I first encountered Jane Davis when we were both selected as Readers’ Recommended Reads in The Guardian. I was very glad I did. Not only is she a lovely person, but I am a serious fan of her writing, hence my willingness to provide a quote for the cover.
As she is releasing three of her wonderful books in a boxset, I took the opportunity to find out a little more about her, her writing and her reading.
Which book most influenced you when growing up?
The books that I loved the most were those of Alan Garner. I was drawn to his dark depiction of the British countryside as a strange and mysterious place, almost a character in itself, with its old beliefs and pagan influences. Whilst there was no conscious connection, in adult life I have explored Britain’s prehistoric sites and am intrigued by phenomena such as ley lines.
Where do you write?
I am overwhelmed by guilt just reading that question. I write at the dining table. The problem in our house is the layout. You have to walk through the dining room to get to both the kitchen and the bathroom. Since I need absolute silence to work, I have a habit of glaring at Matt whenever he disturbs me, even if he is offering to make me a coffee. I have also failed miserably in my promise that I would clear away my writing stuff every night before dinner. There is a practical reason why I don’t – I usually carry on working into the evening. But it does mean that we usually eat surrounded by my work – pens, papers, post-it notes, the stack of books I am using for research of my current novel. It’s hardly relaxing. My advice: never live with a writer!
Who or what had the biggest impact on your creative life?
The rejection of my second book by my publisher, Transworld. Strange as it may seem, I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened. (At the time, I didn’t think it was cause for panic as I was assured that another publisher would snap me up.) But, having won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, my reality check came in 2009, when my follow-up was refused because it wasn’t ‘women’s fiction’. Never having considered that I was writing for exclusively women (in fact, I have a growing number of male readers), I hadn’t appreciated the implications of being published under their Black Swan imprint. Without realising it, I had been pigeon-holed – and my new novel didn’t fit.
Personally, I am drawn to books that refuse to conform. When a review of Roz Morris’s My Memories of a Future Life described it as strange and stubborn, I went out of my way to track it down. But at the point of publication, a book must be defined. Bestselling authors like Joanne Harris can stick their necks out and say that they don’t insult their readers by assuming that they only like to read one type of fiction (she also disputes that ‘womens’ fiction’ is a genre – a sentiment that resonates with me both as a reader and an author.) Recently, Kate Mosse has distanced herself from the off-putting literary tag by announcing her return to her roots as a storyteller.
As best-selling author Hugh Howey suggested at the London Book Fair, authors should enjoy their anonymity. Over the next four years, I produced two further novels. Had I been under contract, I would have been chasing deadlines. Instead, with the luxury of time, I added layers to plots, depth to characters and a real sense of time and place. In later novels, I have tackled subjects that mainstream publishers might have encouraged me to avoid – a mother who turns to prostitution, for example.
How far are you influenced by other media, such as music or photography?
I don’t use music in the process of creating characters, but I make extensive musical references in my writing. For me, 7 inch singles pinpoint a particular time and so they’re useful tools for tapping into a reader’s sense of nostalgia.
In Half-Truths and White Lies, one of my main characters is a musician, while another has been brought up without any popular music in the house (a situation that reflects my own up-bringing) and so the musician takes over the responsibility of educating his friend. These experiences are mine. My mother was a classical musician and my father policed Beatles gigs during the height of Beatlemania, dealing with teenage girls who wet themselves, fainted and threw their knickers (not in that order, that wouldn’t make sense at all). One of my father’s dinner-party stories was how he arrested Georgie Fame for speeding and Georgie Fame asked him, ‘Do you know who I am?’ and my dad was quite proud to say that he didn’t. (Georgie Fame took his revenge by writing a song called Sargeant Jobsworth). But it wasn’t fair to send any girl to guide camp in the Seventies without knowing the words to Yellow Submarine, and I suffered the ultimate humiliation of failing the interview for Crackerjack because I didn’t know the names of all of the Beatles.
My characters are influenced by music to the same extent that I was. Music was what made sense of my teenage years. References are also scattered throughout These Fragile Things. I suspect that only someone who was a teenager in the 80s would be aware when they read, adding her voice, that it is a nod to the Human League. There is a scene in which Graham is reciting the Lord’s Prayer as he walks though hospital corridors. It is borrowed from Yazoo’s In My Room.
My other obsession is photography. It is the theme of my novel I Stopped Time, which is my homage to the pioneers of photography and I was determined to do them justice. The review that most pleased me came from a professional photographer who wrote, ‘This book voiced everything I’ve held inside of me as a photographer . Stopping time…looking at the world with a different perspective. I found it to be affirming of all artists, especially photographers. In the age of digitalization, we are given even more opportunity to craft our art. The novel’s heroine was creating artistic images that were cutting edge for the setting.’ I was very moved by that.
Do you have a phrase that you most overuse?
I don’t know about overuse. My favourite phrase is KBO (Keep buggering on). It is borrowed from Churchill. I find uses for it several times a day – and I managed to squeeze it into my novel, An Unchoreographed Life.
Which writers do you enjoy?
A great book has to transport you somewhere else. There have to be a few deeply flawed but sympathetically-written characters. The speech and descriptions need to sound true. There must be a love interest, even if the love is unrequited. And there needs to be a tragedy. I like authors who write about complex subject-matter in simple language. I don’t want to have to interrupt my reading to look up words in a dictionary. Those are the things I look for.
