Award winning novelist Jane Davis is about to publish her eighth book, entitled Smash All The Windows, which has already been described as an “all-round triumph”.
In 2008, Jane’s debut, Half-truths And White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and she was hailed as “one to watch” by The Bookseller.
While she has continued to write compelling fiction it has been on her own terms, which is why I’m delighted to invite her to take centre stage in my latest Behind The Book post so she can tell us about it.
But first, here’s the blurb for her latest book, which is released on Thursday:
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 13 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.
If someone asked me to describe your new book in three words I would say it was emotional, hard-hitting and gripping, what would your three words be?
The same three words I always aim for. Honest, authentic and true.
Can you talk about how the story came together? What was your initial inspiration?
You can probably sense from the title that the novel began with outrage. I was infuriated by the press reaction to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at family members as they emerged from the courtroom. It was put to them that, now that it was all over, they could get on with their lives. That had me yelling ‘what lives?’ at the television.
I know it’s a work of fiction but it feels very real, not just the way you present the facts but emotionally too. As someone who suffers from claustrophobia parts of it made me feel breathless. Obviously that’s a sign of amazing writing but how much research was also involved?
The answer is ‘a lot’. My favourite description of fiction is made up truth. I didn’t want to be the one to add to the pain I saw on the faces of the Hillsborough families, so I unpicked elements from Hillsborough and other large-scale disasters such as Aberfan and Bethnal Green and then created a fictional disaster, making sure they were all present.
Because writing should always take you outside your comfort-zone, I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators. It helped that I also suffer from claustrophobia, anxiety and vertigo. And it ‘helped’ that I suffered a fall down an escalator at Bank station in 2016. But having chosen an Underground station for my setting, I needed to research how an accident might happen and the particular difficulties that the emergency services would encounter, which meant looking at accident investigations from Kings Cross and London terrorist attacks. In order to demonstrate an element of foreseeability, I documented everything I could about the vulnerabilities of the system and weak spots, and that meant tracking down reports on transport policy, overcrowding, the impact on health, recommendations that haven’t been implemented… the list goes on.
The rule in fiction is that research shouldn’t show up on the page, but I made an exception for Eric, the law student who pieces together the sequence that led to the disaster and, in doing so, overturned a miscarriage of justice. I wanted the reader to really feel that the late nights in front of a screen drove him to the brink of madness.
The story is told from the viewpoint of various characters, male and female, young and older, but they all have distinctive voices. How much prep work do you do in creating such different 3D characters?
I write in what is called ‘close third person’, which means that, instead of writing as a narrator, I’m inside the characters’ heads. I’m not a plotter or a planner. I get to know my characters through writing them. Over the two years that it takes to write a novel, I get to know them pretty well. Of course, it’s helpful to have a character like Jules Roche, my French sculptor, who speaks in broken English and is angry and unguarded, but can also be charismatic and surprisingly vulnerable. It’s far more difficult to create an everyman (or woman) character, like Donovan or Gina or Maggie. These are ordinary people who have found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. I focused on specific characteristics. For Donovan, it was his hidden sorrows. The disaster killed not only his only daughter but his unborn grandchild. It meant the end of his family line. Gina’s son was somewhere he shouldn’t have been at the time of the accident, doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. The disaster not only robbed her of her son and her idea of who her son was, but it also destroyed her idea of who she was. She was not, as she’d thought, a good mother. Maggie’s situation was different. Her daughter was blamed for the disaster, and whilst the verdict overturns this previous ruling, it isn’t popular. She’s someone who’ll always be the outsider.
You won the Daily Mail First Novel Award for Half-truths And White Lies. What was that like? How did you find out?
This was back in 2008. I had only found out about the competition by chance. I attended the Winchester Writer’s Conference for the first time in June of that year. There were many different lectures I could have attended, but I chose to go to a lecture given by Jack Sheffield of Teacher, Teacher! fame and a very nice lady from the publishers, Transworld, whose name I forget. She urged everyone with a finished manuscript to submit it, promising that they would all be read. For me, that was the incentive to enter. At that time I had an agent who had come very close to placing my previous novel (the novel that won the award was actually my second), but the manuscript that became Half-truths And White Lies had been sitting in her ‘in’ tray for six months and she hadn’t found time to read it. The closing date for competition entries was only two days later, so it was a case of getting to the Post Office as soon as it opened and praying it would reach them in time.
The timing of the announcement was absolutely perfect. I knew I had made the longlist when I left my job of 23 years in September. Three weeks later, the honeymoon period was well and truly over. Every time I turned on the television there was talk of financial doom and gloom. I began to worry that leaving a secure job at the start of a recession had been a terrible mistake.
I got the call from Transworld when I was at home on my own and, because I was alone, there was no one to ask, ‘Did that just happen?’ I can completely understand the sentiments expressed by Myrrha Stanford-Smith who, at the age of 82, signed a three-book deal with Honno. She says she insisted on putting down the phone, pulling herself together and ringing them back to make sure it was true. I tried ringing my partner but he was in a meeting. I tried my best friend. Another meeting. Eventually I got through to my mother, so she was the first person to know.
