Name Jane Davis
Jane Davis is the author of seven novels. 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.’
Where are you from
I grew up in Wimbledon, South West London, home of lawn tennis and the Wombles. Wimbledon is no longer affordable and so I’ve drifted into the Surrey borders, but I still live only six miles from where I was born.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I’m very distracted today. You mention news and all I can think of is Bowie, whose death was announced this morning. We had spent most of the weekend listening to his new album and so I have his voice inside my head. His music has been the soundtrack to my life.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
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.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Do you know, you are only as good as your last novel and publishing is a roller-coaster business.
My first novel (hidden away under lock and key) earned me the services of an agent and the praise, “Jane, you are a writer”, but not a publishing contract. My second novel had been sitting in my overworked agent’s ‘in’ tray for several months when I attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference in June 2008. It was there that I learned about the Daily Mail First Novel Award. With the closing date for entries only two days away, I had nothing to lose. My incentive for entering wasn’t the thought of winning. It was the promise that all entries would be read.
I left my job of twenty-three years the following September, jaded from having had to make so many colleagues redundant. Every time I turned on the television there was talk of financial doom and gloom. Then came the call from Transworld announcing that I had won.
It was surreal. Because I was on my own, there was no one to ask, “Hey, did that just happen?” I phoned back just to be sure.
The following weeks were heady. The Bookseller included me in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Joanna Harris, an author I admire enormously, described me as a ‘promising new writer.’ I was going to be The Next Big Thing.
Except that I wasn’t.
In a year when fiction sales plummeted, Half-truths and White Lies, sold reasonably well. Then, in 2009, came my reality check. Transworld exercised their right to ‘first refusal’ of my follow-up novel. The reason? It wasn’t ‘women’s fiction’. I hadn’t appreciated (and no one had thought to explain) the implications of being published under their Black Swan imprint. I had been pigeon-holed – and my new work didn’t fit.
Parting company with my agent, I sought new representation. Rejection letters flattered. My writing was not for them, but with my credentials, I would be snapped up. For a while, I believed them.
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. As Hugh Howey said at the London Book Fair, authors should enjoy their anonymity.
By 2012, I was touting three novels around the market. Believe me, this is not a position you want to be in. I began to feel like the lady character in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys who attends the same writing conference year after year with a slightly different edit of the same novel. A novel which continues to be rejected, albeit for slightly different reasons.
In November 2012, I decided I owed it to myself to investigate something I had been resisting. I attended the Writers’ & Artists’ Self-publishing in a Digital Age conference. It was a revelation! There, established authors who had been dropped by their publishers were rubbing shoulders with first-time writers who had released their e-book priced at 99p and had sold 100,000 copies within a year. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out?
Deciding I was in, I released I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things on Christmas Day. The decision how to present the work – the designs of covers and the interiors – were all mine. As were the mistakes. (Neil Gaiman refers to Gaiman’s Law. If there’s one typo, it will be on the page your new book falls open to the first time that you pick it up.) Learning by my mistakes, I ironed them out. The following summer, I released paperbacks. The second time around, I was aware that I needed more help. I had a very limited budget but found that I was able to barter for services, using a copy editor in return for a testimonial. I also expanded on my volunteer army of beta readers and proofreaders. I didn’t need have to chase volunteers. They came to me. In November that same year, I released A Funeral for an Owl. For my next novel, An Unchoreographed Life, I used more external services. Readers who discover me tend to devour everything I have written, so I really owe it to them to get it right.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
Meeting the man who served time for the manslaughter of a friend of mine. It was quite a moment; extremely difficult to reconcile that he was married with four children, while my friend died at the age of 17.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I prefer the description contemporary to literary. I demand of myself that it is totally honest and authentic. It’s a little quirky and with a very British sense of humour – but most of my readers are in the US.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
An Unknown Woman has several meanings and I think that the reader should discover them. At its most obvious it is a nod to The Portrait of An Unknown Woman, a painting that forms part of the Royal collection and is currently housed at Hampton Court Palace. It was originally labelled as Elizabeth I but today that would be seen to be controversial as the woman is pregnant. In Elizabethan times it might simply have meant that she was mother to the nation. Nonetheless, the identity of the woman in the painting is strongly contested. And as the book is all about identity…. http://goo.gl/A5IXyG
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
It’s a reflective novel. 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.’ The topic seems to have become especially relevant with so many people in the UK having lost their homes and possessions to flooding over the Christmas period.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
All of it, I hope! I hold up my hands to being a scavenger of facts. For An Unknown Woman, I borrowed elements from personal accounts, a snap-shot here, an emotion there, a potent and heart-felt line, but I would never use the whole. That wouldn’t be fiction.
