I first interviewed UK-based independent author Jane Davis in 2016 about her thoughts on writing and literary fiction (the link to that interview is at the end of this post.) Jane’s latest novel, Smash All the Windows, was published in April 2018 and is currently available for purchase.
Can you describe the type of writing that characterizes your output?
Henry James wrote in an 1884 magazine article that a novel is ‘a direct impression of life’. My own favourite definition of fiction is ‘made-up truth’, which is pretty close. Whatever my subject-matter, I try to make sure that the end-product is honest, credible and authentic. I like to write about big subjects and give my characters almost impossible moral dilemmas. I don’t allow my characters 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.Do you plan your work in advance or discover it through the writing process?
My process is slow and organic. I start with a single idea and take it to its natural conclusion. Most of my books have changed substantially during the writing. Pivotal moments may not surface until I’m several edits in, or until an editor comments, ‘I see the point that you were trying to make.’ The final edit may give the impression that the writing arrives fully formed, but what the version the reader sees is an illusion.
I was lucky enough to hear Pulitzer prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout speak a couple of years ago. Someone commented that she had a very economical style, and she said, “You should see the bits I cut.” Style owes much to the bits the reader never gets to see.
Can you tell us about your new novel Smash all The Windows?
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.
But you chose not to write about Hillsborough. Why was that?
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. I decided to create a fictional disaster to tell my truths. But because I didn’t want to write from a place of comfort, I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators.
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.
My disaster shares many elements with Hillsborough. Because both incidents happened before the explosion of the internet, voices weren’t heard as they would be today. Someone in management was new to the job. Things had ‘always been done that way’ (such a dangerous sentence). Facilities dated from a time when human space requirements weren’t understood. Risk assessments hadn’t considered multiple failures. It was also important to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families by perpetuation of the lie.
Was the decision how to structure the novel obvious?
In a way this was an odd piece of story-telling, because the reader knows right at the outset what the key event is. The St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster was a large-scale disaster that resulted in the death of fifty-eight commuters. The challenge was to show the impact of the event on different individuals and their families, who have re-lived it each day of the eighteen month long inquest. Because the accident takes place in an underground station, we see the various characters travelling towards it. I tried to create a sense of real-time and urgency, despite the fact that the reader knows the accident happened fourteen years in the past.
Is there an important theme (or themes) that this story illustrates?
In fiction, there’s a temptation to try to undo the wrongs of the real world by applying logic, assuming that there is a single ‘truth’. In Smash All the Windows, I used several points of view to explore different reactions to and opposing viewpoints. Who are the victims? Should individuals been held accountable when large-scale accidents occur, or does this prevent the identification of the factors that create circumstances that allowed accidents to happen? How should families and friends of victims be treated when they’re searching for or identifying loved ones? Should those same friends and family members be allowed to participate fully in inquests? But it’s not a book about technicalities. It’s about human resilience, healing and art.
You’ve turned the conversation to the subject to art and of course it has a key role to play in the novel.
It does. My character Jules Roche was the unwitting poster boy for the disaster. He has really outgrown his reputation as being something of an enfant terrible, but it’s stuck. He’s someone who reluctantly found fame with the sculptures he created from an outpouring of blind anger and sorrow. Now, in celebration of the verdict, Tate Modern wants to stage an exhibition of his work. Jules accepts – but only on his terms. He collaborates with the families of the victims to create a series of new pieces from their mementos. For some, it becomes part of the process of letting go.
Is modern art something you know a great deal about?
You know, I recently completed an author survey. There was an entire section asking about early writing experiences. What was the first story you wrote? Did you win any writing competitions while at school? I began to think, ‘I’m not a writer. I’m a failed artist.’ It wasn’t that I didn’t make up stories as a child, but instead of words, I used pictures. Right up to my O-Level year, I spent most of my spare time drawing and painting. I’d always assumed that I would make a career in art. My paternal grandfather had and so this didn’t seem entirely unrealistic. Plus it was the thing I was good at. And then came a hard lesson. I learned that judgement of what is good art is subjective. The O-Level examiners didn’t like my work. But you can apply what you know about the process of writing a novel to the creation of a work of art. Both are processes requiring vision and the creation of something out of nothing. I have to admit that most of what I know about modern art comes from the BBC series, Imagine. I’ve been absolutely gripped by the stories about the artists, and therefore behind the art.
