Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Author Jane Davis explores how those missing from our lives affect us

Welcome to Jane Davis, who 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.' The Bookseller featured her in their 'One to Watch' section. She has since published four further novels, These Fragile Things, I Stopped Time, A Funeral for an Owl, and An Unchoreographed Life. Compulsion Reads describe her as "a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless." When Jane is not writing, you will find her halfway up a mountain with a camera in hand.  
  • Website: www.jane-davis.co.uk
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jane.davis.54966?ref=tn_tnmn
  • Twitter: https://twitter.com/janedavisauthor
How much fact is in your fiction? In terms of my own life, I plunder extensively. Not the facts, but the feelings. During the writing of HALF-TRUTHS & WHITE LIES, my old school was bull-dozed and every lunchtime I kept a silent vigil outside the gates and watched the wrecking crew. Through the voice of a male character, I talk about the emotion I experienced when watching the destruction of a building that held so many of my memories inside it.

My starting point might be something I know, a subject that I feel passionately about, but I also research extensively. Taking AN UNCHOREOGRAPHED LIFE as an example, in 2008, I was gripped by a court case, when, in an interesting twist, it was ruled that a prostitute had been living off the immoral earnings of one of her clients. Salacious headlines focused on the prostitute’s replies when she was asked to justify her charge of £20,000 a week. But the case also challenged perceptions of who was likely to be a prostitute. The answer turned out to be that she might well be the ordinary middle-aged woman with the husband and two teenage children who lives next door.

Then when changes to the law were proposed, I decided that this was a subject I really wanted to explore, but how could a writer who avoids bedroom scenes go about this? And then I began to imagine what life was like for the child of a prostitute. There was nowhere I could research that hidden subject. And it is always the thing that eludes you that becomes the story.

There were several areas of research: motherhood, ballet, prostitution and financial crime.
For motherhood, I researched developmental stages for six to eight year olds, but was very much reliant on my beta readers to comment on whether they felt that the mother and daughter relationship had an authentic feel.

In terms of ballet, six years of lessons in a cold church hall under the guidance of the extremely strict Miss Coral, to the accompaniment of an out-of-tune upright! Added to this, I read Meredith Daneman’s insightful biography of Margot Fonteyn. But one thing Margot Fonteyn didn’t do was retire. And so for the psychological impact of how an enforced retirement affects someone who feels that she was born to dance, I referred to personal accounts posted on the Internet. All described an identity crisis. That question: If I can’t dance, then who am I?

As with most of my research, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I read histories and biographies for my own interest and, for some time, I have been compiling ‘timelines’. I add every fact I can date, so that, whenever I set my fiction, I have a record not only of historical events, but also of what was on at the theatre, what people were reading, what was making the gossip columns. And so I already had an understanding that, had I been born in another age, the chances were that I would have been either a domestic servant or a prostitute - but quite possibly, both. Prior to 1823, domestics under the age of sixteen didn’t receive a salary. They worked a sixteen-hour day in return for ‘bed and board’, a very generous description of what was actually on offer. And, in return, when they reached the age of sixteen, they were cast out onto the streets.

I grew up within the footprint of Nelson’s paradise estate. The story of his mistress, Emma Hamilton, has always fascinated me. Born into extreme poverty and forced to resort to prostitution, she later became a muse for artists such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds and a fashionista who bucked the tight-laced trends of the day. Completely self-educated, Emma continually reinvented herself, mixing in diplomatic circles and becoming confidante of both Marie Antoinette and the Queen of Naples.

Inevitably, while the project was taking shape, I read Belle de Jour. Since it was never my intention to write a book about sex, it was the everyday practicalities I wanted to understand: how the author rotated use of chemists so that she didn’t come under suspicion; her eating habits; her trips to the beauticians; which of her friends did and didn’t know what she did for a living. I also used the Internet extensively to source personal accounts, diaries, blogs and newspaper reports. How did sex-workers come to the attention of the police and social services? What were the main reasons they ended up in court? (The answer was generally tax evasion and financial crime, things I knew about from my day job.) How did sex workers see themselves? How did they view their clients? How did this perception change if they stopped? I also consulted The English Collective of Prostitutes, who very kindly allowed me to quote them my fictional newspaper article.

