Interview with Jane Davis

Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
It was winning a competition that led to the publication of my first novel Half truths and White Lies. Winning, and pure luck. It was by chance that I heard about the Winchester Writer’s conference a week before it was held in 2008. And it was by chance that I chose to attend a lecture held by Jack Sheffield of Teacher Teacher fame. Because if those two things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have learned about the Daily Mail first novel award – two days before the deadline for entries.
Do you write under a pseudonym? Do you think they make a difference to an author’s profile?
I am reminded of hearing Sir Terry Pratchett speak. A collector of obscure publications, he was given a small volume, which he thought was titled ‘Preserved Fish’ and thought, ‘Well, that’s handy. I could always learn more about fish.’ But it turned out that Preserved Fish was the name of the author. Adopted as a child, his pious parents had given him the name Preserved By the Hand of God, which he shortened. Unless there is a very good reason for an author not to use their own name, I can’t see any reason why they would wish to use a pseudonym. Except if your name is Jane Davis, and your books constantly appear with the biography of Jane Davis, author of Felting: The Complete Guide. Or you are confused with Jane Davis, director of the Reader Organisation, whose work I greatly admire, However, that is a small trade-off for the thrill of seeing my own name in print.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I have to admit to being a bit of a ludite. Having bought a Kindle to see how my e-books appeared, I have only just read my first e-book. I'm afraid my device of choice remains a tree book. (Sorry!)
What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
My first acceptance was getting a literary agent because it was she who said, 'Jane, you are a writer,' which sounded so much more glamorous than being in insurance (I can assure you that most days it isn't). Being acknowledged is still a thrill. I won a prize at the Winchester Writers’ conference for the first chapter of I Stopped Time after I had more or less shelved it. I almost burst into tears on a Book Doctor at a writers’ conference who told me that I was not to change a word of These Fragile Things. And today I have just learned that I Stopped Time has earned an endorsement from Compulsion Reads, so it will have its own gold badge to match These Fragile Things. However, I think a reader reviews are the real measure of acceptance. They say that a reader completes a novel...
Describe your desk
My 'desk' is the dining room table. On it are my glass and silver place mats, each with a different illustration of an Indian elephant on it (I will never admit to Matt how much they really cost), a variety of mugs containing drinks that I have made and not finished, a copy of The Kite Runner that I am currently re-reading (I am going to see Khaled Hosseini record a radio show in October and need two stonking questions to ask him on air), my moleskin diary, Matt's reading glasses (which I use as they are stronger than mine), an open newspaper, the day's unopened mail and my laptop. My promise that I will clear the table before dinner is the one that I break most often.
A question some authors dread: where do you get your inspiration from?
Anything and everything. A news article. A conversation I have overheard. A piece of music. An observation. A nagging doubt. An inscription on a gravestone or a park bench. A recurring nightmare. Something from my past that I can’t leave alone.
Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
There is a school of thought that says you must have a detailed plot before you start writing. If that was the case, I would never have put pen to paper. I choose to take the advice of authors who say exactly the opposite: Debbie Holt claims that there are plot-driven novels and character-driven novels. Hers fall into the latter category (as do the books of most women writers) and I’m with her. Stephen King’s advice from his book On Writing: is to start with a single question beginning with the words, what if? and take the idea as far as it will go. Sir Terry Pratchett (him again) 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. If you’re lucky and you’re characters are right, they will take control and do the hard work for you.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
That's a very interesting question because, although I resisted it for a long time, I am now convinced of its many advantages. My second novel was rejected by my publisher because it didn't fit the women's fiction label they had chosen to publish Half-truths and White Lies under. I had never aimed my writing exclusively at women, but this was my first reality check. My genre appeared to have been chosen for me and I hadn't been consulted.

I want to develop as a writer, which means that I have no intention of sticking to the safe and the formulaic. These Fragile Things explores the subjects of near-death experience, religious fanaticism, press intrusion and sex addition. Through I Stopped Time was able to explore my love of photography and pay tribute to the extraordinary men and women who lived during the 20th Century. My forthcoming novel, A Funeral for an Owl is a kind of Kes meets Top Boy. I have realised that one of my themes is missing persons and I have addressed that directly with the story of a teenage girl who slips through the cracks and a man who will do almost anything to stop history from repeating itself. And an owl.

I write without worrying about genre or deadlines, luxuries traditionally published authors cannot enjoy. My main aim is that whatever I write should be honest and authentic. I know what I definitely don’t write, but whether my work is commercial, literary, lit-lite or quality womens’ fiction, I am not sure. I have settled for saying whose work inspires me: Maggie O’Farrell’s warmth for her characters; Martin Davies’s (The Unicorn Road) simple execution of epic subjects; James Robertson’s (The Testament of Gideon Mack) fusion of the everyday and the extraordinary.

I have had interest from an agent recently in These Fragile Things, but he wanted me to change the story, to add another dimension to it. The market, he told me, currently wants dark family secrets and apparently that is all it wants. When I explained my reasons why I didn't want to make the changes, he wrote me a very nice reply saying that he too shared my frustrations in how limiting the current market is. It is quite clear that the indie market is where the innovative writing is. Small publishing houses have enjoyed huge success in recent years in winning awards because they still take risks. It is no co-incidence that when writing competitions are open to self-published novels, they are breaking through.

