Interview with Jenn Ashton, Author of “People Like Frank and Other Stories From the Edge of Normal”

23 June 2021
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Several weeks ago we received an email from author Jenn Ashton, telling us about her book of short stories that had come out in the fall of 2020, “People Like Frank and Other Stories From the Edge of Normal.” In it is a story about knitting, and she wanted to know if we’d be interested in publishing an excerpt if her publisher agreed. We were, obviously, intrigued. (Read the excerpt, and find a discount provided by the publisher of the book, here.) When Jenn sent me a PDF of the story, called “Nest,” I opened it right away, read the first line, and closed my laptop. I did not expect that first line. I chuckled. Then I opened it up again. And when I got to the end of the story, I slammed the lid closed once more, and burst into tears and laughter at the same time. It was an emotional week for me (no kidding), but also this story just got me right in the kishkes, as my grandmother would have said. It got me right in the guts. It’s all about knitting and it’s nothing about knitting. It’s about how so many people are touched by things that are handmade, even beyond the maker and the recipient of the making. It’s about a woman named Francine. It’s about deciding to follow through on a mission you know nothing about in the beginning, about which you learn along the way. It’s about community and about asking for help and about receiving it. I am not ashamed to say that I begged Jenn to speak with me by Zoom instead of doing an email interview, as we’d discussed. I just desperately wanted to have a real conversation with her about all of these things, and I was thrilled when she agreed. We spent half an hour talking about Francine, and knitting and writing, about craft and art and rest and so much more. The mildly edited recording of our conversation is below, along with a transcript. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Transcript

Jenn Ashton: [00:00:00] Hi, my name is Jenn Ashton. I’m a writer and a knitter and a visual artist. I’m just putting knitter in there now because I just really learned how to do it this winter.
[00:00:12] And yeah, in my visual art, I I do everything blue paint and a wool and gosh, I’ll try anything. And in writing, I write short stories and I also write nonfiction. I’m actually, they writer in residence at the British Columbia History Magazine this year. So I’m learning a lot about historical work with fibres, which has been super exciting.
[00:00:45] And yeah, that’s, that’s me. I live in North Vancouver, not far from where my family’s from. And I’m happy to be here on this territory, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam First Nations. And that’s it.
[00:01:02]Kim Werker: That’s amazing. Thank you. So, I mean, we’re here today to talk about this story that you wrote. Can you tell me, so I was, I was enchanted.
[00:01:12] And I, I told you this by email that I read this story and it was, I was having just an emotional time for a wide variety of reasons. And, you know, for 20 pages, I was whisked away into this, you know, world that was about knitting and other people’s knitting and our relationship to knitting and other people’s knitting.
[00:01:34] And, and I just, I loved everything about it. And I, it, it like it channeled all of these complicated, heavy things that I was feeling. And I think I told you, I got to the very end and I burst into tears, but I was also laughing because it was just this, it was a, it was like, I mean, I suspect that this is, you know, every so often when you write something, you hope it touches someone.
[00:02:00] Right. And it just, everything came channeling through your story for me. So I’d love for you to tell us a bit about it. Tell us about this story is called “Nest.” and so where, where did the idea for the story to come from?
[00:02:17] Jenn Ashton: [00:02:17] Okay, well, first of all, thank you very much for that response, because that is like one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard about the story.
[00:02:24] And not only that, that’s the same response I had when I wrote it. At the end, I just kind of started crying and laughing and I just kind of felt this kind of joy bubbling or something like that anyways. So you’re connected with me right there on that, because I felt the same way, you know, reading back.
[00:02:45] And I always think if it has that response for me, I know it will touch somebody else. So thank you. I’ll tell you how I came to write this story. First of all. I don’t plan my stories. Normally sometimes I will dream them or I will just get up in the morning and start writing if I feel like I need to write and it will just come out.
