Fell – Jenn Ashworth

Fell is the new release by acclaimed literary novelist Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre 2016). On one hand it’s a dark tale of love and loss narrated in first person plural and omniscient third person by the ghosts of those long dead. On the other it’s an intense exploration of power and the struggle to attain and maintain it in interpersonal relationships. But, perhaps more than either of these, it’s an elegy for a life unnoticed.

The story centres on the lives of Netty and Jack, who become undone both physically and mentally, and their relationship with a young man who provides a particularly aggressive form of hope. Desire and desperation meet and lay bare the raw howl of humanity.

The story dances in time and perspective but every leaf-like dart and flutter is clearly signalled; we always know where we are and who we are. Throughout the story runs the thread of decay in a beautifully handled metaphor of house and home and the dark and brooding destructive power of nature. This darkness can be overwhelmed but never removed – unlike the Sycamores which dominate the skyline – and it exists in every mixed motive and flare of ego, every doubt. Every character in this novel is uneasy and the unease grows in pace with the disease until we reach a fraught crescendo.

There is life after death, both literally and figuratively, but there is a sense of great cost.

Jenn Ashworth does a superb job of evoking the spirit of the age in this novel. The descriptive passages ground you in a very real world, against which backdrop the preternatural sings. The relationship between Netty and Jack is entirely believable and the strengths and weaknesses of each character lead to a carefully nurtured sense of emotional investment. The story may not be entirely born of its landscape but it breathes it, lapping at the edges of our perception like the tides. Grange-over-Sands and Morecambe Bay show an expanse of horizon which provides a counterpoint to the increasingly insular nature of the Clifford home.

There are wonderful moments of dialect- plooks, moider and mollycot – when one of the characters is ‘gattered’. A moment of unguarded voice which raises the question of whether any public face is a true face. Is every voice a decision, an attempt to be accepted?

And the life unnoticed?

For some it will be the child, forever on the edges of the adult drama, putting aside her own voice out of duty and love. For others it will be the young man, at once observed and unobserved, damaged and damaging, desirous of anonymity and fame. Both, cursed with the same burden.

 

Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

Jenn can be found at

http://www.jennashworth.co.uk

@jennashworth  on Twitter

 

Advertisements

The Poet and the Poetry Reviewer

Author, historian and poet, Mathew Lyons in conversation with writer, artist and reviewer, Rachel Stirling.

RACHEL:  When did you know that you wanted to write?

MATHEW:  Quite early on I think. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t really entranced by books of one kind or another – or when I didn’t want to write in some way. Who inspired you to write?

RACHEL: The author of every book I have ever read and those I haven’t reached yet. Reading is joyful. I was, am, and always will be, such a bookworm. What led you away from the short story form, towards poetry?

MATHEW: Good question. Fear. Self-doubt. Those are the negative reasons. And they definitely have some purchase. But I also like the concision of poetry. The fluidity of form. The reduction of an idea or an emotion or a narrative -however you want to define narrative – into its barest possible expression. That’s very appealing. I am beginning to write more fiction now – short and long form. We’ll see what happens. The things that prompt creation are different for all of us, I think. My imagination tends to be both quite visual and – paradoxically maybe – concerned with interior spaces. How about you? Are the catalysts that motivate you to create the same for writing as they are for sculpting or painting?

RACHEL:  I’ve given that one some thought before, and it comes down to one word – reply. I’m a reserved person, a listener rather than a talker. When the world happens to me, as it does to all of us, creation is my response, my reply. It’s that simple and that complex. The writing seems to be reserved for those responses I can begin to articulate. It’s usually my way of finding my own thoughts among the noise.

MATHEW:  Who do you think of as your audience for each?

RACHEL:  I don’t. I never give a thought to the audience when I’m working. Does that sound awful? I simply work. The only exception to that rule would be in the case of a commission, which I take on rare occasions. The audience my work finds, if it finds one, is always a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been wondering which poets you like to read.

MATHEW:  The poets I go back to mostly are probably Auden, MacNeice and Tennyson. Especially MacNeice. But I go through phases of reading a lot by different poets at different times. Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Amy Clampitt, Derek Walcott, Billy Collins, Yeats, Byron, Rilke, Neruda…I could go on. I used to read the imagists a lot and I think you can see their influence clearly in my work. HD in particular. Which contemporary poets do you read most?

RACHEL:  I have a great deal of time for Robert Peake, George Szirtes and Mark Fiddes, but I am blessed with being able to read a vast amount of poetry. Sometimes I actually spend the most time with poets I understand the least. In that sense the question works differently for me. I spend my time working with the difficult to follow. My favourite poets? Rilke, Keats, Mary Oliver, Byron, Frost, Auden, Heaney – so many.

