The writing in Jenn Ashworth’s latest novel Fell, published recently by Sceptre, is almost ruthlessly good. It’s unusual to read such a fearless novel, though the freshness of this work is no surprise, coming from Ashworth. Despite being still only in her early thirties, she has now published four novels to critical acclaim, each one different to the last. In Fell Annette returns to the house she grew up in, in Morecambe Bay, to find it falling apart, undermined by the roots of two huge sycamores. Unknown to her, the spirits of her parents, Jack and Netty Clifford, watch over her anxiously and realise too late how their focus on Timothy Richardson, an apparently miraculous healer who came to stay with them during Netty’s illness, led them to neglect their daughter.
Fell left me with a feeling of disintegration and unease, and yet this is a deeply compassionate story, and a darkly exquisite one. The novel gave Jenn and I plenty to discuss during a recent conversation, and I was also eager to find out more about Ashworth’s incredibly prolific writing practice and how she approaches the work of teaching creative writing.
Alys Conran: Fell evades categorisation: it has ghosts, but isn’t aiming to be spooky, it has a character with some uncanny abilities, but is also painfully mundane and real. Did that kind of balance just happen naturally for you?
Jenn Ashworth: Not naturally – but the product of seven drafts. And it only really started to work for me when I decided that the question of whether this book was an historical novel, a magical realist novel, a fantasy novel, literary fiction, a ghost story, a romance, a gothic novel, a piece of nature writing, or something else was utterly irrelevant to me. I had to forget about all of that and just be led by the characters. I realise that sounds a bit ‘woo’ but that’s how it went.
I’m particularly interested in Tim as a character. He’s so horrible at times, but there’s also this vulnerability there. Did you find him difficult to write? Do you dislike him?
Oh no – I love him. There’s a writer-type figure in all of my novels, and Timothy is probably the most writerly character I’ve ever written. He’s self absorbed, out to get what he can, interested in fame and material things, possessed of a talent he doesn’t understand, can’t control and doesn’t particular enjoy having – he’s fairly charismatic but disastrously lacking in empathy, he’s streetwise but childlike and he can know and see things that other people don’t know and see. He was an utter delight to write. I’ve written a short story about him since, and I think he will crop up again for me sometime.
In what ways was Fell a new departure for you?
It is very different – and that is something that I worried about when publication time drew near. It’s the first book I’ve ever written that includes a magical, miraculous, other worldly element, and learning how to handle that – how to help the reader believe (or at least tolerate) the unbelievable was a steep learning curve. It’s also the first historical novel I’ve written – I had to do tons of research, even though we’re only looking at the early 1960s and not the distant past – and that made a difference. I think the book is obviously more narratively and structurally ambitious than some of my earlier work, and I’m not sure what a reader who found me through A Kind of Intimacy is going to make of it. Having said that, the themes and the domestic setting pick up questions I’ve explored previously- I think people are going to recognise it as one of mine, even if it looks pretty different to the others.
When I think of Fell now, a few weeks after first reading, I can feel the sensation of an old house crumbling and sinking around me. I found the house fascinating. It’s deeply symbolic ground isn’t it? Did you always have the house in mind as central, or did it become more so as you went along? What do you think the house stands (or falls apart) for?
The house came almost before the people did: I’m a huge fan of ghost stories, of the strange and the uncanny. And you can’t have a ghost story without a haunted house. But I wanted to twist it a bit – the house isn’t haunted by the ghosts, the ghosts themselves are haunted by the house – are called into being by Annette’s return to it – and the state of the house comments on the state of their connection to each other and to Annette and on Annette’s connection to her past. And when I started the book I was buying a house and having all kinds of surveys done and investigations into damp and tree roots and septic tanks and all sorts – I started dreaming about it and as soon as I dream about something, it finds its way into a piece of writing.
For me one of the many standout scenes of Fell has to be the one where Netty vomits the beach, where her insides become a landscape. It seemed to me that the novel explodes, in so many ways, the boundaries between inside and outside spaces, between personal and public, between people, and between our physical bodies and what lies outside.
