A Look Behind The Book With Jane Davis.

IMG_2953Award 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.

rsz_smash_all_the_windows_final_final_ebook_cover 325 x 521 for websiteIf 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?

JDV-AFFAO2015-CS-02AWThe 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.

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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’.

quote jane davis

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.

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A Look Behind The Book With S D Robertson.

SDRobertsonBestselling author S D Robertson took a risk when he quit his job as a newspaper editor to follow his dream of writing a novel but, thankfully, it has more than paid off.

Stuart has just published his third book, Stand By Me, which has already received rave reviews on Amazon, including being dubbed “a heartwarming and tearjerking triumph” by one reader.

As a fan of his work, I was delighted when he agreed to be my latest Behind The Book interviewee.

Read on to find out what he had to say.

You started your writing career as a journalist, ending up as editor of a local newspaper before leaving to pursue your dream to become a novelist. Did you find the transition to a more creative style of writing difficult?

Writing creatively is very different from writing news stories or features. However, I found that my time as a journalist did prepare me well for becoming a novelist, particularly in terms of being self-motivated, meeting deadlines and having confidence in my ability to communicate effectively to readers. I think it’s also important to write sparingly in fiction – particularly with books of a commercial nature, which need to be pacy and easy to read. In my opinion, a good journalist’s greatest skill is the ability to convey complicated ideas in a straightforward, easy-to-comprehend way. As a novelist, I try to do much the same in terms of my characters, plots and themes.

SBM2You’ve just published your third novel, Stand By Me, can you tell us about it please?

This book is about the powerful and changing nature of a long friendship. My two central characters, Elliot and Lisa, meet as 11-year-olds in the early 1990s and remain great pals as they traverse secondary school and grow into adults together. Then life pulls them apart – until one day, totally out of the blue, Elliot returns just when Lisa needs him most. As the story flits between past and present, we gradually learn the remarkable truth about Elliot’s return and what it means for both of their futures.

Are you ever sad to say goodbye to any of your characters? They live in your head for such a long time, do you find yourself thinking about them once the book is done and dusted?

Yes, definitely. As an author you spend a great deal of time with your characters and you really miss some of them after you finish working on a particular project. At the end of a story, I often wonder about what might happen to them next. In fact, one character from my debut novel, Time to Say Goodbye, does actually make a cameo appearance in Stand By Me. I won’t say who, as I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. But it was great to reconnect and to see how things had progressed for them since the end of that novel.

Can you tell us about your route to publication with your first book? What was it like getting that phone call (or email) telling you they wanted to publish it?

I left my job as a local newspaper editor and wrote a novel inspired by my early experiences as a reporter. I sent this off to various literary agents and publishers, but after lots of rejections, I stuck it in a drawer and returned to the drawing board. The next novel I wrote was Time to Say Goodbye, which went on to be published by Avon HarperCollins. The first exciting moment was when my (now) agent phoned me to say that she loved it and wanted to represent me. Then, several months and a few tweaks later, I got another call from her saying that Avon wanted to publish it. Both of these were fantastic moments that I’ll never forget. They validated all the hard work I’d poured into pursuing my dream and inspired me to keep on going.

You took a risk to follow your dream, was there ever a moment where you doubted yourself and, if so, how did you bolster your confidence again?

There were lots of moments when I doubted myself at the beginning; there still are from time to time. Authors tend to be introspective types and I’m no exception. Beating your insecurities is one of the many hurdles you have to overcome in order to finish a novel and then get it published. My advice to any would-be novelist struggling with this is to channel it into their work by creating characters with believable flaws, issues and contradictions.

quote SD Robertson

Surrounding yourself with positive people who believe in you and encourage you to follow your dreams is always a big help.

Your novels seem to twist and turn. Do you know before you start writing what is going to happen and when? If you are a planner, how do you do it? Do you use Post-it notes or write a chapter by chapter plot?

I start with a plot synopsis and I do tend to stick fairly strictly to the beginning and end. I think it’s important to know where you’re heading when you start out. However, in terms of the middle, I’m very flexible. I like to allow room to develop things as I go along: particularly the twists and turns, which I find often work best without advance planning. (If I’m surprised, the reader is likely to be surprised too.) I don’t work with Post-it notes, but rather that initial synopsis together with a notebook that I update as I go along. This includes character profiles and any other information I don’t want to forget.

What role does social media play in getting your books out there? Has it changed much since the first book in 2016?

I think social media is a great way of reaching out to your readers and vice versa. It’s hugely important nowadays, although it can be quite time-consuming. As an author working from home, it’s all too easy to procrastinate rather than actually writing; social media can be dangerous in that regard. In my experience it hasn’t changed an awful lot in the last couple of years, although it is probably a little harder now to communicate with your readers on Facebook without paying for adverts.

On your website you say you’re a film buff (who doesn’t love a rom-com?), which of your books do you think would make the best film? Have you ever considered writing a script?

Any of them could be made into films or TV shows, in my opinion. It’s a dream of mine that I do hope will come true one day. I think my love of movies seeps into my writing, giving it a visual quality that would translate well on to the screen. I have considered writing a script, because I particularly enjoy creating dialogue, but so far I haven’t done so.

Are you working on something new at the moment? Can you share any details?

I’m currently working on my next novel, which is still at a pretty early stage, so I don’t want to say too much. What I can tell you is that it’s about a childless couple who suddenly find themselves looking after their estranged teenage niece.

Do you have any writing tips to pass on please?

One of the best writing tips I can offer is to complete your first draft before you start editing it. I don’t recommend reading anything back until you’ve got to the end of the story. Otherwise you’ll probably find yourself so busy tweaking things that you never actually reach that point. And you’re not going to get published without a completed manuscript. Think of it like creating a sculpture. Start with the basic shape and add in the detail later.

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Many thanks to Stuart for his thoughtful answers, I especially loved his advice for beating insecurities. Fingers crossed that his dream to see his work on the big (or small) screen also comes true one day.

If you’d like to know more about Stuart you can visit his website, follow him on Twitter and buy all his books via Amazon.

A Look Behind The Book With Elisabeth Gifford.

IMG_6602It has been almost two decades in the making but this month Elisabeth Gifford has released her latest book, The Good Doctor Of Warsaw.

Based on a true story of some of the rare survivors of the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, it features the inspiring story of Dr Janusz Korczak, who has been described as a “sort of Polish-Jewish Dr Barnardo”. He defied the Nazi brutality by creating an oasis of kindness and happiness for children.

Here’s the blurb:

good.doctor-4[2]Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom.

Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage.

As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.

As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone.

They can only hope to find each other again one day…Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.

I am thrilled Elisabeth agreed to let me interview her for my latest Behind The Book post.

Here’s what she had to say:

You’ve written a biography and three historical novels. How did you come across the stories and what grabbed your attention and made you want to write about them?

When I come across a mystery or a question I’d like to find out about then the book is my way of answering that question. A fascination with the actual history behind the many mermaid sightings around Scotland last century turned into Secrets of the Sea House. I’m also keen to look at how we can have happier lives and relationships, and the books often have those themes bubbling in the background – does your past define you, how to be a good mum, honesty and intimacy in relationships, what children need to feel safe and loved.

Can you talk about how you first got into writing? What made you believe you could write a book (or four)?

I’ve always written but with three children and a teaching post it got put on the back burner for some years. Gradually I gave more time to it, poems and short stories and then I joined some writing courses as a treat to myself.

As you mention, you’ve studied creative writing. What made you want to go that route and how did that help you develop? Would you recommend it?

When I got to the point that I was boring strangers at bus stops with my plot ideas I did a diploma and then an MA in creative writing to have someone to share my obsession with. I love the craft side of writing also so I was thrilled to have access to a library of books about writing at Oxford for the diploma and then Royal Holloway for the MA. I found the other students very supportive and inspiring and enjoyed their company a great deal. I built up a body of writing as a result and at a reading for the MA group and agent offered to take me on. I’d say if you want to spend time developing your writing and enjoy it then consider a writing course. An MA is quite a commitment. Try some shorter courses first perhaps. There are so many good ones.

Your latest book, The Good Doctor Of Warsaw, sounds like an amazing tale (I can’t wait to read it), were you ever nervous about writing about it and making sure you got it right?

Yes indeed I was very nervous about attempting The Good Doctor Of Warsaw. It took me almost two decades between wanting to write about Korczak and the novel being published. It involved a lot of research and rewrites and a very patient and supportive agent and publisher. I met Roman Wroblewski who is the son of Misha and Sophia. They worked with Korkzac and were among the 1% out of a million to survive the ghetto. He was kind enough to share information and anecdotes from his parents’ lives and we Skyped a lot over the years. He was also very strict about accuracy and picked up on any errors, which was fantastic.

korczak janusz fotografie archiwalne 8_6366859
Dr Korczak and the children. Photo credit: Elisabeth Gifford.

How much research is involved in your books? 

You need to do enough research to inhabit the world you are writing about, but then let the story breathe and tell itself through the characters’ lives.

You’re a full time writer, do you have a set writing day? How do you avoid getting distracted?

I try to write in the morning and do research or emails in the afternoon, but I’ll write longer as the book progresses. It does however depend on getting a good night’s sleep so you feel mentally fresh, and I can’t really drink and think so I avoid the wine or gin and tonic. And it is true that walking helps the brain so I try to get active for part of the day.

What sort of books do you enjoy reading?

I enjoy evocative prose or poetry and also fast paced thrillers. I love biography and history. Writing involves so many different layers. Different books offer different pleasures.

 

Are you working on anything at the moment and can you share?

I’ve just begun a historical mystery set back in Scotland again. Part of my family is Scottish, so it’s a place I visit often and love writing about. In the new book, a newly wed woman moves to a large house with her husband’s family and becomes obsessed with finding out the identity of a woman who was written out of the family history some years before – while wondering if she is really welcome there or whether she is imagining sinister things.

How do you feel come publication day? Are you excited? Relieved? Worried?

Publication day is exciting – I can’t quite believe it each time, but I get very anxious until I get some feedback that shows that the story has gone down ok with people.

Do you have any writing tips you can share please?

Read lots of course. That’s how you get an ear for what works on the page. Write something every day if you can. Try and join a group of friendly writers to workshop each other’s prose. And don’t stop until you’re done. A novel can take endless re-writes so don’t get discouraged.

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I’m so pleased Elisabeth finally got to write the book she always wanted to. The Good Doctor Of Warsaw is getting some wonderful feedback on Amazon so it was obviously worth making sure it was absolutely right. What fabulous writing tips too.

You can find out more about her via her website, her Facebook page and on Twitter. Her books are all available via her Amazon page.

Thank you very much to Elisabeth for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ll have another Behind The Book post for you soon.