Thursday 1 March 2018

From injustice to insight: Jane Davis guest-posts about what inspired her new novel's powerful examination of resilience after tragedy

My guest today is Jane Davis, who has written an absolutely fascinating range of novels. I do love this, that she doesn't keep stirring the pot and serving up the same old same old: every book has an extraordinary cover and an extraordinary, individual tale to tell. Her latest is no exception: Smash all the Windows tells you by its title that it is about rage and rebellion against injustice. I'm always fascinated by the triggers for story and how stories take hold of us until we simply must tell them. Here's Jane's account of how this latest novel came into being for her –

Write about how Smash all the Windows came into being? It sounds so simple.

The seed of my novel was anger. I remember that quite clearly. I was appalled by the press’s reaction to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at family members as they emerged stunned and blinking from the courtroom. It was put to them that, now that the original ruling had been overturned, they could get on with their lives. What lives? Were these the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Or the lives that they might have been entitled to expect?

For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crowd-crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. What was particularly shocking was how the disaster played out in real-time in living rooms across the country. Live commentary informed television viewers that Liverpool fans were to blame. In that moment, victims became scapegoats. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set straight.

Elizabeth Strout, an author I greatly admire, tells her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful.’ And I agree. I really do. But none of us exist in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members in the aftermath of the second inquest, twenty-seven years after the disaster, was raw. My favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. And so combining two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – I created a fictional disaster.

The previous year, on my way to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. Already overloaded from a day’s work in the city, I also had a suitcase full of books in tow. The escalator I would normally have used was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was obviously much steeper, but I was totally unprepared for how fast it was. When I pushed my suitcase in front of me, it literally dragged me off-balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.

My fictional disaster shared many common elements with Hillsborough. Because both incidents happened before the explosion of the internet, voices weren’t heard as they would be today. Photographs weren’t posted on Twitter. In both instances, someone in management was new to the job. There were elements of institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way’ is still the most dangerous sentence in the English language.) Facilities dated from a time when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t understood. Risk assessments hadn’t considered how multiple casualties might be dealt with. Both disasters blighted the lives of many hundreds – survivors, witnesses, families and friends, and the police, doctors and nurses who dealt with the aftermath. I also wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their appalling treatment as they searched for loved ones.

But, writing about my fictional incident, new difficulties soon presented themselves. And they came from far closer to home. In May 2017 came the London Bridge attack, an incident that took place within the setting of my novel. I witnessed first-hand the bouquets of red roses that spanned the full width of the bridge. The messages written to loved ones. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries.

Susan Sontag said, ‘Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape.’ I had to make conscious decisions if I should let this disaster shape the story I was writing.

I had already realised that I didn’t want to write a book about blame. This would do an injustice to the many individuals who behave heroically in the most terrible circumstances. Added to which, everything I read about accident investigation delivered a clear message. Any finding that an individual is to blame is not only likely be biased, but will fail to get to the root of how the disaster happened. Corporate Manslaughter remains an option, but there are difficulties and dangers holding companies and organisations to account. Unwittingly, in setting my disaster in a London Underground station, I picked a prime example of an organisation that is subjected to crippling external pressures. London’s rapidly growing population is the most obvious. Add to this the inherent difficulties of expanding the Tube network. And nowhere are these challenges more concentrated than in the City. I certainly didn’t hold London Underground to be responsible for my fictional disaster.

Then in June 2017 came the Grenfell Fire, the most heart-breaking tragedy of recent years, not only because of the scale of the devastation, but because facts quickly emerged that suggested it could have been prevented. Inadvertently, in avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I now appeared to be commentating on two disasters, both of which were far closer to home! And having made a decision to write about unblame rather than blame, I was seriously out of tune with public opinion. 

Fortunately the focus of my novel is human drama. My challenge was translate the emotional fallout onto the page, capturing all of the guarded memories, the hidden sorrow of a man whose wife will no longer leave the house, the man who mourns not only the loss of a daughter but his unborn grandson and the end of his family line, a woman who beats herself up for having been a bad mother, the daughter who must assume position as head of the household, the sculptor who turns his grief into art, the sheer heroism involved in getting up day after day and going out into a world that has betrayed you. The real story is about human resilience and the healing power of art. It is a story with a beating heart.

Smash all the Windows:

It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.

It will take courage to learn how to live again.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.
Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.

Smash all the Windows is currently on special offer at only 99p until May 31st. The Universal Link is - choose your vendor and order from there.

About Jane:

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’.

Jane has also written: 

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I, for one, am delighted it's March now! February was not my friend: I'm still ill with a tenacious virus but will be launching my first online course, Get Ready to Write, later in the year. If you're not already on my newsletter list and you want to be among the first to know more about my courses and special offers, then you can sign up here. You'll get a free productivity guide too!

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