22 Mar 2015

Author Interview with award winning author Jane Davis

Can you tell us a little about your latest book?
An Unknown Woman is very personal to me. In 2013, I took the decision to cut back on paid work, which meant selling the car and ridding myself of a lot of material baggage along the way. The book is in part an exploration of how our material possessions inform our identities. It begins with a couple standing in the road outside their house watching it burn to the ground. It is very recognisably my house. Then in February 2014, life reflected art/fiction when my sister lost her house and everything in it to the winter floods.
In the book, I ask the question, ‘If we are who we own, who are we when we have nothing?’ Parker J. Palmer described identity as ‘an ever-evolving core within which our genetics, culture, loved ones, those we cared for, people who have harmed us and people we have harmed, the deeds done (good and ill) to self and others, experiences lived, and choices made come together to form who we are at this moment.’ So, in a way, it is quite a reflective novel in which Anita has to revisit her past before she can move forwards. But when she goes home in search of comfort, she not only encounters one of those people who has caused her harm in the past, but stumbles upon the secret that her mother has kept hidden.

What inspired you to write it?
There were several sources of inspiration, but one of them was my elderly neighbour who told me his story and said, ‘I’d like to write about it’. His wife had very much wanted a child, but when their daughter was born, his wife was unable to bond with her. This wasn’t post natal depression, but an active dislike which worsened over the years. They never acknowledged it, never spoke about it, but it was always there: the unspoken truth. My neighbour spent his married life trying to compensate, being both mother and father to their daughter. I thought that I was telling the story of one man, one family, but several of my beta readers responded with details of very similar experiences, either relating to their relationships with their children or their mothers, and they were glad that it had been written about. (Possibly not one for Mother’s day!)

How did you come up with the idea for the cover?

This is my sixth novel and I think that I have developed a recognisable brand established, the key elements of which are strong photographic images, my chosen fonts and the repeat images on the spine.
For this cover, I wanted an image that spoke about an identity crisis, the fact we rarely see ourselves in the way others see us. That’s what the cracked mirror’s all about. I also wanted it to convey the complex mother/ daughter relationship and I think the combination of the younger and older woman does that very effectively. The key elements I look for in a cover are that it should be instantly identifiable, inclusive and - I hope - intriguing. In the past, I have come up with a complete concept for my covers, but this time the credit goes to my designer, Andrew Candy.

Where is the novel set and why did you choose to set it there?
The novel has several settings, but the main action takes place in Hampton Court Palace, where Anita works as a curator (and is also close to where I live) and in her hometown of Liverpool, which she visits for what she thinks will be a few days’ respite (and which is also my partner’s hometown). Anita’s relationship with her hometown is complicated. Careers advice in the eighties was, ‘Leave – and while you’re at it, lose the accent.’ And yet the City she returns to is thriving.

What is it about the literary genre that appeals to you so much?
Genre is a thorny issue for me. I was told by my then agent that I could either market my first book as literary or women’s fiction. When I won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, the decision was made for me. Transworld published Half Truths and White Lies under their imprint for women’s fiction. They then turned down my follow up because they said it was literary.
Publishers must choose from a bewildering range at the point of publication, among them ‘women writers and fiction’, ‘women’s literary fiction’, ‘literary fiction’, ‘women’s popular fiction’, ‘contemporary fiction’, ‘general fiction’. The diversity of fiction under those categories is so vast that the labels lose all meaning. Personally, I find the sub-genres far more useful - At one point last year, I had books in the rankings for historical fiction, religious fiction and urban fiction. Add to the mix the issue of cover design, put together by someone who may not even have read the book, and it’s not surprising that some books end up in the hands of the wrong readers.
Literary fiction is a label I still feel uncomfortable with. As someone who left school at the age of sixteen with an R.E. ‘O’ Level and a swimming certificate (I exaggerate slightly), it seems arrogant to claim a title which asks readers to compare my writing with the classics or Booker prize-winners. It can also be off-putting. Some readers - readers I think my books will appeal to - associate the term with something inaccessible and difficult, something that will have them constantly reaching for the dictionary, and my writing is anything but that.
I share Joanne Harris’s view that ‘women’s fiction’ isn’t a genre. All it does is reinforce the idea that books written by women are not for men. At a time when bookshops have been asked to do away with ‘boys’ fiction’ and ‘girls’ fiction’, this category seems highly inappropriate.
But in traditional publishing, only someone with Joanna Harris’s fan-base can say that she doesn’t insult her readers by assuming that they only like to read one genre of fiction. Most authors under contract are expected to remain firmly within the genre boundaries.

