I am thrilled to host an interview with the award winning, Jane Davis, on my blog, in advance of the publication of her new novel, Smash all the Windows. My questions are driven by a personal desire to find out more about writers and how they work.
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, she 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.
Where do you get your ideas from? What inspired your latest book, Smash all the Windows? Powerful title!
I’m glad you like the title. It took me a long time to settle on it. 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.
Elizabeth Strout tells her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful.’ But none of us exists in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members as they struggled with the question was raw. And so combining two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – I created a fictional disaster.
The previous year, en route to a Covent Garden book-reading, I’d suffered a fall. The escalator I normally use was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was much steeper, but I was totally unprepared for its speed. When I pushed my suitcase full of books in front of me, I was dragged off-balance. Fortunately, no one was directly in front. I escaped relatively unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.
What did you edit out of this book, and how do you know when to stop (editing)?
I tend to add things in the edit rather than edit out, but in this case, I removed what was effectively a prologue. The book originally began with a leaked extract from a letter to the Lord Mayor of London (fictional, of course). The reason for its inclusion was because when I wrote An Unchoreographed Life I found that despite the overwhelming focus on London in British news broadcasts, people living outside London really didn’t have an understanding of the issues Londoners face on a day-to-day basis. My concern was, what if readers don’t get the book? The letter contained factual background about the speed of the growth of London’s population (10% year on year), the inadequacies of transport system, the conflict of being aware of this position but wanting to stage an Olympic games and make the City the business capital of the world – all thrilling stuff. My structural editor thought it was in the wrong place, but my beta readers told me it made for a very cold, clinical beginning to what they felt is actually a warm and big-hearted book. In the end, I drip-fed the content elsewhere.
Does writing energise, or exhaust you? What do you need, to get from an idea to a final version?
I’m hesitant because I’m honestly not sure of the answer to the first part of the question. I’m someone who likes to be in the right frame of mind for the scene I’m writing. If I know I have to write a tired and exhausted scene, I have been known to set my alarm for the middle of the night. If my character is having a drink, I might also have a drink. I suppose you could say I’m a method writer.
The answer to the second part is that I’m 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. Sometimes I will 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 in mind-set, but equally it can be a Eureka moment.
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.
What overall feeling would you like your readers to experience, on reaching the last page of your books? How do you feel when you write, The End? (if you do, that is).
I’d like to leave them breathless. With A Funeral for an Owl, I deliberately tried to end the book with a gasp. But if not breathless, then with more questions and wanting to know what happen next. I am afraid my novels don’t come with any guarantee of a tidy endings. I agree with Samuel Johnson that an author only begins a book; it is the reader who finishes it.
Do you know, I have never typed The End.
It’s said that it takes 12 seconds for a reader to choose a book. Your book covers are emotive, and outstandingly beautiful in design. How much input do you have into this, and how important is the cover, and the title of a book, in building sales?
I’m glad you like them.
One of the joys of self-publishing is choosing how to present your work. Given that mine is difficult to categorise, I was conscious of the need for a strong brand. You’re right about the need to grab a reader’s attention. An author only has eight seconds to do just that. First impressions really count! I used elements from the cover of Half-truths and White Lies as building blocks: the font and the strong photographic image, repeated on the spine. The brief I gave cover designer Andrew Candy was that my books should look like a set you’d want to collect. I was thinking of my own bookshelves: the novels of John Irving; Frank Herbert’s Dune series; classic Penguin paperbacks. I wanted that certain something that would make people say, ‘Oh, another Jane Davis.’
I’m a very visual person with a passion for photography and so I wanted to be a part of the design process, sourcing the photographs and coming up with the concepts.
Looking for images that captures both the themes of a book and its genre isn’t always easy. These Fragile Things tackles some meaty subjects, including near-death experience and religious visions. I was only aware of one other contemporary novel covering the same issues – Francesca Kay’s The Translation of the Bones, whose cover makes a confident statement about the content – a woman holding a rosary. Instead, I opted to convey the mood of the book. A butterfly with a broken wing is an emotive image, conveying fragility.
