Lancashire novelist and BBC National Short Story Award nominee Jenn Ashworth on cloning herself and having her work read by Maxine Peake
You know the feeling. You’re busy. Rushed off your feet. Every time you cross something off the to-do list, three things replace it. It’s never-ending. You need another pair of hands. You need two of you, in fact. You’re not alone.
During lockdown, Jenn Ashworth found herself mired in just such a scenario. A lecturer and Professor of Writing at Lancaster University, she was working around the clock to ensure her students weren’t left in the dark whilst also acting as an ad hoc teacher for her young kids and as a source of support for her husband, who works in the NHS.
Then, whilst reading Doris Lessing’s short story ‘To Room Nineteen’, a punchy piece of writing which explored the demands placed on 1960s women, Jenn had an epiphany: nothing had changed. “I first read it when I was an undergrad and, at the time, I understood it,” she says. “But I didn’t feel it until I re-read it in lockdown 20 years later.
“Here’s this young woman who has a great job and a nice house and who’s married to a wonderful husband with four kids,” Jenn adds of the story. “She’s basically got nothing to complain about, but she’s totally miserable. She ends up doing all these odd things to get some time to herself away from this perfect family which is driving her insane.
“Since I first read the story, I’d got a partner, a full-time job, and had children, so I was pretty stretched like a lot of people,” Jenn explains. “The idea of only existing to meet the demands of others jumped out at me - the story was published 60 years ago, but I thought ‘what’s changed?’ No matter how hard someone works, it’s never enough, particularly for women.”
And, from that, the germ of an idea spawned. Need an extra pair of hands, another one of you? What if that was a realistic possibility? Jenn sat down to write, penning what would eventually become ‘Flat 19’, a sharp short story in which Eve, a successful artist, wife, and mother, confronts the impossibility of being all things to all people by cloning herself.
Acerbic, funny, and bleak, the piece was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University.
Born in Preston in 1982, Jenn fell in love with literature from an early age and, when she wasn’t reading, she was writing: an early-established habit saw her fill countless fervent pages across 20-odd years of diary-keeping. “I always wanted to be a writer,” Jenn says simply. “From a very young age, words were always going to be a big part of my life.”
Going on to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge before completing a Master’s in Creative Writing at Manchester University, Jenn then got a job in a prison library. Whilst leading writing workshops, she discovered a passion for teaching, dipping her toe into the world of academia at the University of Central Lancashire before joining the University of Lancaster a decade ago.
And all the while, she wrote.
“I finished my first novel as an undergrad but, when I read it back, I realised it was pretty rubbish and I didn’t know how to fix it,” says Jenn. “I’d read finished novels at Waterstones and think ‘how?’”
Polishing her work during her Master’s, that first novel eventually became A Kind of Intimacy, which was published by Sceptre in 2009 and which won a Betty Trask Award. Four more novels - Cold Light (2011), The Friday Gospels (2013), Fell (2016), and the Portico prize-shortlisted Ghosted: A Love Story (2021) - have since followed.
“Novelists have to be good at two things,” says Jenn. “The first is self-discipline, because as much as people talk about being creative, it’s mostly about turning up and doing the job for years, even on days when you don’t feel like it. That’s what being a grown-up is about: teachers and doctors don’t get to say ‘I’m not quite feeling it today’.
“The second thing is being good at the complete opposite - being gentle with yourself,” she adds. “You have to have a caring attitude towards your work because you can’t write the final draft first time and it can be a mess for years. The author Ann Patchett says she starts each day by forgiving the work for not being perfect - that's the only way to get anything done.
“It’s about patience, because writing can take a really long time to get right and that doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, it’s just how it is,” continues Jenn. “But I enjoy the process. I love that one moment a day when you think ‘that’s the exact right phrase’. There’s real pleasure in that, whereas thinking ‘I’m 1,000 words closer to finishing’ just doesn’t motivate me.
“You’ve also got to enjoy sitting on your own in your pyjamas typing, otherwise it’s not the job for you. The exciting bits like people saying they enjoy your work and maybe even awards only happen in flurries. Then it’s back to your room for another three years!”
Or at least back to the classroom.
“I’m really lucky in that I love teaching and, while it can be tricky getting the balance between writing and teaching right, that’s life - everyone with a full-time job has to juggle things somewhat and artists aren’t exempt from that,” Jenn says. “Some writers resent teaching because they have to do it because their books don’t make enough money to live off, but I love my job.
“Teaching is as much of a calling as writing is - they’re both about interesting relationships with people based around language and stories,” she adds. “And teaching helps me as a writer; it helps me understand something instinctive and there’s something very inspirational about becoming immersed in how somebody else sees the world.
“It can be uncomfortable, illuminating, funny, frightening; it’s about different perspectives,” Jenn continues. That just shows how powerful writing is. It’s just so exciting to be around.”
The news that ‘Flat 19’ had been shortlisted for one of the UK’s most prestigious literary awards came like a bolt out the blue. In the intervening time, the piece has been published in an anthology released by Comma alongside the other nominees and has been read aloud on the radio by two-time BAFTA nominated Shameless actress Maxine Peake.
But, regardless of whether she takes home the £15,000 prize, Jenn says she hopes ‘Flat 19’ will get people thinking. “I had a lot of fun with it,” she says of the piece, which was first published in the anthology ‘Close to Midnight’ by Flame Tree Press and edited by Mark Morris. “Initially, I thought I’d bloody love it if I could clone myself - I could just do nothing!
“Then I started thinking about what would happen when you go back to being that person who wasn’t enough,” Jenn adds. “During lockdown, there was hope that it’d change how we live, but talk soon went back to ‘getting back to normal’. But normal was awful! I wrote the story with the current climate in mind, but it’s not about Covid, it’s about how we feel.”
With the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University to be announced live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on Tuesday October 4th, I ask Jenn what she’ll do if she wins. “In my story, Eve wins a prize and uses the money to clone herself, but I can safely say that, if I win, I won’t be doing that!” she says. “I’ll probably go on holiday, though!”