Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Interview with J. Ashley-Smith, author of Ariadne, I Love You


Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview J. Ashley-Smith, whose novel Ariadne, I Love You, debuts on July 20 from Meerkat Press.

You grew up in Cambridge, UK, “hiding with imaginary companions in the foundations of an Edwardian townhouse”. Tell us more…

I was a pretty solitary and imaginative kid, with a tendency towards all-consuming daydreams. When I was little, I had an imaginary friend called “Baby Bear,” who wasn’t an actual bear but this big, bald adult male—think Uncle Fester—that hung around with me. Who knows where the hell that came from! I was tight with Baby Bear for one or two years, and then one day left him behind on a road trip with my parents to the prehistoric flint mine, Grimes Graves. That was it for Baby Bear. He’s probably still hanging out there—or perhaps that’s where he came from in the first place…

There was (and still is) a crawlspace beneath the floorboards of my parents’ house, and I set up a den down there for reading by torchlight. I had a weird—by which I mean “straight-up terrifying”—encounter, which led to me never going down there again. With the benefit of adult hindsight, I assume it was the wildly overactive imagination of an 11-year old. But at the time, I was convinced it was supernatural.

How did you move from studying film and creative writing into the British Indie music scene, and how has that affected what you write?

That shift was completely natural. I was in a band all through uni and when, after I graduated, that band got signed, I followed that path. I might have been a film editor. I might have been a script writer. But the music took off and I followed.

I don’t know how much it’s affected what I write—except to delay by decades me taking writing seriously. Throughout my music career (if that’s what it can be called), I existed in a perpetual cycle of obsessions, with all my focus for months at a time on music, then growing sick of it, escaping for months into writing, then back again. I produced a lot of words in that time, but never finished anything.

That whole period was, of course, a big influence in the writing of Ariadne, I Love You—the milieu, especially, and the characters.

What led you to move from Britain to Australia and has that influenced or altered the way you imagine the uncanny?

I moved for love. And yes it’s absolutely influenced my perception of weirdness. Being an ex-pat is always strange because you don’t belong anywhere—you’re a stranger to both the place you’ve left and the place you now live. When I moved to Australia, I was constantly done in by how things were almost, but not quite, the same. Of course, the land itself, the climate—all of that—is completely different. But there’s this cultural overlay that seems so similar, it seduced me into believing that nothing had changed for me. But then something would jar, a wrong note would strike and I’d find myself looking at everything askance. Where the hell even am I? That kind of wrongness and disorientation, the sense of everyday things just out of true, is something that obsesses me and which crops up again and again in my stories.

What made you return to writing after fifteen years in the music biz?

The label my last band were signed with folded and we had to go back to the drawing board. We were writing new material, doing shows, all of that. But the spark wasn’t there for me anymore. I knew we could make it work, could ‘make it’ if we just kept plugging away—after all, we’d done it before. But I looked ahead, imagined that life, what ‘making it’ would actually look like, and I guess I realised I didn’t actually want that.

In my last couple of years in the UK before we moved, I wrote the first draft of a novel, which I tried to revise once we landed in Australia. I hadn’t take account of the psychic impacts of moving to the other side of the planet, of building up a life again from scratch, and just couldn’t finish it. I didn’t write again for almost eight years, until my second son was born. That was when I really—finally—committed to doing the work.

Your short fiction has won national competitions and the Aurealis Awards, also being short-listed numerous times. How does that affect your confidence as a writer?

Recognition is always wonderful, of course. And the kind of recognition that comes with competitions and awards is incredibly validating. Having said that, nothing beats the thrill of someone reading your book, loving it, and telling you so.

The Attic Tragedy has elements of ghost and horror story in its composition. What does that mean?

Ha ha! You tell me!

I really don’t think about stories that way—in terms of the mixing of genres or elements. I never thought of The Attic Tragedy as a horror story when I was writing it, though it has some incredibly confronting scenes. The story grew out of an obsession with a dream I’d had, about a girl who could speak to ghosts but wanted an operation to switch them off. So the ghosts were always there, swirling around the character of Sylvie, who grew out of that dream. The story itself didn’t really come alive, though, until the character of George started to develop. She is grounded and earthy, someone for whom ghosts are completely unreal. The horrors that she has to endure—whether inflicted by others or by herself—are all too real, very much of this world. In that story, it’s not the ghosts that are frightening, but the people.

Your next book, Ariadne, I Love You, appears in July 2021. Tell us something about Jude, your protagonist.

Jude is kind of a dick. He’s self-possessed, obsessive, hungry—qualities typical of an ambitious musician on the rise. The story shows Jude at a number of points in his life: as an aspiring dropout at university; a layabout scrounger in his twenties, on the tip of a creative breakthrough; and as a forty-something has been alcoholic, having lost it all. He was genuinely successful at one point, and the wellspring of that success was inappropriate unrequited love for his ex-bandmate’s girlfriend. Something he has never gotten over.