What made you want to become an author?

I was one of five children - the ‘quiet’ one - I always had far more going on inside my head than came out of my mouth. Having been an artistic child, I made my career in insurance which didn’t offer a creative outlet. Then, in my mid-thirties, something happened that I needed to make sense of, so I wrote I decided to write about it. I pitched my idea to my partner and asked, ‘Do you think anything would want to read a book about that?’ He said, ‘If you write it, I’ll read it.’ So he was my original audience of one. Through writing I have discovered that I have a voice.
It took me some time to work out that the common theme running through my novels is the influence that missing persons have in our lives. (This shouldn’t have come as any great surprise to me since the death of a friend was what made me start to write.) In my experience, that influence can actually be greater than that of those who are present. In Half-truths and White Lies it was parents who weren’t around to answer questions. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl which considers teenage runaways. And in An Unchoreographed Life Belinda grows up without knowing her father.
Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it does force both writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration and not the answer that is important. The idea that there is a single truth is flawed. I have a sister who is less than a year older than me our memories of the same events differ substantially. There are many different versions of the truth and many layers of memory.

How do you come up with character names?
I have been known to look at the bookshelf to my right, take the first name of one author and the surname of another. For period novels, I look at headstones in cemeteries. For my novel A Funeral for an Owl I used hybrids of names of teenagers I found in missing persons advertisements. I know of people who trawl through telephone directories, fretting that they won’t be able to get the character right until they have found the perfect name. I expect my characters to grow into their hybrid names - like children.

Name one of your all-time favourite books?
I think that Jennifer Egan has created something extraordinary in A Visit for The Goon Squad, breaking out of chronological order. She is so non-judgemental of her cast of deeply flawed characters and has something important to say about our constant search for spirituality in a secular age.

Who, or what, inspires you?
Anything and everything. A news article. A conversation I have overheard. A piece of music. An observation. A nagging doubt. An inscription on a gravestone or a park bench. A recurring nightmare. Something from my past that I can’t leave alone.

Where is your favourite place to write?

I write at the dining room table. And I fail in my promise to clear it up almost every night.

Name two of your favourite authors.
My favourite author is John Irving and, if asked to pick my favourite of his novels, I would be torn between Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both are life-changing. I particularly love John Irving’s use of themes and challenging viewpoints. I have never been to New England, but he transports me there. I feel that I know the area well through his writing.
I believe that empathy is the most important quality for an author to possess and for me the author who displays this the best is Khaled Hosseini. He is the only male author who I feel truly understands women when he writes from a women’s perspective. I also feel that he is part of my writing journey. My editor at Transworld turned down The Kite Runner, not because she didn’t love the book but because, at that time, there was no market for world fiction. And so he has gone from having one of the most widely rejected books to being named American’s best loved author. That’s quite a journey. I was very pleased to meet him last year and put the first question to him on Radio 4’s BookClub programme.

Tell us a random fact about yourself.
My mother plays the recorder on The Finger of Fudge advert.

Tell us an interesting fact about where you live.I live in a house that was originally the ticket office for a private pleasure gardens. It is the house that I burn down in the opening chapter of An Unknown Woman.

What are your (writing) plans for the future?
The novel I’ working on is about an anti-establishment figure who is a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood, and is horrified to find that she is on the New Year’s Honours List. She’s also a poet and I’m not, so I have commissioned someone to write poems for it.

Tell us one thing that's on your bucket list.
India! But I have a problem because I’m trying to minimise my carbon footprint. I have been collecting brownie points by only holidaying in the UK for the past 10 years, so I’m hoping to have enough by the time I’m fifty. 

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when Jane achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she had wanted after all. In search of a creative outlet, she turned to writing fiction, but cites the disciplines learnt in the business world as what helps her finish her first 120,000-word novel. 
Her first, 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.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Five self-published novels have followed: I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things, A Funeral for an Owl, An Unchoreographed Life and now her latest release, An Unknown Woman. Jane’s favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’
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