Welcome to another author interview, where this time I am joined by award-winning author Jane Davis, whose fantastic book A Funeral For An Owl was my Indie Book Of The Month for February. Read on for a fascinating insight into Jane’s publishing and writing journey so far.
1) For those who are new to your work, how would you best describe your genre?
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.
2) When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Why do you write?
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 one thing I was good at. And then came a hard blow. The examiners didn’t like my work. This knocked my confidence so the extent that I changed plans, left school and entered a career where judgement of good and bad results was far more objective. I didn’t turn to writing until my mid-thirties.
Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It’s 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.
3) Can you tell us about your publishing experiences so far?
There’s a graphic that regularly does the rounds. It’s made up of two graphs. The first goes under the caption, ‘what you think your career will look like’ and it’s upwards all the way. The caption for the second is ‘what it will actually look like.’ A roller-coaster. That’s my experience of publishing.
My first attempt at writing a novel didn’t make it as far as being a book, but it did earn me the services of a literary agent and the words, ‘Jane, you are a writer’, which sounded far more glamorous than ‘Jane, you are an insurance broker’. There was a draft contract from a small publisher, but before the ink could dry, the small publisher was eaten up by a big publisher.
My second novel won the Daily Mail First Novel Award. I was going to be the next Joanne Harris. But a couple of months after publication of Half-truths and White Lies, Transworld rejected my follow-up – and it’s the book you’ve asked me to talk about today. It was beautifully written, but it wasn’t ‘women’s fiction’. There was no point arguing that I hadn’t set out to write women’s fiction. No meant no.
I carried on submitting manuscripts. One had already won an award for its opening chapter. Surely two awards would open doors? By 2012, I felt like the writer in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys who attends the same conference year after year with a different edit of the same novel. A novel which continues to be rejected, albeit for slightly different reasons.
There was another path, but I’d been resisting it. I didn’t explore self-publishing until I attended a conference at the tail-end of 2012. I’d believed the line I had been sold that self-publishing wasn’t something a self-respecting author who wanted a long-term career should consider. But I was fired up by what I saw. Established authors who’d been dropped by publishers were rubbing shoulders with novices who’d priced their e-Books at 99p, and sold 100,000 copies within a year. This was a revolution! Was I out or was I in?
I decided I was in. Though I made rookie mistakes, reviews were positive. The next time, I did better. I grew my team of professionals. I now have self-published six titles under my own imprint. My fifth, An Unknown Woman, won Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year Award 2016 and was shortlisted for two more awards. I’m learning all of the time.
4) Tell us about A Funeral for an Owl – what inspired this book?
You’re asking me to go back a long way now! A Funeral for the Owl was the fourth novel I published, but it was the second novel I wrote.
It started life as the story of thirty-year-old Jim recounting the story of his nine-year-old self’s friendship with Aimee, a girl from the other side of the tracks. Most of the action took place over a six-week period, the summer holidays. The reader was left in no doubt that Aimee killed herself. One of my colleagues had committed suicide leaving behind two teenage children, and this event and its aftermath were very much on my mind.
Then I asked myself, who Jim is telling his story to? Is he in therapy? Is it one of the doctors who saved his life? The twist was that it was St Peter and that Jim was an atheist. He got a second chance and woke up on the operating table. My agent loved it! She said that we should put it out there immediately.
But Transworld, my then publisher, exercised their right of first refusal. My book lacked a strong female character and I’d been published under their women’s fiction imprint, something that had completely passed me by. And so I set the manuscript aside and got on with writing I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things. But I held onto a soft spot for Jim and his owl story. The material was too good to shelve. And so, when I came to the end of my next project, I began to re-write it.
Unless you want to be pigeon-holed as an author of Christian fiction, you can’t play the religion card twice. Having exhausted this with These Fragile Things, St Peter had to be shown the door. In the meantime, knife crime had risen dramatically in London. My story already had knife crime in it, so I explored where I could take that.
I added two new characters, Ayisha, another teacher and a pupil, Shamayal. By layering his story with Jim’s, I was able to reflect on cause and effect. It was an opportunity to acknowledge the enormous changes I have witnessed over the past twenty or so years. The cultural mix – in my South London middle school there was only one black family. My friends’ children simply cannot understand how we survived without mobile phones in the ‘olden days’ and why there are so few photographs of us. Children and adults were members of different species. Gangs were very different things then. Children didn’t kill children. Today, hearing about gang fights is unavoidable. I read a lot of personal accounts during my research, including one teenage victim who was dumped in a garbage bin and left for dead. Sadly, there are lots of truths in my book.
5) Tell us about your writing process – how does it all come together?
As you can probably tell, I am a layer-er. With the exception of Half-truths and White Lies, which virtually wrote itself, none of my published novels bear any resemblance to their early drafts.
All of my books go through numerous rounds of self-editing before I show them to anyone. Then I use a team of about thirty-five beta readers to road test them. They give me all sorts of valuable insights.