What inspired your latest book? In December 2013, I announced publicly that I was going to cut right back on paid work and spend a year trying to live on my earnings as an author. I was already earning very much less than I did at the height of my career as the deputy managing director of a firm of insurance brokers. Already, I had had no new clothes for over four years, but in December I got rid of my car and cut out all of the little luxuries - the takeaway coffees, for example. Everything that was not essential had to go. At the same time, mine was arguably low-level risk. My house is paid for and I have no dependents relying on me. If push comes to shove, I doubt my partner would let me starve. But as my world shrank even further I began to think about how much of our identities are bound up in the things that we surround ourselves with, much of them completely unnecessary, but the things that have become our armour. To my right as I sit here is my bookshelf. The selection of books on display in my dining room is not random. Each book tells part of my history and says something about me. 'If we are what we own, then who are we when we own nothing?' 

And so, in the first scene of my new novel, An Unknown Woman, I burn down my house and everything in it. Anyone who knows me will recognise that it is my house; those are my things. People who have read the early drafts asked me how could I do that? (Certainly, I’ve become quite paranoid about switching anything electrical off before I leave the house). Although the character is not me, I think that in order to make the emotion as raw and authentic as possible, you have to make it personal.

What are your top three reasons for writing? A lot is said about how essential it is to define your goals before you start writing. I disagree. I think it’s OK to have changing definitions of success. My background is business, and if it is obvious that your budget is unachievable by the mid-year point, you damned well revise it. It took me four years to write my first novel while working full-time. I was certainly looking for a creative outlet. My goal was to challenge myself; to see if I could finish a novel. To be honest, it seemed a vain ambition. It took me a long time to have the confidence to show it to anyone else but, once I started to get good reactions, I set my next goal: to find an agent. I found an agent, I set my next goal: to get published. Defining long-term goals can be off-putting if they seem like impossible dreams. There is also a danger that you may end up feeling as if you have failed personally, when the industry that we are operating within and reading trends are moving on so quickly. I find it better to take one step at a time, setting lots of short-term achievable goals. (Another 5-star review today, thank you very much.)

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.

As my collection of books grows, I am beginning to see them as my legacy. As someone who doesn’t have children, they are the mark I will leave on the world. So my third reason for writing – one that I didn’t think about when I started to write - is to create a legacy that I can be proud of.

The Writers’ Lens is about "Bringing fiction into focus." What brings your writing into focus-- the characters, the stories, the love of words? Debbie Holt claims that there are plot-driven novels and character-driven novels. Hers fall into the latter category and I’m with her. My writing is all about the characters.

Sir Terry Pratchett uses a method that he calls The Valley of the Clouds. In the valley of the clouds there are mountains but you can only see the very tops of the peaks. It is your job as an author to work out how to get to the mountains.

I subscribe to the idea that you have a clear idea about your characters, put them in a scenario and take the idea to its natural conclusion. I don’t allow my characters any privacy. 
I know what they are thinking, what they are feeling, the things they lie about, all of 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.  

If you’re lucky and you get the characters right, they will take control of the story and do the hard work for you. Sometimes it really does feel as if I can’t take all of the credit for what I’ve written. The books acquire an energy of their own, and I’m sure that’s down to the characterization. By the end of a novel, I might have been working with the same cast for up to four years. My characters become so real to me that it can be quite difficult to let go of them and to move onto the next writing project. I feel as if I’m cheating on them. 

