NewnhamWrites … Rules? There are no rules
Rules? There are no rules. Award-winning author and Newnhamite (NC 2000), Jenn Ashworth on her writing life, her time at Newnham and why she hated school.
Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston, where she still lives. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a librarian in a prison. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. Jenn has also published short fiction and won an award for her blog, Every Day I Lie a Little. Her work has been compared to both Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith; all her novels to date have been set in the North West of England. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Her latest novel, FELL (Sceptre, 2016) came out to critical acclaim in July this year.
I really enjoyed reading your most recent novel, FELL. Tell us what inspired it?
I always knew it was going to be different. My earlier novels tended to be more satirical – although I didn’t set out to write a different novel from the others – it just appeared as itself from the outset.
I’ve always been interested in faith, healing, family and illness – and these are things I’ve written about before. In The Friday Gospels one of the characters claims she’s been miraculously healed and the reader is invited to consider whether or not it’s all in her head. With FELL I wanted to look at it the other way – what if someone really was a miracle healer? What if it was really possible? What would it feel like to be able to do that?
So FELL started with a scene that just appeared spontaneously in my head. Two of the main characters, Jack and Tim first meet at the Grange-Over-Sands Lido. Tim – the ‘cuckoo’ in the story – cures Jack’s short-sightedness and Jack immediately invites him back to the house to take a look at his wife, who is dying. I had to write it down. The rest of the novel fell around this scene, which was less instinctive and took much more planning and figuring out.
What made you decide to become a writer?
I’ve always been an avid reader. I remember as a very young child seeing other people reading and wanting to know what they were doing. And I’ve been writing since I was really tiny. I used to make little books – stories and plays – and draw pictures to go with the stories.
From about the age of 12/13 right through to my late twenties, I wrote a diary every day. Looking through them, I can see that people always puzzled me. I would always be asking, ‘why did they do that?’ and a diary was my way of working that out. Even from a young age, I could see what a problem writing was, how unreliable memory can be. Whatever you read, it’s always one person’s perspective and I could see how unreliable that is and it got me thinking about point of view.
Lastly, writing always felt natural to me – it’s what I am and I find it odd that everyone doesn’t write. For me, writing is a way to approach the world.
What do you struggle with?
Writing is tricky. I don’t feel like I’ve conquered anything. If I had, I wouldn’t be writing.
The novel as a form has been a struggle: from the micro issues of sentences – which two words should go together – to the larger scale decisions. I do find it a challenge to pay attention to the bigger picture as well as the small scale work – things like pace, point of view, how to balance tenderness, satire, humour, humanity. I don’t think I’ve always achieved that, but hopefully each novel is a step towards achieving that goal.
How do you go about teaching creative writing?
I hate rules about writing, people telling you to do a certain thing in a certain way, or claiming you have to be in a certain mood to write. When I teach creative writing, I don’t tell my students how to write. Teaching is about responding intimately to their work in progress, to show them different techniques to help them achieve what they want to achieve, to identify what they find difficult or impossible, to discover what gets in their way of writing – the practical and the technical. And we talk a lot about reading.
And when you write …
I can’t listen to music. I have to be away from my kids, but I can write with white noise in the background. I can write in the car, in a café, but mostly, I prefer to write at night and in the dark. I don’t have any writing rituals. I don’t need a special tea in a special mug; or a special pen or pencil. It’s not about being in a certain mood. They all sound like excuses. Writing’s a discipline. You just write. If you can’t write a particular scene, then write something else.
Do you revisit your novel once it’s been published?
No. I try not to think about it. It’s a skin that you shed and I’m just not interested in it any more. If I ever do look back at previous novels, then maybe it’s the tone, the sentences, the characters I reflect on, where I haven’t anticipated a particular character to be interpreted in a certain way. Or places where I could have been more subtle. But if I think about things that I could have changed, then I don’t go back to it, but I make sure that I reflect those things in my next novel.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a completely different project – a collection of non-fiction essays. It’s a very different process but it’s nice to work on something like this as I’ve been writing fiction since the age of 15/16.
