Jane Davis is a fabulous writer, and I’m not saying that because she was the final judge of the vignette prize that The Walmart Book of the Dead won; I’m saying it because her books are totally transporting; they’re meaty and heady and intellectual and historical, but also completely enchanting, the kinds of books you open and then you realize it’s been several hours and you haven’t moved, you’ve just been reading and reading and reading.
Her new book, Smash All the Windows, will be released April 12, but you can pre-order it now for the special price of $.99. From 13 February to 10 March, U.S. readers can also enter a Goodreads Giveaway for a chance to win one of 100 eBooks.
Interview with Jane Davis
Why do you write?
Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it forces writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration and not the answer that’s important. I think the idea of a single truth is flawed. I have a sister who is less than a year older than me but our memories of the same events differ substantially.
As my collection of books grows, I’m beginning to see them as my legacy. As someone who doesn’t have children, they are the mark I will leave on the world. So another reason for writing – one that I didn’t think about in my mid-thirties when I started to write – is to create a legacy that I can be proud of.
For readers who aren’t familiar with your writing, what can they expect?
I write about big subjects and give my characters almost impossible moral dilemmas. I don’t allow them a shred of privacy. I know what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, the lies they tell, their secret fears. But I only meet them at a particular point on their journeys, usually in a highly volatile or unstable situation, and then I throw them to the lions. How people behave under pressure reveals so much about them.
Can you talk about Smash all The Windows?
You can probably sense from the title that the novel began with outrage. I was infuriated by the press’s reaction to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at family members as they emerged from the courtroom. It was put them that, now that it was all over, they could get on with their lives. ‘What lives?’ I yelled at the television.
For those who don’t know about Hillsborough, a crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. A single lie was told about the cause of the disaster: In that moment, Liverpool fans became scapegoats. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set straight.
I didn’t want to be the one to add to the pain I saw on their faces, so I created a fictional disaster. And because writing should always take you outside your comfort-zone, I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators.
The cover is very striking. What was the idea behind the image?
The City skyline shows the setting of the novel and the starling is borrowed from one of my city walks. I was taking the stairs from the Riverside Path to London Bridge when I saw a starling sitting on a steel railing, singing its heart out. Hearing birdsong when surrounded by the traffic roar and the clang of building works is quite special and so I stood and watched. I used this moment for my character Maggie, the mother of the young station supervisor who was in charge when the disaster happened. She feels her daughter is sending her a message. I chose an image of the starling breaking free and asked my designer Andrew Candy to create a real sense of urgency and momentum, which he did with contrast of the static shards of glass and the blurred images.
How does Smash all the Windows compare with the other books you’ve written?
I think it’s my most contemporary book to date. I’ve written it in the present tense because I wanted the parachute the reader right into the scene of the disaster. I also have a far larger cast of characters than I’ve worked with before. My disaster destroyed the lives of hundreds of people – survivors, witnesses, families, friends, the police, doctors and nurses who had to deal with the aftermath. There was the potential to add more, but I chose to focus on five family members, their partners and the people they lost in the disaster.
Talk a little bit about your characters.
My character Jules Roche was the unwitting poster boy for the disaster. He has a reputation as being something of an enfant terrible, because he has a fiery temper and feeds journalists the soundbites they’re so desperate for. He reluctantly found fame after he found that the way to deal with his grief was to translate all that energy into art, in his case, sculptures. He doesn’t have an artistic background and there’s no consensus on whether the work Jules creates is any good. But his intention to honour the memory of his wife is pure, and integrity like that has enormous appeal. In celebration of the verdict, Tate Modern wants to stage an exhibition of his work. Jules accepts – but only on his terms. He collaborates with the families of the victims to create a series of new pieces from their mementos. For some, it becomes part of the process of letting go.
We have mother and daughter, Gina and her daughter Tamsin Wicker. It’s a complicated dynamic. Gina didn’t only lose a son in the disaster. She lost her idea of who he was – of who she herself was. She wasn’t, as she’d thought, a good mother, and this knowledge led to a downward spiral of self-destruction.