What's the highest compliment someone could make about your writing? My writing career began with a big competition win. For a while I was hyped as the next Joanne Harris. But Transworld turned down my follow-up novel and I spent four years in the wilderness before I discovered self-publishing. Retreating into anonymity with my tail between my legs gave me the luxury of something you can’t buy: time. If I’d been under contract, I would have had to produce a book a year. I wrote my novel I Stopped Time as a tribute to my grandmother, who died the day before her 100th birthday and who lived through a period of incredible change. It is also my homage to the pioneers of photography. I borrowed from Jacques Henri Lartique’s intricate notes of his experimentation with what was a new medium when he was given his first camera as a boy. 

I read about Frank Hurley's creation of photo montages - an incredible use of the technology available at the time - because he said that he failed to capture the complete picture through the lens. I took inspiration for my main character from the life of Lee Miller. She was an extraordinary, extraordinary person. One of the most sought-after fashion models of her day, who became a muse to surrealist photographers and artists such as Man Ray and Picasso. But she had always yearned to be on the other side of the lens and, in time, she became highly respected for her own work. It was very important to me to get the detail right without overloading the reader with technicalities. And so I was delighted when one American reviewer 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, but especially photographers.’

Half-truths and White Lies -- When Tom Fellows proclaims that a venn diagram is a far better way of illustrating modern family ties than a traditional tree, his young daughter Andrea has no idea that he is referring to their own situation.It is only when she loses both parents in a tragic car accident that she takes an interest in her own genealogy and begins to realize that her perfect upbringing was not all that it seemed... 

Venn Diagrams is a beautifully crafted, thought-provoking novel that questions the influence of the people who are missing from our lives. It examines the thin line between love and friendship, looking at our complex emotional needs. It also explores how one woman's life is dictated by her desire for children, whilst another's is shaped by her decision not to have them.
I Stopped Time -- Wouldn't you feel cheated if it turned out that the woman you'd imagined to be the villain of your childhood was actually someone rather extraordinary?

Edwardian Brighton. A wide-eyed girl enters Mr Parker’s photographic studio and receives her first lesson about the rising medium that is to shape her life: “Can you think of a really good memory? Perhaps you can see it when you close your eyes. Now think how much better it would be if you could take it out and look at whenever you wanted to!”

2009: Disgraced politician Sir James Hastings has resigned himself to living out his retirement in a secluded Surrey village. He doesn’t react when he learns that the mother who had abandoned him dies at the age of 108: he imagined she had died many years ago. Brought up by his father, a charismatic war-hero turned racing driver, the young James, torn between blaming himself and longing, eventually dismissed her as the ‘villain’ of his childhood. But, when he inherits her life’s work – a photography collection spanning over six decades - he is forced to both confront his past and re-evaluate what he wants from his old age. Assisted by student Jenny Jones, who has recently lost her own mother to cancer, Sir James is persuaded to look at the photographs as if he is seeing through his mother’s eyes, only to discover an extraordinary tale of courage and sacrifice.

“Three. I have three stories,” Lottie Parker tells her solicitor while putting her affairs in order. “But it was Oscar Wilde who said that a story is almost certainly a lie.”
These Fragile Things -- Gather close all that you hold dear. Life can change in a split second.

Parents: Ask yourselves how would you react if your 14-year old daughter claimed to be seeing visions?

Teenagers: would you risk ridicule and scorn - knowing others besides yourself will be affected - to voice a seemingly impossible claim?

As Streatham, South London, still reels from the riots in neighbouring Brixton, Graham Jones, an ordinary father, grows fearful for his teenage daughter Judy who faces a world where the pace of change appears to be accelerating. But even he cannot predict what will happen next. A series of events is about to be unleashed over which he will have no control, and the lives of his family will be turned upside-down. Judy Jones knows what it means to survive. Having already defied medical predictions, not only surviving after she was buried when a wall collapsed, but learning to walk again. She understands that she is changed. She has even learned to love her scars. But when Judy claims to be seeing visions, her father will call it a miracle, and, the headline-hungry press will label her The Miracle Girl. Horrified that her only child is becoming public property, Elaine’s claim on her daughter seems to be diminishing. Present when she came close to losing Judy a first time - knowing it was the paramedics and surgeons who saved her - she demands a medical explanation. But Judy, refusing to become caught up in her parents’ emotional tug-of-war, is adamant. She must tread her own path, wherever it takes her.

