INTERVIEW: Jenn Ashworth on inconsistent characters, what-ifs and ‘Ghosted’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Jenn Ashworth on the research process behind her novel Ghosted (Sceptre, 2021).

I’d like to start by asking about the relationship between Ghosted and the Gothic tradition. In my conversation with the author Elizabeth Brooks, she described one of the core research questions that drives Gothic literature as: ‘What if the person you are closest to, and most dependent on, is not what he seems?’ I wonder if this question fed into your ideas about Mark’s disappearance, and the self he keeps hidden? How far do you feel Ghosted leans into Gothic themes and aesthetics?

There are a lot of critics and scholars doing work on the Gothic and working out these kind of definitions – and while I love a good Gothic novel, I personally don’t find the attempt to define genre a really fruitful place for my writing to start. I tend to research genre in terms of of getting in the same place as my reader, knowing what they might have read, what they might expect, and seeing if I can play with that a bit. So for Fell, I read lots of haunted house type books, lots of stories and books narrated by ghosts, stuffed my head with it, then let it filter through into the writing. The same for Ghosted, really, where I concentrated on all the ways a person might try to speak to or with someone who wasn’t there – from internet message boards to phone messages to seances and mediums. These are definitely Gothic themes but I just put all that out of my head. Someone else can write an essay about the book if they want to – my job was to find some characters and follow them. With that reading done, I let it appear in the story as and when the characters demanded it. It turned out that for Ghosted the idea of presence and absence, and what kind of hauntings or omissions or unexpected arrivals happen in close relationships – between a married couple, between child and parent, between two friends thrown together by circumstance – was key to what I wanted to do.

Beyond the those relational circumstances though, there’s also a sense of individual multiplicity permeating Ghosted. Almost every character (though Laurie and her father especially) is characterised via the diversity of their internal selves – voices that are ‘never quiet, never unanimous’ (p.13). Naturally, this provokes stress and confusion in Laurie, but it also confuses those around her, much like Meursault’s incomprehensible grief in Camus’ The Outsider confuses his prosecutors. I wonder how you balanced Laurie’s internal multiplicities in your writing, and what challenges you faced in achieving this complex characterisation (and its effects). Is there an analogy there between the reader-writer relationship, as drawn out by Laurie’s narration?

It felt quite natural to me, to work with characters who were divided in themselves, inconsistent, strange to themselves. I think it is King Lear where Shakespeare has Regan say of her father, ‘he hath ever but slenderly known himself’. We might find that internal strangeness becomes exaggerated at times of high emotion or crisis – falling in love, becoming unwell or infirm, losing someone, experience grief or violent anger – but I also think it is a really accurate description of the way humans are in the world. Even as far back as Aristotle he’s saying (in The Poetics) that good characters are consistently inconsistent, so it isn’t a new idea. I guess the challenge is the pressure, perhaps, a writer might imagine she’s under to make a character relatable, or consistent, or likeable – that if someone is loving in one chapter, they have got to be that way through the whole book, or that every single one of their actions must be clearly motivated in a way that the reader can relate to, or approve of, or is consistent with whatever the reader imagines their own experience to be. I find that extraordinary limiting, and it massively, insultingly underestimates a reader who is there for the mystery, and to have the terrifying and rather beautiful mystery of other people and themselves that they will experience in their real lives acknowledged in their fiction.

Yes, it definitely feels like much of the energy behind Ghosted comes from that sense of people being inherently inconsistent, as being capable of surprising the reader just as people surprise us in real life. I think there’s an interesting reflection on that coming through Laurie’s father. As his memory deteriorates through vascular dementia, his past ‘disappears’ and is replaced by fantasies and lies. Because of this process, his carer Olena finds herself able to describe him as ‘very innocent’ (p.16), despite what we know about his moral shortcomings, and even characterises the lies themselves as ‘entirely innocent,’ protective confabulations (p.96). I’m curious as to your perspective on what the process of fantasy supplanting memory says about our ideas around who we are and what we’re made up of. Who are we without our pasts, if anyone? Did these considerations feed into your writing and research?

Yes, definitely. In Ghosted we have all of the characters wrestling with, or battered by, their pasts in some way. Olena is outrunning a secret, and we might begin to wonder if this excessive care and kindness she’s showing in her present life has anything to do with her wish to atone for a past life, and if so, does that make the love she shows to Laurie, Mark and Laurie’s father any less valuable? Or perhaps the Olena who did what she did (not wanting to spoil here) is a totally different person to the Olena who cares for Laurie and her father. That’s also true, right? Which makes ideas about atonement and punishment and restitution kind of complicated. Similarly, Laurie’s mother seems to have a secret, and the keeping of it has almost erased her as a person – Laurie really doesn’t know her at all – she’s not there, because she’s never been able to be in her present. Laurie and Mark are crushed by their shared experience, and this inability to articulate it, to incorporate it into a shared present, is behind most of what happens in the book: Mark disappearing is the most obvious dramatisation of that – first into the virtual space of the internet and then literally, from their shared flat. And we have this undercurrent of the psychic stuff – wanting to reach out of the present and bring the past – dead people, not to put too fine a point on it – into now as a way of healing or creating justice of some kind (that’s a very Gothic theme, I guess). I wanted to write a book that considered all of these things, all the ways and means we have of dealing with the time that stretches out behind us, the fact that we only exist now, but a lot of ‘now’ is burdened by problems from ‘then.’

Another more oblique thematic thread that interests me is the eschatological pessimism that comes from Mark’s retreat into online conspiracy theories and climate panic. This seems partly a product of what Laurie calls his ‘mindless and wilful misery’, in contrast to what she over-generously describes as her ‘mindless optimism’ (p.83), but it also seems to be a characteristically modern and pervasive collective malady. This kind of pessimism/panic is something I’ve spoken of with a few writers, notably in my interviews with Carys Bray and Isobel Wohl, but I wonder if these are feelings you identify in yourself. When you read about climate change and imagine humanity in terms of our climate future, how do you feel and how do those feelings manifest, if at all, in your work?

What a question. I think both optimism and pessimism are fantasies, or judgements: they take us away from now, rather than towards it. Personally, I think we’re too late to avert the damage we have done to the earth when it comes to climate change and the ecological disaster that is coming. I do believe that. And it is only a belief: I am not a climate scientist and I know humans in extremis can do unexpected things. I hope that the efforts certain groups and individuals are making to live differently, to care, to build flexible, conscious communities, to agitate for change, to speak the truth about what is happening right now continue, I hope they grow. And I also don’t think the guys at XR, for example, are going to fix what we’ve done to the world, but they will make ‘now’ as good as it is possible to be. It will help us mourn. I don’t think I’m like Mark – he’s kind of suffocated by his nihilism for much of the book – nor am I like Laurie – whose optimism is fairly clearly a delusion and has a self-protective function – she’s still managing to convince herself there’s nothing much wrong in her marriage during the conversation she’s having with the police when she’s reporting her husband missing. But I’ve experienced both and drew on those experiences when writing those characters, these more or less dysfunctional ways of mourning, which I take to mean this work of bringing painful pasts and lost futures together in some kind of curious ‘now’.

Though there’s plenty more we could touch on, I’d like to close by asking about your approach to research in general, especially as you teach Research and Methodology for Creative Writing students at Lancaster University. Several writers I’ve contacted for Writers on Research have commented that they were ‘not sure they did any research’, especially if the books came from a particularly personal place. I’m curious as to what you think constitutes ‘research’, why it’s useful for writers, and whether you have any advice for practitioners insecure about the methodological aspects of their work.

I guess there’s two ways to think about research – one is the information-gathering that a writer does to get the stuff they need into their heads so they can bring it into the book. I’m doing a lot of that at the moment, and there’s no system or method, really, as I don’t know yet what the book will need: it just involves following my pleasure, getting curious, reading widely and eccentrically (stories about the prodigal son, how abattoirs work, what it is like to be a nurse in a HDU). My tip there for all writers is to keep notes, keep records, keep a bibliography of some kind: for all I’ve said about living in the ‘now’ – you can certainly make things a little easier for your future self if you know where that interesting fact about how they hand out the meals on Covid wards comes from.
From that first research stage – the reading and watching and thinking, stories start to emerge. They just suggest themselves if you’re at it long enough. What if.. Is always a great question. Or what would it feel like if… or what would a person do if… And with the stories, another set of questions – research questions that are about the ‘how’ of the writing, and not only the what. So the writing itself – the actual forming of the book, the drafting, all the structural decisions and micro-decisions about sentences, word choice, the colour someone’s hat is, also become a form of research, and a way of answering some not-subject-matter related questions about language, or form, or genre, or point of view, or tense, or something else. The main question might be ‘how on earth can I pull this off?’ which is a terrifyingly fertile place to start.

Not all writers think of it in this way or need to. But if this is ringing a bell with anyone reading, the advice I’d give is ‘hold your nerve’ – because if you are in the midst of finding out about something, some ‘how’ of writing, then of course by definition you do not know that thing now, and you do not know, not for certain, that the thing is available to be known. It is very likely the whole project will be an absolute state, you will have no idea what you are doing, and it will feel as if the thing is going to blow up or fall over or disappear every time you put your hands on it. Don’t be all tortured about it, just do your work. This is how it is. Inch along, following your question, and watching for new questions to emerge. Write a lot, and plan to delete a lot too. Nothing is wasted.

Jenn Ashworth was born in Preston and studied at Cambridge and Manchester. Her earlier novels include A Kind of IntimacyThe Friday Gospels and Fell. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018. In 2019 she published Notes Made While Falling, a memoir told in a series of essays. She is a Professor of Writing at Lancaster University.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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