Today I’m delighted to welcome Jane Davis to the blog. Jane is the author of seven 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. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise.
Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award.
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’.
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.
Her new novel, My Counterfeit Self, is available for pre-order and will be released on 1 October 2016.
Please tell us a little bit about your new novel. The title sounds intriguing!
My Counterfeit Self tells the story of radical poet and political activist, Lucy Forrester, the men she loves and the causes she fights for.
Lucy’s a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood.
Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she’s horrified to find that she’s been featured on the New Year’s Honours list. (That’s a 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).
To be honest, the idea of writing about the life of a poet came directly from reader reviews. Several comments that my prose was like poetry. I had no idea if I could actually write poetry but this gave me confidence that I might be able to convince readers that I could see the world as a poet does.
The title refers to the personality that Lucy adopts in an attempt to distance herself from her parents. They have behaved so appallingly that she is freed from any obligation to try and live up to their expectations, and she decamps from her family home to Soho.
The heart of the novel is her relationship with two men, her literary critic and on/off lover, Dominic Marchmont, and her photographer, Ralph, the man she ultimately marries. The sad thing is that, while she convinces herself that she has laid herself bare in her poetry, she hides her real self even from those who love her the most, with devastating consequences.
My Counterfeit Self is available for pre-order at the special low price of £0.99 / $0.99.
What does your creative process look like? Do you plan your novels in detail before starting to write or do you develop the plot as you go along?
I never write an outline, but I don’t see the alternative as ‘winging it’. I am a gradual layer-er, and that takes time. I like George R Martin’s quote:
‘I’ve always said there are two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. Architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.’
Personally, I think there are more than two types of writers.
I want to be Mary Anning scouring the beaches at Lyme Regis for dinosaur fossils, or Howard Carter discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun, or metal detectorist Terry Herbert digging up the Staffordshire Hoard.
What I don’t want to be is a parent deciding on my child’s future, telling my son which subjects he will study, arranging my daughter’s marriage.
Every time you introduce a new angle, each ‘what if?’ question has to be pushed to its limits. The pivotal moment of a novel may not actually reveal itself until several edits in, or until an editor comments, ‘I see the point that you were trying to make.’ As author Roz Morris says, sometimes it takes a reader to hold the mirror up to your work.
I’m afraid that anyone who imagines that words show up in the eventual order that they appear on the page of any novel is, in the majority of cases, mistaken. In some ways, the novel in its final form is an illusion, the rabbit pulled out of the hat.
How big a part does research play?
Huge. Authenticity’s very important to me. I start off by reading a number of biographies, in this case:
- The Life of Kenneth Tynan by Kathleen Tynan
- Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius by Richard Greene
- Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson
- Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford edited by Charlotte Mosley
- Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly
Because Lucy was struck down by polio at the age of nine, I needed to understand how childhood illness creates ambition, and was surprised by just how many famous people had suffered from polio: Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland, Joni Mitchell, the ballerina Gwen Verdon – in fact Gwen was encouraged by her mother to dance as therapy.
With the internet, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips, but when you find conflicting information, it’s difficult to pin down which version is correct. Sometimes you have to go with the majority. The main issue I find is that it is easy to find the ‘facts’ (and I’m going to use inverted commas), it’s more of a challenge to know what my characters would have known at the time. That’s why I refer to newspaper headlines. I can be certain that this level of detail was in the public domain.
Sometimes final research requires bare-faced cheek.
For example, when I wanted to know what a person would have to do to get arrested outside Buckingham Palace, how long it would take for someone to react, and what warnings would be given, the information wasn’t available on-line. This wasn’t something I could afford to get wrong so I went to the Palace and asked the policemen and guards who were on duty.
How long does it take for you to write a novel?
That’s a difficult question! I went to hear Pulitzer prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout speak recently. Someone made the comment that she had a very economical style, and she said, ‘You should see the bits I cut’.
Style owes much to the bits the reader never gets to see.
After I’ve self-edited a novel to within an inch of its life, I send it to my beta readers, who have a month or so to provide feedback. I then weave their recommendations through the book – and I do mean ‘weave’. Even a slight change can have a knock-on effect.
