Saturday 10 September 2016

Jane Davis Gets Confidential

I’m delighted to welcome award-winning author, Jane Davis, to the blog. Jane is the author of seven 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. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Compulsion Reads describe her 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. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I grew up close to Wimbledon, best known for its association with lawn tennis. These days, Wimbledon is in one of London’s most expensive post codes, but back in those pre-DIY days, it wasn’t nearly so affluent. Apart from the fact that I can longer afford to live in Wimbledon, I haven’t moved far and the changes I’ve seen, both demographically and architecturally, interest me. My novels are set in my personal geography, and so it already has many strata. I’ll let Ron explain. (Taken from an Unknown Woman)
‘There was something transportative about living in the same city all of your life; walking around familiar geography, knee-deep in the history of the place. And superimposed over a street map carried both inside and outside his head (the then and the now), were the milestones of his own life.’
When you write characters into what is already your personal backdrop, you create yet another layer. Recently I found myself in St Mary’s Church in Beddington lighting a candle for my mother-in-law’s anniversary, but I also felt the presence of Jim and Aimee, two on my characters from A Funeral for an Owl.

What kind of subjects do you write about and why do they interest you?

Big subjects: I’ve tackled the influence that missing people have on our lives, how parents react when their teenage daughter claims to be seeing religious visions, what life is like for the daughter of a prostitute, what it’s like to lose your home and everything in it. I give my characters almost impossible moral dilemmas. To be honest I throw them to the lions.  

As for why, I’m hugely interested in cause and effect. One of my favourite authors is John Irving and the first novel of his that I read was A Prayer for Owen Meany. Irving overlays the story of Owen Meany, (a boy brought up to believe that he was the product of a virgin birth), with the somewhat dull present-day life of his best friend, John. Talk about cause and effect! One of the reasons authors write is because they want to create a world with logic, with order, with consequences, sometimes doling out justice, sometimes giving people second chances. All authors are playing God to some extent. 

Most of the events I write about are based in truth, albeit slightly unexpected ones. What inspired me to write These Fragile Things was the discovery that a woman in Surbiton – close to where I live – claims she has seen visions of the Virgin Mary every day for the past thirty years. When challenged recently that that there were too many coincidences in I Stopped Time, I referred the reviewer to the biography of model-turned-photographer-turned-journalist Lee Miller. I see myself as a magpie. I collect obscure facts and think, how can I recycle them?

Do you have a special place where you like to write?

My writing desk is the dining room table. At least, I think the table is under there somewhere. It is littered with notebooks, notes written on the backs of envelopes, Sellotape, my diary, a calculator. I can work in chaos - so long as I have silence.  

It’s definitely not an ideal environment - I don’t live alone and the dining room is the highway to our kitchen and the bathroom! However, Stephen King describes in his book, On Writing about how he used to write at a small desk under the eaves, and it wasn’t until he had his first office that he first suffered from writers’ block. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

What was the first thing you wrote? Was it any good?

My first novel was called After Hilary. It didn’t get as far as being a book, but did earn me the services of a literary agent and the words, ‘Jane, you’re a writer’, which sounded far more glamorous than ‘Jane, you’re an insurance broker’. I’d call that four years well-spent. There was a draft contract from a small publisher, but the small publisher was eaten up by a big publisher before the ink was dry. In retrospect, I’m rather glad it was consigned to the bottom drawer reserved for all first novels, because like most first serious attempts, it contains semi-autobiographic elements that would have come back to bite me. I have published seven novels since then. None of them are remotely autobiographical, but this doesn’t stop members of my family from claiming that they recognise themselves.

Tell us a bit about your latest release.

My Counterfeit Self tells the story of a radical poet and political activist called Lucy Forrester, who’s a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. It starts on the day of the funeral of her literary critic and on/off lover of 50 years, Dominic Marchmont. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, Lucy 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).


What conflicts shape the story?

Lucy knows exactly who she is. Rebel, activist, word-wielder, thorn in the side of the establishment, not a national treasure. Initially she sees the fact that she’s been nominated for an Honour as an insult. Perhaps it’s an act of revenge, or a cruel joke. But husband Ralph suggests that perhaps Dominic – the man they both loved – has left her an opportunity? Lucy’s job is to work out how best to use it.

