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Literature Review: Jon McGregor and Jenn Ashworth in Conversation

15 November 16 words: Lucy Brouwer

The Festival of Literature is all about conversations and this one saw two writers meet in person for the first time. Previously to this, they had communicated via email as Jon offered support and advice to Jenn’s latest novel...

Nottingham Festival of Literature 2016 has hosted several workshops with writers, for writers and about writers. This event took the form of a conversation between Nottingham-based Jon McGregor and Preston-born Jenn Ashworth, for whom he has been acting as a mentor by email. This event allowed them the opportunity to meet in person for the first time.

In the cosy surroundings of new workspace café Think, the kind of place where writers might take their laptops out for a coffee, there is a slight atmosphere of a tutorial, like we are listening in on a Creative Writing class. Indeed, both authors work in Universities doing just that, Jon in Nottingham and Jenn at Lancaster.

To begin, Jenn reads from the opening of her new novel Fell, an atmospheric stream of time-jumping description.

The two writers go on to introduce their virtual relationship, reading early emails where Jenn contacted Jon to ask for his help, having hit a wall with Fell, her fourth novel. “Bracing critique,” she says, “is welcome”.

Jon promises to find time to offer “sharp feedback” as so many novels he comes across are not quite ready.

Jenn feels her book is not quite ready enough and wishes to be brave and vulnerable, taking lessons from life into her work. They agree that difficult emotional times use “the same muscles” that good writing needs.

Jenn explained her difficulty with Fell’s first person omniscient narrator, how she wanted to break away from the voice she had used in the past, to write what she calls “Miraculous Realism”.

Drawing upon Jon’s experience of writing his novel, Even The Dogs, where he liberated himself from storyboard realism to create something non-linear and in his words, “un-filmable”. Their correspondence challenges Jenn to look at the questions raised by her ideas. Her narrators are other worldly beings – but how can she reconcile this supernatural element in her work with the demand for literary realism?

Recommending compression and clarification, Jon is nudged into offering a pep talk and Jenn goes back to her manuscript to kick it into shape.

Here we get an insight into two writers collaborating on the process of getting from first draft to finished novel. They agreed that the stereotypical image of a writer shut up in a garret with a bottle of whisky, a lonely genius producing finished masterpieces straight from idea to page, is largely a false one. In the movies, writers rarely take advice well, usually it ends with the pages of a manuscript being thrown out of a window. In reality, writers need more patience.

Jon talks about feeling he has permission to write, to be free to write in whatever way he wants. This comes from the privilege and good fortune of having sold his books very well and winning awards. Jenn struggles to give herself this permission, feeling that Fell is a departure from her previous work, written out of contract and more of a risk, breaking away from the black humour of her first novel which she published at age 23. Fell is a departure, narrated by what she hesitates to call “ghosts”, set in 1963, possibly a love story. It’s not what she felt she was known for and she needed another writer to say “I get it” to give her the confidence to continue.

The idea for the book came to her like a “scene that fell from the sky”, and she took some time to be able to come back and develop it, falling into a “writers sulk” and having to go against her will to face the challenges of writing the story that had presented itself to her. She reads from the scene that wouldn’t leave her alone: an atmospheric, uneasy vision of a hot day where, possibly, miracles happen. Healing and unexplained actions of characters hinge her story – elements she feels are alien to modern fiction.

Jon’s feedback became important in getting her to finish the novel. Jenn works as a mentor herself, but still needed another writer to act in that role for her. In these days of connections and social media, more and more writers seek emotional support, reassurance, friendship or permission to try out their ideas from each other. By engaging another writer who was not already a friend, who could be a critical reader, she found a constructive collaboration. It is worth noting that Jon McGregor was one of the founding members of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, and so understands the benefits of professional support.

A book can be “complete but not finished”, indeed it took almost another year for Jenn to finish Fell and even now she can’t quite manage to stop the editing process. In the fight to the finish, having another writer as a reader helped her to know when to stop and release the story to the rest of us.

This event gave an insight into the minds of two innovative and exciting writers, shedding light onto the process of how they write novels and push their own boundaries to create new voices in fiction.

Fell by Jenn Ashworth is out now, available from Five Leaves Books.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is out in April 2017.

Jon McGregor and Jenn Ashworth, Nottingham Festival of Literature, Thursday 10 November, Think, Cobden Chambers.

Festival of Literature website

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