Welcome to the one hundred and sixty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with novelist Jane Davis (who I interviewed for my podcast in June this year). A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello again Jane, lovely to have you back. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Jane: I am the middle child of five. My older siblings – one of each – tested the parental waters for me, and I shunned my younger siblings as being too young to be of any use. I received a Catholic upbringing and struggled to tell the difference between Brothers Grimm and Noah and the Ark, but was introduced to the wonderful language of King James. Hilary Mantel spoke on The Culture Show about the impact of religion on her life and her writing: the realm of the invisible; the constant fear of everything you do being overseen; ultimately, the fear of hell. “I don’t trust it. I always feel that if I put my hand against a door it might go right through it.” I got that completely. These are powerful, powerful thoughts for a child to engage with and interpret. Having not been to church for over twenty years, I came to writing following a negative experience at a child’s christening – far too complex a story to go into here.
Morgen: But very useful fiction fodder by the sound of it. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Jane: Agent, Carolyn Dawnay, offered the reassuring advice, “Dare to be unfashionable.” I write without worrying about genre and then struggle to describe my finished work. 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 women’s 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.
Morgen: I don’t stick with a genre either which is probably why I don’t have an agent (the books I submitted weren’t my best, on reflection, so that probably didn’t help) and am going the eBook route. Can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Jane: I wasn’t the first to spot my book on the shelves. Even before the book signings on the first day of release, my sister Anne was visiting our nieces in Brighton and spied it in Waterstones. She texted me a photograph to prove it.
Morgen: Have you ever seen a member of the public (whom you don’t know!) reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Jane: No! I always keep a look out when I’m on trains and I hate the fact that it’s really hard to spy what people are reading on Kindle.
Morgen: I guess you just have to see how many you can sit next to. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Jane: Authors need to be prepared to do the majority of their own marketing but may find that it is hard to organise events that send out ripples. There is hard footwork involved even ensuring that your book is stocked. However, the growing popularity of book clubs and literary festivals means that it has never been easier for authors to meet their readers and to get feedback.
Morgen: Isn’t that great. I love lit fests – I’ve volunteered at a couple and been to others as visitors. A few of us are planning on going to Edinburgh next summer. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Jane: It was winning a competition that led to the publication of my first novel ‘Half truths and White Lies’ winning, and pure luck.
Morgen: And of course the writing had nothing to do with it.
Jane: It was by chance that I heard about the Winchester Writer’s conference a week before it was held in 2008.
Morgen: Ah yes, I went there for the first time this July. I’d heard about it for a couple of years but finally got my act together and did the long weekend. It was great and I’d like to go again next year.
Jane: And it was by chance that I chose to attend a lecture held by Jack Sheffield of ‘Teacher Teacher’ fame.
Morgen: He was there this year too. Sorry, I’ll stop butting in.
Jane: 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. Unfortunately the Daily Mail withdrew from that particular competition, so it is no longer offered, but there are plenty of other fantastic opportunities. Brit Writers recently announced the winner of their 2011 competition, and the 2012 award is there to play for. http://www.prunderground.com/brit-writers-celebrating-the-creative-passion-of-the-nation/007518.
Morgen: Ooh fingers crossed. Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Jane: 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 that.’ 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. Joe King didn’t only want to be thought of as son of Stephen, so he chose to write under the name Joe Hill. 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. Publishers are always looking for interesting background stories for their authors and they can’t use them unless real names are used. Plus, there is such a thrill about seeing your own name in print.
Morgen: If I’d been the aforementioned gentleman I think I would have changed my name completely. At least it’s memorable, I suppose. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Jane: For anyone wishing to be a commercial writer, an agent is vital. Carolyn Dawnay of United Artists describes her role as critic, editor, doctor, lawyer, nanny and, on occasion, psychotherapist. Although many writers see them as the gatekeepers, blocking the way to publishers, the truth is that many publishers simply won’t accept submissions directly. The recession has hit the publishing world and economies have had to be made. Many no longer employ readers and rely on agents to act as filters.
Morgen: Which is probably why it’s said that it’s more difficult to get an agent than a publisher these days. I mentioned eBooks earlier, are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Jane: Yes. None – I was not involved. And no.
Morgen: Short and sweet, I like that. Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?