After that comes the structural edit. With A Funeral for an Owl, it was my structural editor – the mother of teenage children – who pointed out that there were some flaws in my initial ‘research’ (or lack of). It was while I was ironing out those issues that I unearthed another major flaw: I had failed to take account of the fact that it’s thirty years since I left school. The behaviour of my teachers would have been illegal under current Child Protection laws. All of the information I needed was available on the local government website, had I realised I needed it. Then it struck me that this provided a huge opportunity. I could change the focus of the novel: what kind of boy would it take to make two teachers put their jobs on the line? And it gave the plot a new momentum.
My angle was the suggestion that some of the rules that have been put in place with the best of intentions – to protect – actually deprive the most vulnerable children of confidential counsel from someone they trust. Not everyone will agree with that view but, when I was growing up, we had a wonderful teacher who operated an open-house and provided a safe place for those who were struggling at home, no questions asked. It was surprising who would turn up at her door. Today, in an environment when any relationship between teachers and pupils outside the classroom is taboo, she would be sacked. I think that’s terribly sad. Fiction provides a unique opportunity to tell one side of a story through the eyes of one or two characters. It’s not the whole picture by any means, but it is one aspect of it.
Every time you introduce a new angle, each What if? question has to be pushed to its limits. Writing in such an organic manner is hardly ideal, and I would certainly never recommend it, but setting material aside and revisiting it is an excellent practice. It allows far greater objectivity. You have to analyse what isn’t working any why.
Writing is very much a learning process. I’d like to think that my writing had improved by the time I returned to Owl. I went back and polished every page, really concentrating on the short-lived relationship between Jim and Aimee. Young as Jim was, even though there was an age difference, even though their relationship didn’t develop, there would have been sexual attraction. Ignore something as critical as that, even if you think it might be taboo, and the writing you produce is dishonest. When someone has spent years dwelling on a very short period of time, on events that gained greater significance afterwards, you aren’t simply reporting facts. Jim would have embellished the story in his mind. The Aimee the reader meets is the memory of the memory of the memory. She had to shine, everything she said had to carry a message, and the summer had to feel endless. My job was to convince the reader that these few events shaped a man’s life.
6) What comes first for you? The characters or the plot?
The characters, always. Get them right and they do the hard work for you.
Nailing the voice of Shamayal, my disenfranchised contemporary teenager was crucial. Can I get this out of the way? I’m white, middle(ish) class and born in the 1960s, writing the voice of an under-privileged mixed race boy, born in the 1990s. The first property I bought was a two-bedroom flat on the High Path Estate in Wimbledon. This was my blueprint for my fictional estate. Although I haven’t walked in his shoes, living where Shamayal grew up, I have walked in his footsteps. Then, I borrowed a few mannerisms from someone I used to work with – the repetition of Right, right, right. The deep laugh. I watched a few episodes of Toy Boy and (tell me if you can get arrested for this) I jotted down conversations overheard on trains and in my local park. Of course, you could never actually transcribe teenagers’ speech patterns. They would be completely unreadable. After you delete all of the ‘likes’ and the majority of expletives, what you aim to arrive at is a sanitised version which still sounds authentic. Think Ronnie Barker’s approach when he wrote the script for Porridge.
It’s a joy to write characters like Shamayal and Bins (an elderly man who is assumed to have learning difficulties) because they have such unique voices. You can hear them speaking to you. It’s far more difficult to write dialogue for an ‘everyman’, like my main character, Jim. To do that, you have to find your character’s quirks and vulnerabilities and exploit the hell out of them.
7) Do you write with a particular theme or message in mind, and if so what might it be?
A Funeral for an Owl shares its central theme with Half-truths and White Lies, I Stopped Time, and to a lesser extent These Fragile Things, that is, the influence missing persons have on our lives. Whether an absent parent, the child who never was, a friend who died an untimely death, the object of our unrequited love who finds a love of his own, or friends we lose touch with, we all collect them, particularly as we get older.
I found myself studying the Missing Persons ads in The Metro, the fourteen and fifteen-year-olds whose stories aren’t sufficiently high-profile to land them on the pages of newspapers. They’re simply slipping between the cracks. And so I looked into the facts. At that time, one in ten children ‘ran away’ from home before they reach the age of sixteen, an estimated 100,000 every year. Shockingly, a quarter of those young people are actually forced out of their homes by parents or carers. Two-thirds aren’t even reported as missing. That’s 75,000 children for whom a Missing Persons ad will never be placed. All of these children are highly vulnerable, at risk of substance abuse, sexual exploitation and homelessness. Mobile phones and social networking sites have made it even easier to target them. I include a particularly poignant quote from Lady Catherine Meye at the beginning of my novel. “We can’t establish for certain how many children are missing. You’d have more chance of finding a stray dog.”
7) Do you find it hard to say goodbye to your characters? And if so, which character from A Funeral for an Owl would you like to revisit the most?