[00:03:11] So in November of 2019 I joined NaNoWriMo, which is a National Novel Writing Month. And I had already written the year before my 50,000 word novel. So. 2019. I decided to write a short story every day. So that was my plan. But other than that, no plans for what to write. So what I did was waited for the inspiration, of course, which always comes.
[00:03:46] But anyways, I, I was watching, we were having a, I don’t know if it was snowing or raining, we were having some big storm and I was flipping through your Netflix and I came across slow TV and I don’t know. Have you seen that before? Slow knit, slow knitting or whatever. So I was like, oh my God, this was the greatest thing ever.
[00:04:05] So I put it on and it was at the, hang on I wrote it down because it was just so epic to me. It was at the Norwegian Knitting Industry Museum, the textile industry museum. And it was a group of women and men sitting and living for hours and hours. And I was hooked. And I watched this thing for hours. I just was, I loved it.
[00:04:29] And they started touring the factory and they started showing bits of things that hadn’t been finished and a whole big table. And they were just showing all these. Single socks and the half finished baby thing. And it was just fascinating to me. Like I was, I just, I could, it was palpable. So I was watching that.
[00:04:51] And then they started talking about, and I wrote this down too you because I’m afraid to say it wrong. Kari Steihaug’s book called The Unfinished Ones, and that’s what they call them. UFO’s and in her brilliant book, which I’ve yet to get a copy of it’s just pages and pages of all of these unfinished things that her friends had sent her or that she’d found in thrift stores and the whole idea of, you know, I just find it all so fascinating. The idea that people will throw something away if it’s not turning out the way they want, even though it has it, it is. Do I want to say utilitarian use it can be used, but if it’s not aesthetically pleasing and I had that experience because I learned to knit when I was small, my mom taught me and then I kind of didn’t know how to knit for a long time, because I had nobody to reinforce them.
[00:05:54] So fast forward, you know, 45 years and this winter I watched, I learned how to knit the Norwegian style. Continental I think it’s called watching Arne and Carlos on YouTube. So anyways so. Oh, I lost myself, but anyway. Okay. So back to I’m writing the story anyway. So I’m watching this and I’m just like intrigued and it’s touching me on all different levels and because I’m such a wool person, even though I couldn’t really knit and but I enjoyed spinning and all kinds of stuff working with wool preparing wool.
[00:06:33] So yeah, that really touched me. So I guess that’s soaked into my head and it out came next on one of my writing mornings in November, 2019. And it basically just blah, onto the page. And I wrote the whole thing that morning. I had a feeling it was good and I actually entered a contest. It was in the UK there’s a writers group I belong to called Jericho Writers and they had a first line contest. So I sent him the first line because I thought it was, I don’t know. Perfect. Perfect. I’m always trying for the perfect line. Right. So anyways, I sent it in and I won! So that kind of was the first inkling that I had, that the story might be a good one. And of course when the publisher read it, they were like, yeah, that’s a good one. And we’re going to put it first. So it’s the first story in the book, so.
[00:07:45] Kim Werker: [00:07:45] Oh, I love it. So, so tell me about Francine. Francine as the protagonist of this story.
[00:07:51] And, and I, I think part of, well, I think a lot of the joy of this story comes through her. She’s like the, she’s like the harbinger of joy here. She’s she’s in it and thinking about it, I don’t know that I got much joy from her. I don’t know that she was feeling a lot of joy, but her sort of perseveration her, her determination to do something with this knitting.
[00:08:18] So, right. This story is that Francine works at the Goodwill and this unfinished knitting ends up at the Goodwill and she’s sorting through it. And she decides that that something has to happen with this knitting. And so, okay. I’m I’m, I’m splitting myself up first. I’d love to know why knitted, birds nests.
[00:08:36] Right? So this is what the project was. This unfinished knitting are a few completed and one in progress, knitted bird’s nests. So where did that detail come from
[00:08:50] Jenn Ashton: [00:08:50] That may have come from the slow knitting TV, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. It may have been somewhere already in my mind or something I knew about.
