Fran Slater (FS): Hi Jenn. Thanks for chatting to us. Let’s get straight to the point and talk about your latest novel Fell. It felt like a really accomplished work to me – very involving and very unique. Probably the most striking element is the narration, given that it’s told from the perspective of the ghosts of Annette’s parents. I’m interested in how this idea developed. Was it always the intention to narrate the story this way? And what are your intentions in using this unusual method?
Jenn Ashworth (JA): Well – not wanting to repeat myself, I’ve written a little bit about the technical side of putting together the first person plural narration already. But to add to that – my intention was to find a narrative technique that would serve the theme of what I wanted to do – that would perform some of the meaning, rather than just explain it. The book is about transformation, and grief, and how hope can look like magic and be just as dangerous, and utilising the form of a ghost story helped me to show that to the reader. There are no rules about what ghosts can see or know or do, and combining a narrative omnipotence with a physical helplessness – an inability to act and intervene – was the best way of demonstrating to the reader what it might feel like to love someone who is hurt.
FS: I love what you say about ‘hope looking like magic and being just as dangerous’. Makes me think of things like psychics and mediums and evangelical priests. Are these the kind of things you’re referring to with that quote? And was that idea a big driver when you were writing Fell?
JA: Not entirely – though as you can see, I thought about those things too – about Candy and Tim, and which one of them might be the fake, and which one of them helped Netty and her family the most. I don’t know what the clear answer is to that question but it is one that interested me!
I started thinking about healing when I considered the way I had nudged the reader – pretty strongly – to think that Pauline’s experience of having her prayers answered with healing in The Friday Gospels was a delusion – part of her particular brand of self-importance. I think it worked for that book and that character, but it never felt like the whole story either. I started to wonder – what if you really could heal people? What would that feel like? Would it be frightening? Tim has a power he doesn’t like and can’t control, and he tries to use it in various non-altruistic ways, but he’s not as selfish as perhaps he’d like to be and his ‘gift’ makes him vulnerable in a way he doesn’t like and can’t accept. He’s a more complex character than a run-of-the-mill fake, though using what you’ve got to better yourself, even if it hurts others, is a theme that runs through the book. And he isn’t the only character who does it.
FS: It seems like Annette, both as an adult and child, is the most affected by that theme even if she’s the most innocent of it. She’s a fascinating character at both ages, but in a lot of ways she is someone that things seem to happen to rather than someone that makes things happen. Were you getting at something in particular when you decided to have a central character whose whole life seems to be shaped by the events that happen around her? (I’m kind of asking this one because it’s a key element of the novel I’m writing, and something I find difficult to always across as effectively as you have.)
JA: She was definitely my focus – and the theme of helplessness that runs right through the novel is centred in her character, but echoes outwards. She had a bit-part in the story of Jack and Netty and Tim – her parents’ attention was elsewhere, of course – and as an adult she isn’t able to make the kind of sweeping grand gesture towards the house and her life and her loss that she wants to. Her drunken attempt to cut down the trees was deliberately wrong-headed and overblown and doomed to failure. I think that came from the original Baucis and Philemon story – it’s supposed to be a story about Gods, tucked inside this huge, sprawling poem about the heroic antics of higher beings – but the original story itself is almost novelistic. All that detail about wobbly table legs and cabbages and cooking. The little things.
I suppose what I was getting at there was the fact that all the cause-and-effect and characters acting on the world that novels and other grand narratives are made of really isn’t how most of us experience our lives. Most of the things that happen to us – the really big things – happen without us looking or acting at all. Candy tries to help, but can’t. Tim tries to help, but can’t. Even Jack is constantly doing battle against the natural decay and change going on with the house, and it is utterly futile. This was my way, I think, of spotlighting the hidden and unheroic acts of kindness that do make a difference, not to the plot of our lives, but to the way we experience the moments they are made of: hospitality, kindness, cooking someone a meal, making them a shirt. Whether that works or not is up to the reader, of course.
FS: I certainly think that came across, so that’s at least one reader! You mention the story of Baucis and Philemon. In all honesty, although I now remember reading that Fell was an interpretation of this story before reading the book, I’d completely forgotten by the end. I’d see that as a good thing, because sometimes interpretations can lean too heavily on the original. But how important was the original to what you finished with? How much of an influence was it?
JA: It influenced me to think a lot about hospitality – which is what the story is really about. About what taking strangers into your house might mean, in practical terms, and whether there is ever such a thing as altruism. I also really liked the ordinariness of Baucis and Philemon – they’re an old married couple who aren’t particularly well off, but share what they have with others, and because of that, get granted a kind of immortality that they experience together, but must be incredibly lonely all the same.
