Somewhere Else, or Even Here
A. J. Ashworth
We love stories. We crave them. Whether it’s watching films, reading books, going to the theatre or listening to gossip – we need them. And we need to be surrounded by them. Writers, being curiously obsessive creatures, are hooked on them. So hooked that they want to make their own stories – for as much of the time as possible – and for the stories they make to have meaning, for themselves and others.
I wanted to make stories from quite a young age. My first such memory was of sitting in my bedroom at about the age of six or so and making a book of poems. I still have it. It’s a little dog-eared now but it’s surviving. It has a cut-out of a rose stuck on the front and is rather inventively called ‘My book of poems’. Inside are a scattering of poems, in various colours of felt tip, about the seaside or flowers in a window box. And there’s an interesting type of binding which has somehow lasted more than thirty years – staples (now rusted).
I didn’t have to design or bind my short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here – thankfully my publishers Salt did that. I just had to worry about what was inside – the stories themselves.
Writing them was an intriguing, and, at times, difficult process. When I started out on the collection, about four years ago, I had no overall plan for it, no unifying subject or theme. I just wrote one story at a time and kept going. Each story was unplanned too. For me, there’s nothing better than feeling as if I’m in new, unknown territory when I’m writing – it’s like being an explorer. Only, you’re not discovering new continents or planets, you’re discovering something else – something new that you yourself are writing into existence.
The stories are all quite different – from child narrators to the elderly; failing relationships to failing health. And there are certain themes which have emerged in the collection too, such as astronomy, loss and hope. There’s a darkness to many of the stories, but, as with yin and yang, where there’s darkness there’s light. It’s strange how, as the writer, you don’t always see everything that the stories you’ve created contain. It’s like being blind to yourself. Which, I suppose, to a greater or lesser degree, we all are.
So what about the inspiration behind the stories? Well, sometimes there didn’t seem to be any obvious trigger at all. Stories such as ‘Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls’ or ‘Overnight Miracles’ began after the first sentences dropped into my head, seemingly from nowhere. ‘Gulls’, about a girl on a beach who is lured away to a cave by a boy, just started with the words “A stick scraping over sand”, and from this I got the idea of a girl writing her name in the sand and a boy coming up to talk to her. It was only when I sat down to write it that the story began to open out in front of me, like a path revealing itself, one piece at a time.
‘Overnight Miracles’ was the same. This tells the story of a bereaved woman who starts performing magic rituals in a desperate bid to try to bring her dead husband back to life. With this one I just had the sentence “We are in the blackest part of night now”, and from this I somehow knew that this woman was in bed and aware of something lying next to her in the dark – a presence that she could only feel but not see.
‘Bone Fire’ had a more obvious genesis: this story of a troubled boy who drags a bonfire into the basement of his school was inspired by a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. On the day I went there was an exhibition of photographs showing groups of children standing in front of some rickety bonfires they’d made. I jotted down my impressions of the exhibition in a notebook and when I later sat down to write, I wondered about what might happen if one of the boys decided to carry out an act of destruction using such a bonfire. The story was the result of those ponderings.
One aspect of writing the collection which really fascinated me was the effects gained from using different points of view. ‘Zero Gravity’ features a gang of girls, so it seemed logical to use first person plural (we) for most of the story, but to shift this to first person when one of the girls breaks free and begins to narrate the story herself. I enjoyed the feeling of writing in second person (you) as this gives a sense of dislocation, of separation, of being outside of things – something which can help to create an almost otherworldly atmosphere, giving stories a different kind of charge.
I loved going through the process of putting a collection together, especially when I didn’t even have the bones of a plan to hang the stories onto. It was a great surprise when my manuscript was chosen as one of three winners of Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize last year – something which I didn’t expect to happen but which I’m so glad has. I am going to continue to write more stories in the months and years ahead. New stories, slightly off-kilter stories, the kinds of stories that will hopefully give me that thrill of discovery again. It’s that feeling of being somewhere else that I want – that sense of being in another place. The thought that, while the landscape may seem somewhat familiar, it’s really no place that I’ve ever visited before.
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A. J. Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. Her short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here won Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize and was published by them in November 2011. Her stories have been published widely, in the likes of The Warwick Review, Horizon Review, Tears in the Fence and Under the Radar. They have also been listed in competitions such as The Willesden Herald International Short Story Competition, the Fish Short Story Prize and the Short Fiction Competition.