‘Ghosts stalk the rooms of this essay collection’ — An Interview with Jenn Ashworth, by Thom Cuell

Notes Made While Falling is Jenn Ashworth’s first non-fiction publication. Lacerating, perceptive and innovative, the book blends essay, memoir and criticism to address the catastrophic aftermath of a traumatic surgery. Ashworth also explores the after-effects of her childhood within the Mormon church, and in temporary social care, the cultural expression of trauma and grief, and the effect of both on her as a writer, teacher and human.

Jenn Ashworth was born in Preston and studied at Cambridge and Manchester. Her novels include A Kind of Intimacy and Fell. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018. She lectures in creative writing at Lancaster University.

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First of all, can you give us a bit of background on Notes Made While Falling?

It has been a really really long time in the making. The book starts with surgery – a birth has just happened off-stage (some things are sacred, even for a memoirist) and that baby is nine and a half now. I started making notes for some kind of book right away: there were journal entries, lists, notes for a novel – attempts at chapters. There were other kinds of notes that went into it too – academic and critical essays I started and abandoned, my teenage diaries, a CD from the local authority with all my medical and social work and child psychology and educational records on it. A lot of notes. There’s ghosts of all that material stalking the rooms of this essay collection.

This is your first non-fiction book. Early on you talk about losing your faith in fiction, as a vehicle for telling the story you need to tell. Can you describe how that process felt?  

Like grief. It felt annihilating. I have come back to fiction – but the book I wanted to write, about a woman who had a baby then went mad – I have not written. I can kind of see the shape and colour of it out of the corner of my eye, and I can see pieces of it in other novels I have written and published and in some of my short stories. But that book – it doesn’t exist. Some novelist I am. It was the worst thing, really. Having this experience and for lots of reasons not daring or being able to tell anybody about it, but also not even being able to put it into my fiction.

You’ve worked across multiple formats, from traditional novels to collaborative online storytelling; what were the challenges of adapting to being a writer of essays or ‘creative non-fiction’? Did you have to make changes to your approach?

I didn’t really know they were essays until I had assembled all those pieces into some kind of pattern. I knew it couldn’t be a novel, so I thought perhaps a literary critical book, then I thought maybe a memoir, and there were reasons – explored in the essays themselves – why it couldn’t be either of those things either. It’s a hybrid sort of thing. The book taught me to be led by the writing rather than trying to lead it. That happens sometimes with my fiction too – I feel that I am following a thread along a dark tunnel – but it was so much easier for me to have faith in that process, and when that process failed, so much more difficult to find it again for this book.

My approach for these essays was paradoxical. I gave up. Then after giving up, I both carried on and waited to see what happened.

I found the style of the opening chapters very interesting; you were retelling your own story, but also making sure that the reader was aware that the narrative was constructed, with frequent references to you being in bed, writing, alongside the present tense descriptions. At first I thought it was Brechtian, but then saw that you’d done something similar with your adolescent diaries, rewriting and adding to them as you went. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to use this style for Notes…?

I wanted to show how infinite the present tense experience is – that we’re always here, and somewhere else, perhaps in the past, and in the future at the same time. I wanted the reader to know it was possible for me to feel and dramatise and experience these things – traumatic flashbacks, paranoia, delusional thinking, intrusive thoughts – in really intense ways – but that I was also still capable of thinking about those experiences usefully (and ‘usefully’ meant something more interesting than ‘making it stop’). I was rational and irrational at the same time. And when I was at work, I was also in a toilet vomiting, or at home drunk, or on a train crying. It was a way of me trying to show what having to be reasonably professionally competent during an illness like this is like. You’re in two minds. Three minds. Loads of minds.

In Notes…, you talk about the idea of trauma being antithetical to narrative, because it plateaus, or jogs in place emotionally. How did this affect the structure of your book, and you approach to it?

Ah yes – that’s Tim Bascom in an essay about the creative process and the structure of the personal or lyrical essay. I quote him, but only a couple of my minds agree with him. Many other minds protest, and think that suggesting to a writer that her (and it is often her) experience isn’t plotty or pacy enough to set down into words is another way of telling her to shut up. Everything that the popular conception of ‘good writing’ is supposed to do – to dramatise event, to move forward on a chain of cause and effect, to deliver something in the way of insight or even ‘meaning’ – well – I couldn’t do any of that AND say what was true about my own experience. That means there’s something wrong with the conception of ‘good writing’ or something wrong with me. Both could be true, of course.

And what’s also true is the reasons we give for wanting someone to be quiet or to say their thing in a different, more palatable way, are almost never as interesting as the thing that wants to be said and the way it wants to be spoken.

You describe being drawn to images of pain and injury, which is something I also remember from periods of trauma and depression. Did this prepare you in some way for writing about your experiences? And did writing have a similarly cathartic effect?