This book is very much a reflection of what was happening in my own life over the fifteen months that I wrote it. Having given up a high-powered job (and the salary that went with it) my life felt as if it had shrunk.
With many adults still living at home with their parents at the age of thirty, and with life expectancy on the increase, middle-age, too, seems to have shifted. In my late forties, logic tells me that I am middle-aged, and yet in many ways, with less responsibility than I’d had since starting work at the age of sixteen, it is as if I’ve fallen out of adulthood. I wanted to write something that reflects this new state of affairs. The childless forty-something-year old, who is still thinks of herself (and is thought of) as being young, who has perhaps paid off the mortgage, but still goes to gigs.
During the writing of the book I began to experience severe panic attacks, something I thought I had grown out of (I am told they that often return with the menopause), so Anita’s anxiety attacks are mine.
I had a very happy few outings to Hampton Court Palace, quizzing the staff about their jobs and studying ancient graffiti, which I find endlessly fascinating. It’s strange how our attitude to graffiti changes when it is historical.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
There were several sources of inspiration, but one of them was my elderly neighbour who told me his story and said, ‘I’d like you 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, which is relatively common, but an active dislike which only 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. When I put pen to paper, I thought that I was putting one family under the microscope, but several of my beta readers responded with details of very similar experiences, either relating to their relationships with their children or their mothers. They were glad that it had been written about. We hold the mother/daughter relationship in particular in such high esteem that it seems particularly difficult to accept that it’s not always an easy and natural thing. In fact, in many cases it seems to be the very opposite.
The main character, Anita, is the same age that I was at the time I began to write the book. Her personal circumstances are also similar to mine. She lives in my house, for example. She has been living with a man she is not married to for fifteen years and they have made the decision not to have children. And even though she believes that this was the right decision for them, it isolates her from her contemporaries, whose children are their main focus. She feels cut off from the life she imagined for herself since the age of ten.
And of course I had my sister’s experience of the loss of her house to draw on. I am pleased to say that, two years on, the new house is finally nearly completion and should be ready to move into after Easter.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most?
Reading is such a huge part of my life that there are many favourites I could list, but The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, Cider House Rules by John Irving and Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy spring to mind immediately. In recent years, 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.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’ve just finished reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and embarked on Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, so I’m moving from a Pulitzer Prizewinning novel to an Orange Broadband award winner. Not bad for my first two reads of 2016! I doubt I would have discovered Olive Kitteridge on my own (although I’m incredibly glad I did), but I’m attending a recording of BBC4’s Book Club with the author in February and have to put two questions to her. It’s a little nerve-racking, but incredibly rewarding. The last time I attended the book under discussion was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and got to ask the first question of the show, which was whether he realised that his novel had the potential to expand readers’ world view and pave the way for other authors.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
My work in progress is about a political poet who has been anti-establishment all of her life and is extremely pissed off to find that she is on the New Year’s Honour’s list.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
If by career you mean that it is something that I intend to do over a long period of time, then, yes. If you mean that I see it as being something I can rely on for my main source of income, then I’m afraid that I’m less optimistic.
The Society of Authors chief executive, Nicola Solomon, has gone on record and said that traditional publisher’s terms are no longer fair or sustainable, and has mounted a campaign for fair contract terms. In the meanwhile, she recommends that each author considers if they would be better off self-publishing, a decision I took in 2012.
Joanne Harris is among the authors who went to the House of Commons in the summer of 2015 to debate the fact that authors’ incomes have decreased by 29% since 2005. (The typical UK author is now said to earn £11,000 compared with a living wage of £16,000.)
This week (the first of January 2016) has seen a huge amount of press coverage as the campaign gathers pace. This is largely due to the issue of an open letter by the Authors’ Guild (the society representing US authors) to The Association of American Publishers. The Bookseller called it the loudest call yet for publishing contract reform. Authors’ earnings is an issue that is both serious and global.
Let me stress that it is in no one’s interest for traditional publishing to fail. The danger is that there is a growing number of authors who think that the traditional publishing model is fast becoming obsolete. Literary agent Andrew Lownie’s latest prediction is that, by the year 2020, only ten percent of books will be traditionally published. And 2020 is not so very far away.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
This is an extract from Chapter One of my forthcoming release, which currently goes under the name, Less Venom, More Sorrow.
Unfolding the single sheet, Lucy experienced a quiver of pleasure at the way both ends had been folded towards the centre, rather than in the more usual z shape. The precision of it. Lucy had loved the rituals of pre-email days: the fountain pen; blowing on the paper to dry the blue ink. But then her smile froze. Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. As her eyes zigzagged furiously downwards, part of her felt as if she were being pulled underwater. The words massed and swam in shoals, becoming foreign to her. She, who had always dealt in language. Lucy pulled her glasses onto the bony ridge of her nose, but still her brow furrowed. She examined the notepaper. The embossed seal felt official as she passed the pad of her left thumb over it. She raised the letter to her face and inhaled. If this was someone’s idea of a practical joke, it was a very expensive one.
