What memorable or formative experience around learning to write springs to mind?
When I was a youth, I attended an ‘alternate school’ for a very brief time. In this school, we grabbed onto anything we could to connect us to this world and what I grabbed was my writing. My teacher would let me write whatever I wanted, or even just stare out the window and wait for inspiration. I can recall writing a poem, and my teacher liked it. It was my first experience with positive feedback. I’ll never forget the feeling.
What specific incident incited/inspired your last piece of work (of any form or length)?
The most recent piece of writing was from a dream! This often happens to me; I am usually sound asleep when the dogs wake me up in the middle of a dream. This one was particularly vivid and interesting, so I got up and wrote it down. It ended up being enough for a full book and I was able to outline the entire thing that morning.
What writers (or artists in other forms/media) have been formative in shaping how you write? How?
There are a couple of writers who I love to read and whose writing always inspires me. One of them is Doug Adams. I love his work and his style. I read Long Dark Teatime of the Soul annually and it is my go-to book if I need to jump-start writing. I don’t feel like I ever get writer’s block because I know I can write about anything, but sometimes if I need inspiration, I can read a bit of his writing and sort of borrow his voice to get me going. Of course, I always come back to my voice, but borrowing his can sometimes open a flood gate of words in me.
What was the most satisfying aspect of your recently completed work?
I am currently the Writer in Residence at the British Columbia History Magazine (2021) and write a column entitled “Sharing Space: Uncovering the Indigenous History of B.C.”, where I am writing about little-known Indigenous stories, which all contain an element of my family history as well. Although I do not consider myself a nonfiction writer per se, I think the most satisfying part of my most recent work is encouraging people to see history from a different perspective. I feel it is my duty as an Indigenous writer to share these truths of the past, so when I receive positive feedback from readers, I am satisfied that I have done my job.
What writing rituals or behavioral patterns do you follow in where, when, or how you write?
I never used to have any writing ‘ritual’ per se. I would write wherever and whenever I was inspired. But after attending my writing program (The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University), I adopted my mentor Stella Harvey’s ritual of getting up early every morning and writing. I don’t know why I never discovered this before, the silence and that half-awake, half-dreamy state which is ripe with words. Thankfully my life is such that I can just sit and write until the well is dry.
What specific song, painting, film, or other non-written art-work inspired your recent work?
I think stylistically Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (the television series) has somehow subliminally inspired my most recent work. I have never written anything like this before and when comparing it to anything I have seen or read or experienced, I would say that show inspired me on some level in terms of the fantastical nature of the storyline and characters.
Could you name a source that served as an inspiration earlier but something that you currently have a conflicted or antagonistic feeling towards?
I think for me Little Women is a great example of this. I have always loved Alcott’s book and when I was very young, it was a goal I reached for: being a writer (like Jo) and then ‘accidentally’ finding the perfect romantic partner (Professor Behr) to raise a family with. Of course, in modernity, I have a more feminist framework and see clearly that this is a historical representation of the time, a very misogynistic time in a patriarchal society. I still love the story and was first in line to see the latest film version, but I view it now from a different perspective.
What elements/aspects of writing give you pleasure?
I feel strongly that writing is just another creative voice that I have, so the act of writing itself is pleasurable to me. The sitting, the silence and the flow of the words onto the page. I also find pleasure in sharing my creative world and viewpoint with others, and I even find pleasure in receiving constructive criticism and feedback on my work because I consider that part of the learning process of writing, which helps me grow and improve. I even find pleasure in rejection, because it is an expected part of the process and it makes me feel involved in the world of writing, it tells me that I am a ‘writer,’ and I am doing writer things.
Can you name a source of inspiration before the age of 12 that impacted your writing in some way?
We didn’t have many books in my house, but my school library was a constant source of inspiration. I remember one poetry book well; I believe it was an Anthology and it contained a piece of writing that inspired me then and still: Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. I remember being proud that it was the first poem I memorized (that and The Road Less Travelled by Frost!). I feel that Carol’s poem impacted me in its playful use of language and made-up words. It showed me that even though there are some rules to follow, within those structures there is also lots of room to play.
Jenn Ashton is an award-winning author and visual artist living in North Vancouver, B.C. She is the author of the prize-winning “Siamelaht” in British Columbia History in 2019. Her book of Short Stories, People Like Frank (Tidewater 2020) is shortlisted for the Indigenous Voices Award (2021). Jenn has also just completed a year as a Teaching Assistant in the Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio and is now studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Jenn is the current Writer in Residence at the BC History Magazine for the year 2021.