Interview: Jenn Ashworth on hauntings, home and blurred boundaries

10th Jul 2017

Like the shifting sands of Britain’s shores, Jenn Ashworth’s latest novel Fell refuses a final categorisation. Set in the transient mudflats of Morecambe Bay, it hints at magical realism, the spiritual, and the gothic without ever properly settling on one. Ashworth, author of The Friday Gospels, Cold Light and A Kind of Intimacy, talks to us about hauntings, blurring boundaries, and psychogeographies.

Fell by Jenn Ashworth follows the Cliffords, who are grappling with Nettie Clifford’s cancer, and Annette, who as an adult returns to her parent’s empty and derelict house in Morecambe Bay. Her arrival wakes up her parents ghosts, who follow her around the house grimly remembering the last few months of Nettie’s life.

Images of Annette surveying the crumbling house fall into scenes of an enigmatic stranger named Tim, who holds a sinister grip over the family through a faint promise that he can help them.

Fell explores the slipperiness of belonging and not belonging, of faith in the mysterious, and of the fixity of home. We talked to author Jenn Ashworth to find out more:

What made you choose to write a historical novel this time? How did you find the writing process?

The first scene that came to me was the one where Jack, Netty and Annette meet Tim at the lido – Jack was thinking about the great train robbery, so I knew it was the summer of 1963.

The rest of the novel flowed from that scene, which meant I found myself having to do a lot of research into the early 1960s on the coast of Cumbria.

I’ve never had to do so much research before – into trees, and cancer, and men’s suit making, and all kinds of other things – but I enjoyed it a lot, even though it made the writing process slower this time. That’s no bad thing.

I was struck by how deeply the ethereal is embedded into ordinary life in the novel. Was this drawn from your own experiences?

I haven’t ever had any supernatural or magical or spiritual experiences – whatever you want to call them. But Fell did jump from The Friday Gospels – in that Pauline believes that she’s been healed, somehow – and I felt that I’d made the reader laugh at her a bit – think of her as a bit delusional.

I was left with the sense that I’d mistreated her character, and wanted to try again – and this time, treat the idea of healing and magic or miracles a bit more seriously and with more dignity and curiousity.

Were you influenced by any writers in particular while you were writing?

I very deliberately read lots of books about ghosts – I was doing that anyway – for my work with Curious Tales – and once I realised Fell was going to be, one way or another, a ghost story, I immersed myself in them – traditional and modern – for three years.

Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs was an influence – the way he does the first person plural voice, the way his ghosts aren’t scary or silly but humane and human – was a big influence. As was Ali Smith’s Artful and Hotel World – where the figure of the dead person has so much to do with language, and remembering.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses – even though it’s not a ghost story – was obviously a big influence on the book too, and the whole novel is a kind of response or a remix of the Baucis and Philemon tale.

The parallels between the decaying house and Netty’s spreading cancer put me in mind of other houses that resemble maternal bodies (for example, in Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching). Did you use that trope on purpose?

I didn’t directly set up the house to be a metaphor for Netty’s body, or set out to do anything with any academic tropes or groups or schools – I don’t really work in that way.

I did, though, want to blur and make muddy every solid boundary or structure that I could find – human bodies, relationships, roles within families, landscapes, and yes – buildings.

Grange over Sands is a very murky place and I wanted to write a book that lived and breathed that murkiness – that sense of shifting quicksands and unpredictability.

Home is an intense, potent, mysterious place. Why wouldn't anyone want to write about it? The novel is very much rooted in descriptions of place. Why were you drawn to the North England in particular?

It’s where I live. It is what I know. I’m made curious by what goes on around me, and my writing is about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange – most of all to myself, but I hope also for my reader.

What is it that draws you to domestic settings in your writing?

I think the domestic setting intrigues me because home haunts us – we never really leave home, and we can never really go back home either.

More practically: home is where all our best and worst behaviour takes place – it’s where we make the masks we wear out in the world, and where sometimes, our masks slip and our true selves show.

Home is where we learn all the best and worst things about ourselves – where we are first hurt and where we first, if we are lucky, experience love. It’s an intense, potent, mysterious place. Why wouldn’t anyone want to write about it?

At times, the house, the trees, and the landscape in the book seem more like characters than setting. What do you think it is about places that connects us to them so much?

I do think of the setting as a character, in that the way the land moves and breathes, the weather, the landscape more generally – all massively affect the characters and their attitudes to their lives and each other.

Timothy doesn’t want to be there – he considers the place to be the sticks – a stepping stone to better things. Annette has spent her whole life trying to get away, and like the tide itself, has been sucked back.

Netty loves the peace, loves being in charge of her own house – the place is work and home to her – and Jack perhaps feels burdened and trapped by the house and by the bay itself: he doesn’t make his living directly from it in a way that a lot of men in that time and place did – fishing, cockling, etc – and it’s a reminder, perhaps, of what he worries he lacks or is unable to do. The novel couldn’t possibly have been set anywhere else.

And I do think people relate to places like that – they write and rewrite their own psychogeographies of their home turfs the whole time.

There isn’t one Preston – there are as many versions of Preston as there are people who live and work there, and I find that fascinating, in fiction and in real life.

I don’t think we’re ever really at home in a place – or if we’re so at home in a place that it becomes invisible, it escapes us. That’s what I mean when I say writing is about making the familiar strange and the strange familiar – it’s never more pointed than when I am writing about landscapes that I think I know.

Fell, the latest novel by Jenn Ashworth, is out now.

Interview by Becca Inglis. Becca is a creative non-fiction writer and reviewer based in Edinburgh. Her essay ‘Love in a Time of Melancholia’ appeared in 404 Ink’s collection Nasty Women, and her article ‘When Women Steal the Patriarchy’s Toys: Feminism as Terrorism’ was published by the Dangerous Women Project. Becca has also written for The Skinny, The Wee Review, and Lunar Poetry. For more, see her website or follow on Twitter.