In Shirley Jackson’s work there is a single recurring character – often a very minor one. He appears under a number of different names: James or Jimmy or sometimes Jim Harris, and sometimes only as a mysterious unnamed man in a blue suit. Mr Harris is sometimes a writer. At other times he’s an academic, a researcher or a bookshop owner. The mysterious visitor is intimately connected with the written word, with books and the production of text. This charismatic and often dangerous stranger has been suggested by some critics to be evidence of Jackson’s intricate, career-long engagement with an old Scottish Ballad in which a women’s dead lover returns to lure her away from her husband. The lover, as most versions of this ballad emphasise, is the devil himself.
We know Jackson was interested in the occult and haunted both by her literary preoccupations and her personal daemons. When I read her work and trace the way James Harris glides between the pages of her stories I get both an education in the nature of writerly obsession and re-learn something about writing itself; the way it comes in unnoticed, makes itself at home, and, even at the most inconvenient times, refuses to leave you alone.
So it was with the character of Timothy Richardson, who first turned up in an early draft of what was to become a key scene in my fourth novel, Fell. When I wrote this scene, where the three main characters meet a mysterious Scottish stranger while on a family day out at Grange-over-Sands lido, I had no idea where it was going. Timothy emerged nearly fully formed, impossibly good looking and seemingly possessed of (and by) the power to heal. He swiftly cured Jack from life-long myopia as well as hinting he could assist Netty, Jack’s wife, with her own, much more serious affliction. Within a couple of pages he’d moved into the family home, promising a distressed family more than they’d ever dared hope for. What next? I had no idea. In fact, I put the scene away in a file marked ‘the graveyard’ that I keep on my computer for all those writing projects that peter out, run into impossible problems, and that I don’t want to continue with but can’t quite bring myself to throw away.
For six months Timothy Richardson, Jack, Netty and their observant daughter Annette languished in ‘the graveyard’ while I, determinedly not writing, rehearsed the reasons why I shouldn’t resurrect Fell and begin work on it. First, the scene contained magic and miracles, of the happy, as well as the dangerous and unwanted kind and this was just not the kind of material I’d worked on before. Second, this single scene was enough to let me know that the novel would be set primarily in the 1960s, and researching a novel that was to me, born in 1982, a historical fiction, seemed an intimidating task. Third, I already knew that Timothy’s healing powers were as unruly and predictable as the sea: Netty was going to die no matter what he did, and did I really want to spend the next three years – the usual lifespan of my work on a novel – thinking about death, the death of a parent, and the ripples that would leave behind in the life of her little girl? I did not.
Sometimes the novel chooses you. Your characters walk on stage and will not leave you alone. Six months later I found myself returning to that scene and beginning to write. Timothy Richardson owes plenty to Shirley Jackson’s Mr Harris and there’s more than a little of Martin Taylor, from Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle in him too. He’s not just an otherworldly daemon though. There’s plenty of this world about him; his cheek, his eagerness to please, the way his best plans seem to come awry and cause chaos and most of all how appealing and ultimately out of reach he finds the ordinary, quiet pleasures of home and family.
For a while, Fell was a completely different book. I called it The Nine Lives of Timothy Richardson while I was working on it, and it seemed to want to be a loosely collected series of vignettes about his travels. It showed him train hopping from Edinburgh down to the North West English Coast, hitch-hiking to London to work on Saville Row, sailing across the Atlantic on a cruise ship, and finally emerging at the tail end of the 1970s on the sawdust trail in the southern states of America. It was all wrong. My novels often work like this: the process involves a long, slow process of trial and error, during which alternative plots, histories and lives are worked over, experimented with and finally discarded. It is such a wasteful way to work. The graveyard folder is stuffed full of alternative endings, alternative lives and events that needed to be cut-away for a plot of some kind to emerge. It eventually became clear to me that for Fell to work, the reader had to experience Timothy as unreliably and partially as the characters around him did. We could never be sure. So in the final draft of the novel, almost none of this material appears. Timothy Richardson is a man with an improbable past and only implausible pipe dreams for his future.
But still, even after finishing the novel and archiving all the drafts and false starts and research documents that had accrued on my computer while I wrote it, Timothy would not lie quiet. When Fell was published, readers often asked where he’d been before turning up in Grange-over-Sands in the summer of 1963. They wondered how many of his tall stories were myths and outright untruths, and how much of what we knew of his history (a former medical student? Really?) they could trust. They asked, quite often, just where he went after he disappeared from Jack and Netty’s home just as winter began to arrive – leaving – and this was my nod to Shirley Jackson and the influence she had on the development of his character – nothing behind but a beautifully tailored made-to-measure shirt and a slightly over-fashionable blue suit.
‘The Least of These’ didn’t come from the graveyard; most of the off cuts and deleted scenes that I discarded deserved to end up there, never seeing the light of day for good reason. The story isn’t a sequel to Fell either. It isn’t the final answer on whatever happened to the good-looking lodger who walked out of the house one day and disappeared. But when I started writing a story about loss, and hope, and unexpected consequences, I was hardly surprised when a good looking man in a clean white shirt appeared by the side of the country road, thumbing a lift. I wonder if this is how Shirley Jackson felt when her old friend James Harris reappeared. As soon as the man spoke, the familiar voice of Timothy Richardson, butcher’s boy from Edinburgh, appeared on the page.
I know you, I thought. He hasn’t appeared again since, but I think he might.
‘The Least of These’ is featured in Issue Eight of The Lonely Crowd, which is available to buy online here. Jenn Ashworth will be reading ‘The Least of These’ at our event at Little Man Coffee, Cardiff next Wednesday, 15/11/17.
Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston, Lancashire. She studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge and Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. In 2009 her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy was published. It won a 2010 Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second novel, Cold Light, in 2011, she was featured on the BBC’s Culture Show as one of the UK’s 12 best new novelists. Her fourth novel, Fell, was published by Sceptre in 2016. Jenn’s short stories have appeared in the The Big Issue, The Lonely Crowd, MIR, The Manchester Review and Short Fiction Journal. Jenn lectures in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
© Jenn Ashworth. Image of bird © Jo Mazelis. Author photo of Jenn Ashworth © Martin Figura.