MATHEW: Szirtes is wonderful. His Twitter feed is a joy too! What do you look for in a poet?

RACHEL: They are all so different! [laughing] Poets and poems are a glorious puzzle. Here you have a person who has, often with great skill, distilled the experience of a lifetime into a few lines, and they are asking you to see them. I see the job of a reviewer as being willing to take the time to do that. I take every poet as they come, a new life, a new experience, a new approach, I don’t like to comment on anyone’s work until I have read quite a lot of their poetry. I do enjoy elegance of language. I also appreciate the usual courtesies and promptness goes a long way to helping anyone with a deadline, obviously.

How do you define a poem?

MATHEW: That’s difficult. A frame of words and phrases that allows the reader to respond imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually? Form is important. I don’t write too much in formal metres or structures but one of the things I list out for- or feel for – is the shape a poem is going to have, how long the arc of it is. I sometimes have to wait for that, even if I know I have the outline of what is going to be in the poem and what its core images and phrases are going to be. Rhythm is very important to me – not just the rhythm of the lines but the way that the ideas and images are interspersed. I think of my poems in spatial terms. I don’t know how usual that is. Phrase-making matters a lot to me too, the ability to put words together in a way that is both new and memorable and startlingly true. That’s what I look for in other writers and it’s something I strive for in my own work.

What do you look for in a poem?

RACHEL:  Effortlessness. There is a kind of beauty, as gentle as breathing, when a poet finds the right words to express their thoughts. The thoughts don’t have to be beautiful, and the poet may have wrestled the words to the page as if bringing down a wildebeest, but when they are the right words, everyone can breathe. Then the near misses interest me. Of course, to work these out you first have to work out what the poet is trying to achieve and how. Sometimes in the pursuit of this you also stumble on the why, but not always. It’s necessary to understand the what, the how is where it gets technical and the why is a gift of comprehension beyond the page. Sometimes a poet gives away more of the why than they intend and other times next to nothing, they are a barely open book and we get a sideways glimpse at the pages. Sometimes what a person doesn’t tell you is the most interesting thing of all.

What do you look for in a poem? How do you start? Do you begin with very structured intentions or do you write and see what arrives?

Mathew:  It varies to be honest. But what usually comes first is a line, or a phrase, or an image. i collect them – and at some point one will come along that seems to pull the others into its orbit and I will piece a poem together from those basic elements. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I start with doesn’t necessarily end up in the finished poem though. There are lines and images that have been in and out of various drafts of different poems before I find what feels like its home. The process can take years. Sometimes a poem will come more or less whole, of course. And other times I will have a sense of precisely what I want or need to say. But usually it is more worked at – and more allusive. How do you critique a poem? Where do you start? How important are formal considerations? – or do you prefer to focus on thematic and verbal issues?

RACHEL:  I begin by putting aside all thoughts of critique and reading the poetry. I usually make three passes through the whole body of work. The first pass is for pure enjoyment. It usually leaves me with an impression of theme, rhythm and ideas. I make a brief note of these and any obvious poetry forms, such as sonnet or villanelle, then I go back through the work again to check that I haven’t caught the wrong end of the stick, or indeed the wrong stick. On this pass I pay more attention to the language and technical considerations all the while asking myself what the poet is doing or attempting to do. Again, I make short notes. On the third pass I choose one or two of the poems that I consider to be typical of the collection, or particularly interesting, and I take them apart, very gently, looking at the rhythms and sounds and the technical aspects of construction. Often at this stage that it will occur to me which poetry a poet likes to read, a bizarre side-effect of having read a lot of poetry. At the end of the process I usually have enough information to write my review. I don’t consider any structure or classical form to be better or worse than any other and I don’t prefer classical forms over modern interpretations. I do like to recognise each poem for what it is and think about whether it is a good example of its type, and how it differs. The interest often lies in the difference. Sometimes a structural hiccup is a poet’s exclamation point Your writing interests me because you have such a broad range. You have fiction and non-fiction work running side by side with your verse. How do you divide your time between journalistic or historical writing and the intricacies of poetry?

MATHEW: Ha! Well, copywriting, journalism, editing, etc are all there in order to pay the rent. The noise of it kills the ability I have to write creatively, well certainly as far as poetry goes. Poetry requires a kind of intellectual space – I need to withdraw a little inside my head so I can hear the words clearly, get a sense of rhythm and weight, and also hear or feel the way they resonate for me intellectually and emotionally. It’s a separate thing for me. It’s also a space to reflect on myself – my thoughts and feelings, my responses to the world. I hesitate to call it a form of therapy because it isn’t, but the two things occupy similar states of mind I think.

