Today, we welcome Jane Davis, whose latest novel, Smash all the Windows is available from 12 April. Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, I’m going to let Jane speak to you in her own words about her 8th novel and her writing.
For those who aren’t familiar with your writing, what can they expect?
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.
Can you tell us about your new novel Smash all The Windows?
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.
But you chose not to write about Hillsborough. Why was that?
None of us exists in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members as they struggled with the question was raw. I didn’t want to be the one to add to that pain, so I decided to create a fictional disaster. But because I didn’t want to write from a place of comfort, I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators.
The previous year, en route to a Covent Garden book-reading, I’d suffered a fall. The escalator I normally use was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was much steeper, but I was totally unprepared for its speed. When I pushed my suitcase full of books in front of me, I was dragged off-balance. Fortunately, no one was directly in front. I escaped relatively unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.
I think it’s my most contemporary book to date. I’ve written it in the present tense because I wanted the parachute the reader right into the centre of the action. I also have a far larger cast of characters than I’ve worked with before. My disaster blighted the lives of hundreds of people – survivors, witnesses, families, friends, the police, doctors and nurses who had to deal with the aftermath. There was the potential to add more, but I chose to focus on five family members, their partners and the people they lost in the disaster.
Also, when most injustices are overturned, there is usually an individual in the background. The one who realised that an injustice had been done and who then worked tirelessly behind the scenes in order to construct a case. With the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, that person was Eric, a law student, still some way from qualifying as a solicitor. The outsider in the story, his arrival proves to be a turning point for families, who’ve all but given up in their search for justice. In the midst of all of the heartbreak and human reaction, his conviction reminds the families that they still have a little fight left in them.
Is there an important theme (or themes) that this story illustrates?
In a way this was an odd piece of story-telling, because the reader knows right at the outset what the key event is. The St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster was a large-scale disaster that resulted in the deaths of fifty-eight commuters. The challenge was to show the impact of the event on different individuals and their families, who have re-lived it each day of the eighteen month long inquest. Because the accident takes place in an underground station, we see the various characters travelling towards it.
In fiction, there’s a temptation to try to undo the wrongs of the real world by applying logic, assuming that there is a single ‘truth’. I prefer to ask questions rather than give answers. Who are the victims? Should individuals have been held accountable when large-scale accidents occur, or does this prevent identification of the factors that create circumstances that allow accidents to happen? How should families and friends of victims be treated when they’re searching for or identifying loved ones? Should those same people be allowed to participate fully in inquests? But it’s not a book about technicalities. It’s about human resilience, healing and art.
Have you compared the book to any other writers or novels you’ve read? What’s the same? What’s different?
I hope it will be enjoyed by readers of How to be Both by Ali Smith and How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall. Both have much to say on fragile, precious and unpredictable life is. Both focus on what it means to be human and our innate connection with art. Neither is likely to put you off escalators…
Smash all the Windows will be released on 12 April. You can order it here. Don’t miss out!