Interview with Jenn Ashworth

Notes Made While Falling is both a genre-bending memoir and a cultural study of traumatised and sickened selves in fiction and film. At its heart is a story of a disastrously traumatic childbirth, its long aftermath, and the out-of-time roots of both trauma and creativity in an extraordinary childhood.

Notes Made Whist Falling is described as a ‘genre-bending memoir and critical study’. In shaping a book this way you seemed to be interested in the boundaries of real lived experience and perspectives from a wider range of thinking and experiencing. I’m interested to know if you knew what you were writing when you set out, or if the book evolved into this shape whilst you were writing?

I didn’t set out to write a book – it was really just notes: a diary, a set of jottings, that I used to try and capture an unfathomable experience as it happened. So much about the experience felt both too private and too outside of my understanding for publication. Later, I tried to pour some of that into a novel that failed entirely. Later still, I tested some of the ideas in more academic papers that also never saw the light of day. The book finally evolved as a patchwork of all those modes – memoir, fiction, criticism – that also tried to explore the gaps between the pieces and the reasons why each type of writing (or me as the writer) wasn’t up to the task. I think I worked on it, between other things, for about eight years. It was only in the final two years of working that I decided that yes, it probably would be a book of some kind.

The book is rooted in your experience of a traumatic birth event, something which happens to many women, but which isn’t a widely acknowledged experience in either fact or fiction. I’m interested why straight memoir or auto-fiction wasn’t the form that you chose to explore this, why was that?

I think fiction – or at least the fiction I felt capable of writing – demanded some form of resolution or plot or conclusion that I couldn’t truthfully inflict on the material. The reader might expect a character to change or cause change, to grow in insight or to develop in some way. Memoir, perhaps, might have demanded of me some retrospective insight or wisdom that I’d gained from my experiences and which was worth sharing. I’m not sure I had any of those things to offer. So many stories about trauma – fiction or otherwise – seem to rely on the narrator looking back at the mess in the rear-view mirror. I wanted to write from the thick of things – to preserve the emotional chaos and intellectual darkness that persisted during the experience itself and was present in my early notes and attempts. It required me to be a different kind of writer.

For me, your book feels part of a new progression in women writers who are using the essay form, auto-fiction and very up front and open discussions about women’s pain and life experiences to create new ways of writing. I’m thinking about writers like Maggie Nelson, Sinead Gleeson and Rachel Cusk. Do you see yourself in this group? Are women writers having a blossoming moment in these new forms?

It was enabling for me to read the writers you mention and find through their words and works the courage to continue: to see it was possible to make something of value and something that used or gestured towards plot and argument without being too enchanted by it or constrained by the demands of either. There’s a greater interest from readers and publishers I hope, in the texture of ordinary life experiences (I say ordinary because illness, physical or mental, is commonplace) and in work that explores the physical and emotional life as well as the thinking life. I hope it is possible to do both: writers like Nelson, Gleeson, Cusk and others helped me to understand that it was, and the increase in interest from publishers is welcome – though of course I was just as influenced by writers who have been working in this mode for a long time: Claudia Rankine, Fanny Howe, Audre Lorde.

For readers who have previously enjoyed your novels and short stories, there’s a great deal in Notes Made Whilst Falling that will resonate for them – your interest in horror and disaster visuals and your background of growing up in a restricted religious faith family. I feel in the book that you’re trying to find the connections yourself between some of these things whilst making sense of the self. Did the book help you to come to any conclusions about how your experiences fuel your writing? Or is life so unknowable that only a mash up of memoir and critical thinking can help us through it?

One of my friends said that reading the book was like looking at a slice of my brain – seeing all the memories and obsessions and imaginations laid out there, in their connectedness. The process of writing did help me to see the connections between some of the things that are important to me – both in terms of my own history and my interest in the world – but I hope it offers the reader something more than only that. The conclusions I drew – if ending as tentatively as I think I did could be described as a conclusion – were more about compassion and acceptance and fellow feeling – both for the parts of myself that are still mired in the mess, and for the messy mired-up selves of other people, and the way we tangle up with each other at home and at work and the way I hope that some good is still possible, however fleeting, despite the tangle and the mess most of us never fully emerge unscathed from.

The book is very different to your previous novels. What has the response from readers been like? Is it nerve-wracking to change form when publishing books?

It’s always nerve-wracking to publish a book – you get a bit more used to what happens in the lead up and immediate aftermath of publication – the proofs, the events, the reviews, the social media stuff – and those tasks and responsibilities take up a little less headspace than they did when it was all new. But this book is different, like you say, so there’s been a sense of personal exposure I’ve not felt before. People have been very kind, and intellectually engaged with what I’m doing – asking hard questions and wanting to know if I am okay – in the same breath. That’s not what I expected (I think I always train myself to expect the worst) but to benefit from the curiosity of others has been so nourishing. And I was – best of all – able to find my way back to fiction in the end and will be publishing a novel next year: a sort of happy ending, though I am still resistant to them!

Notes Made While Falling is published by Goldsmiths Press.

Photo of Jenn Ashworth: Copyright Martin Figura