I’ve just finished AJ Ashworth’s short story collection Somewhere Else, Or Even Here, which was the winner of the Scott Prize and published by Salt. It is one of the most assured and accomplished collections I have come across recently. It deals with death and deception by utilising the lyrical form, finding powerful images to symbolise the states of mind of the characters. A young girl on a beach is coaxed into a cave by a strange boy. A girl on a caravanning holiday with her family sees a motoring accident where a woman has been crushed by a wagon. A sixteen year old boy is ostracised and demonised because his father is a convicted paedophile. A woman is conned into paying thousands of pounds to bring her dead partner back to life. A woman on a train is harassed by a nutty bloke, later she finds out he has been to his granddaughter’s funeral.
Astrophysics and the study of celestial objects features heavily in the collection, why is that?
I find it a really fascinating subject and it’s a rich seam for writers to draw inspiration from. Using astronomical ideas – like the life and death of stars and galaxies, for example – enabled me to add depth and layers into my work that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. So my story ‘Tattoo’ is about the ending of a relationship but instead of just writing a straight story I wanted to introduce bigger ideas about the future death of our universe, which sounds really cheerful doesn’t it?! But, I do really like being able to create links between the microcosm of our small lives and the macrocosm of the universe – so astronomy is perfect for that.
Where did you learn to write?
I have written on and off for years but, because I was struggling to get going on anything I decided to take some distance learning writing courses with Lancaster University – they really helped me to make a start. It was also good motivation and the encouragement I got from tutors and fellow students was invaluable really. I then went on to study for an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University and left there with a distinction in 2010. Most of the stories in the book were written during the MA.
What was it specifically that you learned from the MA?
How to edit better. I had a very good short story tutor – Felicity Skelton – who behaved like an editor. She asked questions, made suggestions and really helped me to improve my stories. When you’re just starting out you might be unsure of certain sections or words but you leave them in because you’re not fully confident about your own abilities. Felicity would sometimes point out areas I’d also had doubts about but had left in. Getting feedback like this really helps you to improve but it also encourages you to trust your own instincts so that you can become a better editor yourself. There are lots of benefits to doing an MA though – if it’s a good course: you’re in an environment that encourages creativity, among people who write and who are as interested in stories as you are, and when you see students and staff getting published and having successes it can be really inspiring and encourage to keep trying.
Felicity Skelton has one of the best writer names I’ve come across. Almost as good as Nick Cave, or Will Self. It sounds like you did a lot of re-writing. Typically, how many drafts did these stories go through? Were there any that changed radically in the re-drafting process? If so, which?
She has a great name – I’m envious. Unfortunately, I have the same name as another writer who wrote a critically acclaimed memoir and I’m always being confused with her. That’s why I use ‘A. J.’ rather than my full name. As for re-writing, I did quite a bit of editing throughout the collection but not a massive amount of heavy restructuring – most of the stories were ok structurally but just needed tweaks and cuts. It’s hard to say how many drafts they went through because I edit as I write and then I edit more when they’re more or less finished. My prose is fairly spare when it comes out but it’s always possible to tighten it up and make cuts so that you’re not saying too much – so that there’s room for the reader to take part in constructing the story.
None of them changed radically during editing, but I did rewrite the ending to ‘The Prophecy’, the story of a young girl who is a member of a comet cult, from an upbeat ending to a more ambiguous one which felt better. ‘Paper Lanterns’, the story of a young couple who lose their son, was probably the most difficult to write because it’s the only story where I’d written the ending first – I therefore had to write a story I had no obvious beginning for and try to make it so that the join between the two sections wasn’t obvious. Technically, it was a bit of a challenge to say the least.
It’s interesting that you should mention The Prophecy. I thought it was a very accomplished story, but structurally it is quite different from the other stories in the collection. Out of 14 stories, 13 are lyrical stories. Only one incorporates epical narrative structure and that’s The Prophecy, which dramatises the thrilling escape from death in the overcoming the monster story that Booker outlines. Were you tempted to hold this story back for another collection and make the book a baker’s dozen?
