We are very thankful to Jane, author of An Unknown Woman, for being part of our growing book club. Her book is featured in November’s Club (Thursday 7th November). To find out a bit more about this talented local author please read the following interview.
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.
Your novels have strong elements of biography and I notice that you’ve confessed to loving biographies as a genre. How much has this influenced your fiction and in what way?
An interviewer put it to me that novels can be regarded as ‘fictionalised biography’. I think I came close to this in my novel, My Counterfeit Self, which told the story of a political poet activist called Lucy Forrester. Many readers couldn’t believe she wasn’t a real person.
Fiction is a way of telling a single truth through the eyes of a single person. I tend to use several points of view, so that I can explore different reactions to and opposing viewpoints about the same event. Biography also does that, but a biographer has a responsibility to his subjects in a way that a novelist doesn’t.
Tell us about An Unknown Woman.
My main character is Anita Hall who, at the age of forty-six, thinks she knows exactly who she is. She has lived with partner Ed for fifteen years and is proud of all they’ve achieved. They go out into the world separately: Ed with one eye on the future in the world of finance; Anita with one foot the past, a curator at Hampton Court Palace. She is living the life she has chosen – choices that weren’t open to her mother’s generation – working in her dream job, being part of an equal partnership, living mortgage-free in a quirky old house she adores. Her future seems knowable and secure.
But then Anita finds herself standing in the middle of the road watching her home and everything inside it burn to the ground. And before she can come to terms with the magnitude of her loss, hairline cracks begin to appear in her perfect relationship. Very quickly it becomes apparent that nothing is as it had seemed. Then, when she returns to her childhood home in search of comfort, she stumbles upon the secret that her mother has kept hidden, a taboo so unspeakable it can only be written about.
What is the theme of the story and what prompted you to write about this subject matter?
This book is very much a reflection of what was happening in my own life over the fifteen months that I wrote it. Having given up a high-powered job (and the salary that went with it) my life felt as if it had shrunk.
With many adults still living at home with their parents at the age of thirty, and with life expectancy on the increase, middle-age, too, seems to have shifted. In my late forties, logic told me that I was middle-aged, and yet in many ways, with less responsibility than I’d had since starting work at the age of sixteen, it was as if I’d fallen out of adulthood. I wanted to write something that reflected that new state of affairs.
The main character, Anita, is the same age that I was at the time I began to write the book. Her personal circumstances are also similar to mine. She lives in my house, for example. She has been living with a man she is not married to for fifteen years and they have made the decision not to have children. And even though she believes that this was the right decision for them, it isolates her from her contemporaries, whose children are their main focus. She feels cut off from the life she imagined for herself since the age of ten.
In 2013, I took the decision to cut back on paid work, which meant selling the car and ridding myself of a lot of material baggage along the way. The book is in part an exploration of how our material possessions inform our identities. It begins with a couple standing in the road outside their house watching it burn to the ground. It is very recognisably my house. Then in February 2014, after I’d finished the first draft of the book, life reflected art/fiction when my sister and her husband lost their house and everything in it to the winter floods.
They lived on the island on the Thames that you can see in the first photograph in this article here. Suddenly there appeared to be an extra layer of meaning in every line I wrote.
The loss of my sister’s house made me question if I should abandon the project. The imagined scenario I had been writing about become a reality for someone very close to me. I gave her the choice, which was possibly a little unfair. I didn’t realise at the time I made the decision to continue, or even when I went to press, that eighteen months later, they would only have just received planning permission and that it would be three years before the house was rebuilt and they are still in litigation with the builder! However, it was clear that the shape of the book had to change. There’s a famous quote: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up the tree, and once they are there, to throw rocks at them.” While Anita finds one hell of a lot of rocks flying in her direction, I chose my ammunition more carefully than I would have done otherwise, replacing a few sharp flints with smooth pebbles.
What research did you do for the book?
Aside from seeing my sister’s personal circumstances play out during the editing of the book, there main source of inspiration was my elderly neighbour who told me his story and asked me to write about it. His wife had very much wanted a child, but when their daughter was born, his wife was unable to bond with her. This wasn’t post-natal depression, which is relatively common, but an active dislike which worsened over the years. Husband and wife never acknowledged it, never spoke about it, but it was always there: the unspoken truth. My neighbour spent his married life trying to compensate, being both mother and father to their daughter. When I put pen to paper, I thought that I was putting one family under the microscope, but several of my beta readers responded with details of very similar experiences, either relating to their relationships with their children or their mothers. They were glad that it had been written about. We hold the mother/daughter relationship in particular in such high esteem that it seems particularly difficult to accept that it’s not always an easy and natural thing. In fact, in many cases it seems to be the very opposite.
I had some very happy outings to Hampton Court Palace, quizzing the staff about their jobs and studying ancient graffiti, which I find endlessly fascinating. Because Hampton Court is a place people know or can imagine, I think that my job is to zone in on the detail. There’s a processional passage in the Tudor Palace and, on a deep windowsill, there is a graffiti outline of a hand. Somehow, despite the fact that we’ll never know the identity of this person, it seems far more personal than carving your initials. In fact, I found it very moving. My instinct on seeing it was to put my hand within the outside of the hand, and I could see from the sheen of the stone that many others had done this before me, so there is a whole trail of connectivity between me and whoever it was that left their mark.
One thing that I didn’t manage to do was to see The Portrait of the Unknown Woman, which is Anita’s obsession. It’s housed in an area that is not normally open to the public – although, unbeknown to me, it actually was open on one of the days I visited! Although the identity of many of the people in portraits in the palace is unknown, this particular one has attracted so many controversial theories because it was previously displayed under the title Queen Elizabeth In Fanciful Dress. But that all changed when an art historian pointed out something very striking about the lady in question – she’s pregnant. It was quickly claimed that the frame on which Queen Elizabeth’s name was inscribed had been recycled. They had no idea who the real subject was. But the fact remains that the painting has been altered substantially, and we have to ask, why go to all that trouble if there wasn’t something to hide? SEE HERE
When I finished reading An Unknown Woman, I felt all the women were unknown – Anita, her mother and the woman in the painting. Was this deliberate on your part?
Quite early in the novel, Anita’s mother, Patti, is reflecting on taking her to the V&A, where they saw fabulous costumes made by ‘unknown dressmakers’ and Patti recalls how her young daughter had said to her that the dressmaker must have been a woman, “Because if it had been a man, we’d know his name.”
It was considered that Patti had enormous promise. She was the first one in her family to get A Levels. But she married young, fell pregnant almost immediately and did what most women of her generation did: she gave up work. So she went from being this carefree young woman to a housewife within the space of a year and, of course, it changed her. I think she very felt very alone – almost as if she’d become invisible. And, of course, Anita undergoes an identity crisis when she loses almost everything she owns. Forced to start from scratch, she has to discover who she is all over again.
To me, the unknown woman came to represent every woman whose name has not been preserved in history. And there are many of them. The fact is that even a Queen may wear a mask.
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 was 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’.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Jane Davis Website: www.jane-davis.co.uk
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage
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High resolution photos available from https://jane-davis.co.uk/media-kit/