Last Monday evening, in the midst of a heatwave to rival the fabled summer of '76, we held our final salon of the season at The Teahouse Theatre Cafe. The tropical temperature didn’t deter our intrepid audience and they arrived in droves to talk, Writing Ghosts, with our guest, the novelist Jenn Ashworth. Harry Teahouse took the unusual step of opening the French doors in an attempt to lure a breeze indoors while Japanese fans were distributed amongst the audience. We began with a quick straw poll to see who did or didn’t believe in ghosts. It transpired that amongst the fence-sitters and the absolutely not’s, quite a few of us did!
Jenn hails from Lancashire where she lives, writes and teaches. In addition to writing short stories and teaching creative writing at Lancashire University, she’s written four novels, all set in the North West of England. As a child, Jenn liked reading fiction about zombies, vampires, and ghosts. As an adult, she’s enjoyed the fiction of Shirley Jackson, Robert Aickman and M. R. James. We talked about the lure of ghost stories for readers : we like being sacred! Not so much by blood and gore as the weird and eerie. The strength of such stories is in what is glimpsed. There’s an attraction in acknowledging the numinous, the edge, and that there’s something there beyond understanding. Jenn thinks of herself as a rational person but as a writer, being able to play in that space brings dramatic possibilities.
Jenn’s most recent novel, Fell, is a departure from previous work, introducing a supernatural element. The novel, a tale of parental helplessness and regret, was technically a tricky book to write. Fell didn't start out as a ghost story. The book’s early drafts felt lacking - and eventually thorough the writing process, the story showed Jenn that it needed some ghosts.
Jenn writes the first draft quickly, for her eyes only, and admits that first drafts are always “awful”. She’s got better at it with practice. Her instincts have been trained unconsciously through teaching, lecturing and learning her craft over time. Once the first draft is down, she writes a synopsis for the structure. Then she writes a second synopsis about what she wants the story to be. She looks at the gaps and redrafts trying to merge the two. How long it takes to write a novel depends on what else is going on in her life (e.g. teaching, childcare). It also depends on what she’s trying to achieve. With each new project Jenn challenges herself to push her writing and test the limits of something she doesn’t know how to do. She writes from a place of technical curiosity: asking and answering questions about craft and about people. Fell took three years and seven drafts to write. She allowed herself the time to do it badly in order to understand what she was trying to do.
We moved onto point of view and narrative. Jenn’s first three novels were written in the first person which can be limiting. A way of getting around that is to use multiple narrators (see Jenn’s novel, The Friday Gospels, with five separate voices). Fell is written in the first person plural with two ghosts acting as omniscient narrators. The ghosts can inhabit other peoples heads which tackles the usual restrictions that come with a first person POV. Her concern was exploring questions of loss and regret rather than writing a ghost story. Through trial and error, using voice, POV, character and by grounding the novel’s setting within the laws of physics, Jenn worked out how to help the reader understand "the rules" of the book. Jenn read us the opening pages of the novel which establishes who the narrators were, and how time works. The opening encapsulates the plot of the whole in a few pages, answering any questions the reader may have. Her characters follow the desires and needs of normal human psychology, pairing the domestic and the uncanny as closely as possible. By focussing on psychological realism rather than the miraculous, the ghost narrators segue from the present to the past and back again.
Using character to make the strange familiar is a way to explore the exotic or paranormal. As part of her research for Fell, Jenn researched the world of healers and the healed. She’d written a scene about an ambiguous and strange character, “part con-man, part magician,” Timothy Richardson which triggered the novel. She was careful to honour the healing world’s beliefs but at same time in the interests of plausibility she limited his powers and ability to control them, putting an emphasis on his human desires.
Ghost stories are always about something else. Usually it’s something to do with the past bubbling into the present dramatising the unspeakable, addressing loss, grief or trauma. They can also be a way to explore sexual desire or madness. Usually the weight of interest in a ghost story is not of the now. Jen quoted John Banville: “The past beats inside me like a second heart”. However, proceed with caution - an interesting past can drown the present (i.e. the story). Beware of back story! When writing a scene, every time you return to the past ensure there’s a question in the present that needs answering. Then when you return to the present make sure something here has changed. Note to short story writers here: chop off your first three pages and see what you're left with!
A bit more on Jenn’s process:
- Try and write towards doubt. Write in uncertainty, anxiety and what John Keats called “negative capability”.
- Lead the reader toward questions that are important to you and avoid issues.
- Allow bad writing. First drafts are all about bad writing: full of stereotypes, first ideas, prejudices, etc.
- Learn to touch type! Silence your inner critic by turning off the monitor and get that first draft down.
- You can edit & fix problems later. After the first draft write a synopsis. Look for a dramatic purpose for each scene.
- Structure: Describe/summarise scenes on an index card. Peg cards on a washing line or piece of string. Move the cards around to find the spine of your plot.
The audience were very involved in the discussion. We talked about Jenn’s favourite authors (see below) and the influence of the Lancashire landscape on her work. Growing up in Thatcher’s Britain when the North West suffered tumultuous change, Jenn registered a sense, in the words of Mark Fisher, of a haunted-ness about the region, i.e. its lost future. We also glanced at form; short versus long fiction, first drafts, developing story and structure. We finished with a question about what to do with seductive new ideas when struggling with a work in progress. Jenn said when her novel is doing badly it’s a bit like when a relationship is going badly - other people start to look attractive, “ Ooh look, that window cleaner has a nice bucket!” She suggested questioning what is it about the new idea that’s so fascinating. Then bring whatever the answer is into the work at hand. She knows something new is brewing when she’s seized an itchy feeling about something she can’t do. She keeps a notebook & writes things down: ideas, images and scenes but no plot!
What a night! I took reams of notes & I’ve tried to summarise/paraphrase it all to give you the gist of Jenn’s thoughts. I hope I got it right! With thanks to Jenn Ashworth for beguiling us all with her wisdom, insight and writing process. Also to Emma and the audience too for some great questions.
We’re taking a break now but before I reach for my sunnies and select a book from the teetering TBR pile - I have lots of new salons and workshops to post on the website. Keep an eye on the website over the next week or two. To get the news first do sign up for the mailing list!
Here’s wishing you a wonderful summer with lots of time for reading and writing.
Links & References:
M.R. James, Shirley Jackson, Robert Aickman: The Swords , Mark Fisher, Curious Tales: an independent publishing collective run by Jenn Ashworth, Richard V. Hirst , Emma Jane Unsworth - publishing stories of the supernatural, the uncanny, and ones that use landscape in interesting ways. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Sheridan Le Fanu, John Banville, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers, John Keats and ‘negative capability’, Ovid: Baucis and Philemon, Tom Fletcher, Alison Moore, Dan Coxon, Andrew Michael Hurley, Ali Smith, Kirsty Logan.