Jenn Ashworth is settling down to edit her third novel this summer with a weight of expectations at her back.
Two years ago, when her first novel A Kind of Intimacy came out, she was named by Waterstones as one of their New Voices of the year. This year, just before her second novel, Cold Light, was published, The Guardian and the BBC2’s Culture Show named her as one of the 12 best rising English novelists.
“It’s very nice and complimentary, but when it comes to working you have to ignore it,” she says. “If I let myself think about it I’d be very scared. When A Kind of Intimacy came out the reviews were good and everyone talked about what a wonderful character Annie was, and I thought, ‘ Oh no, I can’t do that again’. And then I thought, ‘Well, I’m doing something different now, and anyway I can only do what I do, so I just got on with it.’”
This practical determination to plough her own furrow seems the key to her journey as a distinctive new voice in UK fiction.
Her books are darkly comic takes on life in northern England and patrol a territory far away from any hip urban scene. They feature provincial bus stations and scruffy public parks, and follow the interior lives of characters who often feel as bleak as the Barratt homes they inhabit or the shopping malls they hang out in. It is their sustaining delusions, deep insecurities, and small but potent longings which form the grist to her writing mill.
Preston – the town where she grew up, and where she still lives – is the unnamed backdrop for Cold Light, and she is drawn to wanting to show the reality of life in places where “it’s as if the rest of the country doesn’t exist. Because if you live in Preston and want to go out for the night it’s £10 or £15 on the train, and most people don’t have that, so they’re stuck. Yet most books set in the north are set in Manchester or Sheffield or Leeds or somewhere, even though most people don’t live in places like that. And it’s even worse in the south. When I’ve done readings down there, there are definitely people who think I’m writing about somewhere exotic!”
Her books also have a strange, unsettling pitch, which stems from how she likes to tell her stories. “I’ve always gone for first-person narrators – my next book follows the intertwined stories of five of them – and I’ve always felt that such a narrator must be unreliable. It’s different if you’re in your God voice when you know everything, but when you’re speaking as a mere mortal you only know what you know and it seems to me you have to be unreliable.”
In Cold Light, a teenage girl tells the story of a 10-year-old murder, but all the main events happen without her being present, so what the reader gets is a shifting, page-turning jigsaw that only falls into place in the last few pages.
“Lola doesn’t see what happens at any of the main events, and I thought afterwards that maybe the whole book’s actually about trying to capture that teenage sense that everything brilliant is always happening in the next room, everything great is always going on at someone else’s house.”
But she has also come to realise why she is drawn to this kind of voice. “I grew up in a religious house. There was one true God and one true church, and one true way to see things and then I came to realise that the world is much more complex than I’d been led to believe.” And, yes, she says, she has been compared to Jeannette Winterson, although that writer’s book about her home background, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is autobiographical, while Ashworth works hard to keep herself out of her fiction, and is always careful to try and remove anything that she thinks is written in her voice, not the voice of her character.
She describes herself as a “wasteful “ writer, who writes rough, rambling drafts and throws lots away, including whole plot lines – a giant squid got the heave-ho from Cold Life. “When I was writing A Kind Of Intimacy I had no agent, no writing friends. I had a rough first draft and chucked half out. I wasn’t sure how you were supposed to do it, I was just inching my way towards what I wanted. With Cold Light, too, I had no contract and time pressure. But this one I’ve actually planned in advance and it’s going really well. I don’t know if having a deadline’s inspired me, or whether I now know more about what I’m doing, so I’m comfier with the process.”
Not yet 30, she has developed fast through her twenties, not only producing two acclaimed novels but also piecing together a successful public writing life. She has taught creative writing – at the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire – worked on shorter literary projects, written short stories, set up a literary consultancy, given numerous interviews and won an award for her blog, which looks artless but is in fact as carefully considered as her novels.
All this, like her writing, seems to have been fed by being far away from London. “There’s a big, friendly literary scene in Manchester and I’m very happy to be part of it.” And, although she was sick with nerves before her first readings, “It’s just part of the job. You have to do it. You have to practise and learn.”
But she works to keep her family of two young children out of the public domain and has been taken about by how interested interviewers are in her domestic life. “People always say how do you find the time to write, but it’s a job. They wouldn’t say that if I was a teacher or something. I also think they wouldn’t ask a male writer the same questions.” Yet she also acknowledges that it is was the birth of her daughter, now six, that gave her added determination. “I wanted to her to grow up and see me working hard and getting what I wanted.”
However she has been training seriously as a writer ever since she went away to Cambridge to read English. While there she wrote a play, poems and short stories, and was told by one of her tutors, the writer Jenny Diski, to keep practising until she found something to she wanted to say. “I read my way through the whole canon, but came to realise I was looking at writing differently from the academics and from other students. I was always looking at how it was done, how the writer had got that effect.”
From Cambridge she headed back to Preston, had a baby, worked as a librarian in a prison, and took her MA in creative writing at Manchester University
“I was much younger than most other students and quite nervous, but I had my first draft and a fairly clear idea of where I was going. I remember there were quite big workshops and there would always be one or two people saying things like ‘I don’t like novels with flashbacks’. But I think the most valuable thing you can learn from an MA is how to be receptive to feedback and also know when to reject it.”
Now, as a creative writing tutor, she comes across second-year MA students who are starting to kick against the seminars and workshops, “and I tell them that’s good. It’s good to graduate through it
“I’m glad I did my MA and I don’t think I’d be where I am without it, but I’ve grown past it now. I wouldn’t want to sit in workshops with 14 people I don’t know reading my work. I meet regularly with five friends who are writers -- we picked each other very carefully and are not looking for anyone else to join us -- and that group is the best thing I’ve got.”
Cold Light is published by Sceptre. To read Jenn Ashworth's blog visit www.jennashworth.co.uk