20 Questions with... Nicola Ashbrook
Nicola Ashbrook is a writer from the north-west of England. She is the author of two novellas-in-flash – Mae In Quinquennia from Selcouth Station and The Anatomical History of Violet Vee from Alien Buddha Press. Her first flash fiction collection, The Art of Escapology, is coming shortly with Bearded Badger Press.
Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?
I’m Nicola Ashbrook, writer, mum, and speech and language therapist. I was born in Melton Mowbray, like the pork pie, before living for most of my life in Cheshire. I’m half English and half Polish and I was always proud to grow up in two cultures. I live with my family in the countryside, alongside two cats, an overly friendly Boston Terrier and probably a mole and several mice.
Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was in my late thirties. I trained as a speech and language therapist first and worked for the NHS for 13 years. I also became a mum to our two boys. In my mid-thirties I accidentally started blogging and wrote (non-fiction) weekly for 4 years. When it was time to stop that, I realised I didn’t want to leave writing behind. It had helped me through some difficult times and I loved it. I suspected I needed it. So I dipped my toe into fiction and things grew from there.
Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.
The Anatomical History of Violet Vee is a novella-in-flash telling the life story of the unique (naughty, bold, fabulous, sexy, confident) Violet through all the ailments she experiences.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently working on novel number 3. Novel 1 is mostly shelved – it’s the one I just had to get off my chest but shouldn’t necessarily be published. When the first draft of novel 3 is finished, I plan to return to novel 2 for a re-structure/ edit.
Novel 3 focuses on another strong, female character, a little like Mae (from my first novella-in-flash, Mae in Quinquennia) and Violet, but younger and more naïve. I hope she’s just as funny and loveable.
I also accidentally started another flash fiction collection. This keeps happening to me.
Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?
I go through phases. Ideally I would write every day, especially when I’m working on a novel – I think it really helps to keep momentum going. But I’m a busy mum and life inevitably gets in the way. I try to snatch what time I can – I’m frequently scribbling when I’m sitting in a car waiting for a child to finish football training.
Luckily a lot of writing happens in my mind – when I’m trying to fall asleep, in the shower, when I’m driving. I don’t tend to forget the planning I do that way – I just commit it to paper the next time I have chance to sit at my laptop. In fact, I’ve come to realise this is a crucial part of my process – if I start staring at the screen and feeling stuck, it’s better to busy myself with some jobs. Whole scenes start to form themselves in my mind’s eye, down to the dialogue between characters. I seem to be able to bring stories to life better this way, then the writing part is really just recording my imaginings.
Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?
I am lucky to have a desk where I do most of my writing, surrounded by shelves of books and pots of stationery. I keep all my previously published worked in a cabinet beside my desk, to inspire me and as a reassurance for the times the doubts creep in.
But I’m happy to write anywhere really, as long as it’s relatively quiet. My noise cancelling headphones are a Godsend in a noisy household! I used to write in cafes a lot, before Covid. I really enjoy writing outdoors. Sometimes I write bundled up in bed with tea and snacks. I guess I like to mix it up a bit.
What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?
Writing is meant to be fun. Don’t write what you think people want, write what you enjoy
Write the stories that only you could write. What can you bring to a story that no one else can? Whether it’s a particular style, an experience, specific cultural knowledge, a particular POV. Find your own voice.
Despite what anyone tells you, there are NO RULES! (I feel quite passionately about this one).
And persevere. And persevere. And persevere.
Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?
Oooh. I’m never sure! I’m much more comfortable with online readings now – I enjoy them far more than I ever thought I would. I have only ever done one in person reading and I found it quite cringe worthy but I’m hoping I might get more used to it with time?!
Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?
I tend to be drawn to strong female characters and there is often a thread of feminism running through my stories. I like writing about universal issues that we can all empathise with, such as love, loss, relationships. If I can move someone to laughter or tears I feel I’ve done my job.
But there also tends to be a quirky aspect to it all – maybe the path a character takes isn’t predictable or a character themselves is unusual in some way. Violet, for example, is not monogamous and invents fake alcoholism to give herself more freedom. She really just does whatever she wants, seizing each and every day. I guess sometimes I write characters with traits I aspire to have more of.
Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?
Well this is a hard question! I wrote a blog post recently about how I felt I should write something about the environmental crisis because obviously it’s something which concerns me and should concern us all. But I didn’t enjoy writing it (hence my advice to other writers about keeping writing fun) and I concluded I am not destined to be a political writer. I think I’m supposed to be the kind of writer who provides worlds for people to escape into, away from the challenges of society. I hope that kind of writing has a place too.
Do you write between genres or not?
I think I might do because I always find it hard to define the genre I write in. It could be uplit/high concept/romance/contemporary/feminist. My current novel has a bit of mystery in it too. I realise you aren’t meant to admit you aren’t sure what genre you write in but it’s something I feel constantly confused by.
Which living writers do you most admire?
I read everything Lisa Jewell writes, and Beth O’Leary. I think the world Susanna Clarke created in Piranesi is incredible. I loved The Stranding by Kate Sawyer, even though post-apocalyptic is not usually my thing. I also loved Panenka and admire the way Ronan Hession has broken out from indie beginnings into the mainstream. I often find his books in Waterstones and I’m so pleased about that. Also, Kristen Loesch, who wrote The Porcelain Doll is an incredible writer and I believe, as yet, under-rated.
Which dead writers do you most admire?
Erm, this is tricky because I generally read contemporary fiction. It’s a long time since I’ve read anything old enough to have a dead author. I had more energy for the classics when I was a teenager but, sorry to be a philistine, I am generally not drawn to them now.
What’s the book you wish you’d written?
I don’t think I have one but others that I’ve loved and really admire are The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin. It’s the most beautiful story and Lenni is an extremely lovable character. Also The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin which is just so well researched and has a great concept, and also Eleanor Oliphant. I adored her.
What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?
I’m very drawn to colour and pattern. I love putting together outfits or schemes for rooms in the house. I think this has crept into my writing, with characters often having a signature look or vibe. Violet is very glamorous – all feathers, sequins and hot pink. Novel 2 has a very distinctive and unusual setting. The protagonist in novel 3 has a seventies, retro thing going on.
Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?
I don’t think I really do. If anything I suffer from having too many ideas and not being able to keep up with myself!
Obviously I get stuck in the middle of projects – I think that’s to be expected. Sometimes you need to step away for a day or two to get some distance. Usually the solution of what should happen next shows itself.
What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?
I love any and every message or review people write for me. As I say, if I’ve made someone cry or laugh with my writing, I’m even happier.
How do your family and friends feel about your writing?
They are generally very supportive – I’m lucky I think. I have taken a few people by surprise by suddenly starting to write – they can’t understand where all these stories are coming from!
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
We don’t have an indie bookshop anywhere near us which disappoints me – I’d love one like The Bound in Whitley Bay or The Accidental Bookshop in Alnwick. I buy a big stack every time I go up there.
How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?
I always try to avoid buying books from Amazon – there are plenty of lovely indies who need our support and I really hope they can keep going. However, I feel more conflicted about this now I have a book for sale through Amazon – it has opened things up and made getting your words out there more accessible, so I’m grateful for that.
I just hope we keep printing books. I’m concerned about trees and sustainability, obviously, but I’m not one for digital reading. My poor eyes! Plus I just love the smell and feel of a real book.