A phoenix from the ashes
"I didn't want it to be a wail of pain, I wanted it to be something that people would enjoy," says Andrea Ashworth of her best-selling memoir, Once in a House on Fire. It seems she has succeeded. The book describes how the house "burned" with the violent abuse she and her sisters and mother suffered at the hands of her two stepfathers. The story is harrowing, all the more so because the reader knows it is true, but at the same time it remains an enjoyable read, with humour and many touching moments. Andrea, a graduate of Hertford and Junior Research Fellow at Jesus, speaks of her readers' reluctance to admit to "enjoying" Once in a House on Fire. But, she says, they don't understand that this is what she wants. The book, Andrea's first, and a best-seller on-and-off since its publication in 1998, has been translated into several languages, and won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Prize. In 1998, she was voted Elle New Writer of the Year.
Explaining her motivation for writing the memoir, which begins with a child's-eye-view and tells the story of her upbringing in Manchester until her escape to Hertford College, Andrea makes it clear that there was more than a desire to exorcise the ghosts of her past. "I knew that if I tried to write any story but the story of my childhood, then the ghost of the past would streak across that story and spoil it. But I didn't want to write just because I had this crazy story. I wanted to write because I wanted to write and I had itchy fingers."
Expecting to live off the money she had saved from teaching for 6 months to a year while writing the book, she was in fact forced to write it in 2 months "not because the money ran out, but because it would have driven me mad." It would be easy, particularly for someone who has not read Once in a House on Fire, to dismiss this as exaggeration. But the author's description of the process of writing, and of course, the book itself, suggest otherwise - "it wasn't just depressing, it was really frightening, because every day I sat down to write and there I was in Oxford with the dreaming spires all around, but in fact I was stuck in Manchester in the burning house."
The book is written in a vivid, cinematic style, with a strong emphasis on the visual. Yet Andrea insists that even the frighteningly realistic scenes do not convey the whole truth. This would have been impossible, and the finished product unreadable, she argues. "The book is - my mum would be the first to say - a very tame version of what actually happened. I completely self-censored. There were different kinds of discretion I had to bring in to play. One was discretion about my mum whom I love dearly and want to protect, and the other was a kind of literary discretion. A story can only take so much. There's a whole other level of nastiness, of psychological abuse, of torment. I don't think the readers could have taken it. The story would just have burst at the seams. Most readers understand that it is only a version of the truth."
The experience of writing about, and revisiting her past was an "incredibly painful" one. "It was probably one of the hardest things that I've ever tried to do, including surviving the life I write about, because I didn't have the adrenalin that I had when I lived at home, and I didn't have my family. I would never repeat it, but once I'd started I had to finish."
"In future I think I'll save my money and get a psychiatrist!" she jokes, but this leads us on to the issue of writing as therapy. Andrea is involved in campaigns promoting literacy and creativity in schools and for children in care, and is a strong believer in story-telling as a means of venting frustrations and coming to terms with painful events. But the distinction between therapy and literature is clear in her opinion: "I would be very squeamish about publishing something that amounts to a sob story. I wouldn't just want to splurge my story onto people as a bunch of facts and a whole welter of pain. That's another reason why I wanted the book to be clean and visual and a lot like a film. I wanted to redeem what happened by transforming it - a kind of alchemy. Although that might sound a bit corny, I really think that's what I was trying to do - to transform what happened and to give it some magic. You can't do that if it's just therapy."
The author sees the graphic depictions of the abuse she suffered as just a small part of the story she tells. Her skill in evoking what it feels like to be a child is proof that there is more to the memoir than the frightening episodes that, in part, make up her past.
Andrea makes no attempt to dodge the probing questions put to her by her readers - "if you've written a book, a memoir, as I have, you have created a contract with your reader. You owe it to the reader to be as honest as possible - you can't just say, 'Oh, it's just a story, let's not talk about it', or just reel off the usual things. There's a combination of obligation and gratitude that someone's read your book."
But she admits to a sense of vulnerability when confronted with these real-life questions. This is not a factor in writing the book itself: "when you write a book it's so controlled - that's the point of writing it - control. To make a story out of something that was messy and terrible. That's why my mum is so pleased and proud of the book - because she thinks I've taken something ugly and chaotic and turned it into something beautiful and ordered."
She describes her initiation into the public eye when the book was first published: "at first it was awful. It was really scary. At the first interviews there'd be these journalists from London, asking me 'why aren't you angry with your mother?' or 'have you got terrible psychological scars? I felt peeled.' Her agent had warned her that she would feel like she was running down the street in her pyjamas, without the pyjama bottoms. In fact, she says, "I felt like I was running down the street without my skin. I felt very exposed and vulnerable."
Andrea's conviction that the reader plays a vital role is strong: "when I wrote the book, I thought I had to write it, I thought I'd go mad if I didn't - that's why I started to write it, but when I finished it, instead of feeling that I'd had this great catharsis, I felt terribly depressed at the gap between the ideal of the thing I wanted to write and the actual thing I'd done." It is for this reason that she emphasises the importance of the reader - "the writing was cathartic in so far as it was the messy, ugly side of the catharsis, but it was when people started reading it that I began to feel I was finally letting go. People would come to me and say 'I was so moved' or 'I identified with this' - even people who didn't have the same kind of background at all. It's the most rewarding and gratifying and deeply consoling response you can get. So readers are everything." Easy to say, you might argue, but Andrea makes a point of replying personally to every one of the thousands of letters she receives -"So far it's something that I've insisted on doing myself. I wouldn't want a letter from somebody's secretary if I'd written to them. I feel it's absolutely essential - and a pleasure - to write back."
As well as the film of Once in a House on Fire, which Andrea is closely involved in, she is now working on a new project - "Writing a novel is completely different. It's much more fun in that I'm free to make it up. But of course that luxury is always a challenge. Psychologically it's much less difficult because I'm not having to go back to past dark places to excavate the truth. There's still a truth there, because otherwise it's not a good story, but it's something I can be very fanciful about. But as a result, I don't know the story. I have an idea of it but every time I sit down to write it comes out differently, so it's much more difficult in that sense. So I guess artistically it's harder, but psychologically, in terms of dredging memories and so on, I don't have to do all of that. In that sense I feel like a kid in a candy store."
I tentatively mention what was, for me, one of the most striking elements of Once in a House on Fire - the distinctive and surprising images that help to make the style of the book unique. She seems genuinely delighted that I have picked up on this aspect of her memoir: "I'm so glad you said that. In some ways I felt I had to be terribly restrained [in writing Once in a House on Fire] because I had a commitment from the very beginning that I wanted to write this not as poetry, not as something highfalutin and abstract and abstruse. I wanted to write it so that it would have an appeal to as many people as possible. But I'm completely infatuated with words -so I think what you're picking up on is this infatuation with words and with poetry but diluted in a way that isn't conspicuous and isn't precious, I hope."
The last word has to go to the author's mother, of course, a central figure in her book. Andrea describes her initial reaction on reading the book "at first it was very painful, all the wounds were made fresh. But very quickly she got caught up in it and then she said it was like watching a film. She got to the end and wanted to know what happened next. She knows what happened next! So that sense of seduction, the seduction a story can pull off is really important to me."
Andrea Ashworth will be speaking at Hertford College in the Ferrar Room on Thursday of 8th Week, (June 22nd) at 6pm. Everyone is welcome. The event will take the form of an informal discussion, where she will be happy to answer questions, and talk about whatever the audience is interested in.
8th Jun 2000