A conversation with author Chloë Ashby
'Some cultures don’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction and they’re all just stories.'
When Chloë Ashby’s debut novel, Wet Paint came out not long after my book, Totally Fine (and other lies I’ve told myself), I was drawn to this quote: ‘He asks me how I’m feeling and I tell him the truth: I’m fine, though maybe my version of fine isn’t always the same as other people's.
Wet Paint tells the story of 26-year-old Eve, who’s navigating her twenties after the death of her best friend. Our books share themes; grief in your twenties, pretending to be fine and the past catching up with you. But there’s one crucial difference: Chloë’s book is fiction, and mine is a non-fiction memoir.
I sat down with Chloë and talked about that key difference and what it’s like to publish a book with such difficult themes.
Want more from us? Chloë and I are doing an event together at Burley Fisher Bookshop in Dalston, London on Thursday 23rd June at 6.30pm. More details here.
Tiff: Hi Chloë,
Despite the difficult subjects in my book, (my book is about my boyfriend’s death by suicide) I found it very enjoyable to write because I feel like if a book is not enjoyable to write, then it's not enjoyable to read. I enjoyed reading Wet Paint and there is warmth and humour in your book. Did you enjoy writing it?
Chloë: Yes, I loved writing it, especially in the early days when I was just writing for myself, and when I was writing for an hour before work it was my favourite part of the day.
Wet Paint really needs warmth and humour because it deals with a lot of darkness and sadness, but I think I was subconsciously balancing out the dark with the light. Also, when Eve’s voice came to me, it was quite funny and she did have this spikiness to her, and dry wit, and a way of seeing things and looking at people. There’s a warmth to the way that she does that and even though she’s disconnected and detached, she pays close attention to others and that’s probably partly a way of getting out of her head and distracting herself from what’s going on. How did you find it? Were you consciously thinking about balancing the dark with the light in yours?
The way my book is packaged with all its themes can be intimidating, and I can imagine people thinking they're not in the mood to read it and I see that challenge. But I believe it needed to be enjoyable, especially because the book has an important message. So that light-dark balancing act was a very conscious decision, whereas yours sounds more subconscious.
I had spent so much time with Eve that she was real to me, and so I wanted there to be some hope for her. But I didn’t want there to be a total fix and a happy ending because that’s not real life. Eve makes jokes, sometimes they’re weird jokes but I think that’s a way of her coping and it did come naturally, partly because we all do it. Another way of deflecting is by using humour, and cracking a joke is a shield in a way, isn’t it?
Yes, I almost think it’s necessary to have some humour in dark moments so everyone can have some relief.
Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir, wrote that she once heard the novelist Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.
I found that that is exactly what happened with me. I remembered all these different events from my life and I wasn't sure why, and then I created meaning from them. But what’s your reaction to that approach for fiction?
There’s no one way to write and that goes for fiction and non-fiction so I can only speak to my experience. There are people who plan and then there are people who prefer ‘pantsing’ – sitting down and writing by the seat of your pants and seeing where your creativity takes you. Then there’s a book that can be plot-driven or character-driven. My writing is character-driven rather than plot-driven.
When we’re talking about meaning, that’s themes and ideas and concepts or something you want to say?
I think it's something you want to say. A message or even the narrative arch. So for my book, I was like - how does that conversation that shines so brightly in my memory fit with my narrative?
But your point about character-led is interesting: maybe the character was your meaning, in a way, because you said you started with her?
Wet Paint started with Eve and her voice. It also started with the Manet Painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. For a while, I just sat down and scribbled notes about her and the painting, and there were some ideas at the start that I wanted to explore. They were ideas about seeing and being seen, the way we’re looked at and the way we look at others. I remember thinking about mirrors and in this painting, there is a huge mirror in the bar. Beyond that, it was following Eve and seeing where she went.
I didn’t have a plan to write and I was just playing, so the events of the book unfolded in a loose and rambly way. It was only later that I realised this could be a book that I went back and structured it.
A memoir is still a creation - it’s an edited, narrativised version of your life. Perhaps there’s more freedom to tell the truth in fiction. Can one be more authentic than the other?
I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Some novels can be more authentic than others, and that’s the same with memoirs. With non-fiction, we expect it to be factually accurate and reliable, whereas, with fiction, you’re telling one version of the truth. Maybe it’s showing more than telling in that sense because you’re showing how a person can be or how a situation can unfold. I think it’s about the way it’s packaged.
Some cultures don’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction and they’re all just stories.
It seems that writers are slipping between the two. You’ve got narrative non-fiction, historical fiction, and auto-fiction. Writers like Sheila Heti and Hilary Mantel and Maggie Nelson. We’re all concerned with the same thing. So just because you’re writing non-fiction doesn’t mean you’re not paying as close attention to dialogue or pacing. It must be irritating if you’re writing memoir that some readers might think you’ve literally transcribed diary entries onto the page, which obviously you can’t. It can’t work for a book because there needs to be this narrative and people need to enjoy the reading experience. It’s just as much of a crafted thing as fiction. What do you think?