[00:09:01] So I have no idea it wasn’t planned. It may just have – I may have made it up. I don’t even know. So.
[00:09:10] Kim Werker: [00:09:10] I love it. I love it. It ends up being such a perfect, right? Because you wonder, or at least I found myself wondering throughout reading the story, you know, and you mentioned this as well, right? Whether a project is utilitarian or not.
[00:09:24] Right. And I was thinking, you know, this was intended to be very utilitarian, right then with knitting these to donate to an organization that does this kind of work. And I think we all know that we’ve all seen the, you know, the viral social media calls for chicken sweaters and penguin slippers and right.
[00:09:43] All kinds of things that go around. And this sort of fell into that category for me, where at the same time, to somebody who doesn’t know what this is, and they’re seeing this right Francine tries to, it’s not a, it’s not a hat like what it is and you can’t, and she never, it never comes back. Right. That this was that this was a nest and it, and it ended up not being important to Francine’s experience of this.
[00:10:10] And yet there was such a purpose behind the knitting. And I love that as well. There’s a, there’s an aspect of, you know, we, we, we, as makers can never control what the things we make get used as once they leave our possession. Right. And so it’s, you know yeah, so, so, okay. So, so now tell me about Francine.
[00:10:31] Yeah.
[00:10:33] Jenn Ashton: [00:10:33] Okay. Francy again was not planned. And I think like most of my characters I’m hoping she has a part of me in her. And I think she’s an amalgamation of people I knew in elementary school and people I knew in high school. You know, one person I’m thinking in particular had a car accident and was a different person afterwards.
[00:11:02] I worked in social services for a long time and I’ve worked with many special needs people and differently abled people. And I think this is just, she is just you know, everybody embodied. And yeah, she is very pure. I’d like to think of her when I read your questions. I was thinking a lot about it this morning.
[00:11:24] I think that she is. Yeah, she’s just pure. And she has her routine and she, and it’s kind of like all the things we want. We want stability and we want a routine and we want people to help us when we need it. And we want support and we want a group that we fit into. And she’s kind of like, you know what I mean?
[00:11:48] Like, she’s kind of like, in the perfect situation, honest to God. And she’s also the hero of the story and she’s, but she’s not perfect and she’s not normal, you know? Yeah, she’s kind of she’s, she’s a 10.
[00:12:08] Kim Werker: [00:12:08] Yeah. And she’s not trying to be a hero. She’s not trying to prove anything or change anything. She’s just got this idea and she, she unabashedly seeks help. Right? I like that’s one of the things that I love about it. You know, I spent some time, years ago volunteering to teach knitting and in a supportive housing complex near me and my mind immediately filled in that space that I knew, and I could see this happening. I could see the staff members sort of not personally getting super excited about this, but being there and being there to help and you know, in that routine and, and all of that kind of stuff.
[00:12:53] And so and so, so tell me about Steven, francine’s boss at the Goodwill. Who strikes me? You say one thing very early on and how you introduce his character, where I was like, I’m curious to see where this guy is going. And I was surprised that he got on board too. So tell me a little bit about him and, and how you see his relationship with Francine and this project to donate these unfinished knitted items.
[00:13:23] Jenn Ashton: [00:13:23] Right? Well, Steven again, another character that just came out. Also special needs, but you don’t necessarily know that as you’re reading. There’s just kind of little cues in the way he talks. And I kind of, I really love that he got on board because you just don’t think, you just think it’s going to be nasty, he’s going to say, get back to work and don’t touch that stuff and put it away. And you just, you have all that expectation placed on poor Steven to be a nasty character. And he’s just not, he’s like. “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s that would be, that would be good for me. And that would be good. My bosses would like to see me do that.” And, you know, it’s just the way he’s figuring things out and he’s doing it.
