Welcome to this, the fifth event in the Put It In Writing Virtual Book Festival! Today it’s my pleasure to welcome award-winning author Jane Davis to the festival and I’d like to thank her for taking part. Jane has written several novels – all of them wonderful, humane and thought-provoking stories. So let’s find out a bit more about this talented writer…
Hello,Jane, and welcome to the festival. Please can you start by telling us why and how you became a writer?
The truth of it is that I’m not a writer, but a failed artist. I was interested in story-telling as a child but, instead of words, I used pictures. Right up to my O-Level year, I spent all my spare time drawing and painting. I assumed I’d make a career in art. It was the one thing I was really good at. And then came a hard lesson. The O-Level examiners simply didn’t like my work. There had never been a plan B.
My reaction was to leave school and take the first job that came along, which happened to be in insurance, and there I stayed for the next twenty-five years. There were compensations. I bought a house, had three double wardrobes full of clothes, I dabbled in amateur dramatics, led a Venture Scout Group, climbed mountains, travelled. But gradually I became more and more aware that I was missing a creative outlet and, when something happened that I needed to make sense of, I began to write.
You can apply what you know about art to writing a novel. Both processes require vision and the creation of something out of nothing. If you ask me how I began, I simply sat down and wrote. My first novel took me four years, but earned me the services of a literary agent. My second novel (only a year, that one) had been sitting in my agent’s in-tray for six months and so I entered it in the Daily Mail First Novel Award. I signed up for a creative writing MA when I was four novels in (the first creative writing class I had taken as an adult) and I’m afraid to say it gave me total writers’ block.
Anne: Yes, I can see the parallels between the processes of art and writing. And I guess most of us can relate to that ‘need to earn a living with a proper job’ thing – but we’d also recognise that need for a creative outlet of some sort too. And what’s really encouraging for others reading this is that you’ve proved perseverance can pay off.
So, what sort of books do you write and what are the titles of those you’ve published so far?
I write about big subjects and give my characters almost impossible moral dilemmas. I don’t allow them a shred of privacy. I know what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, the lies they tell, their secret fears. But I only meet them at a particular point on their journeys, usually in a highly volatile or unstable situation, and then I throw them to the lions. How people behave under pressure reveals so much about them.
Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it forces writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration and not the answer that’s important.
As my collection of novels grows, I’m beginning to see them as my legacy. As someone who doesn’t have children, they are the mark I will leave on the world. So another reason for writing – one that I didn’t think about in my mid-thirties when I started to write – is to create a legacy that I can be proud of.
Anne: You’ve certainly done that! But sorry for interrupting – please go on …
My first published novel was Half-truths and White Lies. It tells the story of someone who loses her parents only to discover that they weren’t her biological parents.
A Funeral for an Owl was next in the order of writing. I could change the focus of the novel: what kind of boy would it take to make two teachers put their jobs on the line? And it gave the plot a new momentum.
My angle was the suggestion that some of the rules that have been put in place with the best of intentions – to protect – actually deprive the most vulnerable children of confidential counsel from someone they trust. Not everyone will agree with that view but, when I was growing up, we had a wonderful teacher who operated an open-house and provided a safe place for those who were struggling at home, no questions asked. It was surprising who would turn up at her door. Today, in an environment when any relationship between teachers and pupils outside the classroom is taboo, she would be sacked. I think that’s terribly sad.
Anne: People who know me won’t be surprised to learn that this is probably my favourite one of your books. As a teacher for 36 years , mostly teaching children with emotional and behavioural issues, I could very much relate to the story. Sorry! I interrupted again. Please continue and tell us about the rest of your books.
I Stopped Time is my tribute to my grandmother who lived to the age of 99, and to the pioneers of photography.
These Fragile Things puts a family under the microscope when daughter Judy survives a horrific accident only to find herself caught up in a tug-of-war between her parents. While her father proclaims it a miracle, her mother insists that the medics saved her daughter.
An Unchoreographed Life is about the sacrifices that a mother will make for her daughter. But it’s a story with a ticking time bomb. The mother in my story is a sex worker and is desperate to change her life before her daughter is old enough to understand what she does for a living.
An Unknown Woman begins with a woman standing in the street watching her house burn to the ground. In the aftermath, all aspects of her life are laid bare. As her life begins to unravel, Anita questions who she really is, and how defined we are by the things we own. When cracks begin to surface in what had seemed like a perfect relationship, she bolts to the sanctity of her hometown, only to discover the secret that her mother has been keeping from her all these years, something so taboo it can’t be spoken about.
My Counterfeit Self is about the life of a rebel with a cause, poet activist, Lucy Forrester. We begin on the day of the funeral of her on/off lover of 50 years, when she receives notification that she is to be awarded a New Year’s Honour.
Smash all the Windows is all about the on-going impact of a large-scale disaster on a group of family member, how when ‘justice’ is finally served it achieves little, and how they find the hope to carry on.
Anne: Wow! That’s a list to be proud of. Awesome books all of them.
Tell us about a typical writing day?
Ring-fencing time for writing is something I have never been very good at. If you’re an indie author (as I am), the moment your first book is out there, pure ‘writing days’ are luxuries. When I’m not working at the day job (I still work part-time and also help care for my father who has dementia) I prioritise whatever is the most urgent. That might be marketing, giving an interview or filing a tax return. It might be replying to emails from readers. It might be project managing a publication schedule, signing off proofs or working on a cover design. I’m afraid that writing tends to happen in stolen moments.
Anne: Oh, I do like that notion of ‘writing tending to happen in the stolen moments’.Yes, being a writer is not all about being inspired by the muse and sitting , uninterrupted, at your desk writing instantly stunning prose 🙂 Real life and the demands of the business side of book publishing do tend to get in the way.
And so to the writing process – do you plot your novels in some detail before you actually start writing?
As terrible as this might sound, I don’t plot at all. I want to be Mary Anning scouring the beaches at Lyme Regis for dinosaur fossils, or Howard Carter discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun, or metal detectorist Terry Herbert digging up the Staffordshire Hoard. What I don’t want to be is a parent deciding on my child’s future, telling my son which subjects he will study, arranging my daughter’s marriage.
My process is slow and organic. I start with a single idea and follow it through to its natural conclusion. Most of my books have changed substantially during the writing. The pivotal moment of a novel may not actually reveal itself until several edits in, or until an editor comments, ‘I see the point that you were trying to make.’ I might realise that whatever I thought I was writing about, this is the one sentence the whole plot hangs on. Sometimes it’s a subtle change of mind-set, but equally it can be a Eureka moment.
I’m afraid that anyone who imagines that words show up in the order they appear on the page of any novel is, in the majority of cases, mistaken. In many ways, the novel in its final form is an illusion, the rabbit pulled out of the hat.
Anne: Yes! I can certainly relate to all of that.
And what, for you, is the best part of being a writer?
It sounds so much more glamorous than ‘I’m an insurance broker’. (The reality, I can assure you, is that it is not.)
Anne: Great answer!
Tell us a bit about your most recent novel Smash All The Windows. I know it won the Selfies 2019 award – a new award that celebrates the quality of indie-published books.
You can probably sense from the title that the novel began with outrage. I was infuriated by the press’s reaction to the outcome of the second *Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at family members as they emerged from the courtroom. It was put them that, now that it was all over, they could get on with their lives. ‘What lives?’ I yelled at the television.
*For those who don’t know about Hillsborough, a crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. A single lie was told about the cause of the disaster: In that moment, Liverpool fans became scapegoats. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set straight.
