A few people I’ve met since I began writing are guaranteed delights.
Jane Davis is one of them. I love her writing, recommend her books and try to meet this talented woman whenever I can.
Smash all the Windows is her latest and I read it twice. Once as a reader to absorb the story and again as a writer to admire her skill.
Smash all the Windows relates the aftermath of a fictional disaster – an accident on a London Underground escalator – in which 58 people die. The echoes of that horrific day are explored through the relatives and survivors. It’s wholly engrossing, emotional and quite simply a human story I cannot forget.
Jane agreed to answer some questions on her work and how her personal curiosity led to such a remarkable book.
Straight off, I loved this book. One of the very rare occasions I finish a story and start again. Let’s talk inspiration. I know you’re a telly-yeller, like myself. Was it a sense of injustice which provoked you to tell this tale of loss and survival?
Absolutely. My starting point was watching footage from the second Hillsborough inquest, my horror at the almost celebratory atmosphere forced on the families as they left the court, and the banality of the reporters who suggested that they could finally ‘get back to their lives’. My reaction was, ‘What lives?’ And ‘How do you suggest they do that?’
BBC article on Hillsborough http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19545126
One of the most touching elements was the insight into the bereaved families and how an absence becomes a dominant presence. And that is also a feature of I Stopped Time. The deceased as larger than the living.
Yes, it took me some time to identify that the common thread that runs through my novels is the impact of missing persons on our lives, how the hole they leave behind can be so great that it dwarfs the people we’re left with. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl, with teenage runaways. In Smash all the Windows, given that we have fifty-nine victims, the presence of the theme is all the more obvious. It almost certainly comes from both my personal history – and that of my parents.
When I was aged seventeen, a school friend of mine was murdered. This was my first experience of a young person dying, and the ripples from that single death are still felt today. In my parents’ generation, death was far more common but was seldom spoken about, and I found that it was taboo to speak about it in my own home.
My father’s mother died when he was just eighteen months old in 1937. He and his two sisters were taken into care. As was the norm, boys were separated from girls and so he had little contact with Marian (aged 6) and Lois (aged 4). Six months later, Marian woke to find Lois dead in the bed beside her. Lois’s death certificate says that she died of a broken heart. My grandfather was conscripted in 1939, so Dad would have had no regular contact with him. I don’t really know how aware he was of this as a two-year-old, but I know that a sense of loss and abandonment runs through his veins.
If these stories are there in my family, similar absences must be there for every family. And when a young person dies, the potential for future life and the continuation of blood lines dies with them. That’s something I’ve tried to show in the book through my character Donovan, who not only lost his only daughter in the disaster, but his unborn grandson. The fact that he becomes the last of his family is another source of grief.
You get into quite a few different heads – how did you write that? One character at a time, or switch when one perspective became too intense?
I don’t think it would have been possible to write this particular book one character at a time, since, with the possible exception of Eric (the law student who works away in the background, mapping out the sequence of events that led to the tragedy) I needed all of my characters interact with other from the outset. I switched characters as I thought the story demanded. In the final version, the chapters don’t appear in the order as they do in the original draft. It’s interesting that you say that I switch when the moment becomes intense, because some additional chapter breaks and cliff-hangers have been inserted, I confess. But as writers I don’t think we can shy away from difficult subject-matter.
Having read much of your work, you don’t seem political in the soapbox sense, but more at the social level: how systems and decisions affect people’s lives.
That’s a very fair observation, although I think it’s almost impossible to separate the political from human stories. Thinking about Eric’s forensic accident investigation, if you peel away the layers, there are usually reasons who people are the way they are and do what they do, and some of those reasons will almost certainly be social and economic.
What interests me is how people behave when they are put under extreme pressure. I’m also interested in cause and effect. I always say that I’m 80% logic and 20% creativity, but I can craft a book out of a single question if I follow the argument through to its natural conclusion.
In Smash all the Windows, I replicated various elements that led to Hillsborough, Aberfan and other large-scale disasters so that readers confront the same uncomfortable questions. Who are the victims? Should individuals been held accountable, or does this prevent the identification of the factors that create circumstances that allowed accidents to happen? How should families and friends of victims be treated when they’re searching for or identifying loved ones? Should those same friends and family members be allowed to participate fully in inquests? Should the bereaved be protected from the media? Why does it take so long for justice to be delivered?