While ‘The Prophecy’ is different to the other stories, thematically there are similarities. There are themes such as astronomy, loss and family in it – themes which feature strongly in many of the stories – so I hope it doesn’t stand out too much from the rest. Having said that, I was pretty blind to theme when I was writing the collection – I just wrote each story one at a time without thinking how they may or may not work together. But writers do have their own particular preoccupations, which often emerge as recurring themes or motifs, so I wasn’t overly worried about that. I don’t think all of the other stories are lyrical though – I don’t see ‘Trees’ or ‘Bananas’ as particularly lyrical, but I can appreciate that others may see them like that. Going back to ‘The Prophecy’, I’m not familiar with Booker but I’m not sure the character does overcome the monster in that story – the ending is left open so that the reader is never quite sure what happens. The reader may infer what happens, but I never tell them outright. As for holding the story back, I was quite happy for Salt to guide me on what they wanted in the book. Actually, the collection originally had 15 stories in it – another story, ‘The Monolith’, was taken out because they didn’t think it sat right with the others (that story was published in Unthology 3 last year instead).
I didn’t mean to suggest that ‘The Prophesy’ resolves the thrilling escape from death, merely that it dramatises an aspect of it. I like the fact that your stories have open endings. I think all short fiction should aspire to this. Have you read Gerlach’s book Towards the End? It’s basically about how contemporary short stories are endings of short stories. I’d go further than that and say they are interrupted endings, they dramatise the ‘moment of clarity’. Sometimes the epiphany that replaces the climactic ‘overcoming’ in an epical story is merely implied. Do you agree? Do you think your stories fit that description?
Yes, that’s true – it does dramatise the desire to overcome the monster: whether the character manages to do that or not is up to the reader… I’m not familiar with Gerlach’s book, no, but it sounds interesting. I agree that short stories are all about endings, which is strange considering that the majority of them actually resist closure – they refuse to be neatly tied up in a conventional way. But stories are a kind of sustained ending I suppose – and the seeds of the ending must be planted in them from the very beginning, so that the seeds (mood, tone) spread throughout the whole story until what happens, or doesn’t happen, in the last few paragraphs or sentences is inevitable. Are they interrupted endings? I think so. A lot of short stories are almost the promise of an ending (an implication, as you say) rather than one that is fully realised, as if any ‘actual’ ending (if such a thing were to exist) ripples out beyond the story and into the mind of the reader. I think my own stories have open endings because that’s how they wanted to be written – there wasn’t any deliberate holding back on my part. But, if there are any epiphanies in them, yes they are subtle and implied rather than overt.
Lyrical stories are often characterised by the slow revelation of an image. ‘Paper Lanterns’ is such a story. It focuses on how a couple deal with the recent loss of their eight year old son. The image of the paper lanterns works brilliantly to symbolise the fragility of life but also its radiance. Did the image present itself and then the story, or was it the other way round?
That story was the result of a writing exercise. I was studying a distance learning writing course through Lancaster University and the tutor gave a prompt that was to do with the word ‘loss’. As soon as I read the word, I saw the image of a paper lantern floating away… and I had my story. I have no idea where that image came from – it just floated into my mind, much like a lantern itself. So, yes, first was a word, then an image and then the story. And I love what you say there, about the fragility of life but also its radiance. Those are probably two big preoccupations of mine – the light and dark of life – as well as the transience of things. I recently came across the Japanese idea of ‘mono no aware’, which means ‘the pathos of things’ and is related to the idea of impermanence, and that resonated very strongly with me. It’s certainly something I feel more keenly the older I get, how poignant life is – but hopefully that just makes me appreciate it all the more.
To what extent are the stories an act of imagination or are there biographical and/or autobiographical elements?
They are almost completely from the imagination – there may be elements taken from real life, for instance, going cockling on Morecambe Bay sands, but even they have been manipulated to suit the fiction (and any attempt at autobiography is fictional anyway). There is only one incident in one of the stories – just a few sentences long – that actually happened (as far as I can trust my memory), but the rest of the story is from my imagination.
Edgar Allan Poe said, ‘The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length […] it cannot be read in one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality’ – do you agree?
Absolutely. One of the great things about short stories is that they can be read in one go so they offer a complete and satisfying reading experience. For the duration of the story you are immersed in that world and, if you’re lucky, nothing else intrudes. So they can be extremely powerful because they’re so concentrated and can, therefore, have quite an effect on you so that they stay with you for years or even a lifetime. Novels, on the other hand, are so big that you rarely read them like that – the effect is diluted over a few days or weeks. Some can really have an effect on you, of course, but I’m not sure they have the emotional impact that a good short story does… but I’m biased.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a novel as well as editing an anthology of Brontë-inspired short stories to raise funds for The Brontë Birthplace Trust – this is due out from Unthank Books in the autumn.
I can’t recommend this collection highly enough.
Click here to buy a copy: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781844718801