But I didn’t take Baucis and Philemon as a pattern for the book – the novel is very much its own self and I didn’t want to be hampered: theme was more useful to me than plot. For example, all of the stories in Metamorphosis are about transformation – about change, and very often the human characters are helpless in the face of that change, or harmed by it, or what starts out looking like a good deal turns out to be a bad one – and that’s all there in the novel too. For people who know the story really well, they’ll spot little details that I stole and transformed or reused – the wobbly table leg, the everlasting coffee that Tim drinks. And Annette’s ability to never empty a wine bottle or Tim’s trip up to the top of Hampsfell (that echoes the New Testament too). I hope it gives the novel depth and might reward a second reading.
FS: Yes, I can see how that would be the case. On the first reading I was very involved in the story, but maybe on a second reading I would see this links more clearly. On that note, a lot of people will have recently finished their first readings. How have you found the early reactions to the book?
JA: I’ve been thrilled – really, really pleased. It is early days, of course, but the print and online reviews have been lovely. I think I was a little worried about the response. Particularly from readers who had read my other work and perhaps might be startled by a magical, ghost-story sort of novel set in the 1960s – it is a bit of a departure. But people seem to be getting what I set out to do, which is all you can ask for, as a writer. I’m delighted.
FS: That leads nicely to another question I had. For your constant readers (as Stephen King would say) how do you think Fell compares to your earlier work? I saw similar themes but, despite the appearance of ghosts and magic, a somewhat quieter tone.
JA: It’s really hard for me to judge that. I can think about how they felt to write: Fell was definitely more difficult, because I was doing something more ambitious with the form – and it took more research, given that it is set in a place I’ve never lived and in a time I don’t remember. I think it’s a sadder, perhaps more vulnerable book than the others, which make a lot of use of a kind of sit-com noir feel, and black humour. This feels more subtle and more delicate. But then again – that is for the reader to decide. People who have responded to the book already say they feel it’s of a piece with my earlier work – similar themes of claustrophobia, of the domestic, of illness and misunderstandings. I can see that too. It’s definitely mine, even if it doesn’t look too much like the others 🙂
FS: One more question about Fell, then, before a final couple about your writing in general. I found the book quite difficult to classify when I was telling people about it, which I would definitely say is a good thing. Was it a ghost story? Was it historical fiction? Was it a family drama? How would you classify it for somebody completely new to the book?
JA: Okay – classification. I write in cultivated ignorance of these genre classifications (I’d rather be called a writer than a novelist too) which are limiting for a writer during the writing process, but perhaps helpful to librarians, academics, and readers.
It’s historical according to Margaret Atwood’s definition (I can’t remember the 1960s), it’s a gothic novel, it’s a love story, a ghost story, a retold myth. Literary fiction because it experiments with form a little? I think so. Probably all of these things.
FS: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you get all your ideas down in draft one and then redraft like crazy, or are you one of those meticulous types who tidies as you go?
JA: I write a quick and very messy first draft and then spend a long time – three years, in the case of Fell – editing it – during which time it changes completely. I think Fell had seven drafts before my editor saw it, then some structural rejigging and a copy edit after that. I’m a slow and messy and wasteful writer and I have just about come to terms with it…
FS: I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one – on draft 11 of my own novel. The standard author interview question now, then: have you started on the next book yet? What can we expect?
JA: I have. I think. Essays – personal, autobiographical, literary critical. About illness, writing and religion. I am not sure if I will publish them. It is difficult to write about yourself directly and make it something someone else might be interested in. I am working on that. But I’m going to write them anyway. I have a good idea for the next novel, but I need a breather.
FS: Well it sounds like something I’d like to read. And on that subject, one final question: we recently did our fifty books we’re looking forward to. What books would you recommend we keep our eyes peeled for?
JA: Turning Blue by Ben Myers – it’s a robust, difficult read and I like to consider myself a pretty tough reader but I found parts of it very unsettling and hard. He is an absolutely amazing sentence writer – that sounds like faint praise, but really, it isn’t – not many prose writers are as careful as poets about the sound and space in their sentences, but he really is. He’s a wonderful stylist.
Also – The Herring Famine by Adam O-Riordan (poetry). I was treated to a sneak preview of some of the poems from this collection at an Arvon week I went on recently. They were sharp, precise, moving, and beautiful. Can’t wait to get my hands on the entire collection.
The Centre is Red by Holly Ringland is a debut that’s already making some waves as it’s being shopped around in Australia and Europe right now. I’m reading a preview and I am really excited about this book. I will say nothing else, except to keep your eyes peeled for it. Ringland is the real deal.
FS: Fantastic thank you! I’m just noting those three down (hint, hint editor!) Great talking to you, Jenn – and best of look with Fell.