Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we head into the home of author Jenn Ashworth, another fine example of why we should #ReadBritish2014 as you will see in reviews over the next few weeks. So let us sit down with Jenn in her office, have a nice strong cup of northern tea (always the best) and possibly a bourbon biscuit or custard cream and then have a nosey through her shelves, first though a little more about her…
Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston, where she still lives. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a librarian in a prison. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. Ashworth has also published short fiction and won an award for her blog, Every Day I Lie a Little. Her work has been compared to both Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith; all her novels to date have been set in the North West of England. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?
I mainly keep hold of my books – I still own anthologies of seventeenth century poetry that I last looked at in my first year of Uni. I’m very minimalist and restrained about all other kinds of stuff. Books are my indulgence. There’s always money for them, and I’m a member of a couple of libraries and have a kindle too. I have been promising myself I will go through and have a cull for ages. But I can’t predict where my interests will take me to in the future. Maybe that collected works of Aphra Benn is going to be just what I need to get the next novel into gear. Who knows? My shelves aren’t quite full, but they will be soon – even though I do buy plenty of e-books these days.
Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?
Nothing so organised as any of those things. There’s a vague system. I keep cooking books, reference books, books about nature and wildlife, astronomy, the weather, local history, maps, guides to pubs and walks and days out in Lancashire, loads of pop science books, books about card games and stuff like that – all at home in my red bookcase in my living room. We’ve got piles of board games and DVDs and National Geographics from the 1970s in there too. And paints for the kids, and their old shoes. It’s a sort of ‘everything in here’ bookcase. We could probably get rid of most of these books and rely on the internet, but I like looking up facts in books.
At home, I have a pile of current reads next to my bed and a couple of stacks of recently-read-and-need-to-be-taken-back-to-the-office on a shelf over my desk. It’s one of those floating shelves that look quite nice but can’t really hold that many books. When it starts to wobble I take the books to work and dump them in my office. Where they stay. You can see there’s no order at all – maybe a rough chronological one in that the books I’ve read most recently are always closest to hand. I almost always remember what I have and find it when I need it, but I must clean it out sometime.
What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?
It was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton and I bought it from Sweetens with book tokens my aunt in Glasgow posted to me. She used to send John Menzies vouchers but that year it was book tokens. I didn’t grow up in a particularly bookish house, though I always had a library ticket and my Uncle worked at Askews and would sometimes bring spoiled and damaged books back for me to keep. I don’t own any of the books I did have as a child – we moved when I was thirteen and left everything behind – but I have tracked down and rebought a few of the special ones I want to have with me since then. What Katy Did. Stig of the Dump. The Brothers Lionheart. The Baby and Fly Pie. The Whitby Witches books. There’s one I’ve never been able to find – I can’t remember the title or the author – but it was about a boy who refused to go to school, built a raft and sailed away on it on the Mersey. It was narrated, I think, by his younger brother. Ring a bell with anyone?
Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?
I’m not guilty about any of my pleasures. Fighting fantasy game books. I’ve just rebought the reissued versions of the Fabled Lands adventure book series, in the hopes I can convince my daughter to give them a go. Ian Fleming – the boxed set of all the Bond novels. I don’t hide anything. But now I really want to know what is on your hidden shelf and where in the house it is. Spill the beans! (Simon isn’t telling, he might after a few sherries.)
Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?
The Brothers Lionheart. And all the books I’ve borrowed and forgotten to give back.
What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?
I used to read anything I could get my hands on. My mum had Danielle Steele books in the house and I remember reading them and being thrilled by the dirty bits. I had a library ticket and would borrow all kinds of weird stuff – there was a huge book called The Empty Fortress which was about children with autism written by an American consultant – I used to borrow that when I was eleven and renew it as many times as they’d let me. I don’t have it anymore but I would like to have it – if only to try and work out what it was that enchanted my younger self so much. I read Agatha Christie – all of them, lots of D. H. Lawrence – textbooks books about deaf culture and British Sign Language, books about wild flowers and foraging and self-sufficiency. I was probably quite an odd child. I suppose because I didn’t have much to do with school and didn’t have a bookish family there was no-one to tell me what kinds of books were the right ones, and which ones weren’t. Indiscriminate and guiltless reading is something I’ve tried to carry into my adulthood.
If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?
I do borrow copies of people’s books and am terrible about giving them back. Horrific. I would give it back if pressed. And yes, probably buy my own copy if it was something that had altered me. Most books do, in some ways. I’m feeling guilty now.
What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?
I bought the Fabled Lands books – all six of them – and The Secret Lives of Trees by Colin Tudge which I am currently reading. I also bought A New Kind of Bleak by Owen Hatherly which I’m reading alongside the trees book. A strange and completely satisfactory combination, like fruitcake and cheese.
Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?
The one I mentioned earlier about the boy who didn’t go to school. I am haunted by it. Perhaps I imagined it. I had it in hardback and it had a dark brown cover. The implication was that this boy had committed suicide in the Mersey on this raft rather than go to school. I was utterly undone by it. I hope I find it one day. Maybe I did imagine it. I might buy the Empty Fortress if I can find it.
What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?
I suppose they’d think I was a bit of a book hoarder, was tough on my paperbacks (they are always tattered and written in, with post-its hanging out and bent spines, watermarked from reading in the bath, curry stained, dotted with tea and tears (!) They’d probably notice I had particular obsessions and favourite authors but that I was a magpie generalist.
A huge thanks to Jenn for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to find out more about Jenn visit her website here. I am still beaming at the fact Jenn loves the Whitby Witches which I loved too. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Jenn’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions? And can you help her discover what that book with a boy on the Mersey was all about?