The blurb says that Jude wouldn’t go on a last comeback tour if it weren’t for Coreen. “Coreen is dead. And, worse than that, she's married.” Who is Coreen and what is she?

Coreen is the Australian girlfriend of Jude’s ex-bandmate. Jude is just about motivated to get his shit together for a last hurrah gig in Australia—a retrospective of his now-defunct career—by the promise of seeing Coreen again. But by the time he actually makes it overseas, something terrible and terminal has happened to Coreen. Having burned all his bridges at home and in Oz, Jude ends up in a train carriage in the bush where he sees Coreen again—her, or something like her.

This story too has a ghost or ghosts, and horror. Where does the horror come from?

It’s not clear whether the story has ghosts. There’s something there at the old train carriage, but Jude doesn’t find out what until it’s far too late.

The thing that scares me in this story, that compelled me to write it, is not so much the supernatural elements (if, in fact, there are any), but rather the choices the characters make. Jude’s obsession leads him to actions that make me thrill with anxiety to even think about. This is a thread that runs through all my favourite horror stories: the monstrous choices made by compellingly flawed characters, choices that lead to fates worse than death.

What type of horror do you write, or is that too simplistic?

Again, I just don’t think about stories in that way. When I start a story, I’m usually pursuing a feeling or an image. Things unfold.

I like ambiguity. I like things that are hidden, unseen. I suppose I tend towards the ‘quiet’ end of the horror spectrum, but am not averse to explosions of terrible violence (though there’s none of that in Ariadne). As to what unfolds and at which end of the spectrum a story lands, I’m often led by the characters—and am frequently surprised by them too.

Horror writers seem to confront things the rest of us won’t, or can’t. Why do you think that is?

Why and what a person writes—their approach, their obsessions—is extraordinarily personal, unique to each writer. I know why I’m drawn to the dark stuff (and no, I’m not going to tell), but I wouldn’t dare presume on behalf of another. Perhaps it would be better to flip this around and say, “We have a thriving horror scene because so many writers are willing to confront things that most others daren’t.”

Having said that, perhaps there is something about confronting your own dark side and the darkness in the world that brings both you and the world into sharper focus, brings fear and the objects of fear more under your control. Writers in the horror community are some of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever met, and perhaps that’s what you get for purging your demons.

What’s the importance of horror in 2021. There has been a massive resurgence of horror films and fiction. What role does it play?

Speaking personally, and extending what we touched on above, writing horror can be a way of bringing a degree of control to fear and uncertainty. As a writer and as a reader, it’s cathartic to face your fears and explore them in a safe environment, one in which there is no risk to you but a quickening of your pulse. It’s a safe way to process—whether directly or indirectly—the horror that we see in the world all around us.

We’re living through an extraordinarily uncertain time. The world today is, frankly, terrifying. There are forces at play—geopolitical tension, resource shortage, societal impacts of climate change, an evolving global pandemic—that define all of our futures for better or worse, few of which we have any direct control over. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by it all. The best horror deals with big fears on a small scale, personally, obliquely. Perhaps its recent rise could be attributed, in part, to an appetite for eating our way through this superabundance of fear, one bite at a time.

There are some terrific film directors out there making amazing horror films. Who would you choose to direct a film of your books, if you could choose anyone?

Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field In England, Rebecca), Jennifer Kent (Babadook, Nightingale), and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) have all made movies that I’ve loved, and I’d be thrilled to see how they might translate stories I’ve written.

What are you working on right now?

This is a big year for finishing big things. Right now, I’m putting the final touches on a collection that includes two new, previously unpublished novellas, as well as a whole bunch of shorter stories. Once that’s wrapped, I’m itching to get back to final revisions of a novel I’ve been working on for the last five years. Both projects that I’m very excited about.

Do you have any favourite horror writers from the present or the past - or books generally?

Wow, that’s a big question! How long have you got? There are so many I could name, but I’m going to limit it to the books that have made the most lasting impression on me in recent years (that I’ve read in recent years, that is)… Kaaron Warren’s The Grief Hole. Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters. Robert Hood’s Peripheral Visions. Kathe Koja’s The Cipher. Laird Barron’s Occultation. Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco.

Going back a bit further (and a bit beyond the horror genre), I could read Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier and Ira Levin on infinite repeat and still find things to learn from and be in awe of.

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About J. Ashley-Smith:

J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. His short stories have twice won national competitions and been shortlisted seven times for Aurealis Awards, winning both Best Horror (Old Growth, 2017) and Best Fantasy (The Further Shore, 2018). His novella, The Attic Tragedy, was released by Meerkat Press in 2020 and has since been shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, an Australian Shadows Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award.

J. lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires.

You can connect with J. at, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Ariadne, I Love You is available now from Meerkat Press.


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