Insight from Jane Davis on her latest release

JD Bench 034Jane Davis is the author of six novels. Her debut, 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.’ The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Five further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Compulsion Reads describe her as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.

What’s the story behind your latest book?

I wanted to explore the relationship we have with our possessions – ‘If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?’ The action in An Unknown Woman begins with my main character, Anita, standing outside the house she and her partner have lived in for fifteen years and watching it burn 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”.)

Then 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 if I should abandon the project. The imagined scenario I had been writing about become 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 18 months later, they would only have just received planning permission to rebuild. At the moment, they’re still living in rented accommodation with what little they managed to salvage. Their lives will still be in limbo for another year or so yet. However, it was 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.

Would you say your book is more about escapism for the reader or to address social issues?

An Unknown Woman final reducedAs you might expect from someone whose favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’ I usually address meaty issues. My previous novels have dealt with the pioneers of photography, religious visions, prostitution, knife crime, the protection of vulnerable adults. With An Unknown Woman, I didn’t deliberately set out to write about a ‘big subject’. Instead, I began to write what I thought was a simple story about a family placed under the microscope when crisis brings them together. I wanted to tackle the subjects that are relevant to the life I’m living now (which bears no similarity to what I imagined when I was a child and my father used to tell me, “When you’re an adult, you can do exactly as you like.”) It’s about how material possessions inform our sense of self; the extension of youth into what used to be thought of as middle age; and what it’s like to be childless when the majority of friends have children, even when childlessness was a positive choice.

Basing the threads very loosely on my elderly neighbour’s personal experience, I also explore the issue of what happens when the mother/daughter bond is absent. In my neighbour’s case, the women in his wife’s family only had daughters and were unable to form any sort of bond with them. He spent his married life guarding his wife’s secret by being both mother and father. It was only when I sent my manuscript out to beta readers that I realised this issue is more common than I could have possibly imagined. But while the subjects of post-natal depression and delayed bonding are openly discussed, the sense of shame that a mother experiences when she cannot love a child – sometimes a child who was very much wanted – precludes that same openness.

What are you working on next?

My work in progress tells the story of a radical poet and political activist who is a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she is horrified to find that she’s been featured on the New Year’s Honours list. (This is list prepared by the Queen for people who have made a considerable contribution to British life in some substantial way – arts, culture, business, charitable works and so on).

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey, with her Formula 1 obsessed, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she is not writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.


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Readers who sign up to Jane’s newsletter will receive a free copy of her novel, I Stopped Time. Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk. She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.

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