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

To be honest, the idea of writing about the life of a poet came directly from reader reviews. Several comments that my prose was like poetry. I had no idea if I could actually write poetry but this gave me confidence that I might be able to convince readers that I could see the world as a poet does.

How did you research your story?

Authenticity’s very important to me. I started by reading a number of biographies: The Life of Kenneth Tynan, by Kathleen Tynan; Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius, by Richard Greene; Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, by Andrew Wilson, Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley and Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly. 
Because Lucy was struck down by polio at the age of nine, I needed to understand how childhood illness creates ambition, and was surprised by just how many famous people had suffered from polio: Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland, Joni Mitchell, the ballerina Gwen Verdon – in fact Gwen was encouraged by her mother to dance as therapy.

With the internet, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips, but when you find conflicting information, it’s difficult to pin down which version is correct. Sometimes you have to go with the majority. The main issue I find is that it is easy to find the ‘facts’ (and I’m going to use inverted commas), it’s more of a challenge to know what my characters would have known at the time. That’s why I refer to newspaper headlines. I can be certain that this level of detail was in the public domain.

My final research required bare-faced cheek. I needed to know what a person would have to do to get arrested outside Buckingham Palace, how long it would take for someone to react, and what warnings would be given, and the information wasn’t available on-line. This wasn’t something I could afford to get wrong so I went to the Palace and asked the duty policemen and guards.

Does the story echo your own experience in any very concrete way?

Not in a concrete way, but indirectly. It’s unavoidable for a writer to draw on their own experience. In writing about the life of poet, I’ve drawn on my experiences as a writer. How it feels when you show your work to someone for the first time. How you fear that people may like you less when they understand what’s going on inside your head. I suppose you could say that I’ve drawn on my experience of winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award. After my competition win I received several reviews that said I didn’t deserve to win, that the result was a fix, or that I must have been related to the judges. I wanted to say to those people, ‘I didn’t enter with any expectation of winning.’ You see, I entered out of sheer frustration. I had an agent but my manuscript had been sitting in her in-tray for six months and she hadn’t found time to read it. With winning, there’s always a sense of giving with one hand and taking away with the other, ignoring the fact that at the centre of the controversy is someone vulnerable and real.

Do you think the book’s message is a hopeful one?

My philosophy is ‘arrive late, get out early’. I’m writing about a real issue that has yet to be resolved, so I can’t finish the story, but yes, I’d say there is a triumphant note.

Saul Bellow once said ‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ Do you agree?

Occasionally, to write the first draft of a tired and emotional scene, it helps to be tired and emotional, so that you can use an emotion that’s already there, rather than having to recreate one. I might set the alarm for the middle of the night so that I’m at least halfway there. But I always have to edit.

Do you have hobbies aside from reading?

I have three main passions: walking, photography and the British countryside. I am very lucky in that I am surrounded by parks so walking I do daily, but I can combine all three. I discovered mountain-climbing when I was eighteen and find it hugely rewarding to push myself physically. The top of a mountain is also a great place for thinking and putting things in perspective.  

What’s the first book you remember reading?

I can remember that I was a huge fan of The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. I also loved Anne of Green Gables and anything written by Alan Garner, whose writing is dark, peculiarly British and blends fact with folk law, myths and spirituality.

Do you have an all-time favourite book?

My list of favourite books may change but it’s always topped by The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. It has everything. Family secrets, flawed characters, opportunities for redemption. I return to it time and time again and always find something new. Odd though it may seem, I have never read another book by Pat Conroy. The Prince of Tides is so perfect, I’d be afraid that I would feel disappointed.

What are you working on now?

I’m very superstitious about talking about what I’m working on. I don’t know if I have a book on my hands until I hit the 50,000-word mark and I’m not there yet. But I was very moved by the Hillsborough documentary about how the families of those who were killed finally achieved their goals after dedicating their entire lives to the fight for justice. While it ended on a celebratory note, my thoughts were, what on earth do you do now? So that’s what I hope to explore.

My Counterfeit Self is available to pre-order on Kindle until the launch date of 1st October at the special price of 99p/99c. After this, the price will be £2.99/$3.99. To order or buy follow the link

For details of her other books, visit:

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