I didn’t want to be the one to add to the pain I saw on their faces, so I created a fictional disaster. I think you always have to make it personal. To create my fictional disaster, I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators. Last year, I suffered a fall on my way to a book-reading in Covent Garden. I was overloaded, having just finished a day’s work in the city. I was carrying my laptop bag, my briefcase, plus a suitcase full of books. The escalator I normally use was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was obviously much steeper, but I was completely unprepared for how fast it was. The suitcase, which was only one step in front of my feet, literally dragged me off-balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front of me. A few bruises and a pair of laddered tights aside, I escaped unscathed. But I can still blink and see the moment I knew I was about to fall and the recognition that there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.
Anne: we have an extract from the book at the end of this interview.
Have you had feedback from readers?
Yes, thankfully. Diana Athill wrote in her wonderful memoir Stet:
‘The person with whom the writer wants to be in touch is his reader: if he could speak to him directly, without a middleman, that is what he would do.’
Technology has made that possible. Readers get in contact in all sorts of ways. Those who don’t know me from social media often use the contact form on my website. What arrives at my end is an email. My favourite email of late was from a reader who had bought one of my novels on special offer at 99p but who loved it and wanted to send me what she thought the offer was worth. I was extremely touched by that.
Readers often tell me how my books affected them, share intensely personal information. I feel immensely privileged that they trust me with their stories.
Readers also ask for sequels. They often suggest that I focus on a secondary characters. With These Fragile Things, they fell in love with Miranda, my main character’s school-friend who is expelled for challenging her head mistress. With An Unchoreographed Life, it’s Jean-Francois, one of Alison’s former dance partners. The temptation to revisit old friends is always there but by the end of a novel, I will have taken the story as far as it can go. And I have to be honest, I don’t like fiction with tidy endings. My aim is always to leave readers with a few questions.
Anne: Yes, technology has been a game-changer for writers and their readers and how lovely that you get such wonderful feedback
When you start writing a new book, what comes first for you, characters or plot?
Character before plot. Always. We’ve already established that I’m not a plotter. Plus, get inside the head of the character and they will do most of the leg work for you.
Where do you get your ideas? How/when do they come to you?
Anywhere and everywhere. As a writer you have to be a magpie, collecting snippets of information here and there.
These Fragile Things is the book I felt I had to write. It’s about something that is very much a part of my DNA – a man’s conversion to Catholicism and how it impacts on his family. It’s also about the hypocrisies I felt being on the receiving end of a Catholic education – that the people who would have us believe in miracles would be the last people to believe in a miracle were it to happen today. So I set a miracle in 1980s Streatham. I used it as a vehicle to explore all viewpoints and I hope that what I’ve written is respectful. I remain a confused lapsed Catholic, increasingly grateful that my parents have their faith and wishing I had something to believe in.
Smash all the Windows isn’t my only novel to have been taken its lead from a court case. An Unchoreographed Life was inspired by a 2008 case that challenged the public’s perception of the type of women who might be working as a sex worker. I wrote it at a time when the number of sex workers in London (measured by percentage when compared to the adult population) exceeded the number in the 1700s.
My Counterfeit Self is about the life of a poet activist and came about simply because the reader reviews for my previous release described my prose as poetry. I had no idea if I could actually write poetry, but this gave me confidence that I might be able to convince readers that I could see the world as a poet does. I then watched a documentary about Jim Marshall (of Jim Marshall amps), which showed a direct path from a childhood illness he suffered from to his invention of the amp, via tap-dancing and drumming.
Anne: A magpie is a perfect description 🙂
And finally, have you got a favourite character out of the all the ones you’ve created?
That’s a really tough question. I live with my characters for so long that I know them far better than some of my friends. When the time comes to move on to my next writing project, it almost feels as if I’m cheating on them.
If I may, I’m going to pick two.
My first choice is Bins, a seemingly minor player in A Funeral for an Owl. He comes across as a bit of an oddball, but has a peculiar wisdom of his own. (Many readers have assumed that he suffers from learning difficulties.) All of his life people have assumed that Bins was stupid because he suffers from Prosopagnosia (face blindness), a condition that prevents sufferers from recognising even the most familiar faces, sometimes even their own. I don’t know if you can imagine going to school each day and being unable to recognise your teacher or classmates? I particularly loved being able to give him a heroic role.
