Ohio Gothic/Walmart Review

Here is a lovely review of The Walmart Book of the Dead. Speaking of Gothic-y stuff, I’m teaching an American Gothic Lit course this semester and there’s been a lot of focus in the texts I assigned, and the conversations that have resulted from them in class, on the north vs. south divide in this country. We’ve been talking about how the north “reads” the south in a way that flatters the perception that the north is an enlightened place and the south is an ignorant place–hence the publication of southern gothic short stories in The New Yorker: they’re flattering to New Yorkers! But as we reach the half point in the semester, some of us have been thinking about other regional dynamics and possibilities in American gothic. To that end, I’ve spend some time over spring break thinking about Ohio Gothic. Some potential texts for the next few weeks in this category are:

Putting this together, I notice that themes we tend to associate with the north-south divide, like race and racial injustice, history’s long shadow, the power of nature, and economic inequity, pervades Ohio gothic, too…


Interview with Jane Davis, novelist extraordinaire

Jane Davis is a fabJD Bench 034ulous 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. rsz_smash_all_the_windows_final_final_ebook_cover 325 x 521 for website

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.


About Jane


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.”

Also by Jane Davis

Half-truths & White Lies

I Stopped Time

These Fragile Things

A Funeral for an Owl

An Unchoreographed Life

An Unknown Woman

My Counterfeit Self



Website: https://jane-davis.co.uk
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage
Twitter: https://twitter.com/janedavisauthor
Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards/

Press enquiries janerossdale@btinternet.com

High resolution photos available from https://jane-davis.co.uk/media-kit/

By Popular Request: On Unreliable Narrators

At the Literary Cleveland Fictionfest Flash Fiction workshop I gave last weekend, one of my writing prompts involved unreliable narrators. One of the (extremely engaged, generally excellent and knowledgeable) writers in the workshop asked for some examples of unreliable narrators. And so here, without further ado is…

Some Unreliable Narrators of Novels

Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. This occurred to me just after the workshop ended. I think Adventures of Huck Finn turns on the way Huck’s flickers of brilliant self-awareness alternate with his ignorance. And we only have him to rely on.

The narrator of Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Patrick Bateman. I always say this book is “beautiful,” which sounds so strange, but like Huck, this guy flickers between some horrific internal reality and awareness of a (maybe equally horrific) shared reality, and that flickering is in some ways the thrust of the book. I can’t think of any book quite like it, even other books by Brett Easton Ellis don’t match it in intensity.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s gorgeous novel The Remains of the Day is narrated by a butler who is deeply insistent on keeping up appearances and the narrative of his life that he tells himself; there is one moment, near the end of the book, where he lets it slip for just a second, and I’ll never forget it, ever.

Nabokov’s narrators, like Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Charles Kinbote in Pale Fireare vintage, classic, top-notch unreliable.

Some Unreliable Narrators of Short Stories

I’m realizing as I write this that coming up with short stories with unreliable narrators is a total drinking from a firehose situation. All these short stories–classics of American literature!–have unreliable narrators.

“A&P,” by John Updike
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“My Sister’s Marriage,” by Cynthia Marshall Rich
“Where Is The Sound Coming From,” by Eudora Welty
“Lawns,” by Mona Simpson
“Gryphon,” by Charles Baxter
“The Swimmer,” by John Cheever
anything by Poe
the stories in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

Why?!?! I don’t know, but I think Americans writers have a unique relationship to identity–both personal and collective, and that as soon as they/we brandish an “I” as a narrator–to utter and assert a story, it’s like, the “I” starts lying. Or at least there’s some idea, somewhere, that this “I” could, possibly, be lying. I don’t know what the truth would even sound like to my ear. But I hear people say all sorts of weird stuff, from behind their I’s, all day long. I tried to write my book The Walmart Book of the Dead as a jumble of those I’s.

Other Unreliable Narrators Mentioned in the Workshop

Nivi, a writer in the workshop, happened to have just written this really nice blog post on Harry Potter’s unreliability as a narrator. She also noted David in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, which is another wonderful example of a child as an unreliable narrator. I think David’s confusion about the “plot” of his own life is exacerbated by his living between languages, Yiddish at home and English in the “world.” Workshop writers also came up with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’s Girl on the Train, and Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk–all great examples. 



1. Wayne Booth came up with the term unreliable narrator and is largely responsible for the way we think and talk about unreliable narrators, which I say here only because it could be useful to know that he was a literary theorist, not a writer of fiction. And unreliable narrators, like Huck, already existed and thrived before Wayne Booth, in the 1970s and ’80s, gave us a way to frame them.

2. Here is the flash fiction handout I gave to my workshop, THE SHORT AND THE STRANGE OF IT, with links.

The Sound of Applause

The Sound of Applause is the name of the name of the Northeast Ohio public radio program that plays during Here & Now (which I’ll largely withhold my opinions about here but let’s just say it’s a distant third for me up against Morning Ed. & All Things Considered). I’ve learned about tons of plays, movies, books, performances of all sorts, through The Sound of Applause since moving to Cleveland, and on January 8 at 12:33 pm, my own book was what other people were learning about on The Sound of Applause. Here is the interview, with Dan Polletta.

Two other notable Walmart Book of the Dead-related things:

Laura Maylene Walter’s beautiful “difficult and devoted” 2017 reading list at the Kenyon Review blog includes it–“a must-have for casting spells in a Walmart.”

