An Interview with Jane Davis
Today I’m delighted to welcome author, Jane Davis, to my blog. I first ‘met’ Jane when she contacted me to ask if I would like to be interviewed for her blog. Of course, I said yes!
We then met in real life at the London Book Fair earlier on in April, had a good chat about all things books, and I invited her to do an interview for my blog. The timing is excellent as Jane’s fifth novel An Unchoreographed Life has just been published. I’m reading Jane’s first novel Half Truths and White Lies, which won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, at the moment, and really enjoying it.
Your fifth novel An Unchoreographed Life is about to come out. The subject sounds intriguing – can you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired you write it?
An Unchoreographed Life tells the story of ballerina who turns to prostitution when she becomes a single mother. That said, it takes its lead from What Maisie Knew, Henry James’s 19th century commentary on what happens when a judge rules that two adults must jointly care for their daughter following the breakdown of their marriage. Although I read Belle de Jour and several similar accounts as part of my research, it was never my intention to replicate them. The heart of my novel is the relationship between an ordinary mother and daughter. It has provoked interesting reactions from beta readers. Those without children feel that the mother, Alison, acts irresponsibly and deserves to have her daughter, Belinda, taken away. Those with children say that they would do all that Alison does for child, and more.
I grew up in Merton, within the footprint of Nelson’s paradise estate. The story of his mistress, Emma Hamilton, has always fascinated me. Born into extreme poverty and forced to resort to prostitution, she later became a muse for artists such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds and a fashionista by bucking tight-laced trends. Added to the mix, I was gripped by a 2008 court case, when, in an interesting twist, it was ruled that a prostitute had been living off the immoral earnings of one of her clients. And then I began to imagine what life was like for the child of a prostitute. There was nowhere I could research that hidden subject.
When I began writing ‘An Unchoreographed Life’, I wasn’t aware just how topical the subject-matter would become. Since then, Canada has declared that its laws regarding prostitution are draconian. The EU is also proposing radical changes which are likely to come into play in 2015. Whilst this is an extremely complex and emotive issue, in my mind, the proposals introduce yet more conflict. They recommend that selling sex should be legalised, while paying for sex should become illegal. This illogical reversal of the current status seems designed to make it easier for governments to get their hands of the proceeds of this multi-million pound industry.
As for the historical links between ballet and prostitution, these are well chronicled. In recent years, however, former prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova has accused the Bolshoi Ballet of turning the theatre into a ‘giant brothel’, alleging that the girls were forced to go to bed with its patrons. And if they refused? Well, then they would not go on tour or even perform at the Bolshoi Theatre.
If this sounds shocking to twenty-first century ears, it’s worth bearing in mind that, as recently as 1905, the Encyclopaedia Britannica still defined ballet as ‘lewd, obscene dancing.’ It is only recently that its stars have achieved a reputation for untouchability and for their status of, as choreographer Frederick Ashton put it, ‘sacred beings’.
Rewards in ballet have never been financial. Contracts are short-term, and, with a few notable exceptions, careers are short-lived. In her compelling biography of Margot Fonteyn, Meredith Daneman describes the efforts Fonteyn went to in order to project her public image, ‘a glamorous, chic, personage; gracious and a little aloof.’ A ballerina’s lot had improved, thanks to the fact that ballet was in vogue – but not as much as you might think. Keeping up appearances, Fonteyn was reliant on the generosity of fans, from a £3000 mink coat from a fan in New York, to the steak-and-kidney pies that Frederick Browning had sent from the Savoy Hotel to her lodgings. Said John Craxton, Fonteyn’s then lover, “No one seems to have understood the appalling financial situation that she was in when I knew her in ’51.”
How did you create your main character? Did she arrive fully-formed, or did you have to work at her?
I have two main characters. My characters never arrive fully formed. I get to know them during the process of writing them.
Belinda, the daughter, is six years old at the start of the novel. I have a goddaughter who had the good grace to be that exact same age, which was extremely co-operative of her. She was kind enough to share her worldly wisdom with me, and some of Belinda’s thoughts and views are hers. I have to say that Belinda is not nearly as confident as my goddaughter. She also has elements of me in her. I found childhood a very frightening place and Belinda is a fretful child. She has grown up without a father and without any knowledge of her grandparents. She knows that her questions about them upset her mother, but she doesn’t know why. Without a clear idea of who you are and where you come from, it’s very difficult to know how to behave. But Belinda is a girl with a vivid imagination and she compensates by making up her own history.