Jane: I tried to name all of my readers, friends, family and Godchildren in the dedication of my first novel, completely overlooking my long-suffering partner, Matt. Luckily that was rectified at the last moment.
Morgen: Oops. Who designed your book cover/s – if you did it / them yourself how did you chose what to go with?
Jane: Unless self-publishing, authors have little input into the cover design. The decision is made by a marketing team, who present the idea and may ask for an opinion. I was extremely fortunate in both my UK cover design, which was extremely eye-catching, and the German cover, which picked out elements from the storyline. My only reservation is that both were clearly aimed at the female market, while I feel my writing may also appeal to men. Having said that, it is women who buy books…
Morgen: I must admit that I did think they were women’s fiction when I first saw them. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Jane: Being acknowledged is still a thrill. I recently won a prize at the Winchester Writers’ conference for the first chapter of a novel that I had shelved and, this weekend, 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 my latest manuscript.
Morgen: Oh wow, well done. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Jane: I don’t believe any author who says that they have not had any rejections. Correction: I believe Sir Terry Pratchett. When asked about his route to publication he shrugged and said, “Write Manuscript. Send manuscript to agent. Receive cheque. Buy greenhouse.” Speaking at the Writers’ Workshop Conference this weekend, author Debi Alper recommended developing the hind of a rhino. I’m working on it.
Morgen: Me too. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Jane: I am working editing a manuscript called The Other Side of the Tracks. This is an earlier manuscript that I have re-worked to address the advice that it was beautifully written but too quiet for the current market – a common cause of rejection. I have layered the original storyline with a supplementary story involving knife crime. What I love about this is that it has enabled me to develop the role of a supporting character in my original cast, allowing an outcast to shine as a hero.
Morgen: And that’s what we like to read. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Jane: I would be lying if I said yes. I work (for money) two days a week and this involves long days with lots of travelling. But, holidays aside, I write every other day when I am not working. When you are living inside the heads of your characters, more than a couple of days’ absence feels like too long.
Morgen: Yep, I know that feeling… roll on NaNoWriMo November 1st. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Jane: I worry that I don’t have a theme idea for my next big project yet, but I develop my story lines through my characters, so I am optimistic that, when the time comes, it will happen. I do try to use my emotions. If I am tired and emotional, I write a tired and emotional scene. If all else fails, a long walk gets the blood flowing to the brain. Before you know it, you’re eavesdropping on a conversation in the local park and you have that difficult dialogue sorted.
Morgen: I love people-watching and discreetly pause my iPod when I’m approaching a couple who seem to be having a deep and meaningful… all in the name of research, of course. A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
Jane: Everything. A news article. A conversation I have overheard. A piece of music. An observation. A nagging doubt. Something from my past that I can’t leave alone.
Morgen: Now that sounds intriguing. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Jane: 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.
Morgen: Stephen and Sir Terry have been mentioned here numerous times so no apology needed. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Jane: The truth? I look at the bookshelf to my right, take the first name of one author and the surname of another. I know of people who trawl through telephone directories, fretting that they won’t be able to get the characterisation right until they have found the perfect name. I expect my characters to grow into their hybrid names. Like children.
Morgen: And sometimes that’s exactly what they are. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Jane: 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.
Morgen: I’m sure he loves doing it… and possibly finding the glaring errors. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Jane: I was handed a postcard with a quotation from Ernest Hemingway on it this weekend. It says, “The first draft of anything is shit.” I usually find that I have at least 20,000 words too many in any first draft. My natural style is far too repetitive and needs a lot of whittling down. I can lose a couple of thousand words just be deleting all of the unnecessary ‘thats.’
Morgen: 20,000 words… ouch. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Jane: Nothing. I sit down. I write.
Morgen: Good plan. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Jane: Unless a thought strikes me in the middle of the night, a computer. I have no idea how writers managed to edit before the advent of the computer. It must have been torture.
Morgen: I learned at secretarial college on an early electronic typewriter with built-in correction fluid but we had two sheets of paper and carbon so we couldn’t cheat. It worked. 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?
Jane: 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.
Morgen: And isn’t that great. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Jane: I like writing in the first person, but converted to third person after I was told that nothing is being published in first person. Since then, every book I have read seems to have been first person!
Morgen: The agents (and others) I’ve spoken to have said that first has been overdone and third will never go out of fashion. I like both. Monologues are one of my favourites (and second person).