The truth is that I’ve never actually said goodbye to the characters in Owl. I’ve blurred the lines between my lives and theirs by including some of my personal history and setting their stories in my local neighbourhood. There’s something transportative about living in the same area all of your life; walking around familiar geography, knee-deep in the history of the place. And superimposed over a street map carried both inside and outside your head (the housing estate that now stands on the site of your old high school), are important milestones. When you learned to ride a bike. Your first kiss. The first flat you owned. But when I started setting fiction within my personal geography, I added an additional strata. Now when I walk in my local park, I see Jim pausing to stretch on his daily run. I see Aimee showing him the heron. We live with our characters so long that they’re kin to us. In a way, we know them better than friends and family, because we’ve seen through their eyes and know their every thought.
But you asked about my favourite character in Owl and that has to be Bins. Some readers assumed he was autistic, but that wasn’t my intention. I suffered from depression for many years and, in an age when suicide statistics speak for themselves, I enjoy celebrating people who’ve found their own ways of living. In my local town we have a wizard who walks the length of the high street in his full regalia, complete with a black cat on his shoulder; we have a very masculine-looking Scotsman who wears a very badly-fitting cotton floral dress; we have a man who goes about with a tank strapped to his back spraying the air, and a young chap who stands on street corners conducting the traffic, and singing hymns at the top of his voice. These are all logical responses to an insane world. Small communities – and children in particular – accommodate people who don’t fall into our narrow definition of what’s ‘normal’. It was only when watching a programme about the artist Chuck Close that I became aware of the condition Prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness’, and appreciated how someone who didn’t appear to recognise people he’d met dozens of times before might be treated as if he was stupid, and if he was treated as if he was stupid, how he might eventually come to believe that.
8) Do you have a day job, and if so, does it help your writing in any way?
I left school at the age of sixteen, so I had time to fit in a twenty-five-year career in insurance before I left full-time employment to write. I was promoted to management at the age of twenty-one and appointed to the board of directors at the age of twenty-six. I’m not sure I would have found the confidence to write unless I’d had those opportunities – and unless I knew that my opinions were taken seriously. As a writer with a part-time job, I live on a very tight budget, so the days that I go up to the city feel like outings. In fact, my walk across London Bridge, through the city and along the riverside path provided plenty of inspiration for my new novel, Smash all the Windows.
8) Tell us about your next release
As you can probably sense from the title, 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.
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 book is about the emotional fallout. It’s very much a story of human resilience.
9) What will you be working on next?
Do you know, I have absolutely no idea. I never start work on the next book until the current one is published, so I haven’t even starting thinking about it yet.
12) What is your approach to marketing and self-promotion?
One of the joys of self-publishing is deciding how to present your work and I’m very involved in the cover design process, coming up with the concepts and sourcing the photographs. My brief to my designer is that I wanted my books to look like a set and that there are elements that are instantly recognisable.
I’m very active on social media and I try to extend my reach by interviewing other authors in the hope that their audiences will also enjoy my fiction. I’ve also had enormous support from the book blogging community, especially for my forthcoming release. Most book bloggers have full-time jobs and they’re not paid, but the ones who reply to me say they receive upwards of 500 requests a month. I think we really have to treasure them.
The truth is that what worked a few years ago in terms of promotion no longer works. BookBub is seen as the Holy Grail, but since traditional publishers have jumped on board, it’s increasingly hard to secure a spot. The economics of Facebook advertising didn’t work for me. The problem is that eBook prices are artificially low, and we pay the same as someone who is selling an item that costs hundreds of pounds. For me, the game-changer at the moment is Amazon Marketing Services. It’s only available on Amazon.com, but we’re told will be coming to the UK. That’s where my marketing budget goes at the moment.
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 favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
Twenty years of change. One person who cares
A photograph of a barn owl in flight.
“The wings, all spread out and that? They’re kind of like an angel’s.” He’s right.It’s Aimee’s owl, Aimee’s angel.
Times have changed. Jim Stevens teaches history. Haunted by his own, he still believes everyone can learn from the past.
14-year-old Shamayal Thomas trusts no one. Not the family, not the gang. And at school, trusting people is forbidden.
“If you decide you gotta pick up that phone, you tell me first so that I can disappear myself. Because I ain’t havin’ none of that.”
The best way to avoid trouble, thinks Ayisha Emmanuelle, is to avoid confrontation. As an inner-city schoolteacher, she does a whole lot of avoidance.
One shocking event – a playground stabbing – leaves a life hanging in the balance. Two teachers risk their careers to help a boy who has nothing. Three worlds intersect and connect, regardless of the rules. History doesn’t always repeat itself.
A powerful exploration of the ache of loss set in a landscape where broken people can heal each other.
‘All the heartbreak of A Kestrel for a Knave (Kes) and then some. Imagine Billy Casper living in South London in the 1990s.’
Universal buy link for A Funeral for an Owl is https://books2read.com/u/4DoGRk
Amazon UK paperback https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1493504088
Also by the Author
Half-truths & White Lies
I Stopped Time
These Fragile Things
An Unchoreographed Life
An Unknown Woman
My Counterfeit Self
Smash all the Windows
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage