Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Jane Davis: The IAN Interview

Jane Davis

Jane Davis is the author of six novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as 'A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.' The Bookseller featured her in their 'One to Watch' section. Five further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Jane is regularly compared to more seasoned authors such as Kate Atkinson and Maggie O'Farrell. 

Compulsion Reads describe Jane as 'a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.' Her favourite description of fiction is 'made-up truth'.

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey, with her Formula 1 obsessed, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she is not writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

IAN: Please tell us about your latest book.

Jane Davis: At the age of forty-six, Anita Hall knows exactly who she is. She has lived with partner Ed for fifteen years and is proud of all they’ve achieved. They go out into the world separately: Ed with one eye on the future in the world of finance; Anita with one foot in the past, a curator at Hampton Court Palace. This is the life she has chosen - choices that weren’t open to her mother’s generation - her dream job, equal partnership, freedom from the monotony of parenthood, living mortgage-free in a quirky old house she adores. The future seems knowable and secure. But then Anita finds herself standing in the middle of the road watching her home and everything inside it burn to the ground. Before she can come to terms with the magnitude of her loss, hairline cracks begin to appear in her perfect relationship. And returning to her childhood home in search of comfort, she stumbles upon the secret that her mother has kept hidden, a taboo so unspeakable it can only be written about.

IAN. Is An Unknown Woman published in print, e-book or both?

Jane Davis: Both.

IAN: Where can we go to buy An Unknown Woman?

Jane Davis: At these retailers. Amazon.co.uk   Amazon.com  Smashwords  iTunes/apple  Kobo  Inktera  OysterBooks  Scribed

IAN: What inspired you to write An Unknown Woman?

Jane Davis: I’ve chosen some fairly meaty subjects for my previous novels: religious visions, prostitution, knife crime, the protection of vulnerable adults. With An Unknown Woman, I didn’t deliberately set out to write about a ‘big subject’. Instead, I began to write what I thought was a simple story about a family placed under the microscope when crisis brings them together. I wanted to tackle the subjects that are relevant to the life I’m living now (which bears no similarity to what I imagined when I was a child and my father used to tell me, “When you’re an adult, you can do exactly as you like.”) It’s about how material possessions inform our sense of self; the extension of youth into what used to be thought of as middle age; and what it’s like to be childless when the majority of friends have children, even when childlessness was a positive choice.

Basing the threads very loosely on my elderly neighbour’s personal experience, I also explore the issue of what happens when the bond between mother and daughter is absent. In my neighbour’s case, the women in his wife’s family only had daughters and were unable to form any sort of bond with them. He spent his married life guarding his wife’s secret by being both mother and father. It was only when I sent my manuscript to beta readers that I realised, far from being a ‘small story’, this issue is more common than I could have possibly imagined. But while the subjects of post-natal depression and delayed bonding are openly discussed, the sense of shame that a mother experiences when she cannot love a child – sometimes a child who was very much wanted – precludes that same openness.  

IAN: How did you come up with the title?

Jane Davis: I used the working title The Things that we Lost in the Fire, but changed it when a song of the same title was released. By that time, An Unknown Woman had taken on various meanings within the book. It’s central character, Anita, whose job is a curator at Hampton Court Palace, is obsessed with a painting called The Portrait of an Unknown Woman, which depicts a woman who was previously thought to be Queen Elizabeth 1 - except that she’s shown as being heavily pregnant. Secondly, Anita is also interested in the women whose names have disappeared from history, and, thirdly, it is the title of the book within a book.  

IAN: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

Jane Davis: Other than using my neighbour’s story, not intentionally, although I’m afraid the answer turned out to be a resounding ‘yes’. The action begins with my main character, Anita, standing outside the house she and her partner have lived in for fifteen years and watching it burn to the ground. It is very recognisably my house.  My partner and I joked about how I might be tempting fate. But it was just a joke. We aren’t terribly superstitious – although I must admit that we’ve had more near misses during the last year than I’m comfortable with. (There may be some truth in the saying, “You attract what you think most about”.)  

Then in February 2014, when I was about halfway through writing the book, my sister and her husband lost their house and practically everything they owned to the winter floods. She lived on the island on the Thames that you can see in the first photograph in this article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2555658/UK-weather-16-areas-South-warned-flooding-danger-lives-Armed-Forces-battle-save-homes.html. Suddenly there appeared to be an extra layer of meaning in every line I wrote.  

IAN: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in An Unknown Woman?

Jane Davis: The loss of my sister’s house made me question if I should abandon the project. The imagined scenario I had been writing about become a reality for someone very close to me. I gave her the choice, which was possibly a little unfair. I didn’t realise at the time I made the decision to continue, or even when I went to press, that 18 months later, they would only have just received planning permission to rebuild. At the moment, they’re still living in rented accommodation with what little they managed to salvage. Their lives will still be in limbo for another year or so yet. However, it was clear that the shape of the book had to change. The other day, I stumbled across this quote: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up the tree, and once they are there, to throw rocks at them.” While Anita finds one hell of a lot of rocks flying in her direction, I chose my ammunition more carefully than I would have done otherwise, replacing a few sharp flints with smooth pebbles.  