Jane: 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.
Morgen: Ditto the earlier “And isn’t that great. ” Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Jane: Bad news for prologue fans. I attended a writers’ conference this weekend. Part of the process was Slushpile Live, an event where authors had the opportunity to read the opening of their books and to receive immediate critique from a panel of authors and agents. The clear message was that prologues are wrong, wrong, wrong. If they are part of the story, they should be chapter one. If not, they have no place being there. I would imagine the same applies to epilogues.
Morgen: I think you’re right, I rarely hear good things. A chapter one I had in the early drafts of novel 2 subsequently became a prologue but I suspect it’ll revert. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Jane: Yes. My first manuscript remains buried in a special drawer.
Morgen: Mine’s in a folder and it needs a lot of reworking – I suspect that it’ll be the therapeutic novel five (for last year’s NaNo) that’ll stay buried. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Jane: 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.
Morgen: I’m pretty much the same: good = writing the unknown / less favoured (how tempted was I to say “evil”? = editing and research. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Jane: Don’t think about it. Just do it. All that writing requires is a computer and your spare time. A lot of your spare time. Alright: every waking hour. Joining a writers’ group or an on-line community can be really useful for feedback. But if that’s not something that appeals, do read your writing out loud.
Morgen: Absolutely, all the above. What do you like to read?
Jane: 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 think in panic, ‘that’s my book!’ This has recently led me to Francesca Kay’s The Translation of the Bones and Stephan Kelman’s Pigeon English. 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. I was working my way through the Booker shortlist – interesting in that they are so commercial this year (I have to say that I don’t understand the inclusion of Snowdrops) – but, having seen the Hilary Mantel special for The Culture Show, I have given myself permission to divert my energies to her memoir. The book that I have learned most about writing from this year is David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I put off reading it, as Cloud Atlas was one of the few books I have ever given up on. A masterclass in writing.
Morgen: I have heard good things about his later book. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Jane: 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.
Morgen: I suspect a cleaner, gardener… What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Jane: 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.
Morgen: How lovely, I love that part of the country. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Jane: Stephen King’s On Writing is the most readable book on the subject that you will find.
Morgen: Yes. I have it. Must read it. Christmas. Slapped wrist. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Jane: I must admit that I am not a great teckkie. I’m on Facebook and Linked in and I blog regularly. I’m afraid I don’t monitor its value: I know I should.
Morgen: I’m not sure you have to be too strict, the feedback you get should tell you. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Jane: Increasingly, writers need to have a secondary means of earning a living. If they are lucky that may also come from writing, or from teaching creative writing. A whole industry has been built up around coaching aspiring writers, or writers chasing that next deal, of whom there are a great many! One agent I heard speak this week – also a successful bookseller – says he thinks that e-books will be short-lived, and wasn’t argued with. I would be delighted if that were true, but we need to hedge our bets and embrace new technologies. I am greatly saddened by the eroding value of the written word, a trend that – like music – is almost impossible to reverse, and by constant reminders that few people read for pleasure any more. Last week I read a news stories about campaigners who had lost their battle to keep six libraries open after a High Court Judge dismissed their case. And yet I regularly guest at book clubs and find wonderful communities of friends who commit to reading a book a month and get together over a glass of wine to review it. That gives me huge cause for optimism.
Morgen: Sadly everything seems to be pinned on money these days but I’m optimistic too. If you could have your life over again, is there anything you’d have done differently (writing-related or otherwise)?
Jane: I would take more risks. I would try not to 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.
Morgen: And if it did, you could write about it. Oh no, maybe I shouldn’t say that (constant worrier? Oops). Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Jane: Buy books. If you want to find a bookshop on your high street, buy lots of them. I think people still see the publishing industry as fat cat organisations, but profit levels are very, very small. Minute, even. I visited Gullivers, a wonderful independent bookstore in Wimborne Minster a couple of weeks ago, but there are few market towns that can support a bookstore. The fact that the media dedicates column space and airtime to an industry that makes so little money is very encouraging. The Guardian produced a wonderful guide to independent bookshops a few weeks ago. Do grab a copy if you can. I found mine sitting on a friend’s coffee table.
Morgen: I did a bit of digging and it can be bought from The Guardian’s Online Bookshop for £3.50. Thank you so much Jane, lovely to chat to you again.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
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