… And the book’s you’re reading?
I’ve read books by people who are doing what I’m not. I read things by authors who are better writers than me, people who push the boundaries with their writing. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction, such as The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – which is an essay form of memoir writing – documenting her marriage to a transgender artist, her pregnancy and their evolving relationship. I’ve also read the International Man Booker Prize winner, The Vegetarian by South Korean writer, Han Kang. And then I’ve been reading Max Porter’s, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a story of a widower and his relationship with his young sons.
Tell us about your school life
I just hated school. I didn’t fit in. The idea of wanting to fit seemed illogical to me. School seemed tribal and I wasn’t, and it seemed a daft way to spend my time. I didn’t like the rules, of being told what to do from 9.00-3.30, to wear a uniform, to have your life dictated to every single minute. It was boring – awful. Adults wouldn’t like that, so why should I as a child have liked that? I wanted to learn, but not what the school wanted me to learn.
I ended up spending a lot of time in the library where I read and learned a lot. I just felt that school was getting in the way of learning. Eventually I did go back to school to do my GCSEs – only because I wanted to go to university and I knew I needed to do them. And I did well, and then I did my A-Levels at an FE (further education) college, which was much better.
What motivated you to go to Cambridge?
I asked my teachers, which were the best universities, and Oxbridge came up. They didn’t really take me seriously as I was still a bit of a truant and not really that engaged in my studies. Though having said that, they arranged – through The Sutton Trust – for me to go to a summer school at Cambridge. The Sutton Trust helps students from underprivileged backgrounds experience what studying at Cambridge and Oxford is like. It’s an attempt to demystify it, I suppose. I stayed at Gonville and Caius and attended seminars and it made me want to apply.
I chose Newnham because of the female writers that were associated with the college – Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf. I also thought it offered more balance between state and private school students versus all the other colleges. And it’s opposite the Sidgwick Site where all my lectures were, so that was convenient too.
I actually didn’t really expect to get in and planned to attend Warwick University – I’d applied there to do English and Creative Writing. But they didn’t offer me a place. I was gutted at the time, but I’m glad it worked out the way it did now.
Life at Newnham
I loved my time there – the freedom to follow your own interests, the rigour of one-on-one discussions in supervisions. You were given an essay question and told to get on with it and that suited me.
I felt a bit different from some of the other students – particularly as I had lived on my own before university, and others had either come from boarding school or parents’ homes. But I loved being with people from different backgrounds and I had more in common with them than I expected through our love of reading.
That said, it was very expensive. I was really skint most of the time. As I’d moved out from my parents when I was doing my A-Levels, I lived in college during the summer which was sometimes horrible with no other students about. But there wasn’t any other option. So yes, it was tricky. I had to work in housekeeping, cleaning early mornings and I also worked at the bar at night. I did get yearly bursaries from the Newton Bursary and that made a huge difference and enabled me to afford accommodation all year round.
Life after Newnham
I always wanted to write and to have a job that would help make ends meet while I wrote. I worked in a prison library and I liked that – the variety, the fact that people were studying through the Open University for their Masters; others were using it to learn to read, to write, wanting to write letters to family and friends, to work on their legal cases or write memoirs. I enjoyed maintaining a little space that didn’t feel like a prison. But it was so badly paid that I had to leave. I had a young child at the time and I didn’t have enough to support her. I went freelance for a while, but that involved a lot of invoice chasing and eventually I went into academia. I teach creative writing. I love it – being autonomous, the control I have over my own time. I like teaching, working alongside other writers, talking about reading and writing the whole time, having time to spend on my own work.
What springs to mind when you think of the following:
Writing: work(!) (In a good way.)
Newnham: Permission (permission to do all sorts of things. No-one ever thought it was weird that I wanted to be a novelist given my background and experience with education.)
FELL: Ask the reader. The reader should always have the last word on a book.