Watching autopsy videos online didn’t make me feel better and if exposure therapy cured squeamishness I’d be a butcher by now, but I’m just as sickly around blood as I was. The idea of it at least being some kind of preparation for writing appeals to me – saying it was all ‘research’ would turn it from illness into art, or at least ‘work’ wouldn’t it? But I didn’t realise what I was doing – this near mindless and obsessive searching and watching and researching — though it sounds like you know a bit about it yourself so perhaps I don’t need to explain that. I know I was very obsessive about it – parts of me really hungry for that kind of material, and other parts very frightened or disgusted or morally outraged by it all. It never felt cathartic. It isn’t over. It still happens sometimes though I hope I am learning other ways to comfort myself.

And the writing didn’t feel cathartic either. Going through the process of making the book or allowing the book to make me demanded a change in perspective from me that was, in some ways, freeing or even healing. I think I am mangling this answer. I don’t think I know what the answer is yet. Writing this book did not make me ‘better’. But looking really carefully about why I could not write the novel and why this book was so difficult for me dislodged me from my habitual position in relationship to words and the world. I’m not sure I’d recommend artistic practice as a way to cure or comfort though: it feels too risky and uncontainable to be dispensed on prescription.

You go back over a number of incidents from your childhood, including time spent in care, and experiences within the Mormon church. What was the effect of revisiting these incidents, and how has it altered your view of your past?

The effect on the book, I think, was to open it out – to show how these rhyming patterns of loss, lack of control, confusion about language and meaning and writing – especially writing – had always been a theme in my life. Lots of people have painful and traumatic experiences as adults and they don’t all go off the deep-end, as I did, and going backwards was an attempt to understand that – the out-of-time roots of it all – though I don’t seek to dish out blame. Now the work on this book is done I feel very human all of a sudden. Not different or strange or monstrous. It seems to me now like an utterly ordinary thing – that the very definition of adulthood is to be engaged in some creative work directed towards being curious about the ways in which you were made.

There’s a sense nowadays that trauma is something to overcome, or even an opportunity for growth; do you think this attitude places an unfair burden on survivors? How much does trauma become part of your identity, as a writer or a person?

I guess for that question to make sense to me, there would have to be some non-wounded people around that were exempt from that burden or identity. I’ve never met them. It is true that some of us are a hell of a lot luckier than others – I consider myself to have had a relatively charmed life and I want to be really careful to acknowledge that. I don’t ever forget what a luxury it is to sit in a centrally heated house and tap away at my laptop. But even accepting that fact, isn’t it true that we all have events or memories or habits or survival strategies that get between our selves and the world? (Maybe we can talk about what a self is or isn’t some other time). Being human – which for me means being called to pay attention to the stuff that gets between me and the world in the hope that seeing that stuff more clearly makes me more useful to other people – is my whole identity.

You talk about the difficulty of dealing with an excess of information, whether it was to do with your medical records or your research into the Mormon church. How did you cope with this burden of understanding and interpreting?

I gave up. I am as limited a researcher as I am a novelist. A writer I know, when I was struggling with reading some difficult cultural theory and feeling frustrated and disappointed by my own lack of understanding – advised me to listen. To treat this wall of thinking and information as if it was music, or poetry. To let my mind wander over it and around it. It seemed as good a method as any. The world is overwhelming.

You also describe spending time on online message boards; what was it about these forums which drew you in, and what did you get from it?

Nosiness. Loneliness. Wanting to see how such a thing could be written about. I was struck by the indecorum of it – there’s a part in the book where I describe myself following a forum thread where a woman is writing about her miscarriage, as it happens. She posts pictures of her blood on a piece of toilet tissue. I was appalled. Then appalled at myself being appalled. Why shouldn’t she? I was only jealous, I think – she being able to find the words, and say what it was like, and hear other people telling her that they understood, and it mattered to them, and me, at that stage, not being able to do anything like that at all – only go to work and pretend to be good at things.

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh, and had to be buried with a few key objects to take into the next world, what would they be?

I can see the appeal of having all your pets and loved ones slaughtered and sent into the next place with you. But I’ll take the high road and remind myself that my dog and my children are not objects. Is this like Desert Island Disks? I guess I’d want books – all of them – and pictures of my children. Tea. A proper kettle, in case heaven is like an American hotel room and comes without one. Whatever the next world is like, tea will be needed. I’d like a phone too. So I could make spectral EVP-style phone calls to my friends in this world, my ghosty voice in the static. Can I appear at séances? In a sheet? As a spirit guide? Knock knock. Boo! I’d really love that.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

My friend sent me an article about a dog called Martin Bishop that I think about a few times a day and laugh. The article itself wasn’t that funny, but the idea of a dog named Martin Bishop pleases me immensely. More seriously, I have this quotation over my writing desk, from Annie Dillard: ‘I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend.’ I think about that a lot too. About how writing is a way of sitting very closely – holding the hand of, perhaps – the terrible and overwhelming thing we’re not in control of. I hope to learn how to accompany my writing like that.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)

In my front room I have a framed print of one of Frieda Kahlo’s self-portraits. This one. I love it for itself, and also because when my son was still very small, we were looking through a book of her artwork and he pointed at this picture and asked if this one was of me and him. I could say something clever here about how she saw herself and how my son saw me and himself in that moment all layered on top of the other, but the truth is I see that little monkey paw on her collarbone and remember holding my son as a baby and it always makes me go a bit soft.


Profile photo of Jenn Ashworth by Martin Figura