this?
I think the best creative writing teachers understand how important this self-questioning is, and try and create the circumstances where it can occur, either in the supervision or the workshop. And because this questioning is a process practiced by humans, it doesn’t work every time, or in exactly the way you might want it to, or in ways that are immediately obvious. I also think that workshops and courses and mentors aren’t the best route for every writer, and a poor one is worse than staying at home and reading, which is what writers should be doing anyway.
The Friday Gospels is published by Sceptre and you can buy a copy right here.
Or, even better, go along to the launch on Friday, and get your copy then. It’s at Blackwell’s on Oxford Road in Manchester, more details right here.