Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview Four – Jenn Ashworth
Author Jenn Ashworth is the fourth writer to be interviewed by The Scribbler about being included in Waterstones’ New Voices 2009.
Her debut novel, A Kind Of Intimacy, caught the attention of the Waterstones’ critics last year and with good reason. It is a story that traces the dark possibilities of best intentions going awry. It’s not a comfortable read but then these are the kind of books that get us the most excited. It gives an unsettling glimpse into a clumsy young woman’s life who’s actions would almost certainly label her as a monster if she didn’t have so much in common with the rest of us.
Got your interest? Read the full interview with the talented Jenn Ashworth below then leave a comment in the discussion box. Enjoy!
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The Scribbler: What does it mean to you to be recognised as a New Voice of 2009 by Waterstones?
Jenn Ashworth: It’s very exciting. It’s especially flattering because this is a promotion that involves front-line booksellers reading, reviewing and choosing the promoted books – not publishers paying for them. As a debut novelist with a smaller publisher, that’s levelled a playing field I might not otherwise have had a turn on.
TS: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?
JA: I think that’s something you’d have to ask my readers. Most have remarked on the uncomfortable mix of comedy and near-tragedy in my writing – not only this novel, but also in the short stories that I publish online. As far as I know, A Kind of Intimacy is the first novel to have ever given the sea-side town of Fleetwood, Lancashire to the world, either. I’d love to be corrected if I’m wrong.
TS: As a New Voice of 2009 you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?
JA: I’ve just finished reading Ray Robinson’s first novel – Electricity, which I really enjoyed. I also have a lot of respect for my friend Chris Killen, who’s novel The Bird Room was published recently. I think he and I come from very different places as writers, and yet both have a dark sense of humour that comes across in our work. Generally though, my inspiration doesn’t come from books, it comes from people.
TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?
JA: In the past when I’ve been asked this I’ve said something faintly sarcastic about the ideas tree in the bottom of my garden. My polite answer would be something to do with wanting to explore certain themes and issues that are important to me on an emotional level I’m not really able to verbalise. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I knew I wanted to write about feeling odd and lonely and not quite involved with the world before I started seeing a woman who looked a bit like Annie on the bus in to work in the morning. I worked in a library and when an American self help book called The Surrendered Wife appeared on my trolley, other ideas started to appear. Hard work and seven drafts over two and a half years brought it all together.
TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?
JA: I first began writing when I was ten or twelve, and didn’t have any idea about finding a publisher back then. The process of signing with Arcadia was the usual one – handled by my agent who submitted the manuscript on my behalf to a few editors he thought would appreciate Annie’s strange character. I did an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University, and although the camaraderie and the feedback certainly helped me stay motivated and to consider myself as a writer, I wouldn’t say that I made magical contacts there that helped with the search. I’ve since heard that Annie terrified one of the editors at Arcadia, which makes me smile.
TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?
JA: The biggest obstacle is my own laziness and cloudy thinking. I’d love to be ten times cleverer than I really am. I can feel what I want to say, but can’t catch hold of it sometimes. That’s terrible. I make lists though, and I have a black board to write down words that come to me in the night, and I don’t have a television and try not to go out or socialise too much so I don’t get distracted. The Internet is a big distraction. The instant gratification of online publishing is becoming a barrier to the slow progress of writing a novel. I might need to get rid of it. The internet, not the novel.
TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.) How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it?
JA: I like the novel – I’m not ashamed of it. I didn’t read it while it was being submitted because I was working on something else, and now the only time I look at it is when I’m asked to do readings. I’m just finished with that one now, and onto something that’s got more of my attention. I suppose I’ve moved on, although I can still see what I saw in her at the time!
TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?
JA: I have started it, and I expect to be finished fairly soon. I think. I hope. It took a year and a couple of false starts and lots of experiments with short stories before I felt ready to write another novel. I needed to read a lot, and rest. Fill up the tank again, maybe. It is going well now, although finding the time is a constant struggle. And so often, when I have the time the inclination is absent. I feel bad complaining though. I’m well aware it isn’t a proper job, because I’ve got one of those too.
TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?
JA: Andrew Motion told me to just write down what happens. I was asking him about some tortuous, self inflicted, silly problem I was having with tense, or point of view, or the Russian doll effect you get when you try to take into account the narrator’s circumstances while they are narrating. Whinging about it, I think, and he very politely told me to just write down what happens. I took it to mean that sometimes you can be too clever, and that it helps to forget most of what you learned during your undergrad degree.
TS: In your opinion what is A Kind of Intimacy about?
JA: I think its about trying to start again and, perhaps through no fault of your own, not quite being able to manage it.
TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?
JA: None of them in particular. I wrote more than I read when I was younger. It’s only since I started making sure that it is the other way round that my writing got any better.
TS: What is your learning background? And do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?
JA: Well, I have an English degree which I don’t think helped too much – although I do love being able to read as well as I can, and the very rigorous and old fashioned way I was taught is, I think, responsible for that and suited me very well. The Creative Writing MA was an experience I wont forget or regret, but I’m still not exactly sure what kind of effect it has had on my writing. As I’m writing this second novel I am half missing the regular support of my classmates, and half glad that I’m writing without stablisers now.
Promote or rant about Jenn Ashworth or any of your favourite new writers for 2009 and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.
Words: Dean Samways