Jenn Ashworth and Jon McGregor: In Conversation at Nottingham Festival of Literature, Thursday 10th November 7 – 8.30pm.

Novelists Jon McGregor (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Even The Dogs, Reservoir 13) and Jenn Ashworth (A Kind of Intimacy, Cold Light, The Friday Gospels, Fell) have known of one another, and enjoyed one another’s writing, for some time. During the writing of Jenn’s fourth novel, Fell, they exchanged a lot of correspondence, Jon helping Jenn when she needed another perspective on her work-in-progress. They are great admirers of one another’s work, each having spent time exploring the form and style of the other. Jenn describes Jon’s writing as having a balance that is “rare and difficult” to achieve-  “an absolute commitment to form, style and technique – as well as a luminously humane and generous and unflinching approach to character. Most writers favour one over the other.” On Jenn’s work, Jon says he finds it “haunting in all the best ways,” and sees her as a bold writer, “unafraid to push her writing in new directions, to challenge herself and her readers, and as a result her novels have a tough resilience which makes for a rewarding read.”

Next week, at the Nottingham Festival of Literature, they will finally get to meet one another in person at an in-conversation event about their respective new books and the relationships between writers that help to make good writing possible.

Writing can be an isolating experience – and one that is difficult to share. It is often hard for writers to know when to cross the rubicon from writing for their own enjoyment to wanting others to read their work. But being part of a writing community – somehow – is essential to the development of a writer’s work, and sometimes provides a much needed social aspect, too. For some writers this is achieved through social media, for others through face to face networking and events.

Listening to another writer you admire talk about their writing can be enormously illuminating, providing the format of the event allows for the questions to go beyond the broad strokes of where writers get their ideas and themes from, says Jon McGregor.  “I always want to hear something detailed and precise and specific about the writer, about some element of the process that went into making this particular book succeed,” says Jon. Understanding how a good piece of writing works – and demystifying the way in which it is created (and how long and difficult a process that can be) – is fundamental to becoming a good writer.

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor, is out in April 2017.

“I want to know where I have said too much, where I’ve said too little, where I’ve indulged myself at the expense of the reader, and where I have indulged the reader rather than challenging or discomfiting them.”

Fell by Jenn Ashworth is out now.

“What Jenn and I will be trying to do in our event is to recreate the conversations we had while looking at earlier drafts of Fell and to give the audience some insight into how that process worked, why it’s a necessary process, why the idea of the lone genius casting out their finished masterpieces from the high lonely garret is such an unhelpful image.”

Jenn Ashworth agrees. “I think there is a bit of a stereotype of lone geniuses in garrets, but for me writing has always been very social – even when I am alone and keeping the work to myself (which I do for long periods) I am still using the writing to have conversations and arguments with other writers, with culture more generally.”

They both extol the virtues of being part of a network of writing colleagues, and the importance of sharing work in early and unfinished forms with other writers you trust. For some, the idea of sharing drafts is unnerving, but for Jon and Jenn it has become a natural part of their writing process. “I’ve always sought out the opinion and feedback of other writers, to have another artist’s perspective on my work,” says Jenn. The fresh eyes of someone who is new to the text are useful when you have been staring at it for months on end, but it helps if that person is a writer too – someone grappling with many of the same problems and blocks themselves, on their own writing canvas. Jenn says she welcomes the opportunity to engage another critical mind in assessing how well something stands up as a piece of work. “It is feedback I can trust completely, and feedback from someone who is working at the same coal-face as I am – which helps,” Jenn says.

“I want to know where I have said too much, where I’ve said too little, where I’ve indulged myself at the expense of the reader, and where I have indulged the reader rather than challenging or discomfiting them.”

And whilst a writer lucky enough to be writing towards a publishing deadline will have a number of professionals reading their work, it pays to also have someone who is not connected to the publishing cycle – as Jenn puts it, “someone who doesn’t have to think about sales, or marketing, or the bottom line, or anything like that.” This shouldn’t feel like an editing process, or be too formal in tone.

“This is not the same thing as editing,” says Jon. “It’s something earlier than that, a little rawer.” He, too, welcomes this kind of early read. “It’s so helpful getting feedback from people who don’t need to make any decisions about your writing (for grades, or for publication decisions, or for approval) but who simply want to look for what you’ve been trying to do and make thoughtful suggestions about it.”

Such a critical reading relationship is multi-layered – writers don’t necessarily ‘swap’ work to read directly where different specialisms and genres might make that impractical, but the benefit comes from being part of what Jon calls “an ongoing network of writers who read.”

This sort of feedback opportunity is often found in writers’ groups, although increasingly professional relationships can be formed online – as is the case with Jon and Jenn, who haven’t yet met in person and live and work in different cities. Most writers are so visible digitally, with websites, blogs and social media accounts, that conversations with other writers and readers that might previously have only taken place at events are now easy and informal. One level down from actually reading the work of others, some writers develop a following for their advice about the writing process, blogging and self-publishing on the subject. This is about passing on wisdom, sharing skills, and helping writers to overcome a lot of the anxieties associated with starting out as a writer. Which is something both Jenn and Jon approach as teachers of creative writing (both teach at Universities and frequently lead writing workshops and masterclasses). Jenn describes encouraging students and new writers to develop networks and coping mechanisms early on, assisting them through “some of the emotional stuff – the disappointment of rejection, the uncertainty, the unpredictability and futility of fashions in literature, the horror of writer’s block”. Most of all, she says, is the importance of them developing the “sheer amount of spiritual resilience and sensitivity” that writers need.

The importance of being collegiate and building relationships with other writers is something they often talk about with students. This helps to build that resilience. “Writing is about connecting with a reader, and that connection is a two-way process, and a process which needs fine-tuning,” says Jon. ‘It’s a process which needs a writer to see herself or himself as part of a reading community.”

Join Jenn and Jon in Nottingham on Thursday 10 November as they talk about their respective writing careers and latest works and allow them to leave you in no doubt about the intrinsic value of one writer to another.

If you are a writer in Nottingham, the following links may help you on your way to find a network of like minds:

Fell by Jenn Ashworth is out now.

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor, is out in April 2017.

Tickets for their Nottingham event (November 10, 7pm) can be found here.

Author Nottingham Festival of Literature

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