[00:14:16] And you can see why he’s probably good at his job because he, you know, he’s a good supervisor and he has a line drawn of work and, you know it’s a bit of give and take if he’s going to get involved in this or not, if he should, and, and having been a supervisor with lots of staff, that’s a really true thing that happens is you want to know how, where that line is of getting involved in people’s lives and would it be beneficial to me or them or the company or the organization, whatever. So, yeah, he’s, he’s he’s an interesting character and I probably could have written more about him. In fact, people that are just asking you to please write more about Francine’s story though, maybe one day, but I definitely feel like he could have a bigger role.
[00:15:06] Yeah, I like him.
[00:15:09] Kim Werker: [00:15:09] One of my favorite parts is when he offers to, to write an official letter on the, on the letterhead, you know, of, of the Goodwill to support her case, to donate these items and, and. And I think we all feel that way sometimes. Like, do I have an authority I could lend to this? Do I, is there a way, and I love that he doesn’t second guess himself, he doesn’t say, oh, why would they, you know, sure.
[00:15:34] Go do it. There’s nothing I can, you know, instead he says, you know, I’ve got this bit of authority and I’m going to lend it to you for this and that. And it’s such a. You know, I think like I saw myself in that I saw myself thinking those types of things. I mean, even as a parent, you know, oh, is there a way that I can say, can, can I help you in this way?
[00:15:57] Right. Can I lend something to you? And I loved that he did that. Cause it was, it was almost generous he could possibly be. He was like, I’m going to, I’m going to back this with everything I’ve got kind of a thing. And that was just such a, you know, and Francine got that at every turn. You know, she got, you know, her friends, who were like I’m coming to the post office with you, you know, we’re, we’re in this with you and this is amazing. And, and I think that’s, that’s where all of that joy came from. And especially maybe at a time when we’ve been, you know, you wrote this, you said in 2019, right. You wrote this having no idea what was coming.
[00:16:35] And then suddenly we were disconnected from everything in, many of us were disconnected from our supervisors. You know, even from the touching things was out of our reach for a really long time. And, you know, and, and that image of, of when he rubs the knitting on his cheek. And I was thinking, what a privilege he has to experience this tactile thing that way.
[00:17:04] Do you find that the context in which you know, this story is coming out affects how people are reading it, I guess. I mean, it did for me, for sure.
[00:17:13] Jenn Ashton: [00:17:13] Oh yeah. I think so. You know, and that’s a lot of the feedback that I’ve got is that it was a balm for this time. And I think that was a, one of the nicest things I’ve heard from anybody and just that it’s calm and you know, it does transport you elsewhere for a little bit of time.
[00:17:33] But I can tell you that the stress that came with marketing a book during the pandemic where people are dying around the world was just an incredible challenge, but thank goodness people were you know, receiving it in that way. That is, it’s a gift to, to take it on board. And I mean, sales would have been better at a different time, but I’m okay with like a slow start.
[00:18:09] And I I just have a feeling that this book will find readers. Yeah, but, but yeah yeah, it was hard at, on the other hand editing and having so much free time to throw myself into editing for the year, kind of kept my mind off the pandemic and on my work with no distractions. So there was, there’s always a benefit.
[00:18:35] Kim Werker: [00:18:35] Yeah . Yeah. We feel that way very much. I think about Digits & Threads, which did not exist before the pandemic and having good work to do and connecting with people from all over it. It definitely kept us centered and grounded and focused. Tell us a little bit about the rest of the book, right?
[00:18:51] I know we’ve been focusing on this one story, which is amazing. But like tell, tell readers what, you know, it’s a book of short stories. What other kinds of stories will they be?
[00:19:01] Jenn Ashton: [00:19:01] Wow. Everything: murder mystery, science fiction. It’s 20 short stories. There was a few that are kind of, could probably be classified as flash, but I know the publisher didn’t really want any flash per se, which is usually under a thousand words.
