Can you believe it’s December 1st already? Time is flying by. I hope all my American readers had a happy Thanksgiving and that everyone else had a great weekend!
Today on Reade and Write I welcome Jane Davis. Jane is a remarkable author, winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Award for her book Half-Truths and White Lies, and recipient of enviable reviews and press for her remarkable body of work.
Tell me about your new book.
It’s called An Unknown Woman. My main character is Anita Hall who, at the age of forty-six, thinks she knows exactly who she is. She has lived with partner Ed for fifteen years and is proud of all they’ve achieved. They go out into the world separately: Ed with one eye on the future in the world of finance; Anita with one foot the past, a curator at Hampton Court Palace. She is living the life she has chosen – choices that weren’t open to her mother’s generation – working in her dream job, being part of an equal partnership, living mortgage-free in a quirky old house she adores. Her future seems knowable and secure.
But then Anita finds herself standing in the middle of the road watching her home and everything inside it burn to the ground. And before she can come to terms with the magnitude of her loss, hairline cracks begin to appear in her perfect relationship. Very quickly it becomes apparent that nothing is as it had seemed. Then, when she returns to her childhood home in search of comfort, she stumbles upon the secret that her mother has kept hidden, a taboo so unspeakable it can only be written about.
Who is the audience for the book?
Anyone who likes thought-provoking contemporary fiction. There are a few moral dilemmas thrown in that make great discussion for book clubs.
Tell me about the setting of your book—how did you choose it, what kind of research did you have to do, why did you choose it?
There are several settings: The house that burns 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”.)
Anita works as a curator at Hampton Court Palace. (I’ve given her my dream job). It’s a place I knew well, but I spent a very enjoyable day on a private tour, quizzing the curators about what their jobs entail. The Palace is home to a portrait called “Portrait of An Unknown Woman” that makes an appearance in the novel, but it isn’t on public display and there was nothing I could do to persuade them to let me see it!
Then there are the cities of London, where Ed works, and Liverpool, where Anita’s parents live. I do occasional work in the City of London, so it’s another area I know, and I’ve been a regular visitor to Liverpool over the past 16 years. I also have the advantage of having a city tour guide for a sister-in-law, so she’s an invaluable source of facts.
As for other areas of research, 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.
What was the hardest thing about writing the book?
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. 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 whether I should abandon the project. The scenario I’d imagined – losing everything you own – became 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. It was very 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.
If your book were made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the main characters?
Oh, to be the casting director for your own movie! If budget were no object, I’d pick Cary Mulligan for Anita, Ben Whishaw for Ed and Jim Broadbent for Anita’s father.
Have you written any other books?
An Unknown Woman was my sixth published novel. Half-Truths and White Lies, which won the Daily Mail First Novel Award was actually my second. There is another manuscript sitting in a bottom drawer that took four years to write. It earned me the service of a literary agent and there was talk of a book deal, but in retrospect I’m glad it wasn’t published as it had an autobiographical element to it that I think might have come back to bite me.
Are you in one or more critique groups or partnerships?
I belong to my local writers’ group but I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know a number of authors through my writing, several of whom have become my beta readers. The thing is to surround yourself with people whose opinions you trust, not those who will flatter.
Do you write every day?
I work one or two days a week, but otherwise yes. When you’re in the middle of writing a book, it’s hard to stay away from it. That world becomes more real to you than your own.
When you read a book, what authors do you like best? What genres do you like best?
My taste is contemporary/accessible literary fiction, often American. If I have to pick a favourite author, it has to be John Irving. What I love about Irving’s writing is his skill in tackling complex subject matter with simple language. You’ll never find him shying away from an uncomfortable scene.
My list of favourite books may change but it is always topped by The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. 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’m afraid I might be disappointed.
Quite simply, David Mitchell’s One Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 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-judgmental 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.
Where would you like to go more than anywhere else on earth?
I used to travel a lot for pleasure, so I’ve ticked quite a few boxes off my list – Cambodia, Iceland, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Italy. But ten years ago I made the decision to reduce my carbon footprint, and not to take any non-essential flights. Fortunately, we have such variety in the landscape of the UK (although the weather can suck!) that this hasn’t felt like too much of a hardship. But I have a real hankering to go to India and I’m hoping that I will have stored up enough brownie points to go for my fiftieth birthday.
What advice would you give to 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.
What is your favorite movie and why?
That is a tough question! Sometimes you’re in the mood for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” sometimes feel like “Cinema Paradiso” and sometimes all you want to do is curl up in front of “Harvey,” but then there are the days when only “Pulp Fiction” will do.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Allow yourself to fail. I spent too long playing it safe. Nothing bad has happened since I started taking more risks.
Describe yourself in three words.
Driven, curious, loyal.
Where can readers connect with you?
My website is at www.jane-davis.co.uk (Subscribers to my newsletter can grab a free eBook of I Stopped Time) I’m also on:
Where can readers find your books?
Each book has a page on my website (www.jane-davis.co.uk/books/). Readers can access the first chapters, reviews and see all their buying options.
Amazon ebook: http://goo.gl/EaiKXW
Amazon paperback: http://goo.gl/8AnAz7
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.’