An Interview with Jenn Ashworth
Author of A Kind of Intimacy
A Kind of Intimacy is one of my MostlyFiction books of the year. Jenn Ashworth is a first time author, and her book deserves a lot of attention. It’s funny, original, smart, and more than that, its anti-heroine Annie could be the literary embodiment of a friend of mine. I had to interview this author and so I tracked Jenn down through her blog EVERY DAY I LIE A LITTLE. Lucky for me she took a little time for this chat.
Jenn just sent me a note to say that she was just awarded a Betty Trask prize by the Society of Authors!
MF: Please describe A KIND OF INTIMACY for our readers.
JENN ASHWORTH: It's a dark, funny novel set in a miserable little sea-side town in Lancashire. It's narrated by Annie - a woman who's looking for love, lonely, fairly odd and very overweight. She tells the story of moving into a new house, being convinced she's met the man next door somewhere before and her attempts to form a relationship with him. Between the lines, the rest of the story seeps out: an unsavoury history of sexual mishaps, a missing husband and child and a peculiar childhood. I don't want to give away anything about the ending, suffice to say that if this were a crime novel it would be a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit.
MF: Annie Fairhurst, the protagonist of A KIND OF INTIMACY is the classic "unreliable narrator." As a writer, do you think that creating a novel from the perspective of an "unreliable" character is easier or more difficult than using a different narrative style?
JENN ASHWORTH: I'm not sure, as all of my first person narrators are unreliable and I tend to write in first person much more often than any other narrative mode. I'm fascinated by the limitations and flexibilities of first person narration (my next novel is a first person narrative too) and right now I can't quite see how you'd write a novel with a character narrator that wasn't unreliable. It's either a problem of memory, or language, or motive, or perspective, or a combination of all of these. First person narration is a very limited narrative mode: I like being able to squeeze in other people's view points between the lines. It's tricky but right now it's one of the things I like best about writing.
MF: Politico states that Annie Fairhurst bears a resemblance to Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes from MISERY. Do you agree? How would you describe Annie?
JENN ASHWORTH: I'd agree with that - yes. The Stephen King character, as well as Orphan Annie, is one of the ways I found Annie's name. As a character I know people tend to either really dislike her, or feel uncomfortable with her - she's very proper and prudish but there's a violence and a sickly sexuality that is barely hidden and that tends to make people fairly uneasy. I'm on her side though. I suppose because I made her I can understand why she does all the things that she does and because she had to write from her own place of sanity and logic (we all make sense to ourselves, after all) then I had to find that place too. She isn't someone I'd want to live next door to and I'm not sure even the unconditional love or friendship that she looks for would ever cure her and make her like the rest of us, but I think Annie isn't that different to the rest of us really. She's more of an exaggeration than a monster.
MF: What sort of responses have you had so far to Annie from readers? Have you been surprised by those responses?
JENN ASHWORTH: Well, like I said a lot of people have spoken of how uneasy and disturbing they have found her character - perhaps because the first person voice is such an intimate, claustrophobic way of writing, and because I have Annie very aware of her reader - addressing us directly throughout the book - then there's no way of getting away from that. I don't find those responses surprising, although of course since I put the novel together she doesn't work as intensely on me as she might do on a reader who comes to the novel fresh. I've most enjoyed the responses from people who've said they feel that in spite of everything there's something very ordinary and even loveable about Annie.
MF: What was the genesis of the novel, and how long did it take to complete?
JENN ASHWORTH: A short story about a man who struggled to make friends with his next door neighbour. It went through several drafts and became a novel about a woman called Annie. I worked on it for another year while I studied for my MA in Creative Writing at the university of Manchester, and found my agent shortly afterwards. I think all in all it took me just under three years to write - although I worked and had a baby during this time as well. I've just finished my second novel and that took around three years too, fitting it in around work and other responsibilities, so that seems to be an average for me so far.
MF: How difficult was it for you as a first-time novelist to find a publisher?
JENN ASHWORTH: A lot of publishers seemed to be put off by how bleak the book felt to them - the comic element didn't really get understood, I think, except by Arcadia who really got the tone I was trying to create with the humour in the book: it's okay to laugh at this book, even if the laughing does make you feel a little guilty. Since publication the reviews have been really positive and most people have picked up on the particular brand of humour, so who knows what happened there. I think the publication process is difficult for all first time novelists - there are so many people writing novels now and so much is down to luck and timing. I still feel amazed sometimes that it happened at all.
MF: You are/were a prison librarian. How did the job influence your novel in any way?
JENN ASHWORTH: I'd already finished the book by the time I started working in the prison. I loved being a librarian and I love working in prisons - I still teach creative writing in prisons sometimes, and it is a stimulating, demanding environment that I find it really personally rewarding to be a part of. But no, it didn't affect the book. I always say I decided to work in a prison because I'm interested in unreliable narrators, not the other way round!
MF: The two UK covers and the US cover (Europa Editions) are quite different. Did you have any input into the choice? I prefer the Europa cover which hints at Annie’s behaviour. Is there one you prefer?
JENN ASHWORTH: I had no input at all into the US version, but I like it very much. I love the green - envy is such a massive part of who Annie is. I never imagined her face before but now I can't see Annie as anyone other than the model on the US cover, which is perhaps a bit of a shame. I really like the way the Arcadia (UK) cover lets you see the size and shape of Annie without making it too clear what she looks like. I'd find it hard to choose a favourite as they both do different things and do them well - but I'll always have a soft spot for the Arcadia cover because it was my first and it really captures some of the seediness of Annie's past and the model - Keeley - did a brilliant job with her sexy nightie and fluffy slippers - of really capturing who Annie is.
MF: The two other prominent female characters in the book are Annie’s neighbours Sangita and Lucy. While Lucy seems spiteful, Sangita could be considered patronizing. The book seems to take a savage view of inter-female relationships. Any comments on that?
JENN ASHWORTH: I've had people tell me my book is very sexist because all of the male characters are awful too! I think the book takes a pretty savage look at relationships in general. There isn't one relationship in the entire novel that is healthy and functioning - the thing Annie most wants doesn't exist in her world. I don't think that's something that is about women, it is about people.
MF: What’s next for Jenn Ashworth?
JENN ASHWORTH: I've just finished my second novel - Cold Light. This is a really exciting time for me and although I can't say anything just yet, I'm looking forward to it coming out and people being able to read the thing I've been working on for the past three years! It is set in Preston, my home-town, and I'm especially interested in how that's going to be received. I've started my third book and am working slowly through my plans and drafts for that, but actually I'm just about to clock off on maternity leave so I doubt I'll be doing much writing this summer. I think my brain needs a rest! I will, however, still be blogging so you can keep up with all my news at www.jennashworth.blogspot.com
Read our review of A Kind of Intimacy at MostlyFiction.com