Many people (me included) would assume that winning the award meant your writing career was made but I know from reading your incredibly honest (and helpful) “journey as a writer” page on your website that wasn’t the case. Are you able to tell us what happened next?
The book sold well and I was told that my job was getting on with writing the next one, which was already well underway. But when I presented my publisher with A Funeral For An Owl, they told me that they loved it but they were going to turn it down because it wasn’t a good fit for their women’s fiction imprint. I admit that I was very naïve and I hadn’t thought to discuss what subject-matter I should have been writing about. I’m a woman and a reader, and I’m still not sure what women’s fiction is. This was the year when the shortlist for what was then called the Orange Prize was incredibly diverse: Room dealt with confinement; Grace Williams Says It Loud, disability; The Tiger’s Wife dealt with living in a time of conflict; Annabel dealt with being a hermaphrodite. None of these issues are women’s issues, they’re human issues. Joanne Harris – one the judges for the Daily Mail First Novel Award – has always argued that there’s no such thing as women’s fiction. But somehow I’d been pigeon-holed.
I love that you managed to keep your passion for writing and your confidence in yourself, which led you down the indie route. What are some of the good things about self-publishing?
With Half-truths And White Lies, my publisher was very prescriptive. They asked me to write a different ending, they changed the title (I’d called it Venn Diagrams) and they gave the book a strong cover which was bang on trend, but it wasn’t right for the book. Self-publishing, on the other hand, allows creative freedom and artistic control. I write about subjects I’m passionate about, without worrying about ticking the right boxes or following the latest trend for psychological thrillers, and I get to collaborate with professionals (structural editors, copy editor, typesetters and cover designer) of my choice, people who share my vision. If something isn’t working, I can react to the market and change it. I changed the cover of my first self-published release, I Stopped Time, because I felt the original design wasn’t working hard enough for me.
Who are your favourite authors and why?
That’s a constantly evolving list but I greatly admire Ali Bacon and Sarah Hall both of whom write so beautifully about life and art and landscape. I also love writers who deviate from linear structures. Here I’m thinking of Jennifer Egan and A Visit From The Goon Squad, Emily St John Mandel and Station Eleven and John Ironmonger and The Coincidence Authority or Not Forgetting The Whale. What I love about these books is that, when you reach the end, you can head straight back to the beginning and start again without feeling that you’ve left the story. Because there’s no beginning, middle and end in the traditional sense, the stories are both cyclical and enduring, like one of Escher’s optical illusions. And you might think that the running order is random, but it takes enormous skill to pull off a work like Goon Squad whose chapters can be read in any order you damn well please, because each has to be perfect and complete. In Station Eleven, the reader remains in the present while the book travels between the near past and a near future in which all technology has been wiped away. And then there’s The Coincidence Authority, where you have the feeling that this is the precise order in which the story must be told, because in fiction the big reveal must come near the end but in life it may show up early.
Do you write full-time now? If so what’s your day like? Do you have set office hours?
I work two days a week and write the rest of the time. As with anyone running their own business from home, there are no office hours. My ‘writing time’ includes everything relating to books. I finished writing Smash All The Windows last autumn, but it’s only just coming up for publication some six months later. I receive about 350 emails a day, all of which have to be answered. Much of my time is spent on marketing – not all advertising but writing guest posts and interviews. I do a small amount of self-publishing mentoring, usually by Skype but occasionally in person. This summer I’m giving a series of creative writing ‘masterclasses’ to students preparing for their GCSEs. At the moment there’s preparation to do for pre-launch events. On November 6th I’m compering at Novel London, so I’ve just written the introductions for the speakers and questions to put to them. Next, I’ll be reading entries for a competition that I’m judging. There is no set pattern. I simply do whatever is the most urgent and hope that I don’t drop too many balls.
Can you please share any writing tips for those who might be struggling?
The only time I ever suffered from writers’ block is when I started a creative writing MA, so my main advice is ignore all of the advice. Every book I read that I love breaks all of the ‘rules’.
There are many ways to write a novel and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. You learn how to write a novel by writing a novel. My first took me four years and is unpublished. I consider that time well spent.
I love the phrase ‘made up truth’. Jane kindly let me have an advance copy of Smash All The Windows and I actually had to stop reading at one point and Google ‘St Botolph and Old Billingsgate Tube Station’ to see if it was real and if the disaster really did happen (the book is that good). Thank you very much to Jane for sharing her writing journey with us, I was inspired by her answers (I hope you were too).
For more information about Jane you can visit her website, follow her on Twitter or like her Facebook page. Smash All The Windows is released on April 12th but you can pre-order now for the special price of £1.99/$1.99 (price on publication will be £3.99) by clicking here.
If you’ve missed any Behind The Books posts, please check out the archive here.