At 27, Alison is an exhausted single mother, whose main focus has been providing for her daughter, but she also wants to protect her from disappointment. Alison has set herself ultimatums for turning her life around, but these slip by, and still she can’t see the future. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Belinda is becoming more and more aware of what is going on around her, and will soon become aware of what she does for a living.
Do your novels have similar themes? How would you describe them?
It took me some time to work out that the common theme in my novels is the influence that missing persons have in our lives. It can actually be greater than those who are present. In Half-truths and White Lies it was parents who weren’t around to answer questions. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl which considers teenage runaways. And in An Unchoreographed Life Belinda grows up without knowing her father.
You have published five novels in as many years. Can you tell us something about your publishing journey?
My first novel (hidden away under lock and key) earned me the services of a literary agent and the praise, “Jane, you are a writer”, but not a publishing contract. My second novel had been sitting in my overworked agent’s ‘in’ tray for several months when I attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference in June 2008. It was there that I learned about the Daily Mail First Novel Award. With the closing date for entries only two days later, I had nothing to lose. My incentive for entering wasn’t the thought of winning. It was the simple promise that all entries would be read.
I left the job I had been in for twenty-three years the following September, jaded from having had to make so many colleagues redundant. Every time I turned on the television there was more talk of financial doom and gloom. Then came the call from Transworld announcing that I had won.
It was surreal. Because I was at home on my own, I had no one to ask, “Hey, did that just happen?” I had to phone back just to be sure.
The following weeks were heady. The Bookseller included me in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Joanna Harris, an author I greatly admire, described me as a ‘promising new writer.’ I signed hundreds of books. Interviewers said to me, “So from now on, it will be a book a year.” I was going to be The Next Big Thing.
Except that I wasn’t.
In a year when fiction sales plummeted, Half-truths and White Lies, sold reasonably well. Told that the publicity would be taken care of for me, I did what I had always done. I wrote. Then in 2009 came my reality check. Although I had no ongoing contract with Transworld, entitled to ‘first refusal’ of my follow-up novel (an early edit of what later became A Funeral for an Owl) they turned it down. It was beautifully written, I was told, but it was not ‘women’s fiction’. Extremely naïve, I hadn’t realised (and no one had thought to tell me) the implications of being published under their Black Swan label. I had been pigeon-holed – and my work didn’t fit.
I continued to write, continued to submit my work to agents. My agent and I parted company and I sought new representation. Rejection letters flattered. My writing was not for them, but with my credentials, I was bound to be snapped up. And for a while I believed them.
Over the next four years, I produced two further novels, work I am particularly proud of. Had I been under contract, I would have been chasing deadlines, but I was not. Instead, with the luxury of time, I added layers to plots, depth to characters and a real sense of time and place. I Stopped Time is both a tribute to my grandmother (who lived to the age of 99), and an homage to the pioneers of photography. These Fragile Things is my reaction to aggressive atheism. Although I am not religious, I feel it is just another way of stifling personal freedom.
By 2012, I was touting three novels around the market. Believe me, this is not a position you want to be in. There are only a finite number of agents, and they all talk to one another. I began to feel like the lady character in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys who attends the same writing conference year after year with a slightly different edit of the same novel. A novel which continues to be rejected, albeit for slightly different reasons.
That same year, I attended two conferences. The first, given by Writers’ Workshop, offered the opportunity to submit the first chapter of a novel, an enquiry letter and a synopsis for critique on the day. Ashen-faced people traipsed out of their consultations, carrying manuscripts covered in red ink. With one of the last appointments, I offered a shoulder to cry on while I waited in line. When I took my place at the table there was no red ink on my copy. “You didn’t like it,” I said. “No I didn’t,” was the reply. “I loved it.” The advice was that it was sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff. I was not to change a single word, but I was to work on my submission letter. I came away from the day with five agents offering to read every word I had written. One by one, they all rejected me.