Yes – that’s precisely what I wanted to do. Efface those boundaries – write in an ‘in-between’ space between hope and despair, magic and science, the mysterious and the mundane, the land and the sea. The book tries to hold everyone and everything in it in that tension of dissolving – of being on the way to decomposition or dissolution – and that comes right from Ovid, from his interest in mythical transformation: the novel itself is a literary transformation of one of his stories too, of course. So there’s the root of it.
In Fell you use the first person plural (we) as a narrative perspective, which is quite unusual in fiction. What did you find were the challenges, benefits and potential pitfalls of using that perspective? Were there any other writers that you particularly drew on, or whose use of that perspective you find particularly interesting?
I’m fascinated by the unsteadiness and slipperiness of the first person plural – it sounds so authoritative, not just an ‘I’ that thinks or sees something, but an entire ‘we’ – though as well as that bolstering of authority there’s also a whiff of evasiveness, of guilty and unwanted culpability – which is how and why it works so well, I think, in The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) and And Then We Came to the End (Josh Ferris). I love the way Jon McGregor uses it in Even The Dogs – the effortless way he binds together those voices, then lets the individuals peel off. It’s masterful – and that novel was a real influence on me. Additionally, there’s something about the first person plural that feels to me elegiac and just perfect for talking about lost time, lost people, lost places – and that’s the way it works in one of my favourite books of all time – Kate Walbert’s Our Kind. So all those things combined – the authority, the guilt, the evasiveness, the elegiac nature of it – made it a perfect narrative mode for Jack and Netty and their perspective, which is, among other things, a kind of transfixed and guilty helplessness.
The epigraph is from Ovid’s Baucis and Philemon. What role did their story play in the writing process? What was it about it that you found compelling and what drove you to write back to it?
It was a way for me to engage with this idea of transformation – to think about Baucis and Philemon’s transformation (Ovid turns them into trees) and to wonder what that would be like – in my imagination the idea of being able to see and watch, but not act, not get involved, is more of a nightmare than a wish granted. The story from Ovid is, at its heart, about hospitality, about strangers in disguise, about being careful, perhaps, what you wish for – and all these are themes that I’ve explored in the book, in particular through the figure of Timothy Richardson – a kind of Hermes character for 1960s Grange-over-Sands.
Everything in Fell is falling apart (appropriately for the title!), the house, Netty’s body, there’s something almost biblical about the scope of the disintegration, the sense of falling and falling.
I didn’t set out with the Bible in mind but I’m certainly not the first writer to think of the natural world and the human one as going wrong, as being in a slow process of breaking, disintegration or falling apart. There are parts in the book – particularly Timothy’s trip up Hampsfell to wrestle with his temptations – that invite the reader to consider him as a kind of Christ like figure. What his achievements in the area of reconciliation and healing might say about my reading of the bible’s good news are probably for another sort of conversation…
What next for you then, Jenn?
I’m working on a collection of personal essays – they’re linked together and all address the connections between sickness, religious experience and writing practise. A kind of combination of memoir and literary criticism? Another departure in form, though you’ll see my familiar themes are still haunting me.
We both teach creative writing at university. How does the teaching tie into your writing practice, or does it? What do you think the challenges and possibilities are for ‘Creative Writing’ as a discipline within higher education at the moment?
I love teaching – love spending time with people who are struggling to articulate half formed ideas into words, and let the process of that forming improve and clarify their ideas. It’s such a difficult, interesting process, and such a privilege to work with people who feel as curious and awed by it as I still do. I think that’s the challenge for a creative writing teacher – to offer something useful to students who may never write professionally (because they don’t want to, or because it never happens for them) and who might envisage writing and a writing practise very differently. But I want to do that without teaching a set of rules, without taking away the magic, without closing off the possibility for surprise and failure and the unexpected. It’s hard.
You sound pretty busy! Where and when and how do you write?
Where and when I can. Most often in bed and at night, in the dark. Which I know is disastrous for your back. I am starting to feel it and am shopping around for some kind of ergonomic chair to go into a little garden writing room I’m having built this autumn.
Jenn Ashworth’s Fell (£8.99) is published by Sceptre.
(Image credit: Martin Figura)