News and Interviews

The WAR Series: Writers as Readers, with Katherine Ashenburg

Katherine Ashenburg

Katherine Ashenburg's All the Dirt: A History of Getting Clean (Annick Press) gets pretty filthy, but it's still appropriate (and irresistible) for its middle grade audience, because this dirt is the literal, outrageous, and fun kind for every kid who ever made mud pies, got gritty in the sandbox, or begged to stay outside for just a few more minutes before bath time.

Adapted from her non-fiction book for adult readers, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, All the Dirt takes the young reader's fascination with the grimy and hilarious and turns it into an intriguing lesson about history, cultural differences, and how concepts we might take for granted are in fact socially constructed. Digging into the idea of what it has meant in different times and places to be "clean", All the Dirt is lively ride through the mud and soap of history.

We're pleased to welcome Katherine to Open Book today as part of our WAR Series: Writers as Readers, where we ask authors about their favourite and formative reads. 

Katherine tells us about the Newfoundland novel that made her laugh out loud, the book that best encapsulates Henry James' famous life advice, and the recent classic re-read that proved a pleasant surprise.

The first book I remember reading on my own:

When I got my first library card as a six-year-old in Rochester, N.Y., I’m not sure I knew how libraries worked. Two older girls down the street were making the trek to the library and kindly offered to take my card and bring me back a book. The book they chose was a textbook about health – nothing I would have chosen. But I was so entranced with this strange new skill of reading that I gladly inhaled all its prescriptions about teeth-brushing and the five food groups. It’s ironic that All the Dirt: A History of Getting Clean, the kids’ book I’ve just published, has a certain amount of health advice – but it’s often pretty contrarian! Since then, I’ve gone to the library on my own. 

A book that made me cry:

This is embarrassing. I have to preface my answer by saying that I am not a ready crier, and especially not through books. I should have cried when I read The Diary of Anne Frank and the death of little Paul in Dombey and Son, but I didn’t. Now comes the embarrassing part: the only book I can think of that makes me cry is my first novel, which I am busy revising. Something happens to one of the two heroines at the end that never fails to send tears coursing down my face. Very weird. But I can only say in self-defence that I have known Cecilia for almost eight years, so perhaps it’s not surprising. I know the old saying, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” but I have no idea whether that’s true or not.

The first adult book I read:

I think it was Herman Wouk’s 1955 page-turner, Marjorie Morningstar. I remember the heft of the book, the thrill of following Marjorie’s progress through girlhood and young womanhood, and not much else. I just read the plot summary and am fascinated to learn that Marjorie’s bright promise and ambition ended in a dull suburban and conformist life. I doubt that that interested me, but who knows if it entered my unconscious …

A book that made me laugh out loud:

The Story of Bobby O’Malley, Wayne Johnston’s 1985 novel about a boy growing up in Newfoundland. I can remember sitting in my then-boyfriend’s apartment quite unable to stop laughing.

The book I have re-read many times:

How to choose? I find I am re-reading more and more these days. I would have to pick Penelope Fitzgerald’s astonishing, luminous, mysterious novel about Moscow in 1905, The Beginning of Spring. How she manages to evoke a place she had visited once on a tour, and a time she never knew, along with a cast of Russian and English characters both poignant and funny, completely escapes me.

A book I feel like I should have read, but haven't:

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. When I was in graduate school, my husband was scandalized that I had never read it, and I said, semi-joking, “I don’t read animal stories.” (I had read animal stories, of course, but stopped at around age eight, because what could top Lassie Come Home?)

The book I would give my seventeen year old self, if I could:

This is the hardest question in this interview. I had to ask myself, what did I wish I had known as a seventeen-year-old? One thing would have been that the best-planned life was going to involve a lot of surprise, not always happy. But I was already reading books, such as Middlemarch, which should have alerted me to that.

An even more important thing I wish I had known is summed up in Henry James’ quotation, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” To address kindness, and its complications (although it wasn’t written when I was 17), I would choose Marina Endicott’s wonderful novel, Good to a Fault.

A book I feel strongly influenced me as a writer and why:

Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. The way he takes the story of a quite ordinary young woman, tells it quietly and plainly, with only a torque or two, is an inspiration.

The best book I read in the past six months:

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Again, I was re-reading, but I needed to refresh my memory for something I was writing. I had loved it as a young woman but suspected it was going to be difficult and too experimental for me this time around. I couldn’t have been more wrong: the pages turned themselves and it was fresh from beginning to end.

The book I plan on reading next:

That depends on how ambitious I feel. My book club just read Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, and someone said her Arcadia is better. So I may read that. Or, if I’m feeling lazier, I’d go to the third volume of Tana French’s mysteries set in Dublin’s Murder Squad. They’re too long, but addictive.

A possible title for my autobiography:

Could I Just Finish This Chapter and Then We’ll Talk?


Katherine Ashenburg holds a Ph.D. in English literature. After a decade as an academic, she spent a decade as a radio producer for the CBC and a decade at The Globe and Mail as the arts and books editor, and one of the founding editors of Lives Lived and the Facts and Arguments essay. For the past 15 years, she has been a full time writer of magazine and newspaper articles for a wide variety of publications, such as The New York TimesThe Walrus, and Toronto Life. She has also written three books. The first, Going to Town: Architectural Walking Tours in Southern Ontario, won a history award from the Ontario Historical Society. The second and third, The Mourner’s Dance and The Dirt on Clean, were shortlisted for a number of awards. The Dirt on Clean was published in 12 countries, in 6 languages and now has a new life as a children’s book entitled All the Dirt: A History on Getting Clean.

Buy the Book

All the Dirt: A History of Getting Clean

Cleanliness is next to godliness. At least that was the point of view espoused by John Wesley in 18th century England. But accounts of people bathing go back to the Bronze Age in the Indus Valley.

All the Dirt is a lively, informative exploration of the evolution of personal hygiene. Starting with a number of myths about cleanliness, the author gives a quick overview of the topic. Throughout most of history, people rejected the notion of keeping clean, with some exceptions—the ancient Romans were obsessive about it. Readers will discover how the definition of cleanliness in one part of the world may differ radically from another. In Zimbabwe, for example, cleanliness means coating your washed body with a mixture of oil and dirt!

There is just enough of a gross factor that young readers will find the book as entertaining as it is enlightening. Colorful spreads, lots of sidebars, humorous illustrations, and photos make it ideal for browsing as well as reading in depth.