My favourite author is John Irving and it would be difficult to include only one of his novels in a shortlist. I am 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 I feel that I know the area well through his writing.
I was most flattered to have my characterisation compared to Maggie O’Farrell’s, an author whose writing career I have followed closely. I love her warmth for her characters, and her total lack of judgement.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is the book I recommend to people who tell me that they don’t enjoy fiction, because it is based in fact. The author tackles extremely sensitive issues with originality and simplicity, which is perfection. I got to the very end before I learned that he is the author of several award winning children’s books, and it explained much about his writing style and his deep understanding of his main characters.
The book I return to time and time again is The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy is a difficult, rich and rewarding read. Don’t be put off by the film which focused on everything that is romantic in the book, detouring neatly round the more shocking elements of the storyline, leaving very two-dimensional characters.
Annie Proulx wrote the most extraordinary main character in Quoyle in The Shipping News but her use of language is so full of warmth and humour and sadness that we cannot help but love him.
And don’t get me started on Jennifer Egan. I will start to stutter.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. So clever. Mind you, it would be terrible to have actually written Good Squad and to be aware that you probably won’t be able to top it. As Matt rightly said to me last week when a reviewer wrote that I was at the pinnacle of my career, ‘Of course, you wouldn’t actually want to be at the pinnacle of your career, because there would only be one way to go.’
How do you write? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A total pantster. I embark on a new project with a whiff of a character. Usually, they’re very vague. John Irving says that he won’t set pen to paper until he has the last line nailed. I just couldn’t work if I set myself rules like that.
An Unchoreographed Life started when I walked into Waterstones at Piccadilly. At the risk of sounding flaky, I become aware of another presence, almost ghost-like. The need to latch onto it before it fades was very immediate. I went home and wrote seven pages of something I called The Book Diviner.
If I get the character right, the plot usually follows – not necessarily in its final structure or even with its complete cast. My books undergo numerous revisions as I throw my characters to the lions and explore their motivations. You write about a detective. Well, the process requires detective work. Sir James didn’t appear until about draft twenty of I Stopped Time. I think we’ve talked before about how in A Funeral for an Owl Shamayal turned up very late in the day. Fortunately he was so vivid that he almost wrote himself.
Unlike life, everything in fiction has to have perfect logic and so every question has to be followed through to its natural conclusion – although I never tie up all of the loose ends. Sometimes the final scene will be as great a surprise to me as it is to the reader.
Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?
In a word, No. I do find that my enjoyment of a novel can be hugely influenced by the book I was reading immediately before it. I really did feel that The Girl is a Half-formed Thing rewired my brain in such a way that my return to reading ordinary prose was difficult. In an ideal word, you would allow yourself a period of mourning between novels. Recently, I read seven novels in a two-week period. Frankly, I ended up feeling so jaded I knew it wouldn’t be fair to another author if I continued. My strategy was to switch to biographies.
Your covers are just beautiful. How does the design process work?
Branding is hugely important to me. Through submitting work to literary agents, I became aware that my fiction was difficult to categorise. The reason the majority gave for rejecting it was because they weren’t sure how to sell it to a publisher. As I added to my back catalogue, I ventured into yet more sub-categories of fiction. In my mind, a book written for market without passion is going to lack integrity.
The brief I gave Andrew Candy was that the 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; the classic Penguin paperbacks. If it were possible, I wanted that certain something that would make people say, ‘Oh, another Jane Davis’. I wasn’t starting from scratch, and so I simply borrowed elements from the cover of Half-truths and White Lies and used them as building blocks: the font and the strong photographic image, repeated on the spine.
In terms of the feel, I try to reflect the themes and the emotions of individual books. I suppose the cover for A Funeral for an Owl, which features a boy and an owl, is the most literal. I am absolutely clear in my approach about what I don’t want. My novel, These Fragile Things, tackles near-death experience and religious visions. I didn’t want to exclude readers who would normally avoid Christian fiction, because that is only one element of the book. I always source the images. For this one, I chose a butterfly with a broken wing, which not only fits the title and represents transformation, but also hints at vulnerability. For An Unchoreographed Life, my story of a ballerina who turns to prostitution, I was very careful to avoid any hint of erotica. Instead I wanted to give the feel of a woman living behind a mask; someone who has not quite left her past behind. That’s how I arrived at the image of a ballerina with a deer’s head.
So the key elements have to be instantly identifiable, inclusive and – I hope – intriguing.
Would you share what you’re working on next?
I’m just emerging from a stage when I’ve been juggling projects. I have been involved in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, a collaboration with six other authors which has resulted in a limited edition box-set. Like you, I am launching my own three- book box set, Second Chapter, and I have also been putting the finishing touches to my forthcoming release, An Unknown Woman. I have written a first draft of a new first under the working title Less Venom More Sorrow. Writing it made me realise how much more research I need to do. My main character – a kind of Edith Sitwell v Vivienne Westwood hybrid – has been anti-establishment her whole life and is horrified to find that she’s on the New Year’s Honour’s List. That’s my starting point. My next challenge is to pinpoint exactly when she was born. Everything else will stem from that.
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. Her first novel, 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.’ Of her three following novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Jane’s favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth’.
Second Chapter: http://goo.gl/82NjUs
Outside the Box
Amazon.co.uk – http://goo.gl/89FlFZ
Amazon.com – http://goo.gl/8jfFMS