Saturday, February 20, 2010

Writing and Place: Jenn Ashworth in Preston

I am delighted to welcome Jenn Ashworth to my blog! Jenn is a full-time writer and freelance literature development worker who blogs at Every Day I Lie a Little. She is the author of the novel A Kind of Intimacy, wonderfully described by Jenny Diski as "an intense and intriguing novel that never quite lets the reader get comfortable. It understands about the fuzzy boundary between the normal and the strange, and weaves them together in a gripping, ever-darkening narrative". Now Jenn gives us a little insight about where, perhaps, the understanding of those fuzzy boundaries comes from... by introducing us to Lancashire. Take it away, Jenn!

TH: Where are you?

JA: Preston, Lancashire. I normally have to explain to people where that is in relation to other places (between Manchester and the Lake District, a bit across from Blackpool, a stone's throw from Pendle, a bit underneath Lancaster) but it wouldn't be completely unfair to say that I'm on a mission to bring Lancashire (or, to be fair, my fictional version of it) to the literary world, and the utter un-glamour of that seems to suit me, or at least it amuses me very much.

More specifically, I am writing, as I always do, hunched at a rickety MFI desk that is seven years old and has moved with me between ten or so houses. I can see the students in the terraced house over the road if I peek through my coffee-stained blind. Lots of my other writing takes place in bed, or in the car. Not picky, as long as there's silence.

TH: How long have you been there?

JA: I was born here, and moved away to uni when I was eighteen. I remember swearing to myself that I'd fake my own death rather than move back here. I lived in Cambridge, and then in Oxford, but four years after moving away I got knocked up and came back home. I've been here ever since - just over five years, and have no plans to move. I think about the countryside somewhere sometimes and about how nice a house with grass near it would be, but by the time I can afford a house somewhere nicer than here I'll be too old to appreciate it. I like living so close to the river, and I like hearing the trains go through the station at night. I like the ugliness of this place.

There's something I've not put my finger on, something almost ignominious about coming from Preston. It's like being called Gary or Nigel, or the word 'trousers'.

TH: What do you write?

I wrote a novel set in Fleetwood, which is a miserable little sea-side town near Preston. It used to have a big old pier, but it burned down and no-one wanted to replace it. That came out in Spring last year with Arcadia, and is called A Kind of Intimacy. It's about, among other things, neighbours, awkwardness and the terrible consequences of not being loved.

I also write a blog about my reading, writing, teaching and whatever is getting on my nerves at the moment (TV License Company, BT, wheely bins, my curtains, the curtain poles and other domestic hindrances yet to be discovered).

I write short stories - some of them have been published on-line (you can read them via the links in the sidebar of my blog), and the rest of them I'm gradually polishing and working up into a collection. I'm on the brink of completing my second novel - Cold Light. That's set partly in Preston and partly in Morecambe - another miserable little sea-side town near here.

There's something about sea-side towns. I like the arcades, and the polystyrene cups you get your tea in, and the fact that you can still buy cups of tea for 10p in some of the Blackpool arcades. There's a woman who comes around with a trolley and a real zinc mop bucket top to tip out the dregs in. I think they reuse the cups. The cloth she's got on the trolley is the same colour as tea-bags, and I think they probably wring it out when they've run out of tea. I love it.

My writing is dark, I suppose. Not crime novels, but novels with crimes in them. People behaving badly, and failing to explain themselves. I'm interested in the processes we go through when we're trying really hard to remember things, to explain things, to be truthful. I like writing about extraordinary people doing ordinary things. The domestic. I find domestic settings and plots sinister and comic at the same time. If you think about things like bread-bins and apple peelers and fridge magnets for too long, you're either going to crack up laughing or commit a murder. Perhaps I'm being too flippant, but I do know that the ideas for A Kind of Intimacy and most of my other writing started to come when I was almost house-bound for a couple of years with a tiny child.

I've also got plans for novel number three, a live lit show with the poet Jo Bell, finishing my short story collection and an idea for a radio play is forming. I don't know how to write radio plays, but I'm going to give it a whirl.

TH: How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?

JA: I already mentioned the ignominy of coming from Preston. We're a shy lot. There's a lot of tall-poppy syndrome here although that's getting better. It took me ages to start calling myself a writer, to 'come out' and for a while I was away in other cities doing events and readings and workshops for other people's libraries and bookshops and festivals and when I was at home, I wasn't involved with any of that. It's different now though. Although I love the parks and the train station and the river and the canal, parts of this city are spectacularly ugly and I suppose I'm much more interested in the ordinary, the drab, the unattractive, quiet things in life and those things are much more likely to be the subject of my fiction than evocative foreign settings and glamorous people leading interesting lives. I don't like the 'gritty northern writer' label but there's something to it, whether I like it or not.

Thank you, Jenn, for that insight into a part of the UK I don't know very well, but am now very intrigued by. I do know that Lancaster has an excellent literary festival, so maybe this October I'll take the chance to go up and explore a little. Jenn's blog is Every Day I Lie a Little.

As ever, please email me if you'd like to be part of the Writing&Place series! Any writer, any place...


Diane Becker said...

Great post Jenn - I wasn't born in Preston but I did spend five years here at uni (or the polytechnic as it was then). I came back for different reasons AND after swearing I'd never come back and was surprised - and am still surprised - that I'm so happy and creatively productive here. Perhaps it's because it is ordinary - there's something about the everydayness of the place that works for me too. Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Tania for introducing, Jenn. I love this dark and humorous side of life in Preston along with what promises to be powerful writing.

I look forward to further explorations and shared writing via Jenn's blog. Thanks again.

Jenn said...

Hi Diane and Elisabeth

I'm glad you liked the piece. I think Diane hits it on the head - I find the total ordinary every-dayness of this place very interesting. It's the sort of place no-one would really set a novel - and so of course I do...

Miriam Drori said...

I think you can set a novel anywhere if you're a good writer. (And if you're not, the setting doesn't help.)

Thanks for the interesting post.

Nik Perring said...

Loved this, Jenn, and sooo know what you mean. It's a north west England thing, I think; happily normal and ordinary - mostly in a good way.


Rachel Fenton said...

Weyhey! It's grim - but fun up North!

What a brilliant, funny and intelligent interview.

Tania Hershman said...

Thanks Diane, Elisabeth, Miriam, Nik, and Rachel - wasn't it a great interview! Thank you, Jenn!

Jenn said...

Thank you all, and thanks for having me, Tania.

I'm not sure I like the 'grim and gritty' North label - like I say in the interview, it seems to stick and be appropriate whether I like it or not. There's a stereotypical ordinary straight-forwardness to the people here that seems to have got into my writing, but that could be true of lots of places. I'd also have to agree with Miriam - you can make anywhere interesting, but the fact that this odd, overlooked, ordinary place is so interesting to me is a good start :)

Rachel Fenton said...

Jenn - it was meant tongue in cheek from one Northerner (albeit relocated) to another - straight-forwardly. No, I don't agree with most labels myself. Looking forward to reading you.

Jenn said...

All this chat about ordinariness and straight-forwardness has got me thinking. Most of my narrators are anything but ordinary or straight-forward, even though they do their best to give that impression - or may even see them selves as very ordinary and straight-forward speakers, they are deeply unreliable. I don't know if it is because I come from Lancashire and I'm supposed to always say what I mean in an unvarnished way because of where I come from, but I'm certainly more interested in how the meaning gets between the lines when we're trying to be 'up front' than I am in anything else.

I don't know if this has much to do with the interview, but I just thought of it. Sorry, and thank you for having me again. :)