[00:19:21] So there are a few shorter ones that I’ve lengthened. There are a few that are have quite a bit of me in them. Definitely. And or that came from like memory where I’ve added parts of my childhood stuff that actually happened and then fictionalized the rest of the story. Yeah. And a lot of stuff, like I said, just came in dreams.
[00:19:50] And, but I think they the most important part to know about all of these things is that none of these people are what you would consider to be normal functioning adults, really. There’s mental health problems. There’s addictions, there’s physical ailments, there’s psychological things there’s…
[00:20:17] What else is there? There’s you name it? But the character in each story is definitely the hero of their story. And I just wanted to, to really show what, you know, what your neighborhood looks like it’s made up of all these people. And I, what I really hope that readers will get out of it is to feel empathy for these people who are just everybody, everybody is in this book. And I think that you’ll recognize yourself in so many of these stories, like everybody will see themselves. And another couple of things that I wanted to get out that were kind of on purpose were a couple of the stories that were about Alzheimer’s and aging and healthy versus non-healthy aging because in our population is aging right now, and it’s so important, and even me at my age, I’ve already had so much experience with Alzheimer’s with family and friends, and I kind of see people out there, and I feel like they don’t know necessarily how close it is to us and how, you know, toss of the coin. It could be anybody in our family or even us. So, you know, some of these stories are written from the perspective of the person with Alzheimer’s or the caregiver.
[00:21:44] But I’ve tried to throw in as much of the reality of that as I could, because I want people to understand, and I think this book have been a good vehicle for people to be able to understand. You know, it’s kind of written simply and cause I’m simple. I’m very simple. So they’re very simple stories and yeah.
[00:22:06] Easy to understand and I think it’s a book for everybody. Wow. That was a lot of focus book. Anyway.
[00:22:12] Kim Werker: [00:22:12] I love it. That’s why we’re talking. It’s good. It’s good. And I think what you said is a segue into kind of the last thing I want to talk about, which is these, these crafts that you – the tactile crafts and, and writing are, you know, they’re, they’re so different in that way, but what you just said about sort of simplicity, I think maybe as a common common thread between them, but so I’d love to know, you know, whether your practice of, of spinning and weaving- I see the loom in the background behind you and knitting if, if your experience, if those influences your approach to writing craft or even vice versa. If you’re, you know, I know sometimes I do great thinking doing kind of repetitive, tactile tasks. If there, if it goes both ways or one way or not at all?
[00:23:02] Jenn Ashton: [00:23:02] I would have to say that actually, now that I’ve learned how to do the Norwegian style or continental, I’m not sure what the term is. I’ve found it to be meditative. So when I need to slow down and that can be because I’m when I’m writing a lot, my mind is just going in so many directions and I actually need to really bring myself down to zero. So I will knit, and I knitted my first two sweaters in the last month. I’m so excited.
[00:23:38] So but I’ve found that yeah, just that knitting or the spinning, just the repetition. And I think it’s just all part of my process and I’m so happy to have found these other parts of my process because it makes my whole life kind of more complete that I can have these moments of exuberation, and exhilaration and then that, and then the calm. It’s but yeah, I think they’re all part and parcel of the whole, of my experience as a kind of a creative person. And I’m so happy that I took the time to actually sit down and learn how to knit like that because yeah, it’s just so feels like I can just relax and breathe out.
[00:24:32] Kim Werker: [00:24:32] Yeah. Is it, is it a different experience for you than, say, weaving because have you weave for longer?
[00:24:39]Jenn Ashton: [00:24:39] I have started Salish weaving. I started, I think last, no two summers ago, maybe I think. And it was okay, but I only learned once briefly online how to do it. So I was kind of going along and I was excited to be using my handspun wool and home dyed, and, but I was making this big weaving and I was just frustrated and then it just felt dusty and it was just sitting there. So I actually took it down. I took my loom down and then I only just started weaving again. I’m taking a Salish art course, so we’re learning properly, and over hours of time. So I’m learning, you know, how to do it properly and I’m definitely enjoying it more.