As an ex-Londoner who fell backwards down an escalator, the detail and accuracy scared me enough to consider the bus next time I’m in town. Do you still take the Tube?
I do, although my working patterns generally allow me to travel outside rush hour. If there’s an option to avoid escalators, I’ll take it. That said, I recently took the option of the Underground because I was walking and there were crush conditions on the pavement. If you’re predisposed towards anxiety, as I am, none of the available options are simple. I find walking the Riverside Path preferable to any route through the city.
People often ask writers ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I sense your ideas come from a personal provocation. So what provokes you?
Injustice, unfairness – While researching my subject for My Counterfeit Self, a poet who is also a political activist, I had already decided that her cause should be CND, but stumbled across a story about how the British Government had failed to compensate its British Nuclear Veterans.
An equivalent happened with Smash all the Windows. It was the 50-year anniversary of Aberfan, an incident I’d only had a vague awareness of, because it happened the year I was born. After a sustained period of heavy rain, one of the village’s slag heaps collapsed on Pantglas Junior School. The truly horrific thing about Aberfan was that it was totally foreseeable. As early as 1963 a waterworks engineer had written to the Coal Board. Two mothers had passed a petition to the school’s headmistress, and the council had had sight of it. The School governors had written to the coal board because they feared a disaster. But every time complaints were made, the Coal Board threatened to close the mines. On the morning of the disaster it was known that the coal mountain had sunk by 3 metres overnight, and still the 240 pupils went to school for what was to be the last day before half-term. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up. And because Aberfan was such a small community, the loss of 144 lives, most of them children, meant that almost a whole generation was wiped out, and, with it, no doubt, future generations.
Article about 50 year anniversary of Aberfan http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04cb63l
There’s an artistic framing at the end of Smash all the Windows. Individual agony as public art. Is one way of processing grief to tell it as a story?
My structural editor defines fiction as ‘single truths told in single voices’. My experience is that it far easier to tell your own truths, particularly if you hold an unpopular belief, in someone else’s voice. And if that’s the case with other truths, it may be the same with grief, but only for some. Several writer friends have told me that they have been so overwhelmed by grief that they have had to set aside novels that they were working on and were unable to write again for many years. Writing is simply one of many things that might be helpful.
JJ: Death and grieving is managed very differently from culture to culture. November the 1st in many countries is Day of the Dead, where people go to graveyards, light candles, have picnics and celebrate those who left us. Do you think the British reluctance to speak of the dead makes us slower to accept loss?
British attitudes to mourning have changed significantly during my lifetime, starting with the outpouring of grief following Lady Diana’s death. It made me hugely uncomfortable at the time, and it made me hugely uncomfortable to see how the public thought they had a right to invade the privacy of a family, and two young boys in particular, who just happened to be royal.
I saw it more recently after the London terrorist attack. The bouquets of roses that spanned the width of London Bridge, the hand-written obituaries, but also the grief tourists who, l’m afraid, were there taking selfies of themselves with this as a backdrop.
Grief is a hugely personal experience, with no rules and no timescales. Just because we accept that someone has gone, doesn’t necessarily mean that we can move on.
My character Jules Roche, the sculptor, is French and, in contrast to the British characters, he can mention his wife as easily as if she had just stepped outside the room, but even though he’s found another way of expressing this grief – through his art – he is no nearer to accepting that she is gone and the manner of her death.
In the book, I try to show that death is no barrier to love. For me, the most poignant moments in the book are the ways in which the bereaved find ways to communicate with the dead, or when they sense that the dead are trying to reach out to them. There’s a moment when Donovan finds a pair of his daughter’s swimming goggles in the garage. They have lain there, undisturbed for over thirty years, but he finds them just after he makes the decision to allow Jules to have the pieces of wood from the unfinished crib he was making for his unborn grandson. (The idea is that Jules takes mementos from the families and uses them to create new works of art.) Donovan translates this as his daughter’s way of letting him know it’s OK.
I also like the moment that lent itself to the cover image: the starling. I borrowed a moment 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, who’s the mother of the young station supervisor who was in charge when the disaster happened. She feels her daughter is sending her a message.
Rather than ask you what you’re writing next, it makes more sense to ask what you’re yelling at on the telly.
Brexit. Everything to do with Brexit. I cannot accept that it’s happening.
And will you write about it?
Not deliberately. I would drive myself mad. But if I set my next book in the present, I will have no option but to reflect what’s happening.
About Jane Davis
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
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 favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
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