There’s the Picasso quote, ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise truth’, and I think with memoir, even structuring a narrative is a creation. But there’s also the practical fact that I was scared of lots of people and so I didn’t have full freedom. I think I’m interested in writing fiction for that reason so maybe that’s why I’m asking you these questions. I’m wondering if I’ll have more freedom.
I was really stressed about my memoir when I was sending it to people for approval. It was a really unpleasant experience and I kept thinking that I wished I was doing fiction as it’d be much easier. But actually, reading your book – and maybe that’s because the themes overlapped or because you’re amazing at drawing out empathy in me – I realised how fiction can also feel really exposing and people presume in fiction you’re still writing about your life.
No matter what book you write, it’s going to be daunting putting it out into the world because you live with a book for so long before you let go of it. Whether it’s something that you made up in your head with fiction or something you’ve been turning over and you’ve lived through yourself, it’s an inherently exposing thing to do to then offer it up for public critique.
It’s just a weird job that we have because it’s unusual that your work is up for public scrutiny and everyone sees it. Everyone works, but we don’t see the product of everyone’s work.
Yes, it does live inside of you and then it feels scary offering this thing up that’s very precious and important to you and then it’s out in the wild. It’s very vulnerable.
You have to let it go because it doesn’t belong to you anymore. You want to connect with people and you hope that people will feel seen by it. But it’s so subjective, not everyone will and that has to be ok. I think to be a writer, it’s a good thing to be sensitive and to feel things, but that does make it difficult when you then have to offer up your work.
I wrote about this in a recent newsletter when I said I can’t handle criticism, but that sensitivity makes me good at what I do. So that is just the pain of this work, isn’t it?
I think fiction provides a space or makes room for writers to explore topics that are more difficult or awkward or daunting and that’s something I thought about with Wet Paint. As I was writing, I was exploring on the page thoughts and feelings that I’ve found hard to articulate. It somehow does give you freedom.
With people assuming that a novel is about you, I’ve made that hard for myself by writing in the first person. When I wrote the book I was 26, and Eve is 26. I studied art history, Eve studied art history, I live in London, and she lives in London. So on the surface, there are lots of similarities between us, but the thing we have in common above all else is that we have experienced lots of the same feelings and emotions.
It’s just a weird job that we have because it’s unusual that your work is up for public scrutiny and everyone sees it.
The autobiographical question is difficult and is often aimed at women writers. It’s frustrating that suggestion that you’re transcribing your diaries. I have almost played into it by putting a lot of myself into the book. I think when a story comes from your head, even if you’re writing about a dystopian world, it still comes from you.
I’ve done the most ‘female style’ of writing by writing a memoir. I think one can feel defensive about ‘oh, women just write about themselves’ because it implies that it’s less serious or that you’re less talented as an artist. But actually, it’s our job to articulate feelings and communicate experiences and I think that’s an incredible way to look at the world – and I think that if men, sadly, aren’t as capable of doing that, then I actually feel more sorry for them. If you remove the status from different forms of writing then I’m sure women would feel less defensive about being told they write from their experience.
Yes, and I think it’s often the more personal stuff that people relate to. So in Wet Paint, I think it’s the feelings and the emotions which are personal to me and to Eve that hopefully make the book more universal – because it’s often when you’re vulnerable and broach these seemingly very personal topics that people feel seen.
Friendship is a big theme of this newsletter and I have an agony aunt column and most of what is written to me is about friendship. I think it’s because friendship gets harder as we age. You explore friendship through the lens of loss in your book. Why was that important for you?
Eve doesn’t come from a conventional or a happy family. Her mum left when she wasn’t even five years old, her dad is an alcoholic, and one of the things I wanted to show with the book is that it’s possible to get that familial love and support from others.
I wanted to show how formative those early friendships can be. Friendships are constantly evolving and that’s because we’re changing so it would make sense that our friendships are doing the same.
In your early twenties, there’s so much focus on figuring out who you are, what you are, and the friends you have are with you along the way. They become your anchors in a time of flux that’s wobbly and unstable.
Now we’re out of our twenties, friendship seems more challenging.
Up until the end of your studies, whether that’s school or university, you’re on a level playing field in terms of experience and what you’re doing, then suddenly, at the age we’re at now, some friends are married with children, some are single, some are living all over the world and as soon as your paths start to diverge, it throws your life into stark comparison.
I think there should be room for friendships to ebb and flow. I always think it’s reassuring when I haven’t seen a close friend for a long time, and then we meet up and everything is the same. That’s not to say that you should take your friendship for granted, but that you don’t want to hold onto them on a tight rein. Sometimes you will need time apart and that’s ok.
I think the key to helping friendship continue is that ebb and flow and giving them space and not having that intensity and pressure on it. I also think with the comparison point, reflecting on what about someone else’s life choices is unsettling you and having some awareness about that is helpful too.
Great advice for people to think on. Thank you for this conversation Chloë.
Chloë and I are doing an event together at Burley Fisher Bookshop in Dalston, London on Thursday 23rd June at 6.30pm. More details here.
Get your copy of Wet Paint here.
Chloë has also been a guest on my podcast, Totally Fine with Tiffany Philippou and you can listen to that episode here.