[00:25:29] And I think I will probably set up my big loom again soon. And it is relaxing in the motion of doing it, but it’s a different kind of relaxing. Yeah, because there’s a lot more- knitting I can do on autopilot same as spinning. I don’t think. So, which is nice, but weaving, I’m not quite there yet.
[00:25:55] And I’m thinking I actually, it might be different because I might always need to think about it though, because you always have to keep stopping and measuring and making sure this and that and this and that. And maybe, maybe after a very long time, I will get to the point of mindless, but not yet. No.
[00:26:14]Kim Werker: [00:26:14] What are you working on next? What’s are you, are you writing now? Do you take a break? Like how’s…
[00:26:21] Jenn Ashton: [00:26:21] No. Well, I’ve got one more article I need to write for the magazine. I have two books sitting at different publishers waiting to see if it’s going to be a yes or a no I’m thinking probably no. But that’s okay. At least they’re out there.
[00:26:42] I’m always writing. So I’ve got just tons of stuff. You know, I had a dream last week and I got up and I wrote the whole thing out and actually planned it out and it’s probably enough to be a short novel. So I’ll at some point get working on that. I applied for a residency and I think I find out at the end of the month.
[00:27:07] So that will kind of inform what happens with the rest of the year in terms of writing. If I don’t get it, then I’ll just work on whatever. If I do get it, there’s a certain project that I’ll be working on. In terms of knitting I’m I’ve, I’ve found that I can’t follow a pattern, so it’s just, I’m making my own pattern. So I’ve just ordered a bunch of wool and I’m going to try and do a sweater with a pattern on it because I have an idea of how to incorporate some Salish work into a sweater. And I don’t think it’s been done. I haven’t seen it anywhere. So I’m hoping that I’ve come up with something new and interesting.
[00:27:51] So I’m going to be working on that. And I don’t know, it just kind of normal stuff. Making and cleaning and organizing all those things are ongoing. Oh and painting.
[00:28:08] Kim Werker: [00:28:08] Just all those things. Yeah. So in conclusion, let us know or let our readers know where’s the best place for them to find your book?
[00:28:18] Jenn Ashton: [00:28:18] Well, I would love if people went to their local booksellers and it should be there. People Like Frank and Other Stories From the Edge of Normal. If it is not there, they can order it in. And that is in Canada and the U.S., and we’ve just got distribution in the U.K. and Europe now.
[00:28:39] So second place would be the publishers website, which is tidewaterpress.ca. And I think there’s also a discount code that we’re going to give that you’re going to give and people kind of, they order it from there, punch in the code and get a discount.
[00:29:00] And. If you have to on Amazon or anywhere online, I say that begrudgingly, I know it’s so easy to get that way, but authors, we just get such a fraction of the income from that, but you know what, I’ll take it. Whatever. And, oh, also I should say that in September for the first week of September, we’re doing we’re working with the Dystonia Charities in the U.K. and Canada and I’ll be donating all the proceeds of the ebook. So if you buy it on and I believe it’s going to be on Amazon, if you buy it there, that ebook that beginning first week up to the 7th of September, all the proceeds are going to go to Dystonia.
[00:29:47]Kim Werker: [00:29:47] Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about the story. Thank you also for the story, which I truly considered to be like a personal gift to me. And it’s just, it was wonderful. It’s so delightful to get to know you and to get to talk to you about this.
[00:30:03]Jenn Ashton: [00:30:03] And I really, really loves this story. So thank you for the opportunity. That was great.

Copyright © Kim Werker except as indicated.

About Kim Werker

Kim Werker (she/her) is a co-founder and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2004 as an editor, writer, instructor and speaker. She's authored six books about crochet and one about making ugly things on purpose as a creativity exercise. Kim lives in Vancouver, BC, with her husband and son, and their mutt who's named after a tree.

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