For the cover of A Funeral for an Owl, perhaps the most literal of all my book covers, I had the image of a boy in mind, and my search for the right face took a long time. I was thinking of Ken Loach’s film adaptation of A Kestrel for a Knave (the wonderful Kes), and U2’s album cover for Boy. Eventually I found him. A boy looking out of a window, his face reflected back at him. The wonder in his eyes is palpable. A boy who might be looking out of the window of his council flat and catching his first glimpse of an owl…
As I’ve learned to trust Andrew, I have become more experimental. For An Unchoreographed Life, my novel about a ballerina who turns to prostitution when she becomes a single mother, I wanted to avoid any hint of erotica. My story has more in common with Henry James’s What Maisie Knew than Belle de Jour. Describing a scene where my main character Alison comes face to face with a stag, I asked if it would be possible to combine the image of a ballerina with a deer. Andrew’s answer was yes, but only if I could find the right woman and the right deer, otherwise it would end up looking like a ‘bodge-jon’. So that was my challenge. The final image suits the book perfectly: a woman who hasn’t been able to let go of her past and wears a mask.
The design for An Unknown Woman needed to show a woman undergoing an identity crisis. I wanted it to represent the difference between the way we see ourselves and how others see us, but also to hint at a complex mother/daughter relationship. I came up with the idea of two halves of a woman’s face and Andrew suggested adding a cracked mirror. I sourced the image of the younger woman, but it was Andrew who found picture the older woman, and then used his technical wizardry to manipulate it so that they look like one and the same. The cover won two awards and I have no doubt that it contributed to Writing Magazine’s decision to name An Unknown Woman as their Self-published book of the year.
For My Counterfeit Self, I chose an award-winning image by Sergiy Glushchenko/500px. Water is a repeat theme within the novel, but there’s also the sense of falling, disaster and shock. My main character, Lucy Forrester, is a political poet whose main cause is CND. It struck me that the bubbles coming from the woman’s mouth looked a little like a mushroom cloud so we exaggerated that. I particularly liked the idea of the mushroom cloud coming out of the poet’s mouth.
Personally, I love the cover for Smash all the Windows. We have the starling from a particularly poignant scene in the novel, a hint of anger, a hint of disaster, a hint of ghosts, and the book’s setting – the City of London.
So many authors are disillusioned with the traditional route to publishing. What tempted you down the self-published path, knowing that the business side of book promotion would be all on your shoulders?
It’s important to recognise how rapidly publishing is developing. I swap stories with authors who are under contract and most say that they are under two-book deals for which they had received perhaps £5 – 8,000, compared with £20,000 - £30,000 in 2009, as I also did. In many cases, the advance for the book won’t cover what they know they’ll have to spend.
In November 2012 I was out of contract and decided to investigate self-publishing. I attended a self-publishing conference and discovered that, far from what I’d been told, indie authors aren’t amateurish. They’re a diverse group - authors who’ve walked away from six-figure deals, established authors who’ve been dropped by their publishers after their latest book didn’t sell quite so well, innovative authors whose work doesn’t fit the market, cross-genre authors who market themselves as a brand, best-selling authors who have never tried the traditional route, who were there at the right place, at the right time. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out? I didn’t take much more convincing. Provided you’re comfortable with the business side of things – and not all authors are – the advantages are clear. A greater share of the profits, the ability to publish to your own schedule in a timely manner, and to tweak anything that isn’t working, whether that’s the blurb, the price or the book cover, but most importantly, creative control. If I take two years to produce a book rather than one, so be it. I choose which subjects to write about, which professionals to collaborate with and how to present my work.
Authors are people, first and foremost. Would you like to offer us a few random facts about yourself?
- My mother played the recorder on the Finger of Fudge advert.
- I used to be qualified to take other people winter mountaineering. Horrifying, I know.
- Ever since I had laser eye surgery, I have suffered from vertigo.
- I have to take three small steps before getting on at the top of an escalator.
Smash all the Windows will be released on 12 April. The Universal Link is books2read.com/u/49P21p
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, 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 the Author
High resolution photos available from https://jane-davis.co.uk/media-kit/