The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Jenn Ashworth

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Jenn Ashworth

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Summary: Sue loved Jenn's latest book, Cold Light. She met Jenn a few months ago and she really wanted to know how a nice girl like Jenn could think up a plot like that. Thankfully, Jenn was ready to talk to us...
Date: 4 May 2011
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue loved Jenn's latest book, Cold Light. She met Jenn a few months ago and really wanted to know how a nice girl like Jenn could think up a plot like that. Thankfully, Jenn was ready to talk to us...

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Jenn Ashworth: When I'm writing, I try not to imagine my readers at all. I'd get stage (page?) fright otherwise. Although I am, when structuring a story and making decisions about character, writing for someone who likes the same kind of books as I do - a reader who wants to be entertained as much as they want to be challenged. My readers, I think, are probably a very disparate group of people from the crime-thriller and lit-fic ends of the spectrum.

  • BB: Cold Light is an unsettling psychological thriller. How does a nice girl like you think up a plot like that?

JA: P.D James said recently that writing books about violence and murder was a way of containing the horror of these events - both in the outside world and the propensity for performing them in each of us. I wonder if that means authors of unsettling books are less likely to do unsettling things? I'm not sure I buy into that theory and I'm not sure if I'd see my books as dealing entirely with the darker side of life and unpleasant kinds of people. I hope none of my characters are heroes or villains, because it isn't like that in real life - we're all capable of surprising ourselves with the good and bad things we do, I think most unsettling acts have a logic behind them and I want my books to reflect that.

  • BB: The characters of the three teenage girls in Cold Light – Chloë, Emma and Lola – rang so true that I was taken back to my teenage years. Human nature obviously doesn't change all that much. Did you think it was a bit of a risk having three main characters, none of whom were all that sympathetic?

JA: No - not at all. It's the same in my first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, and the same in the one I am writing now. I just don't think anyone is pure good or pure bad. Writing a 'likeable' character might make my novels appeal to a different set of readers, but I'd feel like it was an incomplete portrayal. And as a reader, I don't need to like a character to want to spend time with them - people in conflict with their world, with themselves are very engaging to spend time with. The whole idea of 'sympathetic' characters is a bit strange to me. We don't read to make friends, do we?

  • BB: There's a very definite northern feel to the book. I've forgiven you being on the wrong side of the Pennines, but have you ever thought of living anywhere else?

JA: I haven't. Although for years now I have been nurturing an ambition to own and live in one of these. I have no idea where I'd drive it, but I imagine somewhere green and quiet. I also love the sea-side, but can't imagine living down South again as it's so far away from the place I'll always consider home. I'm a spectacularly unadventurous person. I'm planning a trip to the US for research next month, and have just realised I've had my passport almost ten years and there's one stamp in it. Must do better.

  • BB: We met about three months ago and if I'd been asked to spot a librarian in that room full of authors, publicists and bloggers you would have been just about the last person I'd have chosen. I've obviously got some out-dated preconceptions about what a librarian should be like! Did you enjoy the job and did running a library in a prison present any particular challenges?

JA: I did love the job - very much. I got to be around the most interesting set of people with such diverse life experiences and talk to them about reading. I can't think of anything I'd rather do for a living, other than write. I was very sad to leave, but it was such a demanding place to work that fitting in writing as well as working became impossible. I always promised myself I would go back one day, but I fear for the future of our libraries.

Apart from the challenge of being able to write when I worked, there were many obstacles to getting the men using the library - sometimes obstacles as basic their own literacy. I believe the figure is 46% of prisoners can't read. On top of that, there were the security aspects - the prisoners relied on officers bringing them to the library, and often understaffing meant that wasn't possible, which was frustrating for everyone.

Having said that, some wonderful work around reading and writing was done in that library - we had a dedicated writer in residence, although sadly, the Arts Council have now withdrawn their funding from the Writers in Prisons Network so that's another good thing that's had a very uncertain future now. Still, I get letters now and again from men in prisons all over the country - who have very understaffed libraries, who don't have access to a community of writers, to reading groups, who need to overcome all kinds of personal and practical challenges - and they are still writing. That was an inspiration to me and I don't think, no matter how much money the goverment takes away, that will ever stop.

  • BB: We worry about libraries too. Recently BBC2's The Culture Show named you as one of their twelve best new British novelists. Accolade? Burden? How do you feel about it?

JA: It was a lovely boost and it really stimulated a lot of extra interest in my first novel, which I am very grateful for. I had so many nice messages, letters and phone calls from people who saw the programme and went on to read my book. A lot of people who contacted me said something along the lines of how nice it was to see someone succeeding as a writer who didn't come from the usual background. I don't know what the usual background is supposed to be - but I'm glad if me being there encouraged someone to read and write with more confidence - to feel that their story and their voice is important. And it was also terrifying! My chosen career involves me typing in a darkened room - I'm not sure I've got the skills or constitution for regular telly appearances! I still haven't seen it, although the BBC sent me a DVD of the show, so maybe I will work up the courage someday.

  • BB: Pluck up your courage, Jenn - it was brilliant. Where and how do you write? How do you fit it around having two young children? And has having children changed the way that you view the world?

JA: Because I have children, and teaching commitments I write whenever I can. I'm not precious about a routine - the first draft of Cold Light was written longhand, in my car during my lunch breaks at the prison. I can start at 8pm and do another five hour shift if I need to, although, like everyone, I'd prefer a room with a door that can close and less nocturnal hours. Train journeys are good - and nap times. I try not to waste any little pocket of time. My husband would never dream of doing anything less than half of the house and child care - it wouldn't occur to him to expect otherwise. That makes everything possible.

I started writing A Kind of Intimacy when I was pregnant with my first child, so my writing has always been squeezed in around children - I don't know any different. I don't think it's special - most parents work outside the house as well as inside the house, and I have a flexibility that I wouldn't have had if I'd have stuck at being a librarian, or became a teacher or a doctor or something else. So I bet I have it a lot easier than many working parents. Having children has made me a better writer - I work hard because I want them to see that having a family and a career is possible, and I hope if they see me taking what I do seriously, they'll be confident in pursuing their own talents.

  • BB: I'm finding Cold Light a hard book to follow. What are you reading at the moment?

JA: I am reading The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. It's a whopper of a book and I've only just started it, but I love it so far..

  • BB: You've got one wish? What's it to be? Sorry, but world peace and the eradication of poverty have already been taken.

JA: I wish both my children would sleep from 7pm to 7am seven days a week, and that I didn't have to sleep at all. An incredibly selfish wish, I know. But I have so many things I want to do..

  • BB: What's next for Jenn Ashworth?

JA: I'm writing my third novel - and very nearly away to the US on a research trip. I expect to have it finished in the winter. I'm really enjoying the writing of it so far. I think it's going to be a bit different. I'm just finishing a Writing Fellowship at Manchester University, so I will have most of the summer free to tinker with it. I'm looking forward to that.

  • BB: And we're looking forward to reading the book, Jenn. Thank you for talking to us.

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