Happy Boxing Day and welcome to the five hundred and ninety-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s welcomes the return of novelist Jane Davis to talk about her second and third novels (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jane-Davis/e/B0034P156Q). 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. We covered a lot of ground in our podcast interview and our earlier blog interview, but mainly talked about the one book you had out at the time, so I’d like to concentrate on your latest two books. Firstly, please tell us how ‘I Stopped Time’ came about.
Jane: Reading a biography of Lee Miller, one of my heroines. I knew her photography but, as it turned out, very little of her life. She was an extraordinary, extraordinary person. One of the most sought-after fashion models of her day, who became a muse to surrealist photographers and artists such as Man Ray and Picasso. But she had always yearned to be on the other side of the lens and, in time, she became highly respected for her own work. At the outbreak of World War II she became dissatisfied with her fashion work and documented the Blitz for Vogue, then underwent yet another transformation to become the only woman in combat photo journalism in Europe, taking incredible personal risks. Lee also recorded the first use of napalm at the battle of St. Malo, the liberation of Paris, and she was there when the victims of Nazi concentration camps were liberated. Her personal relationships were never straightforward, but it a huge testament to the strength of her personality that all of her ex-lovers became friends. She eventually settled down in Sussex with the artist and curator, Roland Penrose, with whom she had a son, Anthony. He knew Lee as an embarrassing mother and had no idea of her history until, after she died, he discovered her collection of work. I found his comment that he was cheated out of knowing someone really very extraordinary extremely poignant, and it set me on the road to discovering one of my main characters, Sir James Hastings.
Other things, I stumbled upon along the way. One of the things that happened while I was writing a book that spans the period of the First World War was the death of Harry Patch. I had been deeply moved watching and reading about the histories of the last of the Veterans, and admired him greatly for his decision to speak out after so many years’ silence. After all that time had passed, you could still see how raw his emotions were.
Morgen: You mentioned in our earlier interview about your love for photography and you’ve incorporated it here.
Jane: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that made I Stopped Time such a joy to write. Jacques Henri Lartique, a self-taught photographer whose collection spans over seven decades, kept intricate notes of his experimentation with what was still a new medium when he was given his first camera as a boy. They became my sourcebook. In fact, I was able to pull several of my passions together: photography, a relatively new-found interest in history. The book is dotted with some of the incredible people I found along the way, whose paths would have crossed with my main character’s. I’ve already mentioned Harry Patch. There’s also Florence Mills, the first black female international superstar, and Edith Hawkes who became better known as Sylvia Ashley, a real rags to riches story. Graveyards also feature.
Morgen: <laughs> Please tell us more about the graveyards.
Jane: Graveyards and Gravestones. I am a huge fan of Victorian Cemeteries. Far from being morbid, I find them very peaceful places. Last week I wandered through Kensal Green Cemetery on my way to an appointment and discovered many of the gravestones – and not all of them new – had been decorated with tinsel, something I had never seen before. I also love the fact that you can find a person’s life history right there in front of you. Someone I discovered from her gravestone was Phoebe Hessel who became famous for disguising herself as a man because she could not bear to be separated from her lover when he joined the army. She outlived both him when she married and her second husband, living until the age of 108.
Morgen: Your protagonist is a photographer, does this correlate with writing?
Jane: Yes, when I was writing about the distance that Lottie feels from her work, when she says it’s hard to take any credit for it because it has an energy of its own. Lottie is also reluctant to talk about her photography, comparing it to a magician being asked to explain how he has performed a trick. I feel those things, as I imagine many authors do. And yet there’s an increasing expectation that authors, who are often quite reclusive, will make excellent public speakers.
Morgen: You won a Daily Mail First Novel Award, and you feature the Daily Mail in this novel…
Jane: My main concern was to be historically accurate. You can’t ignore the fact that the Daily Mail has a long record of sponsoring the arts, sciences and emerging technologies. There’s no doubt that Lord Northcliffe was a marketing genius, but it’s also true to say that without his indirect funding, some achievements either might not have happened, or would have happened far more slowly. Taking early aviation as an example, inn 1906 he put up £1,000 for the first flight across the Channel and £10,000 for the first flight from London to Manchester. These ideas seemed so far-fetched that Punch said they would offer £10,000 for the first man who flew to the moon, but within four years both prizes had been won. The fact that my journalists were perhaps not the nicest people you might chose to meet was incidental. Without giving too much of the plot away, there wouldn’t have been much of a story if Lottie had simply entered a photography competition and won.
Morgen: Did your First Novel Award affect your writing thereafter?
