Hi Jane, welcome to Café Cala,
I’m a huge fan of coffee, but I’m worried about overpowering the cake – which sounds amazing, by the way. I’ve definitely come on the right day. Tea, please.
1 Where did you get the idea for An Unknown Woman?
That sounds like such a simple question. Unfortunately it’s going to be quite a long answer.
Firstly, I wanted to write about the life I live now, which is very different from the life I imagined when my father used to tell me that, when I was an adult, I would be able to do exactly as I wanted. I am forty-eight years old, unmarried, but living with my partner of sixteen years, and childless. I wanted to express how alienating this can be, even when it is a positive choice.
I also wanted to explore the relationship we have with our possessions – ‘If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?’ The action in An Unknown Woman begins with my main character, Anita, standing outside the house she and her partner have lived in for fifteen years and watching it burn to the ground. It is very recognisably my house. My partner and I joked about how I might be tempting fate. But it was just a joke. We aren’t terribly superstitious – although I must admit that we’ve had more near misses during the last year than I’m comfortable with. (There may be some truth in the saying, “You attract what you think most about”.)
Then in February 2014, when I was about halfway through the first draft, my sister and her husband lost their house and practically everything they owned to the winter floods. She lived on the island on the Thames that you can see in the first photograph in this article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2555658/UK-weather-16-areas-South-warned-flooding-danger-lives-Armed-Forces-battle-save-homes.html. Suddenly there appeared to be an extra layer of meaning in every line I wrote.
The loss of my sister’s house made me question if I should abandon the project. The imagined scenario I had been writing about become a reality for someone very close to me. I gave her the choice, which was possibly a little unfair. I didn’t realise at the time I made the decision to continue, or even when I went to press, that eighteen months later, they would only have just received planning permission to rebuild. At the moment, they’re still living in rented accommodation with what little they managed to salvage. Their lives will still be in limbo for another year or so yet. However, it was clear that the shape of the book had to change. The other day, I stumbled across this quote: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up the tree, and once they are there, to throw rocks at them.” While Anita finds one hell of a lot of rocks flying in her direction, I chose my ammunition more carefully than I would have done otherwise, replacing a few sharp flints with smooth pebbles.
The only intentionally true thread to the story is that my elderly neighbour’s told me about his personal experience, and suggested I might like to write about it. And so I also explore the issue of what happens when the mother/daughter bond is absent. In my neighbour’s case, the women in his wife’s family only had daughters and were unable to form any sort of bond with them. He spent his married life guarding his wife’s secret by being both mother and father. It was only when I sent my manuscript out to beta readers that I realised this issue is more common than I could have possibly imagined. But while the subjects of post-natal depression and delayed bonding are openly discussed, the sense of shame that a mother experiences when she cannot love a child – sometimes a child who was very much wanted – precludes that same openness.
Wow! That’ll certainly influence my thinking as I read the rest of the novel.
2 What have you found most rewarding about your writing?
Obviously, winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award was an incredible experience and, for someone who has so few exams (I left school at the age of sixteen), it was validation. But I was very green and wasn’t aware that Black Swan, the imprint I was published under, was Transworld’s women’s fiction imprint. Has I realised the implications of this, I would have told them that I had never set out to write exclusively for women and that it wasn’t a direction I wanted to be pushed into.
Becoming an indie author forced me to learn about the publishing industry and the mechanics of publishing. Now I get to choose the people I work with – my beta readers, copy editor and proof-reader; and I get to choose how to package my work and present it to the world – both the interiors and the book covers. I work with graphic designer Andrew Candy on my book covers (although my newest cover was designed by Jessica Bell). Having already established a strong brand, the way we operate is that I come up with the concept for the design, and source the images and Andy executes it using his marvellous eye and technical wizardry, which, frankly, is beyond me. For me, the decision of how to present my writing is one of the most satisfying parts of being an indie author.
3 How did you start writing?
I watched a television programme in which the television chef Rick Stein described how he came to become a chef as a food enthusiast. I came to writing as an enthusiastic reader and a lover of words. If we are to believe the late Sir Terry Pratchett, becoming a writer is a process of osmosis. You simply read until you overflow and then you become a writer.
There were several reasons why I started to write. The first was that, although I had been an artistic child, my work insurance broking provided no creative outlet. Secondly, it was a question of timing rather than one of time. I didn’t start to write until I was in a relationship with someone who gave me confidence. Finally, I needed something to write about. Something happened in my life when I was in my mid-thirties that I needed to make sense of. I used writing to explore how I felt about it. I think that most writers are trying to create order in a confused world.
4 What would you say has helped you most?
Having a curious mind. For me, the greatest joy of writing is exploring opposing viewpoints and expressing viewpoints through characters. Also, I’m someone who thinks of the right thing to say after the event. My characters never have these problems – unless I want them to.
5 What are you working on at the moment?
My work in progress is a standalone novel. It’s the story of a radical poet and political activist who is a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she’s 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). I made the decision very early on in the writing process that, while I could bring a poet to life, I could not write poetry for toffee, and so I am collaborating with a poet who will do that for me.