Is Jules the hero of the piece?
Given that each character gets up day after day and faces the world, despite everything they’ve lost, all of the characters are heroic. But of all of the characters, I think it’s Eric who deserves to be singled out. When most injustices are overturned, there is usually an individual in the background. The one who realised that an injustice had been done and who then worked tirelessly behind the scenes in order to construct a case. With the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, that person was Eric, a law student, still some way from qualifying as a solicitor. The outsider in the story, his arrival proves to be a turning point for families, who have all but given up in their search for justice. In the midst of all of the heartbreak and human reaction, the unseen suffering, the unnoticed agonies, his conviction reminds the families that they still have a little fight in them.
Can you tell us a little more about your other characters?
We have mother and daughter, Gina and her daughter Tamsin Wicker. It’s a complicated dynamic.
Gina didn’t only lose a son in the disaster. She lost her idea of who he was – of who she herself was. She wasn’t, as she’d thought, a good mother, and this knowledge led to a downward spiral of self-destruction.
Tamsin finds herself at a crossroads. Almost twenty-seven years old, she’s still living at home with her mother, who’s an alcoholic. But having lost so much of her teenage years, she is beginning to think she’s entitled to a life of her own, but she’s also afraid of moving on.
Then we have Maggie and Alan Chappel. When Alan decides that the best chance he has of healing his hidden wounds is by returning to his Northumberland hometown, Maggie comes under mounting pressure to explain her reluctance to go along with his plans.
Finally, there’s Donovan. The disaster wiped out two generations of his family. Not only his daughter and future son-in-law, but his unborn grandson. He has another source of pain, less obvious. One he can’t discuss. Ever since the funeral, his wife Helene has turned her back on the world, refusing to leave the house. But surely, if he can raise money to build a monument, she might be persuaded… That’s his motivation.
What is the relationship between themes and raw, lived experience in your books?
It took me some time to identify that the common thread that runs through my novels is the impact of missing persons on our lives, how the hole they leave behind can be so great that it dwarfs the people we’re left with. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl, with teenage runaways. And in These Fragile Things mother Elaine is obsessed by the child she lost to a miscarriage, almost to the exclusion of the child she has. In Smash all the Window, given that we have fifty-nine victims, the presence of the theme is again obvious. It almost certainly comes from both my personal history – and that of my parents.
When I was aged seventeen, a school friend of mine was murdered. This was my first experience of a young person dying, and the ripples from that single death are still felt today. In my parents’ generation, death was far more common but was seldom spoken about.
My father’s mother died when he was just eighteen months old. He and his two sisters were taken into care. As was the norm, he was separated from Marian (aged 6) and Lois (aged 4). Six months later, Marian woke to find Lois dead in the bed beside her. Lois’s death certificate says that she died of a broken heart.
My mother was the first child of her father’s second marriage. His first wife had died in 1937 at the age of 37. Mum grew up knowing her two half-brothers and a half-sister. We only came into possession of a family tree last week, which shows that she had another half-brother she knew nothing about. Patrick died in 1938, just six months after his mother.
My mother also had a much loved younger sister called Alma. She and my mother were to have had a joint wedding but 10 days before the wedding date, Alma was killed in a car crash. She was 23.
Have you compared the book to any other writers or novels you’ve read? What’s the same? What’s different?
I hope it will be enjoyed by readers of How to be Both by Ali Smith and How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall. Both have much to say on fragile, precious and unpredictable life is. Both focus on what it means to be human and our innate connection with art. Neither is likely to put you off escalators.
Smash all the Windows was released on April 12, 2017 and can be purchased at books2read.com/u/49P21p.
August 20, 2016 interview with Jane Davis: “Jane Davis: A Conversation About Writing and Literary Fiction”.
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, 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’.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage
Click here to read other contributions in Jay Lemming’s interview series with authors of literary and contemporary fiction.