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Q&A | AJ Ashworth, winner of the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition

Interview by Roelof Bakker 

AJ Ashworth Negative Press LondonToday is the end of this year’s National Short Story Week, a perfect occasion to post an interview with AJ Ashworth – winner of the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition and writer of the award-winning short story collection, Somewhere Else, or Even Here (Salt, 2011).

I found your story ‘Piano’ – winner of the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition – incredibly evocative even though it has less than 500 words. Did you enjoy writing to a word limit?
It was a bit of a challenge as I’ve never written such a short story before. My stories are usually around the 3,000 word mark so having to stick to 500 words was interesting! I usually stop when the story reaches a natural conclusion and when I’ve said what I wanted to say – the same applied with this one.

Where did your inspiration for ‘Piano’ come from?
Most definitely from your photograph – there was no story until I looked at that piano on the stage. I just got the first line in my head and had this idea of someone standing in the wings waiting to go on stage. And instantly I knew it was a woman looking back over her life as she neared the end of it, remembering a childhood event which had happened on that stage – an event which had caused ripples throughout her life.

Did you play the piano as a child? If so, was it a happy, sad or frustrating experience?
I did – for about a year – but there were reasons why I couldn’t continue. I have felt sad about it since, because it’s something I’d really love to be able to do. I just don’t feel as if I have the time to do it now though… maybe one day.

Does music play an important part in your life?
I like music but it doesn’t have as big a role in my life as it used to. And I can’t write or work and have music on in the background – I prefer silence.

When did you start writing?
I’ve written since childhood but have had long periods of time throughout my life where I haven’t written anything at all. I got more serious about writing seven years ago and took some courses, which really helped. It’s a big part of who I am and if I don’t have some kind of writing on the go then I don’t feel right.

Somewhere Else, Or Even Here AJ AshworthWhy short stories?
Because I love them. They’re so concise and precise and are therefore quite a challenge. I like that they only contain the essential, the necessary (or they should do) and that everything – every word, every incident – has to count and contribute to the whole. They’re such a rewarding read too – you get so much for so few words.

What or who inspired you to write?
I’ve always wanted to write but I don’t know where that comes from. There are people who’ve fuelled that fire – people such as Raymond Carver and Woody Allen – but I’ve no idea what the inspiration was, except a love of language and wanting to use that to communicate some feeling or mood.

How do you find combining writing with working full-time (in publishing)? Do you set time aside to write?
It can be difficult, especially if you’re busy in the day job – the last thing you want to do is to start again when you get home. I don’t write every day. I don’t worry about it though. I just trust that I will write when the time is right for me.

What are you working on at the moment?
More short stories and a novel, which I’ve just started.

Any advice to budding writers?
Write for the right reasons (because you love it) and don’t let rejection stop you.

The short story ‘Piano’ is exhibited both in the Gallery and Café at independent bookstore Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0EB (until end of November 2012).




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‘Still’ competition: winning story ‘Piano’ by AJ Ashworth

Negative Press London is excited to post the winning story of the Still/Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition. To celebrate the publication of Still, writers were invited to write a story up to 500 words, inspired by the photograph ‘The Stage (Piano)’ by Roelof Bakker.

The winning story, ‘Piano’, is written by AJ Ashworth and was selected from over one hundred submitted stories. Judge Evie Wyld said: ‘It was the voice that attracted me and Nicholas Hogg to this one. Her story is strong and understated at the same time.’

‘Piano’ is also on display at Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road until the end of November 2012.


The Stage (Piano) by Roelof Bakker

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

This is not the place she thought she’d return to.

She imagined she’d be with Arthur. Strolling up the promenade as grey, northern skies broke open above them. Or lying beneath him, as he moved over her that first time – the second night of their honeymoon in a B&B in Blackpool.

Perhaps she might have returned to the births of their three children. To the first glimpse of each old face in her arms. Each a miniature Arthur, right down to the wrinkled brows and thin lips, the pale, translucent skin. All of them with long pianists’ fingers too, just like her own mother, even though none of them ever played or ever showed any interest in wanting to.

If they had, perhaps things would have been different for her. Better.

But no. Her failing mind has brought her here. To the stage of the concert hall. Standing in the wings and hidden by the curtains – those heavy ripples of yellow velvet which she would touch, if she knew she wouldn’t get her hand smacked for it.

Her mother stands just behind her, not touching but close. She can’t see her, facing towards the piano as she is, but can feel her, as if the woman is a tall, thin planet at her shoulder. Pulling on her and dark with gravity. Unaware of how she is able to draw in whoever she wants, whenever she wants them – even those she doesn’t.

There is a burst of noise from the auditorium, sudden as rain on a tin roof. The announcer looks at her his hand out towards the piano. He says her name again and then, ‘Young pianist extraordinaire’, his eyes growing wider each second she fails to move.