Jane: Definitely. You might think that your reaction to winning a prize would be one of pure joy, but I found it was far more complex than that. Because I had very little publicity, I was able to deal with my emotions very privately, but I’ve become an addict to shows like the X Factor. You can see how winning a stage of the competition, when you have had a history of knockback after knockback from people who have told you that you’re not good enough, or that you shouldn’t set yourself up for disappointment by trying, can cause a physical collapse. I don’t think Rylan and Christopher were acting. Winning can also be hugely humbling, and I hope that comes across in the story line.
Morgen: You’ve just issued the e-book, how does ‘I Stopped Time’ tie in with Christmas?
Jane: It does in the same way that ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is a Christmas film. The story is about a reclusive man in the autumn of his life who finds a way to forgive the mother who remained an absent figure for his entire life. He can’t do that on his own, because, in order to explain her absence in a time when nobody explained anything to children, he had set her up as the villain of his childhood. In comes a young student, Jenny Jones, who, let’s face it, is an unlikely friend, but, while he is trying to put up barriers, she recognizes what they have in common and tears them down.
Morgen: Sometimes there are similarities between an author’s first and second books, is this true for you?
Jane: I was with my graphic designer at lunchtime and was looking at the cover for ‘Half-truths and White Lies’. Joanne Harris described it as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption.’ That quote could equally have been written about ‘I Stopped Time.’ I think the familiarity will come from the use of two narrators. Something I was keen to give a sense of was how modern the mother, the elder of the two main characters, was when compared with her son. By layering the stories, I also wanted to give show the parallels between the lives of mother and son, and of history repeating itself, as it so often seems to in families, even when they live apart.
Morgen: Moving on to your other new eBook, ‘These Fragile Things’ (available tomorrow), which covers near-death experiences and religion – why did you choose such encompassing subjects?
Jane: Orange prize-winner Francesca Kay said that she sees no reason why inexperienced novelists should avoid the big issues, but I wanted to bring the premise down to one very simple question: what happens to an ordinary family when their daughter claims to be seeing visions. Of course the dynamics of the family will shift, but can they survive it?
Morgen: Coming from a very non-religious background myself, presumably yours was very different?
Jane: There’s no short answer to that. I have a difficult relationship with religion, and by that I mean formal religion. I was brought up as a Catholic. As a child my life was filled with mythical beings and stories of great journeys and courage: of avenging angels; St George and the Dragon; Jonah and the whale; Noah and his ark; Jack and the Beanstalk; Daniel in the lions’ den; David and Goliath; Samson who lost his strength when his hair was cut; Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Be it Bothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson or the Old Testament, our imaginations were fuelled. Nobody seemed to consider the issue that children may not be able to distinguish between stories and ‘the truth’ and truth is very important to children. In those days, I didn’t think that there was any difference between God and Father Christmas. As Elvis Costello would sing in the wonderful ‘God’s Comic’, “Sometimes they confuse me with Santa Claus. It’s the big white beard, I suppose.” But heaven forbid you should confuse fairies with angels, and so you were expected to learn: The Bible is true, Jack and the Beanstalk isn’t. Except that it doesn’t end there. ‘What, God didn’t really create the world in seven days?’ ‘No, that is just an illustration.’ ‘But everything else is true?’ ‘Yes, everything else is true.’ ‘Including the Prodigal Son?’ ‘No, that’s a parable. Parables are stories that illustrate issues and have moral endings.’ ‘Like fairy tales?’ ‘No! Not at all like fairy tales.’ And now that we have so much more knowledge and archaeological evidence, it is being suggested that more and more was illustrative.
It seems to me that everyone worries too much about how children will react when they find out that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. They spend far less time worrying about the moment when their brood stops believing that God exists. There is very little preparation for that. I suppose that with Santa Claus, the impact of the blow is softened by the fact that stockings are filled with presents regardless. Where is the softener with regards to God? Who’s left steering the ship? Childhood is frightening. You can see that from children’s reactions to announcements of the end of the world this week.
But you don’t become a lapsed Catholic overnight. I have returned to church many times over the years: when suffering from depression; for births and marriages; and particularly when mourning the loss of friends. Religion, at its best, brings people together to offer comfort and support and to celebrate life’s big events. I miss so much about it: singing in a big choir; the setting aside of Sunday as a special day, a day of rest and for family and friends, and a big roast dinner. But you can’t ignore all of the terrible things that have been done in the name of God. Karen Armstrong wrote ‘In the beginning, man created God.’ If that is true, it was either his most beautiful or his most diabolical creation.
And then, later, my work in insurance, forced me to deal with that wonderful question, ‘What is an ‘Act of God’? A legal term that’s still in use.
