Jane Davis, one of the most interesting authors of our time, has finished a new novel and her fans are already lining up to order it. Just reading the blurbs to her books is a thrill, an abundance of interesting plots and characters; even the titles have a unique ring to them. I am happy she has managed to steal some of her promotional time to do this interview, and share with her some thoughts on writing, publishing and growing as an author.
1. When we were arranging this interview you mentioned that you have quite a common name. Well, name perhaps, but definitely not a common career. As a writer, you have had quite a huge success, awards and great reviews. Your very first novel won the Daily Mail first Novel Award. Are you starting to feel the pressure of expectation already or do you still write what the muse sends your way?
It’s interesting that you ask. Joanna Penn has just captured the writer’s mindset in a blog post and it has received a huge number of comments. http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2015/02/17/roller-coaster/
Every writer wants to show that they are developing and improving. In many ways, my first novel was the easiest to write. Having never taken a creative writing class, I didn’t know there were any rules. I wrote purely for pleasure and for myself. I had no access to the internet at home, so my time was uninterrupted. I had the luxury of anonymity with no expectations (enjoy it while you can). Once the first book is published, there is never just the writing. There is the marketing, the 350 emails that arrive every day, the review requests, a blog to maintain…
I watched Kazuo Ishiguru being interviewed by Mark Lawson a couple of weeks ago, and it was interesting to see that a Booker prize winner still suffers from the same doubts that plague me. Does he have anything more to say? Will there be another book? Is it good enough? That moment of dread three quarters of the way through when you can’t see the way to finish it.
The plain fact that is that the muse doesn’t always turn up for work, but you still have to. Occasionally luck will deliver a golden Eureka! moment. And in those moments of pure serendipity, you won’t feel that it’s because you have improved at your craft. There will always be some other superstition at play.
2. Checking your list of books, I have to say I was amazed at your titles. Each title has a unique ring to it, and really draws attention to your books. How do you choose your titles – before or after the book has been finished; do you get help, do you ask for suggestions? Do you sometimes choose a title and then realize it’s been used and you have to change it?
My original title for Half-truths and White Lies was Venn Diagrams, which I felt suited my character’s complicated family arrangement better than the family tree, but my publisher was concerned that (a) people over the age of fifty wouldn’t know what a Venn Diagram is and that (b) they would mistake it for a maths text book, and so that title change was imposed on me. It took me a long time to get used to it. I didn’t own the title. For a while, it felt as if I was a fraud peddling someone else’s book.
The title for I Stopped Time, my homage to the pioneers of photography, came from my reading of Henri Lartiques notes on photography.
My books are so long in the writing that I can choose a title that has yet to be used and someone else will have nabbed it before I publish. That happened to me with These Fragile Things. I had wanted Still Small Voice but that was taken, so I compromised. Then Neil Gaiman published a short story collection called Fragile Things. He did me an enormous favour, since my book appears when someone enters Neil Gaiman’s title in the search engine.
A Funeral for an Owl was originally called The Other Side of the Tracks, which was used by someone else during the writing of the book, and so I used a pivitol line from the novel, which led very naturally to Andrew Candy’s amazing cover design.
An Unchoreographed Life, the title of my novel about a ballerina who turns to prostitution, was borrowed from Margot Fonteyne. It was the phrase she used to describe her tumultuous off-stage life.
An Unknown Woman was originally called The Things that We Lost in the Fire, but someone wrote a song with that title, so it had to go. An Unknown Woman has so many meanings within the context of the novel that it seemed to be the perfect fit, even though it isn’t unique.
3. I found this line on your website and loved it: My favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’ What do you feel strongest and most comfortable writing about – what sort of people and topics, what sort of ‘made-up truth’?
I don’t think it’s ever a case of feeling comfortable. It’s almost a case of writing outside my comfort zone, if that makes sense. I write very character-driven fiction. I also write fact-based fiction, using writing as a mechanism to make sense of the world. By giving a difficult issue a human face, we come to a better understanding. Novels are the only narrative form that transport the reader directly inside the character’s head, describing their conflicts, emotions and thoughts them from the inside. That’s why the novel is such an ideal medium for uncomfortable subjects.
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.
4. When you look at everything that’s involved in your writing process (the pre, during and post activities), what would you say is the most difficult and the most enjoyable part of the whole thing?
On a good day, when the words are flowing, writing new material can be an absolute joy. On a bad day, that blank screen and blinking cursor is terrifying. There can be a great deal of satisfaction in whittling down a jumble into something that begins to flow. I always say that I am five per cent creative and ninety-five per cent logic, and that really comes into play when editing. Difficult isn’t necessarily a negative. Challenging yourself is good for the soul. But the greatest challenge is always to catch those perfect words that are queuing inside your head and get them down on the page without losing the poetry and the magic.
5. You are a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors. Do you find the current situation of ‘independent vs. traditional’ publishing challenging or a burden?
At last year’s London Book Fair, the message was that the line between traditional and self-publishing is now blurred. The advantages of self-publishing are too great to ignore.
Up until 2012, I had been told that no self-respecting writer should consider self-publishing, but then I attended the Self Publishing in a Digital Age conference and it was a revelation! Far from being amateurish, I discovered that self-published authors are a diverse group – authors who have walked away from six-figure deals, established authors who’ve been dropped by their publishers after their latest book didn’t sell quite so well, innovative authors whose work doesn’t fit the market, cross-genre authors who market themselves as a brand, best-selling authors who have never tried the traditional route, who were there at the right place, at the right time. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out? I decided that I was in.
