I talk to author A.J. Ashworth about her short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here which won the Scott Prize.
In line with this year’s focus on all things short story related, I’m delighted to talk today with A.J. Ashworth. Ashworth, a former journalist originally from Lancashire is the author of the collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here, winner of the Scott Prize and published by Salt. This short story collection is stunning. There are no weakstories, each one struck and stayed with me. The collection truly demonstrated Ashworth’s ability to focus perceptively on human flaws and contradictions through beautiful but not overwrought language and through memorable and unique characters. Sometimes surreal, but always accessible, this collection moved and delighted me and I highly recommend it.
Hi Andrea, great to have you with us. Tell us first about your background as a short story writer.
Thanks, Alison – it’s lovely to talk to you.
I started writing short stories about six or seven years ago when I began taking some distance learning writing courses with Lancaster University. I don’t remember being overly encouraged to focus on the short story by the tutors – it was just the form that I was drawn to after having read and loved collections such as ‘Elephant’ by Raymond Carver and Susan Hill’s ‘A Bit of Singing and Dancing’. Then, a few years ago, I decided to study for an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University and I produced a collection of short stories for that. I submitted the collection to Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize and was one of the winners last year.
What is it that you like about short stories?
I love how compact they are, so that every word has to count. They’re very concentrated and can be incredibly powerful and resonant, staying with you for a long time so that you want to keep returning to them, re-reading them. I also love that, as a reader, I have to do some of the work to make meaning out of them. They don’t just offer themselves up as fully completed jigsaws with all the pieces in place – the reader has to help put them together. It’s a team effort with the writer and reader working together.
What elements do you think make a good short story?
All of the above, plus I also like them to be quite enigmatic. One of the things I love about Raymond Carver’s stories is that I don’t instantly understand what they’re about. I have to think about them and turn them over in my mind to try and make sense of them. To continue with the jigsaw analogy, I find stories more engaging if some of the pieces are missing too because I then have to use my imagination to fill in the gaps.
Tell us about the collection. Over what span of time did you write the stories that ultimately formed Somewhere Else, or Even Here?
The book is a collection of 14 stories which were written over about three years. I started them for my MA so most of them were written as part of that. I wrote another two stories after the course, so that the collection would be the right size for The Scott Prize. The stories are quite different, with characters ranging from a woman who sees her future husband in a museum to a teenage boy who decides to build a bonfire in the basement of his school. They’re dark in subject matter, I suppose, but I think there’s also hope in many of them too – the light and dark of life.
What I particularly love about the stories in the collection is how you zoom in on aspects of human frailty and imperfection, treating them honestly but with great compassion. How did the particular instances crystallize in your mind? Did the characters come first or their situation?
The stories unfolded in many different ways. Sometimes a first line occurred to me and I worked from that, other times I was inspired by a photograph or a poem and the story opened out from that. With the story ‘Bananas’, about a woman who meets a strange man on a train, I just had the first line. But, as I got started, I realized I wanted to explore the idea that grief can affect the mind and make people behave in ways they wouldn’t normally. (Joan Didion’s book ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, about her grief-induced ‘insanity’ following the death of her husband, was on my mind around this time.) The man in the story has been affected by the death of his granddaughter but the narrator – and the reader – don’t know that until later in the story, so his odd behaviour is hard to comprehend. I think it’s important to try to understand people if possible, rather than judge them for their actions, out of context, in a particular moment. It can be a challenge to do this in the real world, but if we can empathise with a fictional character then some of that feeling might stay with us if we ever encounter somebody similar during the course of our lives.
Various themes run through the stories such as astronomy and science in general. It’s obviously something you are interested in. How do you think using such metaphors contribute to your stories?
I love astronomy – I think it’s such a rich seam to draw inspiration from. Black holes, supernovae, comets, star clusters… it’s such a fantastically exciting subject that I can’t help but allow that into my work. I hope that by using astronomy symbolically in my stories it adds an extra layer to whatever I’m writing about, creating a little more depth than would be there without it. Also, in a wider sense, I want it to show how we, as humans, are part of the universe – we’re not separate from it.
Your stories are very striking and some quite surreal. Do you know where a story is going when you start or does it take you on a journey?
I definitely go on a journey whenever I write. Occasionally I have an idea where I want to end up but I don’t always know how I’m going to get there. That’s the way I like it though. I’m not the kind of person who plans as I like to be surprised by what I’m writing.
How did you go about choosing which stories went into the collection?
Apart from a few very early stories, the collection contains all the stories I’ve ever written. The only one missing is one that Salt decided wasn’t quite right for the book, so that was removed.
What did it mean to you to be one of the Scott Prize Winners and published with Salt?
It was a huge thrill as you can imagine. I was at work the day the announcement was made and, I have to say, it was pretty hard to concentrate! It’s such a great opportunity though and I’m really happy to be with Salt as they publish such great books and they’re lovely people too.
What new experiences have come out of your success with Salt?
I’ve been invited to read at my first literary festival – the York Literature Festival – in April, so I’m looking forward to that.
What advice or encouragement would you give to those starting out with short stories or trying to improve their writing?
I think persistence is key with writing so I would just say, keep going. Rejection is the hardest thing to deal with as a writer but I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t had their work rejected at least once. Just accept you will get rejected at some point, feel fed up for a bit when it happens but then dust yourself off and get writing or submitting again.
Somewhere Else or Even Here is available widely in the usual places and with Salt Publishing.