6 What advice would you offer aspiring writers?
Honestly? Just do it. When I started writing I didn’t have a degree and had never attended a creative writing class. I just had a bit of spare time on my hands, a second-hand laptop, and enough will power to stick at it. You will learn everything you need to know through the process of writing your first novel. Be warned: mine took four years.
7 Which authors do you enjoy reading?
If I have to pick a favourite, it has to be John Irving. I’m currently re-reading Cider House Rules. As for what strikes me about his work, my answer today is totally different from what it would have been had you asked me a few years ago. What I love about Irving’s writing is his skill to tackle complex subject matter with simple language. You’ll never find him shying away from an uncomfortable scene. When I started to write, I didn’t know that there were rules. What strikes me is that Irving breaks every rule in the book – he constantly head-hops and he veers away from the main story for several pages to explore the background of a minor character – but his storytelling style is no natural that he does this eloquently.
My list of favourite books may change but it is always topped by The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Ignore the terrible film version – 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 that I’d be afraid that I would feel disappointed.
Try David Mitchell’s One Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I loathed Cloud Atlas so much that I was put off picking this up for some time, but I heard a lecture about it and was convinced. Quite simply, it is a masterclass in writing. The richness of the detail is enormous and the asides that the characters make are so astute.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad blew me away. This author has an incredible understanding of what it means to be human. She is so non-judgemental about her characters’ flaws, and what the reader comes away with is a sense of the characters’ struggles to find spirituality and beauty in a rapidly changing world.
I adored All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It has replaced Marcus Zusac’s The Book Thief as my war novel of choice. Two of the most heart-breaking characters of recent years: a blind girl and a German orphan.
Another recent discovery that I adored was J W Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority. I like novels with non-linear structures because that is how memory works. If you missed it, you can read my interview with the author here.
An Unknown Woman
Anita couldn’t decide which was more persistent: the flames or the jets of water firemen aimed at their home. It was a battle from which no victor would emerge. Everything they possessed would be destroyed by one element or the other. A fireman was standing in her flowerbeds, crushing the plants that she had watered and pruned under the soles of his rubber boots. It was impossible to voice an objection while flames lit the night sky like an erupting volcano, but Anita’s splayed fingers objected; her fingertips objected.
“I’ve always hated those roof tiles.” Ed returned to a favourite theme, but Anita didn’t want pretence that there was a silver lining. From the cathedral of flames and the great chutes of water, the skeleton of their home emerged. It had always worn its timber beams – its bones – on the outside. Anita watched one of the timbers in the porch as it was overcome by flames, and thought of Joan of Arc. The firemen would sacrifice their home in an attempt to save the houses on either side. Ed had always complained that the house to the immediate left had been built too close, its tall chimney perching territorially at the very edge of the roof.
A man with a microphone. She clutched Ed’s arm asking silent questions: Who was he? And when had he arrived?
“It looks as if he’s from the local radio station,” Ed said, following her gaze, almost as if they should expect someone to show up and record the destruction of their home.
She could hear the manager of the fire station saying, “Upon arrival, my crew was faced with a severe fire in the back bedroom of the detached property. It had already spread to the roof space. Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus are tackling the blaze with three hose reels and one main jet. The room that the fire started in has been completely gutted, together with much of the rest of the property.”
“And the cause?”
“Impossible to tell at this stage.”
“But if you had to hazard a guess?” The microphone thrust forwards once again.
“That’s our house they’re talking about!” Anita said.
Ed cradled her head to his shoulder. “They’re just doing their jobs.”
She delved into her handbag for her phone – an automatic reaction.
“What are you doing?” Ed asked, incredulous.
“I should give Roz a ring. Let her know I won’t be in first thing.” Her throat burned with the effort of speaking.
“Work is the last thing you should be worrying about!”
“I have to be there. It’s the opening of the new exhibition. I’m introducing the speaker.”
“Not dressed like that!”
Looking down at herself, Anita confronted an indisputable fact. She would walk away with only the clothes she was dressed in and what she carried, nothing more.
Underneath the fire’s perpetual roar was a second layer of sound, a steady clap, like applause at a cricket match. The firemen were struggling to make their shouts heard, but somewhere beneath the chaos, a third layer emerged – a place of stillness – and it was there Anita sought refuge. The calm of knowing that nothing would be salvaged, nothing would remain. But even braving this inevitability, Anita wasn’t aware of the full extent of what she was losing. News reports and insurance settlements wouldn’t reveal the whole picture. It would be some months before the true tally of what she had lost in the fire finally emerged.
Jane Davis is the author of six 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. Five further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Jane is regularly compared to more seasoned authors such as Kate Atkinson and Maggie O’Farrell. Compulsion Readers describe Jane 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.
Website (each book has a separate page featuring extracts and all of the options to buy): http://jane-davis.co.uk/
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jane-Davis/e/B0034P156Q/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage
Twitter account: https://twitter.com/janedavisauthor
Readers who sign up to Jane’s newsletter will receive a free copy of her novel, I Stopped Time. http://eepurl.com/bugqnr Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk. She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.