Writing about the messy side of life

Debut novelist Chloe Ashby grew up in Oundle, where her family owned one of the oldest established businesses in town. Her great-great-grandfather founded the RC Cottons and Son shoe shop in the Market Place in 1871, and it was managed by her mother Ann Cotton for many years until the family finally sold the popular business to another shoe shop owner in 2017. Her family did not live above the shop, but she has described it as an “extension of home”.

Chloe has an appreciation of a good pair of shoes, but she has not followed the family business, choosing instead to write about art and life’s experiences. Her first novel Wet Paint was published in April. It follows a young woman whose life spirals out of control after the death of a much-loved friend. I talked to Chloe about her writing journey.

Jennifer: When did you start thinking about being a writer?
Chloe: I think I knew fairly early on that I wanted to be a writer. By writer I mean being a journalist. My two favourite subjects at school were art and english, so I combined those when I went on to study art history at university. While I was at university, I studied at the Courtauld, which is a fairly prominent location in my novel. While I was there, it became clear to me that writing about art was something that I wanted to do. 
My stepdad used to be a books editor at a newspaper, and he used to get sent mountains of books every week. He put in what we used to call the out-pile books he did not want to review, and I used to go and take books from that pile and pretend I was reviewing them.

I had never thought about writing a novel until about five years ago when I read a couple of novels by fairly young authors. One was a book called The Girls by Emma Cline. I remember thinking, “This was possible for someone to do, and you don’t have to be however old!”

Another thing was, I had been working at a magazine as an editor, and eventually I got to the point where I no longer felt I was learning. I signed up for this creative writing course, which was just one evening a week for ten weeks. By the end of that course, each person was supposed to have written a first chapter of a novel. I didn’t have a plan for a novel, but I enjoyed it so much that I carried on writing just for fun. And then it got to the point where I thought: ok, maybe this can be a novel. 

J: Why do you write?
C: I can’t really imagine not writing. It sounds sort of dramatic to say that I need to write, but that’s how I feel. I think partly I write to figure things out. Sometimes with thoughts and feeling, in putting them on the page they become clearer. With fiction, I really like to climb into characters’ heads and experience life through different lives. It’s a chance to look at the world in a different way. With the art writing, I love unravelling images on the page, whether it’s a painting or a sculpture.

J: In your debut novel, Wet Paint, you focus on your main character, Eve, dealing with grief and loss. It is quite uncommon to find grief as a dominant theme in a novel associated with young women.
C: If anything, I would say the book is an ode to female friendship above all else. That was something I really wanted to explore because it’s something that doesn’t get enough airtime. 
When I was at university I struggled with depression and an eating disorder. When I was writing Eve’s sad spells, I thought about how I felt in the past. When it comes to the scenes in the life drawing studio, the sensation of her body being looked at and scrutinised in the studio really relates to some of my past experiences. This is something I only really realised I was writing about once other people had read the book. Quite a lot of the book is about mental health. It’s a subject I definitely wanted to dive into, but I think really when I was writing, I was just trying to put into words the thoughts, and feelings, and the anxieties that so many of us experience, especially when we are at this point in our lives in our early twenties. 

J: You have a close connection to art, and your character Eve shares that love. The epigraph to the books is a quote, illustrated by the painting, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergeres” by Edouard Manet: “In the figure, look for the main light and the main shadow, the rest will come of itself: often, it amounts to very little.” What is the connection?
C: Manet’s “Bar at the Follies Bergere” means a lot to me personally. Like Eve, the barmaid in this painting, is alienated and alone. You’ll see she’s on display and sort of just stuck. One thing that really bothers Eve in the book is that she couldn’t tell what her best friend was thinking at one point in her life. It bothers her that she can’t tell what the barmaid is thinking either. She’s sort of preoccupied with the fact you can’t tell what’s going on in this woman’s head.

Eve also takes up life modelling. She does it partly to pay the rent, but she also does it in a misguided bid for empowerment. She thinks modelling for artists will make her feel good about herself and that having all these eyes on her will kind of be a confidence boost. What she fairly quickly realises is that she could just be a still-life, she could be a bowl of fruit, or a block of wood. The artists aren’t looking at her for who she is, they are more looking at her just as an object to observe and to draw. It’s all kind of tied up with how women’s bodies are looked at in art, but also in life.

J: What do you hope readers will understand about issues relating to anxiety?
C: I want the book to provide some light relief, but I’d also like to provide readers with some sort of recognition of these unspoken anxieties, and sadness, and of grief, and friendship, and just womanhood in general. Recognition of that kind of hazy mid-space that we all find ourselves in at one point or another. A key takeaway could be the idea that we just all need to keep talking to one another. This applies no matter how old you are and whatever stage of life you are in.

J: What would you want to say to your readers before they read it?
C: The book is a little sad and dark, but it is also funny, and I hope it is uplifting at the same time. I hope it provides readers with that recognition that they relate to what Eve is going through and come away feeling that they’re not the only ones going through something. I’d like Wet Paint to be a reminder for us all to have these conversations. Eve is the kind of person who, if you ask how she was, she would probably tell you she is “fine”. It’s something I have done so many times. We all know what “fine” means, and it often doesn’t mean fine. It is something she has to work hard at: talking about her feelings, expressing herself and being honest not just with others, but also herself. It’s the hope that people start talking and keep talking. The more conversations we have about these topics, the easier and more natural they become.

J: You also wrote a nonfiction book before Wet Paint, called Look at This Book if You Love Great Art; a manual for keen readers of art.
C: Yes, an editor wrote to me and asked whether I’d be interested in writing a book about hundred artworks as a part of a series. This was perfect timing for me, because I was just making the move going self-employed. It was really great fun. I am currently working on another art book that is all about the history of colour in art, which will come out in August this year.

J: There is so much art out there. How did you limit your choices?
C: It’s so subjective and I had to remind myself of that, otherwise I would have become paralysed. When I was coming up with a list of one hundred works, some of them immediately spilled out of my head. I wanted to make a big effort to include as many women artists and emerging lesser-known artists as I could. I didn’t just want to write another book that had all the same big names. I wanted there to be variety, and because there are themes within the book, artworks would lend themselves to those particular chapters.

J: Female artists are a recurring theme in your arts journalism. Is writing about women a priority?
C: When it comes to my art writing, I definitely like to try and give space to emerging or overlooked artists. Often those are women. I think it’s important we keep momentum with that, and it doesn’t just become this short-lived push. That’s one reason why I’m particularly keen to write about women. When it comes to fiction, I suppose it’s a natural inclination because I’m a woman. I would like to think that one day I will take on the challenge of writing from a male perspective, but I haven’t done it yet. There are so many things that I’m figuring out myself, and lots of them relate to being a woman, so it makes sense for me to try and unpick those on the page.

J: Who are your favourite authors?
C: There are so many. I’m a big fan of Ali Smith. Love her for her way with words. She also has this way of smuggling art into her fiction that I appreciate. I’m also a big fan of Tessa Hadley who writes really well just about everyday life and things we can all relate to. Also, Ottessa Moshfegh, whose writing is very raw and kind of gritty in a good way. I’m halfway through Deborah Levy’s trilogy, her memoirs. I’m loving those. She just has a brilliant way of looking at the world. And now I’m realising that I’m only talking about women, so I’m going to mention a male author, Ocean Vuong.
I’m obviously drawn to books that somehow weave art in some way, whether it’s big or small, but I also like books that just deal with life, and often the messy sides of life. When life is messy, that’s often when the interesting stuff happens.

Jennifer Yang
June 2022