Last summer, big-name authors went to the House of Commons to debate the fact that authors’ incomes have decreased by 29% since 2005. In effect, authors under traditional contracts – who typically receive 25% of the cost of e-books sales – were demanding the same terms as self-published authors, who receive as much as 70%).
The Society of Authors Chief Executive, Nicola Solomon, gave self-publishing the stamp of respectability when she said that traditional publisher’s terms are no longer fair or sustainable. “Almost all publishers ask for rights for the whole lifetime of copyright with very limited possibilities of getting your rights back, even if sales are woeful. Authors need to look very carefully at the terms publishers offer, take proper advice and consider: is it worth it, or are you better off doing it yourself?”
Once authors venture down the self-published route, they can see its all-too-obvious advantages: complete creative control, ability to publish to their own schedules and react in a timely manner. If they can do this themselves (by which I mean build their own teams and do it as well if not better), why do they need publishers?
Literary Agent Andrew Lownie predicts that by 2020, seventy per cent of books will be self-published. My belief is that the growth will come from writers who are currently under contract.
Speaking for myself, self-publishing has enabled me to explore subjects that wouldn’t be open to me if I were under contract. For me, self-publishing is the mechanism that freed me to be more ambitious in terms of where I wanted to take my fiction. Instead of being dictated to, I am free to write about what I want to write about. Remove the pressure of trying of tying to mould something to fit the current publishing market – which agents admit is risk-adverse and overly-commercialised – and it grows wings. Would I have been allowed to write An Unchoreographed Life if I was under contract? I don’t think so.
6. You say that most of your best writing happens when you are busiest. Is there a pattern to how your plot ideas come to you?
No. They reveal themselves to me very slowly during the process of writing. It might be on the fiftieth edit that I finally get to grips with a point I have been trying to make. It might be that an editor has a different understanding of the book that takes it in a new direction. Often, it takes a reader to explain to me what they understood by what I had written for me to grasp the idea.
7. Outside the Box is a fantastic collection of seven women authors, including yourself. How did this collaboration come about? What do you feel or think when you hear someone describe an author as a ‘women’s writer’?
It was the brainchild of Jessica Bell. By co-incidence, I had already been putting out feelers with the idea of creating a multi-author box-set, but my idea had been to limit it to two other authors. Being more ambitious gave us access to a far wider skill set. Within a week, we had a title, a cover design and a website and things really began to motor.
Quite aside from the collaborating with a truly inspirational – and international – team of writers, I was really excited about the opportunity to showcase the diversity of writing that falls under the general fiction labels. I continue to feel uncomfortable with the literary label. It seems arrogant to lay claim to a title shared by Booker prize-winners. I’m also aware that it can be off-putting for some readers, who associate it with something difficult or inaccessible, something that will have them constantly reaching for the dictionary. I am rather fond of Joanne Harris’ comment that she doesn’t like to insult her readers by assuming they only like to read one type of fiction. We aren’t insulting any readers. Within a set of seven books, we offer the full spectrum from light (although never frothy) to darker, more haunting reads that delve into deeper psychological territory.
I almost feel that it’s coincidental that we’re an all-female group – The Bangles of the box-set world. My first novel fiction was published under a ‘women’s fiction’ imprint. My follow-up was rejected because it was categorised as literary. I had never set out to write exclusively for women. I share Joanne Harris’s view that ‘women’s fiction’ isn’t a genre. All it does is reinforce the idea that books written by women are not for men. At a time when bookshops have been asked to do away with ‘boys’ fiction’ and ‘girls’ fiction’, this category seems inappropriate. We do know that women read books written by both men and women and that men tend to only read books written by men. Or do they? The twist in this tale is that two of the boxsters ghostwrite for male writers. Which suggests that, as was the case in 1998 when Francine Prose’s wrote her essay, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” take away the gender label and it’s not all that easy to identify the author by sex.
8. I find it fascinating that so many authors are interested in photography, you being one of them. Does it help you focus or provide a distraction during your writer’s block? If you weren’t a writer, can you picture yourself trying out a different art form to express yourself(which and why)?
It’s definitely a source of inspiration and I hope my love of the medium is apparent in my writing. In fact the review of I Stopped Time that I am most proud of came from an American photographer who said that I had captured everything she felt about her art. I come from a family of musicians and artists, so I like to think that I have a good ear and a good eye. As a child, I could usually be found doodling. These days, I’m more likely to be found with a camera in hand, but I’m very much the amateur.
9. What would you say to your younger self? What do you feel proud and content about in your life right now?
I would encourage my younger self to take more risks. I played it safe for a very long time but when at last I stepped outside my comfort zone, nothing bad happened.
I’m not a naturally content person, but I do feel really proud of the body of work I am building up. It’s starting to look quite substantial. For someone who doesn’t have children, my words are what I will leave behind. They are my legacy.
10. Your latest novel, An Unknown Woman sounds utterly intriguing, I have to say. What are you hoping your readers to think or feel while and after reading it?
The quote that Joanne Harris provided for the cover of Half-truths and Lies applies equally here. It is ‘a story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption.’ I like the view that it is the reader who finishes writing a novel, so I like to leave off at the point where there are still alternatives. I’d like people to be inspired or intrigued by the possibility that paths in life are never fixed, that we never really know another person, that relationships can be mended, that people aren’t disposable.
11. Would you like to add anything about your current work,
or send a message to the readers?
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