Claire Askew: Let's Have the Hard Conversations

This article is from 2018

Claire Askew: Let's Have the Hard Conversations

credit: Sally Jubb Photography

In her politically and personally charged thriller, the debut novelist tackles mass shooting, toxic masculinity and the difficult questions tragedies leave behind

Avoiding sensationalism while also delivering a powerful and compelling story, All the Hidden Truths deals with the aftermath of a school shooting at a fictional Edinburgh college. Award-winning poet, educator and novelist Claire Askew chats to us about the inspiration behind her debut, how it felt to transition into novel writing from poetry and why she's not keeping quiet on difficult topics.

All the Hidden Truths has both personal and public tragedy at its heart, were you keen to explore the experience of individuals beyond the headlines?

I was keen to write a book that critiqued our propensity, as a society, to reach for easy answers in the wake of public tragedies. Mass shootings in particular seem to bring decidedly un-nuanced discussions to the fore. It's pretty common for the actions of a mass shooter to be written off as being down to 'mental health problems', for example – usually an armchair diagnosis, and obviously pretty harmful to those millions of people who have mental health problems but manage not to murder anyone. So yes, I wanted to encourage a more nuanced view of events like this one, and in order to do that I had to make the book about the individuals affected. Even Ryan, the gunman: I was keen to make him a three-dimensional person. I didn't want to rehabilitate him, but I did want to make it tricky for readers to draw easy conclusions, even about him. Perhaps especially about him.

The central theme is a volatile one, how do you feel about addressing politically charged topics like access to guns?

Obviously I am very pleased we live in a country where gun laws are so tight, and where mass shootings like the one in this book are considered 'an American problem,' usually. Gun control obviously works, and works well, to prevent events like this happening. However, what this book shows is that there's also a more insidious issue that isn't being addressed anywhere, and that's toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is at the bottom of so many violent crimes, and pretty much every mass shooting. Ryan is a victim of this culture, his actions perpetuate it, and then the women around him are forced to pick up the pieces, as so often happens in the wake of male violence. In terms of how I feel talking about these issues? If we don't talk about them we'll never sort them out. Let's have the hard conversations.

You're a prize-winning poet and now novelist too, what inspired you to try your hand at prose?

What I really wanted was for someone else to write this novel so I could read it. No one seemed to be doing it, and I realised that if I wanted this idea to stop following me around, I'd have to write it. I didn't think I'd get very far: I was sure that, as a poet, I wouldn't have the attention-span to write a novel. But somehow, once I started, I just kept going... for 376 pages.

What were the most invigorating - and challenging - things about switching form?

It's like being able to read sheet music, and therefore being able to play more than one musical instrument. I still write poetry, and still read a lot of poetry, too. It's really a case of putting the poetry down for a bit and having a go at the fiction, then going back, and so on. The best thing about writing fiction is definitely the space to explore huge themes like – in this novel – male violence, media culture, grief. There are poems about those things, too, of course, but with a poem the challenge is to distil everything down to its essence. With fiction you can take your time, take up space, let things run a bit. But the most difficult thing is the flip side of that. You have to keep going. Writing a novel is a hell of a long haul.

Were there any experiences or individuals who helped you along the way?

So many people helped me with this book, and I am incredibly grateful to them all. We're so lucky in Scotland to have the fabulous Scottish Book Trust – the Writer Development team there have supported me and many other Scottish writers for years, they're wonderful. I'd almost finished the book when I went to the Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre to take up the 2017 Jessie Kesson Fellowship, and I had one of the hardest months of my adult life while I was there. I broke up with my partner of six years, I broke up with my then-agent, I thought the novel was a gonner', never to see the light of day. The Moniack staff were like angels, they took such good care of me, I'll never be able to thank them enough. And there are countless individuals, too, who helped me more than they can ever know. I hope they're aware of who they are, and know that they're so appreciated.

You also work as a creative writing tutor and community educator, how do you think your various roles affect your own writing?

Well, All The Hidden Truths is set in a fictional further education college, and is dedicated to the students I worked with over the five years I spent working as a FE lecturer. The dedication points out that my students taught me way more than I ever taught them. That's why I love the work that I do. I get to meet so many spectacular people; I get to hear about their lives and stories – often very different to my own. I don't do community work because it's good material, but I do think that it widens my worldview, and that can't possibly hurt when you're a writer.

All the Hidden Truths is a 'whydunit' rather than a 'whodunit', do you think that made it harder or easier to write? What did you start with?

I started with the event: I knew I wanted to write about a college shooting. They're unique and darkly fascinating: usually, we know very quickly 'whodunit,' but because the perpetrators usually kill themselves as well as their victims, they cannot be interrogated. It's such an extreme act, and yet they take their reasons for committing that act to the grave with them. It leaves those of us left behind to endlessly wonder and speculate, but we can never really know. Mass shootings are the kind of crimes that really stick with us, because we like closure, we like to be able to explain something so we can settle our uneasiness in the wake of the horror. These crimes don't let us do that – so what do we do instead? How do we move on? Maybe some people never do, never can. That was what interested me, the collective psychological mark that an event like this leaves behind.

Claire Askew & Alan Parks, Charlotte Square Gardens, 19 Aug, 8.30pm, £8 (£6)

Claire Askew & Alan Parks

Award-winning poet and writer Claire Askew's crime fiction debut All the Hidden Truths explores a school shooting and the unanswered questions left in the wake of the killer’s death. Former creative director of London Records, Alan Parks returned to his Scottish roots and turned his creative juices to crime writing…