In November 2012, I decided I owed it to myself to investigate something I had resisted for over 3 years. I attended the Writers’ & Artists’ Self Publishing in a Digital Age conference. It was a revelation! There, established authors who had been dropped by their publishers were rubbing shoulders with first-time writers who had released their e-book priced at 99p and had sold 100,000 copies within a year. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out?
Deciding I was in, I released I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things on Christmas day.I made the decision how to present the work. The designs of covers and the interiors were all mine, as were the mistakes. Neil Gaiman refers to Gaiman’s Law. If there’s one typo, it will be on the page your new book falls open to the first time that you pick it up. I ironed out the mistakes and, in the summer, I released paperbacks. The second time around, I was aware that I needed more help. As well as a structural edit, I used a copy editor and expanded on my army of beta readers and proofreaders. I also had more time to think about cover design.
For my forthcoming novel, An Unchoreographed Life, I have used even more paid services. The readers who discover me tend to read everything I have written, so I owe it to them to get it right.
Your output is prolific. How do you organise your writing life, and do you use any strategies to get the words onto the page? Have you got another novel in the pipeline?
It may appear that my output is prolific, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. My first novel took four years to write. The only novel that I can say ‘wrote itself’ was Half-truths and White Lies. I wrote that in a little over a year while working full-time. At that time, we didn’t even had the Internet at home and I wasn’t yet addicted to social media, so I had few distractions. Writing was also still my hobby. It was a joyful thing, because nobody told me there were any rules. I just went with my gut.
After I won the Daily Mail first novel award, I gave up full-time work and became a part-time self-employed consultant, which made organising my writing life a little easier. At the same time, although it is still a passion, that was the point at which writing became a job.
There are no short-cuts. Even if you have more time to get the words on the page, the characters and their stories takes time revealing themselves. I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things and A Funeral for an Owl all went through multiple edits. I re-wrote A Funeral for an Owl several times before I arrived at its final structure. The characters of Shamayal and Aysiha arrived at the party late. Each novel was over two years in the writing. I held back the publication of A Funeral for an Owl so that I could maintain the illusion that I was producing a book a year, which seems to be the expectation. Because of its simple structure, An Unchoreographed Life was written in a little over a year. I have to say that that makes me nervous. If anything, I feel that expectations will be higher the fifth time around. I have changed my strategy with its publication because my sales patterns suggest that when readers discover my books, they buy everything I have written. It seems silly to hold back, when the books are starting to sell each other.
I’m afraid that it may be a bit of a wait until the release of my next novel. I am three chapters in and, being a superstitious sort, I find it very difficult to talk about works in progress. It has yet to find its shape and flow.
What sort of books do you enjoy reading yourself?
I read a mix of contemporary fiction and biographies, because true life is often far stranger than fiction . My favourite authors of fiction are John Irving, Louis de Bernieres, Maggie O’Farrell and Jennifer Egan. In terms of my favourite novel, the one I return to again and again is The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. A great novel should transport you somewhere and from the very first page, you are there, in the deep south. The book’s setting, an island nestling among the marshes, in central to the novel. It is a childhood haven, but it becomes the scene of this sprawling book’s most horrific scenes. ‘My wound is geography, it is also my anchorage…’ You will find it is a difficult, rich and rewarding read. I advise people not to be put off by the film, which focused on everything that is romantic in the book, detouring neatly round the more shocking elements of the storyline, leaving very two-dimensional characters.
When you’re not writing (if there’s a time!), what do you like doing?
Aside from reading, my two great loves are walking and photography, ideally a combination of both. I’m happiest when I’m half-way up a mountain in the Lake District with a camera in hand. I think it’s really important when you spend so much time in front of a computer screen to disconnect from technology. I made the decision at the end of last year that I would only take on enough work to pay the bills, so that I could focus on writing. There will be no foreign holiday and no new handbags, and the car also had to go. One thing I absolutely will not give up on is Moves Fitness. I have been going to the same dance exercise class for over twenty years and have met so many fabulous friends there. In fact, my Moves friends are the biggest supporters of my writing. I have also discovered among its members some of the best beta readers and proof-readers I could hope for.
Wow, Jane, what a fascinating interview! Thank you for being so generous with your answers. You can find out more about Jane’s latest novel, or buy it here
And you can read my interview on Jane’s blog here
Tags: Guest post, Jane Davis