By Alan Kelly
Alan Kelly: A Kind of Intimacy begins with Annie (your protagonist) screaming, crying and generally letting it all out. It is the hilarious beginning to what gradually becomes something completely different; did you want the reader to immediately categorise Annie as a bit of a misfit?
Jenn Ashworth: When I go back to the book as a reader I notice how hard Annie tries to contain her emotions: as if they are shameful or dangerous. I like the idea of her only complete loss of control happening in a house she’s about to leave, and followed by her posting her keys through the letter box. Maybe she thinks she’s locking it all in behind her – not only her past, but that bit of herself. And yes, the idea of a very large person, totally naked, kicking the hell out of their settee is funny and is supposed to cue the reader in to Annie’s experience of the world: people generally do laugh at her, don’t they?
AK: I am curious about what or who influenced Annie, or is she entirely a fictional creation?
JA: There was a woman on a bus I used to travel on every day who read Mills and Boons, ate chocolate bars for breakfast, and didn’t seem to notice what was going on around her. There was a very lonely period when I lived next door to a pub and watched the beer garden out of the window. I got interested in what a person would feel like having the life they most wanted going on right next door. We’d probably all feel a bit envious, but Annie takes that to the next level, and I wanted to explore what kind of person would do that and what their history might be. The feelings are true but the rest of it I just made up. Annie’s name comes from Orphan Annie, and the nurse character in Misery.
AK: You write brilliantly about loneliness, self-image and longing. The reader can’t help but like Annie, even though she is wholly unreliable as a narrator; no easy feat. How long did you spend with her?
JA: I started the novel in the summer of 2003, worked on it for a year or so, edited it during my MA in 2005 – 2006 and handed it over to my agent in early 2007. So a long time. Her voice was the part of the book it was most important to me to get right – I could hear her very clearly, but capturing that in words took a lot of false starts and rewrites. I’m glad it works for you and that you like her – and I don’t think being unreliable and likeable are mutually exclusive. I hope not, anyway.
AK: Like Patricia Highsmith and Zoe Heller you manage to draw the reader in; when Annie shoves the contents of her bin through the neighbour’s door, it can be dismissed as justified mischief but as you get further into the story you’re fed more and more red herrings and then the proverbial rug is ripped from under you. When writing the story could you see around your own corners?
JA: I always knew how the book was going to end. Figuring out how to get there was difficult and I worked for such a long time on the structure of the novel because I didn’t want the reader to be able to dismiss Annie and make an easy judgment about her. The challenge was to get a reader to side with Annie, even as she does the most terrible things – that means there’s a sense of the inevitable about the things she does and the things that happen to her, or at least, there was for me.
AK: Annie’s past and present are cleverly entwined without giving anything away. I was consistently wondering throughout the entire novel what was real and what was not. “Secrets make you lonely…” was indicative of something “awful” that happened in her past. I would describe her as a victim of circumstance and yet she never describes herself as such. She even finds a catharsis of sorts when she encounters her childhood friend Boris later in the tale when he leaves her a gift.
JA: I’ve noticed in a lot of stories that feature violent women, abusive relationships with fathers or husbands are posited as the ’cause’ of their behaviour and this is an assumption Annie exploits in the book. Her family life isn’t ideal, but I had a picture in my head of two parents baffled by this child they’d brought into the world – someone who from the beginning looked and sounded not quite right. The impulse to find a cause is there, and it is possible to read the book in that way, but I don’t think we need to make Annie less culpable for her actions in order to understand what she does. But yes, her circumstances are terrible, and if the story works, the fact that the only intimacy she achieves – despite Boris and a long line of other admirers – is with her reader should be one of the main ironies of the novel.
AK: How long was the book making the rounds with editors and publishers before it was picked up by Arcadia?
JA: The process took longer than I thought it would, and after signing with Arcadia the book wasn’t actually published until more than a year later. I don’t think that’s too unusual with novels though: the publishing world is slow generally, and a lot of people are involved in each decision, as well as there being schedules to fit into. It didn’t feel like a long time although when I think that I finished this book when I was twenty four, and I’m nearly twenty seven now, I suppose that it is.
AK: Annie is enamoured with Neil and convinced the feelings are reciprocated. Although it is never explicitly written, you get the feeling that Annie is suffering from a ‘mental illness’ would that assumption be right?
JA: While I was writing I read a little about disassociation, and I was training to be a counsellor so there was exposure to ideas that might have seeped in. I wouldn’t want to ‘diagnose’ Annie though. In my work in prison I meet people who have been diagnosed with mental illness, but once you get a sense of their life experience behaviour that seems odd and troubling can often turn out to have its own logic and be the sanest reaction possible to an unusual set of circumstances. I have a friend who works in a secure hospital who shares that opinion, and I feel judgement is something you’re only able to dish out from a distance. That’s why Annie tells the story in her own voice – she certainly wouldn’t call herself ‘mad’ or ‘ill’ – she’d say there was something wrong with the world, and I have a lot of empathy for that point of view.
AK: How long have you been writing/involved in online publishing?
JA: It’s always something I wanted to do, but I don’t think I wrote seriously until I figured out exactly what it was I needed to say – and that was with A Kind of Intimacy. I ‘lurked’ on blogs and online magazines for a good year or so before I started my own, and I’d been writing my blog for around eighteen months, I think, before I got the award at the Manchester Blog Awards for it.
AK: You have an MA in creative writing and you’re running a creative writing course? What do you seek in would-be-students?
JA: I don’t teach people to write, I teach them to compare their experience as a reader of their own work with their aims as a writer. There’s a doubleness to it, and they need to be willing to take that stance before they get anything much out of a writing workshop. And something else: an ability to separate what is morally ‘good’ from what is ‘good’ writing. I’ve been surprised how often beginners mix up the two, and I feel very strongly that writers have no responsibility to improve their readers. That kind of work is for doctors and vicars and none of our business.
AK: There are some fantastic female writers of the Offbeat Generation, Emily McPhillips, Sally Cook… Do you feel female writers are overlooked in the underground writing scene or on an equal footing with the lads?
JA: Sally Cook and Emily McPhillips and Sara Crowley and Emma Lannie are doing sparkling, vivid, original work and although they are hardly overlooked, I do think there should be more of a fuss made over them. I can’t speak for them, but I wonder if this lack of online attention is about gender, or if it’s about our unwillingness to get into that kind of ‘scene’, a scene that is very incestuous and doesn’t quite represent what we do. The definition of ‘offbeat’ is becoming narrower and I wonder if as readers and writers we are growing up and if it might be time for something else now. I don’t know what that something else is going to be, but I think the women we’ve mentioned are among the writers who are going to be doing it.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly is the contributing editor to Dogmatika. He lives in Wicklow and is partial to pulp, noir, hardboiled, brainy erotica and horror fiction.