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Paul Spalding-Mulcock
Features Writer
@MulcockPaul
10:54 PM 12th February 2021
arts

An Interview with Alice Ash - Author of Paradise Block

Alice Ash
Alice Ash
Dante Alighieri ultimately transported us to Paradiso, the third and final part of his Divine Comedy. I’m confident that our sage poet would not have considered ‘Paradise’ to be an entirely apposite name for a concrete monolith housing the spiritually desiccated, despondently downtrodden inhabitants of a modern tower block ! This jarring incongruity between an ethereal noun and the fetid place it graces, has been entirely appreciated by Alice Ash, author of the disturbingly brilliant Paradise Block.

This surreal, seedy and sublime collection of thirteen short stories captures the prosaic futility of poverty-stricken quotidian life, its isolation, struggle and desperate escapism. Dirty realism melds with stylish surrealism through the plasticine medium of prose, caressed and crushed in our author’s hands to be by turns gloriously lyrical or antithetically brutal. Gothically suffused imagination, vivid thematic exposition and sumptuous characterisation are the jewels sparkling within its disturbing but scintillating pages. Meeting the author behind such a quirky, inventive and original piece of writing became my pleasure recently when I interviewed Alice Ash for our readers.

Alice Ash lives in a bijou flat in Brighton which she shares with her musician boyfriend and over two thousand books. Just from this simple statement, we can already begin to gain a sense of our author and her priorities. Longlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize in 2019, other writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Granta, Refinery29, Extra Teeth, Hotel, 3:AM, the TLS, and Mslexia, amongst others. Culture in all its forms houses Ash, not bricks and mortar or the trappings of consumerism, disposable distractions crocheted into a semblance of happiness by less bohemian souls.

I sensed that Ash’s journey to the status of being a bona fide published author had not been an easy one: ‘I’m an actual published writer! – it’s the pinnacle of everything I could have ever dreamt of. Of course, I want to carry on writing and, after struggling for so many years, I am just so happy to have the chance to do so. I’m enjoying myself very much, and pretty much living in the moment, which is very unlike me and very un-Paradise Block!’.

Growing up without a television and battling with anxiety in less than salubrious settings, perhaps steered Ash towards literature able to both reflect gritty reality, and provide an escape from it. ‘I love Shirley Jackson a lot – she writes the perfect blend of dread and stark reality for me. I can’t think of another writer that creeps on you the way Shirley does – rattling bones and draping spider webs over very normal domestic situations.

‘I really adore Camilla Grudova and her world-building – seeing the way she linked her stories with different object motifs really influenced my writing of Paradise Block. I also love Daphne Du Maurier, Carmen Maria Machado, Samanta Schweblin, Richard Yates, Yoko Ogawa, Roald Dahl and Ottessa Moshfegh’.

To some extent, the literary predilections of an author illuminate our understandings of both their craft and their joyously inventive minds. Consequently, I wondered which writers Ash particularly admired: ‘Raymond Carver, who I do very much admire, and Stephen King - definitely The Boss. Fight Club is one of those unforgettable books too, but I didn’t like Haunted that much, although I’ve had it related to my own work before’. Personally, I hear echoes of Chuck Palahniuk in Ash’s writing, not as derivative or mimetic stylings, but in a similar realising of the blur between unpalatable reality and macabre escapism.

I also found Paradise Block to be quasi-phantasmagorical in its nightmarish atmosphere of reality morphed into something bizarre, abstract and therefore not unlike David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. ‘I’m also very flattered by the David Lynch similarities that keep cropping up – it’s not easy to be compellingly strange without seeming like you’re trying to be oddball, and obviously Lynch is the master of this. I have to admit though, I haven’t seen a massive amount of his work! I love reading frightening writing and horror as a genre, but I find visuals very disturbing and difficult to cope with. I think this is because I grew up without a TV and didn’t get desensitised like everyone else at 10 or 11 when they watched The Exorcist’.

Ash writes beautiful, inventive prose fragranced with the repulsive whiff of soured milk. This dextrously wrought language is housed within a cleverly orchestrated body of interrelated vignettes which form the endoskeleton upon which the flesh of her prose sits.

‘I love writing unreliable narrators, and I tried to bring the unreliability into the language as well as to the character’s motives and actions. I was using images that weren’t quite right and jarred against reality to give the feeling of discontinuity and make the reader feel weird. But while I was always trying to think of unnerving and odd ways of using language, I didn’t want the stories to float off and become too entirely bizarre. Shirley Jackson taught me about how fun it is to anchor stories in very normal settings – the pub, the launderette, or the department store – and to find the uncanny there’.

Ash has deftly used the short story form as an interdependent collection in order to realise her Gothically infused, yet humanistic creative aspirations: ‘I wanted to show that connection was possible in Paradise Block and that lives there weren’t lived entirely in isolation, even though it may at first seem like they are. I also feel like the tragedy of miscommunication and misunderstanding is a major theme in a lot of my favourite literature – it’s so provoking to have a picture drawn very firmly and rationally, and then flipped upside down in the next instance’.

‘I was trying to show the same characters from different perspectives so that I could drain the certainty of situations – I wanted to toy with the idea of ‘villains’. I was very nihilistic and hateful when I was younger - but then later on, it felt natural to spin webs between characters and to show how they do find hope’.

Paradise Block is the outcome of Ash’s creative impulses and sensitive musings, but what were the themes she wished to explore within its mould-encrusted, mildew-ridden pages ? ‘Isolation is the most major theme, I think – I have struggled with anxiety a lot in the past, and I may have been subconsciously exploring the disparity between the desire to connect jarring against the compulsion to hide. I’ve always been very interested in looking at the dilemmas that push people to be alone, and I suppose also in mental health in general. Fantasy and desire also crop up a lot in the book. I like writing about desire in different contexts - desire for connection, for sex, for food, or for things’.

‘For people living in circumstances that don’t have much mobility or room to move, I think fantasy is locked with desire. Many of the characters in the book want something desperately, but because they can’t reach it, they live elsewhere, in a fantasy version of reality. The way we live now, split between our daily and online lives, really exposes this fragmenting of self, and I find it very interesting to write about how we trick ourselves into believing in this second face’.

‘The lies that we tell ourselves in order to accept our actions and who we are feels like the most interesting part of character to me. I also wrote about poverty quite impulsively because we struggled for money when I was a child, and because I’ve spent almost my entire adult life living under the manicured thumb of the Conservative Government’.

Having gained a taste of authorial success, its substance as enticing it is fragile, I wanted to end our conversation by being hopefully reassured that more dark gems are to come from Ash’s pen. ‘I’m writing my first novel at the moment, which will be published by Serpent's Tail in 2023. It has been difficult and scary to commit to a small range of characters and a story that will sustain and stay juicy for a novel-length text. The story so far is about a girl living beside a hideous lake called The Gil. Unfortunately, the village that the girl lives in has a seriously rainy climate, and the Gil is constantly rising, slowly gorging on the little black houses, while the local villagers pretend that nothing is happening’.

Alice Ash. Complicated, compassionate, wickedly imaginative and enchantingly quirky…sometimes it is from dark places, that the brightest lights shine forth.