For Books’ Sake Talks To: Jenn Ashworth

18th May 2011


I completely fell in love with Jenn Ashworth when I read her terrifyingly good début, A Kind of Intimacy, in 2009. A former librarian now full-time writer and lecturer, Jenn’s darkly comic prose and eye for fascinating characters had me hooked.

With her latest novel Cold Light out now in hardback, I asked Jenn about her writing and influences:

FBS: On your website you talk about how your writing has always had a darker edge to it. Would you describe your work as gothic, noir, or what?

JA: I think my writing tends to appeal to crime fic and thriller readers as well as the more literary types. I’m as interested in form and character as I am in plot – but I don’t really have a genre in mind when I start writing.

My work has been described as domestic, sitcom noir and that just about covers it, though those kind of labels are more useful to bookshop owners than writers, I think.

FBS: Your work is in places hilariously funny, in a very dark, British way. What influenced your writing style and who are your literary heroes?

JA: I love the very restrained and understated way Ishiguro handles humour in his work. I’m a big fan of Ali Smith‘s playfulness and humanity. Patricia Highsmith is a huge influence too.

I’ve recently discovered John Cheever and I’m absolutely blown away by his short stories – the dark, domestic, unspoken stuff about family and marriage in particular. And James Joyce – I’ve read Dubliners so many times my copy is falling apart.

FBS: In A Kind of Intimacy you bring up a lot of issues relating to women; fatism, abuse and post-natal depression to name a few. Would you describe yourself as a feminist writer? If so, do you try to make this explicit in your writing?

JA: I think most sane people think human beings should be treated equally and have equal opportunities – so yes, I’m a feminist. But I never set out to write with an issue in mind.

I think novels that are written in that way tend to be very flimsy. It’s a story, not a polemic. I write about the way I see the world, about the things and people that make me curious.

FBS: I completely loved Annie, the protagonist in A Kind of Intimacy. How do you find inspiration for such incredible characters?

JA: I don’t know where Annie came from! She’s an odd one, and I have a lot of affection for her. I wish I could have given her a happy ending – some people are hopeless though.

I started being interested in jealousy, and feeling left out. I tried to imagine what would happen if the thing that you most wanted was in front of you – almost close enough to touch, but forever out of reach. What would that do to a person? Then Annie appeared to answer those questions.

Cold Light covers some similar themes by looking at friendships between teenage girls.

FBS: You used to be a librarian. Do libraries still play an important role in your life?

JA: They do. It’s terrible what’s happening to libraries under this government. I wouldn’t be a writer if I hadn’t spent so much time in libraries as a child. I do think libraries need to change in order to offer the services the next generation need and they’ve been too slow to do that – but doing away with them isn’t the answer. That, and the Writers In Prisons Network losing their funding, has made me really angry.

FBS: You’re currently completing a fellowship at Manchester University, teaching and promoting your latest novel, as well as family life. How do you keep so many plates spinning?

JA: Almost all of my work is very flexible – which makes things much easier than it might be. My husband does half of all the child and house care. I stay up late at night and don’t do much socially.

If something is important to me, I make the time. Balance is difficult, but that’s the same for every single working parent and I can choose my own hours so I’m luckier than most.

FBS: Tell us a bit about your current novel, Cold Light?

It is the story of two teenage girls and one extraordinarily cold winter in 1997. Chloe drowns in a frozen pond with her older boyfriend. Her community think it’s a Romeo and Juliet style suicide pact.

Lola, who grows up to realise not everything she saw was as it appeared, knows there’s more to it than that. On the tenth anniversary of Chloe’s death, a third body is discovered – and Lola knows who it is.

It’s about what Lola’s prepared to do for her best friend, about envy and about the way the world tells itself stories about teenage girls.

FBS: And what can we look forward to in the future?

I’m working on my third novel – which Sceptre will be publishing hopefully late next year. It’s quite different to anything I’ve done so far. Set in Chorley and Utah it is the story of what happens on the day a returning LDS missionary comes home to his family. I’m heading off to Utah next month and I can’t wait!

Jenn Ashworth will be reading at Station Stories in Manchester this weekend. For more from her, have a nosey at her website, or watch the trailer for Cold Light.

Jess Haigh