Then the revised version goes off to the copy-editor and there’s a further set of revisions. And because I self-publish, I don’t let go of the proofs until I’m 100 per cent happy.
During ‘dead time’, I start working on the next book, then inevitably I have to set my work in progress aside around publication time. The best I can say is that I’ve completed eight novels in thirteen years.
Which authors most inspire you?
I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Strout. She’s a relatively recent discovery for me, but I adore her writing. It takes real skill to make an impact with a word as simple as ‘Oh.’ But she’s brave enough to give her words room to breathe. That’s a lesson I take away from her work.
I expect fiction to challenge me and the novels I find the most satisfying deviate from a chronological time line – and here I’m thinking of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mantel and The Coincidence Authority by John Ironmonger.
What I love about all of these books is that when you reach the end, you can head straight back to the beginning and start again without feeling that you’ve left the story.
Because there is no beginning, middle and end in the traditional sense, they are cyclical and enduring, like one of Escher’s optical illusions.
You might think that the running order is random, but it takes enormous skill to pull off a work like Goon Squad whose chapters can be read in any order you damn well please.
In Station Eleven, the flow is cyclical and the reader remains in the present while the book travels between the near past and the near future in which all technology has been wiped away. On my second reading, I had the real sense that it might be possible to rewind the clock and eliminate a few mistakes that have been made along the way (mobile phones and micro scooters can go, for starters).
And then there’s The Coincidence Authority, where you have the feeling that this is the precise order in which the story must be told, because in fiction the big reveal must come near the end but in life it may show up early.
Film producers don’t insult their audiences by assuming that they won’t be able to cope with scene changes that involve flashbacks. Let’s not insult readers.
What lay behind your decision to go indie? Would you recommend it to other aspiring writers?
I have to be honest, going indie wasn’t my first choice. My first novel Half-Truths and White Lies won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was published under Transworld’s Black Swan imprint.
My wake-up call came when they turned down my follow-up novel, A Funeral for an Owl, because it wasn’t women’s fiction. I’d be so green that I wasn’t aware Black Swan was their women’s fiction label.
It was clear they had seen my writing taking a very different direction to the one I’d intended.
I also parted company with my agent about this time and set about looking for another, thinking that the competition win would open doors for me. I was wrong.
Rejection letters flattered, saying that they were sure I would be snapped up very quickly. I spent thousands of pounds attending writing conferences and networking, to be told that no self-respecting writer would consider self-publishing.
I was also assured time and time again that there was nothing wrong with my writing: it was just a matter of time. One conference offered a face to face consultation with an agent about the first three chapters of my novel. I was told that I should change nothing. Not a single word.
Did the agent take me on? No. My novel wasn’t commercial enough.
So in November 2012 I decided to explore self-publishing. And guess what? I’d been lied to. Yes, there were newcomers who had struck gold and sold 100,000 copies of their first novels for 99p each, but at least half of the authors had previously been under contract, and there were also a number of ghost writers who wrote for famous authors but who couldn’t get published under their own names.
I self-published my first two novels as eBooks within a month.
As to whether I’d recommend going indie, I think it’s a very personal decision.
It’s easy to self-publish, but difficult to do well.
It’s really important to understand the process, your options, and your own goals before you set out. Self-publishing’s great advantages are creative control, the ability to publish to your own schedule and to react to market conditions in a timely manner.
If something isn’t working, you tweak it, whether it is pricing, the blurb, the description or your author profile.
Self-publishing is the mechanism that freed me to be more ambitious in terms of where I wanted to take my fiction.
Instead of being dictated to, I’m free to write about what I want to write about.
Remove the pressure of trying to mould something to fit the current publishing market – which agents admit is risk-adverse and overly-commercialised – and it grows wings.
What are you currently working on?
I’m very superstitious about talking about what I’m working on. I don’t know if I have a book on my hands until I hit the 50,000-word mark and I’m not there yet. But I was very moved by the Hillsborough documentary about how the families of those who were killed finally achieved their goals after dedicating their entire lives to the fight for justice. While it ended on a celebratory note, my thoughts were, What on earth do you do now?
Thank you, Jane. That was a fascinating interview and good luck with your new book!
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