I was not sure what to expect when I approached this interview with Jenn Ashworth, her debut novel A Kind of Intimacy was dark, funny, gripping and at times frightening in its reality.
What I found was a confident, easy going woman. A real 'what you see is what you get' kind of gal. Born in 1982 in Lancashire England, she has a down to earth playful nature which is more than evident in her writing.
Currently Jenn is working on her next novel after being named one of 'Waterstone's New Voices 2009'. She received a MA in Creative Writing from Manchester University and at the time of this interview works in a Prison Library.
Jenn's blog title 'Every day I Lie a Little' gives an insight into her humour and everyday goings on, well worth venturing to.
A Kind of Intimacy is the story of Annie, an overweight, self conscious woman, who seeks out a new life after tragedy strikes her. Moving to a new house she sets about meeting the locals and attempting to make friends. Her life takes unusual twists and turns as she attempts to out manoeuvre her old life and start over. Ultimately her past catches up with her with dramatic consequences for Annie, the boy next door and his girlfriend. I found myself cringing at some of her attempts, almost screaming at others and totally gripped as her secrets were revealed. Things you never thought were coming.
Seeing the world through Annie's eyes, her thoughts, feelings, and judgements at times has almost a voyeuristic quality even though it is told by Annie herself. Each page leads you further into a twisted tale, as she unravels a story which will have you guessing right till its bloody end.
Although fictional, Annie's complex mixture of emotions are some which we all face at one time or another. She is that likable strange lady down the road, the friend who tries too hard, the odd one out at a party. There is a little piece of all us in her.
A Kind of Intimacy gives us an unique window into the life a woman who many would never notice otherwise and shows us just how fragile the human mind can be.
A little about Jenn:
What was it that brought you to writing?
I’ve always written, from when I was very small. I think it’s probably a lot to do with escapism – being able to go through the page or the computer screen into a completely different world. I’ve been a very keen diary writer since I was thirteen, so a lot of the way I understand myself and the outside world is by writing things down. It’s very natural to me and although it doesn’t always go well I can’t really imagine not doing it for any length of time.
Which do you prefer writing, short stories or novels?
It depends on what I want to say. They are very different things. Short stories are wonderful because they force you to be so specific and immediate, and I love reading and writing novels because of the entire fictional world you can inhabit. The short stories you can read via the links on my blog have been a very immediate, instant way of interacting with the online literary scene – I’m not sure if it is quite the same with a long novel like A Kind of Intimacy – it takes much longer to be finished and get feedback, anyway.
What was life like growing up in Lancashire?
My childhood wasn’t a particularly happy one, but I don’t think that’s anything to do with Lancashire. It’s quite a quiet, inward looking place. I’d never lived or been to anywhere else when I got to Uni, and I had an idea that I was fairly experienced and open minded because of how many books I’d read, when actually I was naïve in lots of ways. I almost decided never to come back, but obviously I have, and things are very different for me now I’m an adult and the cultural and literary scene is developing a bit here.
What is the Preston Writing Network?
As well as writing, I do freelance literature development work. The Preston Writing Network is the fruit of a Associate Artist’s placement I’ve had with a Arts Development Company for the past eight months. My brief was to discover, promote and develop emerging writing in Preston and the blog, the classes and the live-lit nights are one of the ways I tried to do that. I think it’s been a fantastic success – very little to do with my tapping away on my computer, and more to do with all the new writers I’ve met – Preston is suddenly full of bloggers, short story writers, poets, journalists and novelists. I wish someone had done this when I was growing up.
Why leave Preston for Oxford?
I was living in Cambridge at the time and had just finished my first degree. My partner at the time was offered a job with training in Oxford, and although I nearly decided to move to Liverpool (I wish I had) I decided to go with him and lived in Oxford for a year, working for The Samaritans and The Bodleian library, as well as training at night school to be a counselor and trying to write The Balloon Novel.
Your best and worst habits?
My best habit is also my worst habit. I work very, very hard – and I never say no to things. That means I’ve had some amazing experiences and some wonderful opportunities, but it also means that I’ve neglected a lot of my friends and don’t have much time for other things. I worry about getting tired, and burning out. I should make it a habit to have some weekends and evenings off!
About A Kind of Intimacy:
When you began writing ‘A Kind of Intimacy’, your laptop had been stolen, you were sharing a run down home and newly left your home borough of Preston for Oxford. How did these events effect your writing of A Kind of Intimacy?
Nothing direct, although living next to a pub in Oxford and continually overhearing everyone in the beer garden having a wonderful time must have found its way into the book somehow! I think a general sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction in the quality of my relationships with other people might have influenced me, but I certainly didn’t set out to write about myself or anyone I knew.
It's been described as dark, humorous, frightening and its main character Annie compared to Misery’s Kathy Bates by Stephen King. Which authors influence you in your writing and which do you enjoy most?
I like Stephen King, and Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carole Oats, Raymond Chandler – and hundreds of others. Also dramatists like Alan Bennet and Mike Leigh, who did Abigail’s Party. I don’t think I’m influenced by anyone in particular – I’m much more likely to be moved to write by an emotion or a memory than I am by a book.
What do you hope readers take from Annie's tale?
I’d love it if a reader realized, at the end of the book, that they’d been rooting and sympathizing for someone who is actually quite dangerous and who does some terrible things. I hope readers like Annie. I like Annie very much. I wanted to say something about intimacy – I used to think it was an impossible thing to achieve but now I think the intimacy between the reader and the writer is something quick tricky and slippery and special too.
Annie’s character is profoundly lonely, her actions show this with disturbing clarity, her only true friend being her cat Mr. Tipps. Ultimately what do you feel she was craving?
She wanted the same thing that everyone wants – I think she says it in the book somewhere. To talk without misunderstanding. We’ve only got language to rely on when we want to get close to each other, and language is so unreliable. She’s fighting a losing battle really, despite her disadvantages. She wanted a friend and to be special to someone.
Annie has many ill conceived obsessions as she attempts to start her new life and searches her self-help books for a magic bullet to heal her life. Do you think these vulnerabilities are what makes her so believable in that she wants nomore than we all want?
I’m glad you find her believable – many people have told me they recognize parts of Annie in themselves, or in someone else they know. I don’t think she’s that unusual – just an exaggeration of something that we all fear. Maybe.
What do you think is Annie's more endearing quality? For me it was her optimistic delusions.
I think for me it was her naivety. I still shudder when I think of her in her taffeta peach bridesmaid’s dress at the housewarming party. She probably wanted a dress just like it when she was ten years old, finally bought it in her twenties and wore it to the supermarket thinking she looked lovely. I imagine her twirling in front of the mirror, checking her lipstick, reciting her affirmations and being almost convinced she looks beautiful. There’s a big bit of Annie that never grew up, and still wants her mother.
Part 2 of this interview on Monday.