As for Tamsin, she finds herself at a crossroads. Almost twenty-seven years old, she’s still living at home with her mother, who’s an alcoholic. But having lost so much of her teenage years, she is beginning to think she’s entitled to a life of her own, but she’s also afraid of moving on.
Then we have Maggie and Alan Chappel. When Alan decides that the best chance he has of healing his hidden wounds is by returning to his Northumberland hometown, Maggie comes under mounting pressure to explain her reluctance to go along with his plans.
There’s Donovan. The disaster wiped out two generations of his family. Not only his daughter and future son-in-law, but his unborn grandson. He has another source of pain, less obvious. One he can’t discuss. Ever since the funeral, his wife Helene has turned her back on the world, refusing to leave the house. But surely, if he can raise money to build a monument, she might be persuaded… That’s his motivation.
When most injustices are overturned, there’s usually an individual in the background who realised that an injustice had been done and then worked tirelessly to construct a case. With the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, that person was Eric, a law student, still some way from qualifying as a solicitor. The outsider in the story, his arrival proves to be a turning point for families, who’ve all but given up in their search for justice. In the midst of all of the heartbreak and human reaction, his conviction reminds the families that they still have a little fight left in them.
I love the way you’ve shown how creating something helped each of the characters to begin the healing process. What does art mean to you?
I recently filled in an author survey. There was an entire section asking about early writing experiences. What was the first story you wrote? Did you win any writing competitions while at school? I began to think, ‘I’m not a writer. I’m a failed artist.’ It wasn’t that I didn’t make up stories as a child, but instead of words, I used pictures. Right up to my O-Level year, I spent most of my spare time drawing and painting. I’d always assumed that I would make a career in art. It was the thing I was good at. And then came a hard lesson. The O-Level examiners didn’t like my work. But you can apply what you know about the process of writing a novel to the creation of a work of art. Both processes require vision and the creation of something out of nothing. I’ll admit that most of what I know about modern art comes from the BBC series, Imagine. I’ve been absolutely gripped by the stories about the artists, and therefore behind the art.
One of the questions you ask in the book is “Who is a victim?”
That’s right. One of the results of the second inquest is that an additional person is named as a victim, so that group who have been known as ‘the Fifty-eight’ for so long become ‘the Fifty-nine’. And that’s not popular. But we see Jules challenging the interpretation further. We have a situation where only the dead are named as victims, but what about the survivors? In most large-scale disasters, four people need hospital treatment for each person who dies. As Jules points out, “Not even those who spend months in hospital are given a number; not even those who have their leg amputated. Excuse me for saying this, but it seem to me that in court you only matter if you die. That is bullshit! You know how many of the injured die since? There are not just fifty-nine victims. You are a victim, I am a victim, my son is a victim. And if your Rosie is a victim, then every other person who work at London Underground, they are also a victim. The police, the paramedic, the ambulance men…”
You’ve included a character, Victim Thirty-four. Who is he?
He’s someone whose identity hasn’t been established fourteen years after the disaster. In a city the size of London, there are always those who slip through the cracks. In 2017, the charity Shelter estimated that one in every fifty-nine Londoners is homeless. That’s a shocking statistic – and it doesn’t include sofa surfers and what is known as the ‘hidden five per cent’ – those who don’t appear on any official register, who perhaps arrived as part of the post 2001 surge fleeing war, famine or persecution. If victims were recent arrivals, there will be no medical or dental records to help identify them. Following New Zealand’s Tangiwai disaster, twenty-one unidentified victims received a state funeral. 478 bodies remain unidentified after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The truth is that some of these will simply never be identified. I thought that this would be a small way to acknowledge that somewhere, someone is missing those people.
Hailed by The Bookseller as “One to Watch,” Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favorite description of fiction is “made-up truth.”
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