IAN: Did you use an outline or do you just wing the first draft?

Jane Davis: I never write an outline, but I don’t see the alternative as ‘winging it’. I am a gradual layer-er, and that takes time. With the exception of Half-truths and White Lies, which virtually wrote itself, none of my published novels bear any resemblance to their early drafts.
I like George R R Martin’s quote: ‘I’ve always said there are two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. Architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.’ Personally, I think there are more than two types of writers. 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. 
Every time you introduce a new angle, each ‘what if?’ question has to be pushed to its limits. Setting material aside and revisiting it is an excellent practice. It allows far greater objectivity. You have to analyse what isn’t working any why, then once you have the structure you go back and make every page shine.
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.’ As author Roz Morris says, sometimes it takes a reader to hold the mirror up to your work. 
This certainly wasn’t the first time I have substantially altered the focus of a book during the course of its writing. I’m afraid that anyone who imagines that words show up in the eventual order that they appear on the page of any novel is, in the majority of cases, mistaken. In some ways, the novel in its final form is an illusion. The rabbit pulled out of the hat – or in the case of An Unknown Woman, the few things pulled from the wreckage of a burning house.
IAN: What do you hope your readers come away with after reading An Unknown Woman?

Jane Davis: The fire quickly becomes the least of Anita’s problems. It is the psychological fall-out and what happens when she is stripped of her armour that drives the narrative. She has to find the answer to the question, ‘If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?’ I suppose that I’m asking the reader the question too. The answer is that we are not the same. But, as with the altered plot of a novel, there can be positives. I think the overall message is that when one door closes, another opens.
IAN: Who designed your book covers?

Jane Davis: I work with graphic designer Andrew Candy on my book covers (although my newest cover was designed by Jessica Bell). Having already established a strong brand, the way we operate is that I come up with the concept for the design, and source the images and Andy executes it using his marvellous eye and technical wizardry, which, frankly, is beyond me.

As with the title, the image for the cover of An Unknown Woman has more than one interpretation. There is the fraught mother/daughter relationship in the book, but there is also the idea of looking in a mirror and finding that the person staring back at you is not the person you expected.

Andy gets the credit for finding the image of the older woman. Trying to find photographs of two women who could be two halves of a whole, without the result looking photo-shopped was a challenge. I was tearing out my hair when he got lucky and struck gold. Photo libraries tend to rotate images, so one day you can find nothing at all and on another day the perfect image will appear within moments, as it did for him. I’ve had people ask if it’s the same woman, but of course it isn’t. It’s the arch of the eyebrow that makes it so convincing. I think it’s probably my most commercial book cover to date. 

IAN: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Jane Davis: If I have to pick one author, it has to be John Irving. I’m currently re-reading Cider House Rules. As for what strikes me about his work, my answer today is totally different from what it would have been had you asked me a few years ago. What I love about Irving’s writing is his skill to tackle complex subject matter with simple language. You’ll never find him shying away from an uncomfortable scene. When I started to write, I wrote the type of book that I loved to read. I left school at the age of 16 and had never been to a creative writing class. No one had told me that there were rules. What strikes me is that Irving breaks every rule - he constantly head-hops and he veers away from the main story for several pages to explore the background of a minor character – but his storytelling style is no natural that he does this eloquently.     

IAN: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

Jane Davis: I belong to a writers’ group, but everybody there has written a book so I’m not a novelty. I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and I’ve had great support there, and have collaborated with several members on various projects. Last year, my novel An Unchoreographed Life was included in a multi-author boxset, ALLi member Jessica Bell designed the new cover for I Stopped Time and ALLi member Jane Dixon-Smith designed the interiors for the new editions of my books. I’m brand new to the Independent Author Network so I’m looking forward to getting to know other members. But the greatest support I’ve had has been from members of my keep fit class (Moves Fitness). I’ve been working out with the same group of people twice a week for the past 25 years. There are about 400 classes dotted around the country, which if you do the maths gives me access to 12,000 potential readers, many of whom fit the demographic I’m after. Among the people in my class I have found several amazing beta readers and proofreaders whose talents are being wasted at work, so they’re very keen to put them to work. There is buy-in from those people, and my instructor allows me to sell books before and after class. When we put on large-scale events such as charity fundraisers, I donate the profits of my books while getting considerable exposure. My advice to other authors is to never be afraid to ask for help. The response may surprise you!  

IAN: Tell us about your next book or a work in progress. Is it a sequel or a stand-alone?

Jane Davis: My work in progress is a standalone novel. It’s the story of a radical poet and political activist who is a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she is horrified to find that she’s been featured on the New Year’s Honours list. (This is list prepared by the Queen for people who have made a considerable contribution to British life in some substantial way – arts, culture, business, charitable works and so on).    

1 comment:

  1. An interesting interview Jane. Particularly the pat that suggests a writer of fiction is actually attracting what happens by conceiving and articulating it. That has happened to me more times than I can count, and does make for a certain nervousness when close relationships are involved. Your sister's flood against your fictional fire a case in point. To what then lies the dominant allegiance? Those who do not write and allow free wings to imagination see a kind of heartlessness in the scribe who puts words to tragedy.