Finally, her mother pushes her arm. ‘Go on then,’ she says, the applause dying. ‘And don’t embarrass me.’

And she is out, beneath the hot lights, walking towards the piano. Scraping the seat out and sitting down as a sigh of air escapes from a small hole in the side of the cushion. She notices the overwhelming smell of lacquer and, then, how a tiny yellow thread from a duster has become trapped by a hairline crack in one of the keys.

‘In a grand piano,’ she recalls her mother saying during one of her lessons, ‘it’s gravity that brings the hammer to a rest after it’s hit a string. It helps you play faster.’

But when she tries to lift her hands from her lap to place them in their starting position, nothing happens. It is as if they too are being pulled down by gravity.

‘Nobody should have been left there like a sitting duck,’ her father said, later. Her mother in the mirror fussed with a curl at the back of her ear.

She’d never had another lesson after that – not from her mother, not from anyone. In all honesty, she’d probably never had the right kind of hands.

AJ Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and is a former journalist who now works in publishing. She is the winner of Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize 2011 and her debut collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here was published in 2011 by Salt. This collection of short stories was also shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize and nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

A Q&A with AJ about her life as a writer will be posted here soon.

AJ Ashworth blog

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‘Still’ short story competition: A.J. Ashworth announced as winner

A big thank you to everyone for submitting stories to the Still short story competition organised by Negative Press London and Foyles – London’s iconic independent bookseller.

All the entries were read by Roelof Bakker (editor, Still) and Lisa Bywater (local marketing manager, Foyles) who together selected a shortlist of ten stories.

These ten stories were consequently read and judged by contributing Still authors Nicholas Hogg and Evie Wyld. Stories were supplied without the writers’ names.

Nicholas and Evie have selected what they felt was the strongest entry and the winning story is by A.J. Ashworth from Lancashire.

Judge Evie Wyld says: ‘It was the voice that attracted me and Nicholas Hogg to this one. Her story is strong and understated at the same time.’

Roelof Bakker, Still editor says: ‘The ten stories shortlisted were all stupendous and each highly original. I would have happily included all of them in the Still anthology. Congratulations to the shortlisted writers, but also to everyone else for entering – Lisa Bywater and myself greatly enjoyed reading your work.’

A.J. Ashworth will receive a copy of Still, a print of ‘The Stage (Piano)’, a copy of The Hummingbird And the Bear by Nicholas Hogg and After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld and her story will be exhibited as part of the Still exhibition at Foyles on Charing Cross Road from Friday 26 October 2012 in the first floor Café. Her story will also be published on the Foyles and Negative Press London blogs and we look forward to interviewing her for the Negative Press London blog.

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Find ‘Still’ in Foyles on Charing Cross Road

A rainy day, perfect for a bit of browsing and a coffee in a bookshop…

Foyles, Charing Cross Road, Still in Anthologies

If you’re near Charing Cross Road, pop into Foyles and you can find Still in the anthologies section on the ground floor…

And in the art section on the second floor…

Foyles Art section third floor, Still

Also, the first floor café serves a pucka flat white (actually one of the best in London in my humble opinion). And there’s an exhibition of photographs from Still, too.


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Photographs from ‘Still’ launch event, 26 September 2012 at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London

THANK YOU! Negative Press London says a BIG thanks to all the writers (reading/non-reading) who were at the Still launch event in the Gallery at Foyles, as well to all the people who came for what was a very lively entertaining literary evening.

The readings went down a storm and the audience really enjoyed the mix of writing and related photography. It was a special treat to hear the stories read out with such passion and panache. Q&As, discussions and mingling followed!

Thanks to the writers who were there: SJ Butler, Myriam Frey, Tania Hersham, James Higgerson, Justin Hill, Nicholas Hogg, Aamer Hussein, Nina Killham, Deborah Klaassen (thanks for setting up Facebook event), Claire Massey, James Miller, Jan Woolf and Evie Wyld.

And thanks to the writers who were there in spirit: Richard Beard, Andrew Blackman, SL Grey, Ava Homa, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Jan van Mersbergen, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, Mark Piggott, Mary Rechner, David Rose, Nicholas Royle, Preeta Samarasan and Xu Xi.

A big cheers to Paul Savage for a fantastic bar service and to David Owen at Foyles for five star help and organisation.

All photographs by Roman Skyva,

If anyone has any photographs they want to share, email to (max file width 1000px at 72dpi, if possible)

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Download/share ‘Still’ exhibition poster

Download and/or share the poster for the ‘Still’ exhibition of photographs and excerpts from related short stories at Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road.

Counting down to the launch event at Foyles next Wednesday!

Still exhibition poster Foyles Roelof Bakker

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