They say that quality will out but quality is not the only criteria that traditional publishing houses are using. On my travels I met an editor who was offered the manuscript of The Kite Runner and loved it, but didn’t think that a book about Afghanistan would sell. This underestimates the imaginations of readers. The cover of my copy says that over 8 million copies have been sold. The really sad thing is that, while writers are encouraged to hang on for that elusive book deal, an enormous amount of talent is slipping through the net.
Do you have a method for creating your characters’ names and what do you think makes them believable?
I have been known to look at the bookshelf to my right, take the first name of one author and the surname of another. For period novels, I look at headstones in cemeteries. I also used the punchline of a joke. For my novel A Funeral for an Owl I used hybrids of names of teenagers I found in missing persons advertisements. I know of people who trawl through telephone directories, fretting that they won’t be able to get the character right until they have found the perfect name. I expect my characters to grow into their hybrid names. Like children.
Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Matt, always. Whether he wants to read it or not. I think it is only polite to let him see what I have been spending all my time on while he has been banished from the dining room. Plus he is an excellent filter of glaring errors.
Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
I need silence. When interviewed, Joe Hill said that he needed complete silence so that he can listen to the voices inside his head. As a writer you can get away with that without sounding completely mad. Anyone else, and they would lock you up.
What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Both Half-truths and White Lies are written in the first person which, I think provides the best opportunity to get inside the head of the character. In the case of Half-truths and White Lies, the decision to use three narrators was forced on me when I realised there was no one character who could possibly know the entire story that I was trying to tell. Jodi Piccoult used this technique to create multi-dimensional characters in Vanishing Acts. We hear how the character introduces themselves. Then we hear how two other characters see them. The effect that this approach to writing had that I didn’t anticipate is that the characters who remain a mystery - because they can’t tell their own stories – become the most interesting.

I converted to writing in the third person after I was told by agents that nothing is being published that is being written in the third person. Since then, every book I have read seems to have been first person! The difference I find is that, whilst first person enables to get inside a character’s head, third person enables you to describe more accurately what is going on inside that character’s head. Writing is the only medium that makes this exploration possible.

I recently read a survey which said 90% readers don't like books that are written in the first person. I disagree. When reading I feel that I have a more personal connection with a character that is written in the first person. I am stepping into their shoes.
What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Editing is the necessary evil and is at least as time-consuming as the original writing, if not more so. Conversely, writing new material after a hard period of editing can be the most rewarding thing of all. But editing can be creative. Little details surface through reading and re-reading. I love it when I discover the whole plot seems to pivot on what I thought was a throwaway line. You can explore themes. Add taste and colour and smell and touch.
What do you like to read? Any authors you could recommend?
I read anything that appears to touch on the same subject-matter as my own work, so that I can ensure mine differs. I often read a review or a blurb and panic, ‘that’s my book!’ This approach has led me to Francesca Kay’s The Translation of the Bones and Stephan Kelman’s Pigeon English. Since I am currently writing from a child's point of view, this month The Night Rainbow by Claire King and What Maisie Knew by Henry James are on my reading list. I try to read a mix of recent releases so that I can stay in touch with the market and established authors I can learn from. The book that I have learned most about writing from is David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It is a masterclass in writing but I put off reading it for a long time, as Cloud Atlas was one of the few books I have given up on. I also love a really good biography. Bertie by Jane Ridley was a revelation about the lives of the royals in Queen Victoria's day and her relationship with her children. In terms of authors of fiction who are consistently outstanding, I love John Irving and Maggie O'Farrell.
Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
I like Stephen Fry’s attitude that he is a verb and not a noun. He writes, he acts, he presents. In this way, he doesn’t limit himself. I don’t know where he finds the time.
What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
It is very rare that I am not writing or researching. Thankfully, my hobbies – walking, photography and a love of the British countryside (I no longer have money for travel) – are things that can be combined. On a recent trip to Dorset, I stayed in one of the houses that Far From the Madding Crowd was filmed in and followed the Hardy trail.
If you could have your life over again, is there anything you’d have done differently (writing-related or otherwise)?
I would take more risks. I would try not be so afraid of failure. Despite being a constant worrier, I have yet to be struck down by lightning and nothing very bad has happened to me.
What made you start to write?
I started writing as a hobby because my job in insurance didn’t provide me with a creative outlet. Just as Rick Stein came to cooking as someone who loved food, I came to writing as an enthusiastic reader. If we are to believe Sir Terry Pratchett, becoming a writer is a process of osmosis. You simply read until you overflow. I can’t claim to be particularly well-read - with the exception of Thomas Hardy, whose work I adore, the classics leave me cold - but, as with wine, I know what I like and I had an idea of the sort of book I wanted to write, if not what it was going to be about.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Only five? Firstly, I'll try to explain what I think makes a novel great. It 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.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak 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.

I find myself coming back time and time again to Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It stays relevant and contains the most perfectly flawed heroine; innocent, naïve, wronged. And, ultimately, deadly. I feel that I catch glimpses of the England that he describes when I am out walking in the mountains.

The Prince of Tides by Pat Barker 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.

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.

E. 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.

Is there space for Maggie O'Farrell? No?
Published 2013-09-04.
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Books by This Author

An Unchoreographed Life
By
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 94,060. Language: English. Published: May 1, 2014. Category: Fiction » Women's fiction » General
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.
I Stopped Time
By
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 106,440. Language: English. Published: May 12, 2013. Category: Fiction » Historical » United Kingdom
“Can you think of a really good memory? Perhaps you can see it when you close your eyes. Now, imagine you can take it out and look at it whenever you want to!” Turn of the century Brighton. A spark is ignited when wide-eyed Lottie Pye enters Mr Parker’s photographic studio and discovers the new medium that will shape her life.
These Fragile Things
By
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 109,090. Language: English. Published: April 23, 2013. Category: Fiction » Literature » Business
As South London, still reels from the riots in 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 change forever.