Delusion, deception, diabolic - or is it just possible that Judy’s apparitions are authentic?

This intense and emotionally charged portrait of a family deep in crisis will have you reflecting on everything you believe to be true.

Praise for These Fragile Things: "Davis is a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to felt effortless." (Compulsion Reads) "An elegant and understated prose style with a very satisfying rhythm. This is really very good writing indeed." (Debi Alper) "Leaves one panting to read more." (Jill Foulston)
A Funeral for an Owl -- Twenty years of change, One person who cares
What kind of a boy would it take to convince two high school teachers to risk their careers?
“Let me tell you what I’m willin’ to do for you. We start a new gang. Very exclusive. You and me.”

Times have changed since Jim Stevens chose to teach. Protocol designed to protect children now makes all pupil/teacher relationships taboo - even those that might benefit a student.

“Promise me one thing, Sir. If you decide you gotta pick up that phone, you tell me first so that I can disappear myself. Because I ain’t havin’ none of that.”
What kind of boy would cause Jim to risk his career? A boy who can clothe a word in sarcasm; disguise disdain with respect. So what is it that Jim finds he has in common with 14-year-old Shamayal Thomas as they study the large framed photograph of an owl that hands above the fireplace? It is Aimee White’s owl, to be specific. At least, that's how Jim thinks of it.

“The wings, all spread out and that? They’re kind of like an angel’s.”

A rule-keeper, Ayisha Emmanuelle believes the best way to avoid trouble is by walking away. But, arriving on the scene of what appears to be a playground fight, that isn’t an option. To her horror she finds her colleague Jim Stevens has been stabbed. In the messy aftermath, when Shamayal discloses that he and Jim are friends, Ayisha’s first duty is to report her colleague. But, not knowing if he will pull through, something makes her hesitate. Now, all she can do is wait to see if her instinct was justified. And waiting is something Ayisha has never been very good at.

An Unchoreographed Life -- New Thought-Provoking Fiction from Award-Winning Author, Jane DavisAN UNCHOREOGRAPHED LIFE: Mother and daughter: the most precious bond in the world

At six years old, Belinda Brabbage has amassed a wealth of wisdom and secret worries. She knows all the best hiding places in her Worlds End flat, how to zap monsters with her pig-shaped torch and that strangers will tempt you into their cars with offers of Fizzy Fish. Even so, it’s impossible to know how to behave when you don’t really understand who you are. Mummy doesn’t like to be plagued with questions about her family but, when she isn’t concentrating, she lets small nuggets slip, and Belinda collects them all, knowing they are pieces of a complicated jigsaw.

Exhausted single mother Alison hasn’t been able to picture the future for some time. Struggling from day to day, the ultimatums she sets herself for turning her life around slip by. But there is one clock she cannot simply re-set. Deny it though she may, Belinda is growing up. Having stumbled across Alison’s portfolio that mapped her life as a prima ballerina, her daughter already has a clearer idea of who she once was. Soon she’ll be able to work out for herself who she is - and what she does for a living.
With options running out, Alison travels to London’s suburbs to consult a blind clairvoyant, who transports her to a past she feels exiled from. However unlikely they sound, his visions of pelicans and bookshelves appear to herald change. A chance meeting with an affluent couple affords a glimpse of the life Alison desperately wants for her daughter. But can their offer of friendship be trusted?

More 'What Maisie Knew’ than 'Belle de Jour’, Davis’s unflinching new novel of a mother who turns to prostitution is populated with a deeply flawed and inimitably human cast, whose tumultuous lives are shored up by carefully-guarded secrets.

No comments:

Post a Comment