RACHEL:  You’ve published several books written largely from a historical non-fiction perspective, most recently The Favourite. How did, or did, the research for that book feed back into your poetry work?

MATHEW:  I’m not sure that it did, necessarily. At least, not yet. I can see that the theme of my previous book Impossible Journeys resonates subtly here and there in my poetry. The idea of impossibility, hope against hopelessness, is something I can see I’ve returned to, not always intentionally. And my first book on Tolkien and the ancient history of the English landscape I think helped clarify for me something about how we experience the physical world intellectually and emotionally. But I consciously used poetry to help me with the writing of The Favourite. I worked very hard on the prose of that book at a time when my private life was beginning to go through a fair amount of turmoil. I lost my way quite often – but I found that reading contemporary poets like Medbh McGuckian, Jen Hadfield,  and Jane Griffiths helped me to focus on the clarity of expression. Why do you write fiction as opposed to poetry (as far as I know) while thinking deeply and writing about the poetry of others?

RACHEL:  I did pass through a phase of writing song lyrics but that is as close as I have come to writing poetry. I’m not a poet, as far as I am aware. The things that I need to say simply seem to come out in story form. Poetry is an intricate dance and I don’t consider that I know all the steps. Maybe that will change in the future. I look forward to finding out. I also review novels, short story anthologies and other written work. Poetry is the most beauty in the shortest amount of time. It takes me time to think through work to my satisfaction and so, in order to paint, sculpt and write, I am drawn to the work of poets. Poetry is a great deal of literary feeding in a very small space. It helps to ground me in a creative place. What are you trying to achieve when you write?

MATHEW:  To get the idea out whole, to find its ideal form and expression. I don’t think I ever have or will – but it’s important to try!

RACHEL:  And where do you go from here in terms of creative writing?

MATHEW:  I have more non-fiction projects to pursue and, as I said earlier, I’m working on some fiction. I don’t necessarily think of them as very different as writing projects. I try to make my non-fiction writing a pleasure to read and as a historian the human elements in  any story are very important to me. I’d like to start publishing my poetry properly and working towards a collection. How about you? You do so many different things. What is on your horizon creatively and critically?

RACHEL:  This year I will be making headway with my Tower-of-Babel-sized review pile. I have a great deal of reading to do. I will be reviewing poetry every month for Sabotage Reviews, and I will be working on my own novel ‘Indigo’. My spare time, should I find any, will be spent completing a sculpture that I started about a year ago. She is currently wrestling her way out of the stone, which looks uncomfortable, bless. The lovely thing about sculpture is that you can simply down tools and walk away, safe in the knowledge that the piece will keep. It isn’t quite that easy to shelve a painting in progress…

Mathew Lyons can be found here:

MathewLyons@wordpress.com

MathewLyons.tumblr.com

and @MathewJLyons on Twitter where you can also find me @Stirlingwriter

The Chocolate Book Challenge

Thank you to the wonderful @janeisaacauthor for inviting me to this blog challenge. You can find her post at http://www.janeisaac.co.uk/blog.

This post is a little late due to network problems (do not get me started ) so I apologise for that in advance.

The idea of the challenge is very simple, to liken some of your favourite books to chocolate bars. At least it seemed simple at first glance but it took me quite some time to whittle down my reading list to the following contenders, even though I limited my choice to books read in 2014 to give myself a smaller task. Here goes,

Dark Chocolate – 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

A beautifully written story which explores the nature of reality. It is a surprisingly gentle read for a book covering very dark and difficult themes. Thought provoking with touches of bitterness the content moves from the banal to the shocking and back with the same unnerving ease that Murakami moves across the boundaries of reality. Expect the occasional talking cat.

 

Milk Chocolate – The Analects of Confucius

This is not an easy read but well worth the perseverance. It is a collection of snapshots from the life of one of humanity’s great thinkers.  The passages jump from event to event and conversation to conversation but, if you relax and let them wash over you, you begin to appreciate the warmth and the humour of the man. These works provided the foundation for one of the world’s greatest civilisations. You were not considered educated unless you could quote the teachings of Confucius and as such they are the wonderful Milk Chocolate of all that is China.

White Chocolate – Bridget Jones – Mad about the boy  by Helen Fielding

As white chocolate isn’t really chocolate so this isn’t really literature but I did enjoy it. Admittedly I listened to the audiobook rather than reading it but I appreciated the silliness and the glimpses of a rushed home life were all too familiar. The eponymous heroine seems to have aged without maturing at all, which made me feel slightly sad for the character, but this is not a book to engage deep thought, it’s frothy and silly with an occasional effort to touch on darker themes. Great company while cleaning the kitchen.