My second is Lucy Forrester, the poet of My Counterfeit Self. Lucy a radical poet and political activist who’s a cross between two great British eccentrics, Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she’s horrified to find that she’s been featured on the New Year’s Honours list.
During the book we find out what has shaped Lucy. At the age of nine, she contracted childhood polio. Staring death in the face defines a person. It alters their perception of life, whatever age they happen to be. Lucy has that same stubborn determined streak that Roosevelt displayed when he refused to accept the limitations of his disease. The refusal to wear leg braces, to face the world sitting down. She also resents overhearing her father say that not much is expected of her, and it makes her want to defy him. She becomes totally driven.
And then her parents behave so shockingly that it releases her from feeling under any obligation to live up to their expectations, and so she adopts a bohemian lifestyle. And into this new life walks the man who became her literary critique and on/off lover for the next 50 years.
Lucy became so real to me that it was really difficult to let her go.
Anne: Oh, I think we can allow two – in view of just how brilliant these characters are! Thank you so much, Jane, for giving us such a detailed insight into your writing – the inspiration and methods behind it and what it all means to you.
And now, as promised, here is an extract from Jane’s most recent novel:
Smash all the Windows – from the back cover
It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.
It will take courage to learn how to live again.
‘An all-round triumph.’ John Hudspith
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a highly charged work of fiction, a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art. Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.
Extract (From Chapter Two)
Already, a scattering of people are clutching the stems of champagne flutes. God knows, Tamsin could murder a drink. She imagines knocking back the first one and holding out her glass for a refill. But she won’t accept a thing from the bastards who printed those lies. She has other plans.
As she waits in line, a television reporter close by speaks into a microphone: “The families and survivors were systematically bullied, intimidated, manipulated or used for personal and political gain.”
Impatience clogs Tamsin’s throat. You’ve changed your tune. Bloody hypocrites, the lot of you.
“Here we are,” the waitress says, sounding a little too pleased with herself.
Mum constantly tries to impress on Tamsin how much she adored Ollie, dismissing their teenage spats as a phase that would have quickly resolved itself. But it’s as if the data has been wiped from Tamsin’s hard drive, and each reminder of this failing produces fresh agony. Not today. Today, she has the opportunity to make up for it.
A final glance at the camera crew, Tamsin stages herself as she would a prop. Her chin is high as she takes the delicate stem of the glass. (It’s a good weight; the waitress hasn’t skimped.) She turns and, as she knew she would, finds several lenses trained on her. The same camera crew who, if the families had lost today, would have recorded that arrogant bastard saying, ‘There comes a time when you have to accept that, no matter how many different ways you find to ask the same question, the answer will still be no.’ Well, he’s just had a few of his assumptions turned inside out. Tamsin smiles directly into a camera lens and raises her glass. What she’s about to do requires no script. She won’t give the fuckers words.
Fill your boots, Ollie, this is for you. She tips her champagne flute. The balance shifts. From behind Tamsin comes a collective intake of breath. Conversations halt. The sound of champagne hitting tarmac is deeply satisfying. ‘Like someone having a wazz,’ she imagines Ollie saying and, for the briefest of moments, he’s here with her. They aren’t at each other’s throats, Mum isn’t having to say, ‘I don’t care who started it, I’ll finish it!’ They are simply sharing the moment.
Liquid pools near her high-heeled patent-leather shoes.
‘New shoes, sis?’
‘Clarks – but don’t tell anyone.’
‘Remember how we –?’
The reduced weight, the twist of her wrist, tells Tamsin her glass is empty. When she staged this moment in her mind, others joined her in one united gesture. Dangling the upside down champagne flute in one hand, Tamsin watches the last few drips with a kind of fascination, hoping that a camera will capture them, glistening and jewel-like. Ollie is gone. They are back to not talking to each other. Headphones on. The Keep Out sign on his bedroom door. And she is back in the real world.
(Click here for buy links for the above book)
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, and star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
Also by Jane Davis
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