The book is certainly about conflicts. A father who claims that God answered his prayers for the his daughter and hails her survival and subsequent recovery a miracle. Who converts to Catholicism against his wife’s wishes. A mother who was present when the ambulances took her daughter away and knows with absolute certainty that it was men who saved her. Who seeks a scientific explanation. Who feels that sides have been taken against her. Can a marriage survive those differences in opinion? And then there is Judy who has to make sense of why she survived a near death experience and its terrifying side-effects. Who, as an only daughter, tries to make diplomatic choices while treading her own path, wherever that may take her.
Morgen: A book’s location is often important and you’ve chosen London (Streatham) in the 1980s. What lead to you pick these?
Jane: I wanted my starting point to be ordinariness, albeit that there is a strong sense of instability and intimation of a disaster waiting to happen. We have an accountant father who reads ‘Just Seventeen’ on the train and is horrified at how the media want to mould his daughter; a housewife who feels she is becoming increasingly invisible and longs for an escape from routine; a daughter who wears Garfield slippers and can’t work the washing machine, and hates the fact that her parents listen in on her telephone calls. When researching visionaries, I came across the story of ‘Our Lady of Surbiton,’ which is quite close to where I live. Streatham is also close by, but has a more urban feel. To begin with I simply substituted the change in location into my working title. Streatham is somewhere I used to visit in my teens, mainly to go ice-skating. In recent years, it has mainly been where I have sat in traffic jams on the A23 on my way to Brixton Academy. But it was once a genteel area and had the longest high street in Europe, which was the favoured shopping destination for princesses. It has a variety of housing stock which attracts a mixed population. By the Eighties its reputation had been tarnished by a certain Mrs Cynthia Payne and shaken by the overspill from the Brixton riots. I chose the Eighties for several reasons. Firstly, it was the decade when I was a teenager, and I was trying to get back into the mindset of a teenage girl. There was also the fact that I couldn’t find a more fertile decade for Marian visionaries within my lifetime. I also wanted to write about a big event that I could bear witness to: the Great Storm of 1987.
Morgen: I remember that very well. I had rice paper-thin curtains but slept through it. I went to Wembley market the next morning (before my family woke) and wondered why the trees looked like dominoes. You clearly remember it well.
Jane: It was a very unreal experience for me. I was on holiday in Cornwall with a very good friend of mine, Benedict Ludwinski (where are you now, Ben?). The last night of our holiday, to be precise. I was woken in my room in the B & B with the bed shaking and my initial reaction was that it was an earthquake. I made the decision to hide under the blankets, but the shaking subsided eventually and I must have fallen back to sleep. The next day we travelled back to London by coach and, as we neared the Capital, the devastation got worse and worse. We had been out of touch with the news and had no idea what had happened. It was only later that I learned a storm could have caused this level of damage. My job in those days was handling insurance claims, and I spent the following two to three years dealing with people whose lives and livelihoods had been affected, and so I shared their stories. The demand for builders was so high that we still had some outstanding claims when the next big storm struck in 1990. I don’t know why but, faced with buildings that had been toppled and injured people, it is the images of the trees that have stayed with me. Trees, that had stood tall for hundreds of years, toppled like dominos.
Morgen: I did Google Ben but nothing much, 192.com has someone of that name in Surrey. You mentioned trees, and I love it when inanimate objects take on a life of their own in a book and you have a particular tree…
Jane: I’m lucky enough to live in an area where there are several good parks and I walk in all seasons, so trees are my calendars. There are many ancient examples, including one in Beddington Park that Elizabeth I is said to have sat under. During the writing of the novel, several of the large trees in the park either fell down or were felled because they were rotting from the inside out. I got a very good feel for the size of them and the extent of damage they could have caused. Carshalton can also lay claim to the tallest London Plane Tree. The tree that I describe is actually in Honeywood Walk. It’s a magnificent thing and I hope it outlives the lot of us.
Morgen: You’ve covered such a lot in your books.
Jane: I hope it is a development! I had written two books on the trot where, central to the theme, were characters who discovered persons now missing or unable to defend themselves were not as they seemed. These Fragile Things is about the fragility of everything you hold dear and the threat of it being taken away.
Morgen: What are you reading at the moment?
Jane: As usual, a mixture of fiction and biographies. I’ve just finished Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home which was short-listed for the Booker. Because it is a short novel, and on the strength of the recommendations from reviewers, I read twice, finding it far more satisfying the second time round. I was able to really appreciate the trail of clues she left. The writing is very subtle and that’s what makes it so clever.
I’ve also been reading Jane Ridley’s Bertie, which is about Edward VII. It provides a real insight into what it would have been like to have Queen Victoria for a mother. The author didn’t need to say anything derogatory. It is all there in her correspondence!
Morgen: Seeing as it’s Christmas Eve, do you have a favourite Christmas song?
Jane: It has to be Little Drummer Boy by Bing Crosby and David Bowie, doesn’t it?
Morgen: Thank you, Jane. Great to have you back.
Her first novel, 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.’
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