Jenn Ashton is an Award-winning Sḵwx̱wú7mesh author, artist, and filmmaker. She reads History at Oxford University and is an Authenticity Reader for Penguin/Random House USA. Previously a teaching assistant in Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio, she has just completed a two-year term as Writer in Residence at BC History Magazine.
People Like Frank: And Other Stories from the Edge of Normal is vivid with dark and light, joys and tears, disturbances and resolutions, beautiful and unique. We are immediately hooked with the first line of the first story Nest, “At 3pm Betty put down her knitting needles and died.” Readers are taken to many places. From funny and quirky with an asparagus bag in the Bag and I to close proximity of the body in Pee to caregivers caring for their partner with dementia in People Like Frank or a young daughter’s perspective in caring for her family and a bipolar single mom in Virginia, Ten. We are reminded of home in All Nation Soup filled with love and happiness from a granny. We are blown away in the winds with wife Yuki and husband Tekki in The Weatherman to redemption and apologies in Mea Culpa and eventually left with the last line of the book – “A slaughter. A symphony.”
Interview by Meharoona Ghani
Meharoona Ghani (MG): How did these stories arrive to you? What or where did the inspiration come from for each of these stories?
Jenn Ashton (JA): Thank you for asking! I wrote most of these stories as part of my NaNoWriMo 2019 project, where instead of a novel I decided to write a short story a day for the month. Like most of my non-commissioned work, I either write from my dreams or just free write. Sometimes I’ll carry an idea with me for quite some time, and use it as a diving board, as was the case with the first line of Next. I had that line saved for a few years and decided to use it as a prompt one morning. The line had come to me in a dream, which sounds very mystical, but I had been watching slow knitting on Norwegian television and I think that’s probably where it came from.
MG: Overall, there is a movement of words – a flow of physical, mental, spiritual and geographical. Why was it important for you to write stories from the edge of normal? Upon writing this collection what does the edge of normal look like for you now? How do you reimagine normal and is it hopeful?
JA: I want to say something profound here but the truth is I’m not a planner and did not sit down to write this book. Rather the publisher asked for short stories and I delivered what I had and we chose a handful which naturally made up the theme. I have always lived ‘on the edge of normal’. I didn’t fit in with my cohort. I was a very different and bookish little kid and then left school very early and became a teen mom. So, I felt I was always on the outside looking in. Now I know, outside of scientific principle, there is no such place as normal, and everything is relative; we make our own hope. So yes, everything is very hopeful!
MG: You’ll be joining in on a panel called Reformation and Resilience: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are. What do the words reformation and resilience mean to you within the context of People Like Frank: And Other Stories from the Edge of Normal?
JA: I think I’ll choose one of those words, resilience, as it is a trait shared by most of the main characters in the book. Each one shows resilience and strength in their particular circumstance. They never question what is normal, only plow through one challenge after another to achieve their own personal goals. Where a reader may see these people as living on the edge or outside of normal, these people have different daily challenges that they meet head on.
MG: The story Mona Lisa has powerful lines:
“I marvelled at how I had tried all my life to please so many people, when each person’s experience of me was so different.
Why did you end your collection this way? What does slaughter and symphony mean to you as a writer? And as a writer of this collection?
JA: I feel that line summed up the collection and gave it a natural ending place, as there are parts of me in all my work and Mona Lisa probably shared the most of me. It was a conclusion I came to post menopause when the hormones had gone and I could finally see clearly again. It’s from that place where you can sit back and review and release what doesn’t serve you, it’s like the grand reckoning you have before you can move forward with your life.
MG: Although these are fictional stories; the challenges are very real. Given the insights and lessons from all the characters in these stories, what duty of care do we owe each other to re-imagine normal?
JA: I think what we really need to do is drop that word entirely and view each other through empathetic eyes as individuals. It is a more challenging way to live, as it takes more time and care, but in the end it is more peaceful and I think we are all up to the challenge of breaking bad habits.
MG: You touch on beautiful aspects in each of the stories and each of the characters and how the characters overcome challenges; including finding joy, humour, and freedom. The powerful line: “This is how I celebrated me, not just by colouring outside the lines, but by erasing the lines altogether.” This line feels like it speaks to the entire collection, the characters, and perhaps even about the writer. From a craft point of view, any advice on how writing can be written from “outside the lines” and “from the edge of normal”?
JA: I have a great example of this that just happened the other day. I took a photo of my husband and he loved it. I shot it in such a way that the sun created a halo around him. When I was very young in a photography class at school we were taught never to shoot into the sun. But I went against that advice and continue to do it all the time, with spectacular results. I think to a certain extent, in order to be creative and let that creative voice show through in any sort of work, we need to all be rule breakers. We need to be willing to play and not be concerned about the results, but about how the process makes us feel. For writing specifically, I highly suggest using free writing or stream of consciousness writing and sprinting as tools to achieve this. Put on a timer, write for a specific amount of time without going back to make corrections or even looking at your work and just see where it takes you. You may not write anything you want to keep, or you may really surprise yourself.
MG: Although this book is fiction; how do you see yourself reflected in this book?
JA: This book might be a crossover into creative non-fiction in some places. I won’t say where, but I am reflected in many aspects of this book, from people to situations.
MG: If any, how did you deal with any ethical considerations or dilemmas while writing this book?
JA: I didn’t have too many ethical considerations while writing these stories. I use my gut to know if it’s something I should access or not. When finished I gave it a legal read to ensure that none of my characters could be recognized, but it would be impossible because they were all written with so many layers. The parts where people might think I have overstepped into realms I know nothing about, are in fact the truest parts of the book where I have experienced those things, such as not being able to walk or witnessing neglect.
MG: What makes you laugh?
JA: Schtick or physical comedy makes me laugh, most British comedy programs, certain writers, as well as my own silly observations, mistakes, and made-up jokes. I spend a good portion of my day laughing.