So this is how you thought you’d exact your revenge! Because it could only be the work of one person. And then she was cutting the paper. Cutting it with her stiff secateurs. Fierce little snips. Triangles and polygons. On today of all days, you pull a stunt like this. The shapes became the thing. A row of inward angled snips at one edge, then upwards, a deep cut linking them together. A confetti-fall of dissected words. A snow-fall of envelope. The fragments clung to her clothes. They spangled and feathered the jewelled grass. The hand holding the secateurs took control. There was a level on which Lucy could see herself as an observer might. Quite detached, unaware of sending instructions from brain to hand, only that she mustn’t stop until the job was finished. And there was another level on which she worked herself into a frenzy, an insult accompanying every snip. Well, I shan’t. You aren’t the Pied Piper any more. Once the secateurs had made short work of the invitation, they started on her rose bushes, working conscientiously, removing every head, so that rich velvet petals joined with the flurry of Basildon Bond. Great rainfalls of dew were released. The soft thud of heavy heads on mulched bark, one after another. To Lucy, the sound of impact was amplified: a great Timpani struck with felt-tipped drumsticks, bouncing off the low ceiling of a basement jazz club. As she worked around and between the semicircular beds, tugging at the thorn-snared hem of her skirt, there was a mania to her movements. She gave herself up to the destruction of the thing she had created and loved completely. The air filled with a blend of Turkish Delight, violet, apple, clove, citrus, moss and honey – the soul of the rose. It buzzed thickly with insects. Track-marks appeared in Lucy’s pale threadbare skin. She shook one knuckle-knarled hand, sucked at the single drop of rich red blood which stood proud where her thumb had been punctured, tasted iron. The hard topaz of her oversized ring was comfortingly cold as it caved her cheek. She was ankle-deep in petals. Cleopatra had not done this much for Anthony.
As her familiar name sliced the potent air, Lucy saw that she had been cutting deep into the sleeve of her boiled wool cardigan. Ralph was powering towards her, breathless. A dark tie hung loose around the raised collar of his shirt.
“Not bad news, I hope?” he asked, saying nothing of the mess that surrounded her.
From the tightness around her eyes and the fogging of her glasses, Lucy realised she’d been weeping. Words erupted from deep within her. “I didn’t do everything I’ve done to become a fucking national treasure!”
“No one could ever accuse you of trying to win a popularity contest.”
He looked bewildered. “Why what?”
“They’ve put me on the New Year’s Honours list.”
Fiona: Who designs your covers?
I work with a graphic designer called Andrew Candy. The way we usually operate is that I am responsible for sourcing the images and coming up with a basic design concept, and he executes it using his marvellous eye and technical wizardry, which, frankly, is way beyond me. Some authors hand over far more of the process to their designer, but, for me, one of the joys of self-publishing is how I present my work.
For the cover for An Unknown Woman, we had the concept, but I could not find the right face for the older woman. Andy did this and then used much jiggery-pokery to stretch and manipulate it so that it looks like a match for the younger woman’s face. He did a fantastic job. Many people have told me that they can’t believe it’s not the same woman.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Deciding when it’s finished is always the hardest part. An Unknown Woman couldn’t be the book I had planned. It had to change because of my sister’s experience. As a result, I actually think it’s a far more optimistic ending that I envisaged.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
With every book I learn more about myself, because so much of myself goes into them. Working out what is important in life is something we all have to do. One thing I learned was about my partner. I never talk about a work in progress but he is always the first to read what I consider to be the finished draft (although that almost always changes significantly). Of course, he instantly recognised that it was our house that I burn down in the first chapter, and told me how he has often imagined this scenario and all of the things he would save. So we now have an escape plan!
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
There is more than one way to write a novel. You only way to learn how to write a novel is by doing it. So what are you waiting for?
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
‘Author and friend’ would be nice. But, although I love Victorian cemeteries, I see myself as more of a park bench sort of person.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies?
When I’m not writing, you’ll often fund me halfway up a mountain with a camera in hand.
Fiona: What TV shows do you enjoy watching?
For TV, Luther, The Good Wife…in fact mostly crime. And yet I don’t read crime.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I had a 25 year career in insurance before I started writing, and I still work as a freelance compliance consultant. But if I knew what I know now, I would have liked to have studied archaeology.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
Buy e-book from Amazon http://goo.gl/EaiKXW
By paperback from Amazon: http://goo.gl/8AnAz7