New Pages features a review of Walmart by MacKenzie Hamilton that I love so much I can’t come up with an adjective to describe it.


Roland Barthes says somewhere that he only pretends to think that writing is playing, even though he writes–seriously–about play and its importance. That’s one of the many reasons I’m in love with poststructuralists–they try so hard not to be serious in a field where you’re almost professionally obligated to be serious. And you’re professionally obligated to be serious in English precisely because there’s NO REASON to be serious.

I think about this most often at conferences, where the FORMS are so entrenched–“here is my conference paper!!!!” “here I am listening to your conference paper!!!” “here are my questions in response to your conference paper!!!”…–that the constant calls for “innovative papers” hardly make a ripple (or at least not one that I’ve noticed in my own conference-attending).


Josh McElroy

Because of these thoughts, I made a U-turn in an academic essay I was in the middle of writing: I made it into a play instead. I don’t think it’s boring anymore; for one thing, it’s a musical. Part of it will be performed at Cleveland Public Theatre’s Entry Point, a works-in-progress festival. The director is named Kat Martin, and she’s a dramaturgical genius. I didn’t know what dramaturgy was before I started this process, and I don’t exactly know what it is now, but I’m very interested in it. The two actors in the play, Josh McElroy and Jessica Toltzis, are outstanding. Tears have sprung to my eyes while watching them practice. They get to and beneath something that’s deeper than what I know how to say. I’ve never done anything like this before.The festival is 7-10 pm, Thursday, Jan. 18-20, at CPT, and the play I wrote will be performed on the evenings of Friday and Saturday, Jan. 19 and 20.

Walmart Reviews, Readings & Features


Reading at CWRU English Department Colloquium Oct. 20, 2017


Book Review – The Walmart Book of the Dead @ The Same, by Laura Eppinger

Upcoming Readings

Brews & Prose on January 9, 2018 at 7 pm at the Market Garden Brewery in Ohio City (Cleveland OH), with David Giffels

Driptorch Reading Series on February 16, 2018 at 7 pm, Arrow Coffee, Manhattan KS

Literary Cleveland‘s Between the Lines on March 21, April 18 2018 at the Happy Dog on Euclid Ave (Cleveland OH)

& Features

In Their Own Words at The Poetry Society website (including SPELL for Making One Not Have to Work in the Gods’ Domain from Walmart and a short piece on it)

“SPELL to Shed One’s Ideology in the God’s Domain” (from Walmart) @ wigleaf

an interview with Tyler Mills at The Bind that ends like this:

T.M.: Your book launches right around Halloween. If The Walmart Book of the Dead were a Halloween candy, what would it be?

L.B.: An apple with a razor blade in it.

Tyler recently had this poem in the Guardian that I’ve been thinking about all the time. It’s called “Hansel in College.” It begins, I did not believe in a “we”: / only you, smoking in the street, hardly real.

One of My Favorites: Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply

Among the books I loved most this year was Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply, which walks some of the same roads as The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. But I loved The Rules Do Not Apply more, because the way it covered rejecting academe’s obfuscatory language to try to create a fuller, truer identity as a woman is more adamant, clearer, and more gorgeous. What I liked best about it was that it didn’t lie, when so much written or said about being a woman, and growing older as a woman, is about lying, or leaving out information. I wrote down some of my favorite parts:


As we reached our thirtieth birthdays, my friends and I were like kernels of popcorn exploding in a pot: First one, then another, and pretty soon we all bursting into matrimony. There were several years of peace, but then the pregnancies started popping.


It felt as if I had conjured her out of the dark. Not just the bewitched darkness of the blackout, but all nights that had come before then, when I went to bars and parties, searching for someone who wasn’t there. But she was here now.


When Lucy was little, they used to go to a cabin on the Toutle River during the summertime, and her father lifted giant rocks and rearranged them to make her a paddling pool. He would introduce her to people by saying, “My daughter is six years old”—or “seven,” or “thirteen”— “and she’s never done a single thing wrong.”


I had sort of hoped that once you’d made a declaration of commitment to someone you truly loved you would stop being sodden with lust for relative strangers. But also I sort of thought, who cares? Who cares if sometimes you sometimes bring out your seduction skill set briefly, for a person other than your spouse, and you have a little adventure with your body? Why did that have to be at your spouse’s expense? Couldn’t you promise your deepest love, your first allegiance, to your favorite person without locking yourself in a chastity belt and presenting her with the key?


From the minute the dragon of our fertility came on the scene, we learned to chain it up and forget about it. Fertility meant nothing to us in our twenties; it was something to be secured in the dungeon and left there to molder. In our early thirties, we remembered it existed and wondered if we should check on it, and then—abruptly, horrifyingly—it became urgent: Somebody find that dragon! It was time to rouse it, get it ready for action. But the beast had not grown stronger during the decade of hibernation.


Lurching between lives is hell. Even if one life is manifest, and the other is mostly hypothetical, the inability to occupy your own reality is torment, is torture, it is sin and punishment all in one.


Mary said she would pray to god to talk to me, too. I thought: I will never have that.


You want someone to look at you with lust—after years of laundry…


…someone who I alone had known, during his whisper of a life.


I had become a cautionary tale, like the women Elizabeth Hardwick described in Sleepless Nights who “wander about in dreadful freedom, like old oxen left behind, totally unprovided for.”