 

 

The follow up post will be courtesy of the lovely Rebecca Mascull. You can find her at
http://www.rebeccamascull.tumblr.com
@rebeccamascull

Why don’t we write?

We don’t write as often as we should. 

Now I’m not a task-master. I’m not one of those people out to give you a hard time about perseverance and word count. We all have our own writing road to travel and we get there in our own time and in our own way. No, I’m talking about those times when we have everything we need, computer, book and pen, beverage of choice, time and space, and yet we shy away from the act of writing. Frustrating isn’t it? Oh yes, we dress it up in fancy terms. We say that we are procrastinating or researching or reflecting, which are fine things to do, whereas, if we were honest with ourselves we would own up to the fact that we are having a bravery crisis.

Putting your thoughts out into the world can be a scary business, people aren’t always kind, sometimes we do a less than stellar job, and our writing might not be good. All of those things are true but every writer faces those anxieties, even the good ones. I am talking about the really, really good ones, the ones that you read and think, now that is a true talent. They all have pen biting days. They face the question of whether they can do it, and in some cases the question of whether they can do it again, over and over. The most prolific writers, the best writers, will all write bad stuff. They produce less than wonderful writing on a regular basis and they continue to write. They sift and hone. They learn and grow. They learn to recognise the good stuff and keep it. That is what it means to be a writer. 

Not every sentence from your pen will be golden, not ever. Not even after a Booker/ Costa/ Guardian prize. 

So write. Let yourself write. You won’t always find it easy to overcome the nerves but be kind to yourself and let the bad stuff out. In the gravel and the grime you will find those nuggets of gold that keep you coming back and keep you moving on.

 

Who Am I?

I’m a writer currently living in Middle England. I am taking time this year to write a collection of twelve short stories.
I have a great and very patient Editor. I hold an Honours Degree in Applied Human Psychology and I tend not to talk about myself very much mostly because I put all the interesting things on the page, and when you have done that what is there left to say?
I read a great deal and widely. I’m currently listening to a lecture series on Plato’s Republic because, well, I haven’t before. I think it’s important to always be learning and growing.
I enjoy writing and I try to make each piece better than the last.

Every Day?

Recently I’ve been pondering the different ways that we all get to a finished manuscript. There are those who throw themselves in at a tremendous pace and edit for meaning at the end. There are the precision writers who craft every line with an intensity bordering on the maniacal, and then there are writers with a plan who jump the stepping stones of plot until they reach the bank, quite literally. Writers are individuals and as such they write. We write. Each one of us finds our own way, and if we don’t then our manuscript never reaches the reader. There are no rules about how you reach completion, the point is just to get there mostly sane.

One area where most writers agree is that it is better to write on more days than you don’t. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it is easier to keep the momentum going on a long project if you develop a writing habit. Secondly, the more words you write the more you learn, the more you learn the better you get, you can’t help it. Writers aren’t any fonder of unnecessary work than anyone else. Thirdly, it is the best way to help you develop your love affair with words.

So should we write every day? Well, some people do. Others write most days. Some people write Thursday and Sunday after gym class. Some write in the morning and others write in the night. In the world of the writer there is only ONE should,

When you begin a project you SHOULD finish it.

Try writing more days than you don’t, if that is possible, but there are no rules, no generalisations, no master plan. The way I work probably won’t work for you. You need to discover the way that you work, and remember that there is only the one SHOULD in the world of the writer, don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Only you can speak for you. Only you can write for you. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would you think?

What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?  

(Beatles – A little Help from my Friends)

There are days when we write and everything seems to come together clearly and concisely. We answer our own questions, we meet our job specs, and then we meet our deadlines. It’s all very simple. Then of course we have the days when every passage of prose is discordant and jangling. We know that it’s wrong and yet we can’t see where it’s wrong. Our hands are typing a song that our brain isn’t singing. One of those days.

Any Creative can tell you stories of those days. Some people get them on a weekly basis, others go for long periods of creativity and then hit a drought. The point is that having a period of drought doesn’t make you a bad writer or a poor artist. It just makes you a writer or an artist. A creative drought will always end, unless you stop creating. So you write bad stuff, who hasn’t? So your portrait looks like a horse? Maybe rework it before showing the client but hey (hay), now you can paint a horse.

What would we do if you sang out of tune?

 We would all join in.

I’ve been there so often I can do the harmonies.