Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. Her first novel, 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.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Of the following three novels she published, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Her favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’
Why do you write?
If I have to narrow it down to a single answer, I would say that it is to make sense of the world we live in. It took me some time to work out that the common theme running through my novels is the influence that missing persons have in our lives. (This shouldn’t have come as any great surprise to me since the death of a friend was what made me start to write.) In my experience, that influence can actually be greater than that of 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. Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it does force both writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration and not the answer that is important. The idea that there is a single truth is flawed. I have a sister who is less than a year older than me our memories of the same events differ substantially. There are many different versions of the truth and many layers of memory.
How has writing impacted your life?
I am both significantly poorer, and yet far richer.
Having grown up around creative people, I left school at the age of sixteen with an R.E. ‘O’ Level and a swimming certificate (I exaggerate), and went straight into the world of business. For many years I chased the prospect of self-reliance and pay rises and promotion and the dream of living mortgage free. The creative jobs, what there were of them, simply didn’t go to people in management. But much of my work persona was a mask and, at the age of thirty-six, when other things in my life were stable, I addressed the issue that something was missing. I turned to writing.
Winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award provided validation. But it was much more complex than that. It was also a very humbling experience.
Half-truths and White Lies sold 15,000 copies in a year when fiction sales took a nose-dive. That was a good result for a debut novel from a complete unknown, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the competition win.
Told I was going to be the Next Big Thing, my reality check came the following year with the rejection of my second novel. Though I wasn’t so naïve as to think success was going to be automatic, I didn’t expect it to be so tough to find another literary agent. In fact, the message in rejection letters was, ‘This one is not for me but, with your credentials, you’re bound to be snapped up’. I wasn’t. I’ve written elsewhere how I began to feel like the lady character in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, who comes back to a writing conference held on a university campus year after year with a slightly different version of the same novel. A novel which continues to be rejected, albeit for slightly different reasons. Of course, if I had a time machine I could go back and invest my winnings in PR.
Having said that, retreating into anonymity with my tail between my legs gave me the luxury of something you can’t buy: time. If I’d been under contract, I would have had to produce a book a year. Until An Unchoreographed Life, Half-truths and White Lies was the only book that I had completed in a year. The others have taken between two and four years. Sometimes I had the right story but the wrong structure. I had time to let them rest, going back and adding layers and depth, finding new angles, different emphasis; identifying that one sentence on which the entire story pivots. When other authors say to me that they do three edits, my reaction is three? The eureka! moment might not come until the fiftieth edit. I admitted to a friend that I was nervous about my last release, concerned that I haven’t set it aside for a year. Her response was that the risk you take being in business means that you can’t always put out your best work. That’s a sobering thought, but it applies especially to those who work to enforced deadlines. I am always in control of when I hit ‘publish’.
When I was traditionally published I felt very alone. I didn’t know any other authors and I felt excluded from decisions that affected my future. I am very comfortable in the company of indie authors. And what an amazing group it is: authors who have walked away from six-figure deals, established authors who have been dropped by their publishers after their latest book didn’t sell quite so well, talented newcomers building a readership, innovative authors whose work doesn’t fit the market, cross-genre authors who sell themselves as a brand, best-selling authors who have never tried the traditional route, who were there at the right place, at the right time, at the start of a publishing revolution. This is my tribe.
What advice would you give to a beginner writer?
Don’t procrastinate. Just do it. Writing is one of the few hobbies where you need very little equipment. I just had a computer and a few spare hours a week. There is a school of thought that tells you that must have a clear idea of where the plot will take you before you start writing. If that was the case, I would never have put pen to paper. I choose to take the advice of authors who say exactly the opposite:
Debby Holt claims that there are plot-driven novels and character-driven novels. Hers fall into the latter category and I’m with her. Joanne Harris, too, says that women often write in this way, while men prefer to plot.
Sometimes a novel starts with one small idea. Stephen King’s advice from his book On Writing: is to start with a single question and see how that idea develops. The question always begins ‘what if’ and his usually follow the lines of ‘What if aliens landed in Arizona or what if zombies invaded my hometown?
Sir Terry Pratchett uses a method that he calls The Valley of the Clouds. In the valley of the clouds there are mountains but you can only see the very tops of the peaks. It is your job as an author to work out how to get to the mountains.
I subscribe to the idea that you have a clear idea about your characters, put them in a scenario and take the idea to its natural conclusion. If you’re lucky and you’re characters are right, they will take control and do the hard work for you.
Love writing. Write the first draft of a book purely for yourself but edit it for your target market.
I try to anchor the story firmly in its setting with the use of music and television programmes, news items and fashions. People tend to be very nostalgic about the music and television programmes that they grew up with and you can broaden the appeal of a book by including this level of information. The filmmaker, Peter Jackson, places a great deal of importance on tiny details in costume design and builds intricate pieces of sets that will only appear fleetingly on the screen. I try to take the same approach to writing.
Be prepared for the knock-backs. People are going to say ‘no,’ but there are people out there who are willing to offer advice.
The fact is, there is no one way of writing a novel. You discover what works best for you through trial and error.