7 April 2015

Writing it Down Big

my Tuesday Talk guest, Jane Davis talks about her latest novel 
and the Big Issues of Life - sex and religion

“I don't think that just because one is an inexperienced novelist, one should shy away from the big questions,” Francesca Kay replied, when interviewed. Like my novel, These Fragile Things, her second novel The Translation of the Bones tackles the subjects of miracles and religious fervour. For me, core to these two issues is the human need to have something to believe in. I love Karen Armstrong’s take: “In the beginning, man invented God.” In These Fragile Things, I added sex into the mix. To me, sex and religion are the two big subjects and they have been central to my writing since I first began to explore my voice.
The following excerpt is taken from my unpublished novel, After Hilary. Lucy is discussing conversations with her murdered friend with a Catholic priest. When someone has been brought up to pray, talking to the dead is second nature.

The Stuff of Life

“You need to share your memories, Lucy, to let them out, give them a bit of an airing. And make some room for the living in there.” He pointed to his head. “So what did you talk about, Lucy?”
“Nothing important.”
“Who’s to say what’s not important? Everything has some value. Hhmm?” He left long, uncomfortable silences between sentences. “Will you share your memories with me Lucy?” he coaxed.
“Magazines, fashion…stuff,” I said, risking a glance up. He nodded and smiled and I continued “Boys, sex, religion, footballers’ legs.”
“Well that’s not nothing!” he proclaimed. “I can’t claim to know a lot about fashion, but sex and religion are the two great subjects of life. In fact, they’re the very stuff of life! That’s marvellous! And what do you talk about now, Lucy? What do you tell her about now?”
 “The same stuff, really. How I’m feeling. What annoys me on the news. If I’ve seen a jumper she’d like. It doesn’t stop, you know? There are always loads of things I want to tell her.”

During my lifetime, I have witnessed a seismic shift in subjects that are considered ‘taboo’. Sex has slipped way down the bottom of the list. Though I doubt I understood all of its subtleties, I was disappointed by how tame Lady Chatterley’s Lover seemed when I first read it. In the 50 Shades era we are almost impossible to shock. The F-word, that proved such an inconvenience to the publishers of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, became the title for a primetime television programme. Over the past year or so, we have learned the dangers of tip-toeing around certain subjects. Once they are opened up for discussion, there seems to be no end to what comes out of the woodwork. We have lost whatever remained of our innocence.

Religion - “the preserve of oddities, minorities and foreigners” (Rowan Williams) - remains, and money - having it, hiding it, not voluntarily paying the highest rate of tax possible on it - has made a surprise entry.

To be universal, you must make it personal

The reason why the novel is such an ideal medium for ‘big subjects’ is that it is the only narrative form that transports the reader directly inside characters’ heads, describing their conflicts, emotions and thoughts from the inside. By exploring an issue from the standpoint of one or two individuals, giving it context, providing motive, showing cause and effect, we humanise it.

“You must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this.” Anne Lammott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

I took a big theme for my novel An Unchoreographed Life, which tells the story of how a ballerina turns to prostitution when she becomes a single mother. It was a year in which the number of sex workers increased to a level not seen in London since the eighteenth century, and a year in which we learned how much they were contributing to the economy. Of course, the real issue is how the mother’s job impacts on her daughter, who we get to know at the age of six just as her curiosity is growing.

With An Unknown Woman, I didn’t deliberately choose a ‘big subject’. I began to write what I thought was a simple story about a family placed under the microscope when crisis brings them together. I wanted to tackle the subjects that are relevant to the life I am living now, which has very little bearing on how I imagined it would be when I was a child, or when my father told me, “When you are an adult, you can do exactly as you like.” How material possessions inform our sense of self. The extension of youth into what was previously thought of as middle age. What it’s like to be childless when the majority of friends have children, even when childlessness was a positive choice.

Based very loosely on my elderly neighbour’s personal experience, I also explored the issue of what happens when the bond between mother and daughter is absent. In my neighbour’s case, the women in his wife’s family only had daughters and appeared to be unable to form any sort of bond with them, and so he spent his married life guarding his wife’s secret by being both mother and father. It was only when I sent my manuscript to beta readers that I realised, far from being a ‘small story’, this issue is more common than I could have possibly imagined. But while the subjects of post-natal depression and delayed bonding are discussed, the sense of shame that a mother experiences when she cannot love a child – sometimes a child who was very much wanted – precludes that same openness. Of the subjects that remain unspeakable, Bjork said, “There are certain emotions in your body that not even your best friend can sympathise with, but you will find the right film or the right book, and it will understand you.”

“Write it down big,” Anna used to demand of Fynn in Mister God This is Anna whenever an idea grabbed her. 

That’s certainly what I intend to keep doing.

Author Biography

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. She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when Jane achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she had wanted after all. In search of a creative outlet, she turned to writing fiction, but cites the disciplines learnt in the business world as what helps her finish her first 120,000-word novel.
Her first, 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.’

Five self-published novels have followed: 

I Stopped Time
These Fragile Things
A Funeral for an Owl, 
An Unchoreographed Life 
and now her latest release, An Unknown Woman

Jane’s favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’

Twitter @janedavisauthor

Buy ebook from Amazon http://goo.gl/EaiKXW

By paperback from Amazon: http://goo.gl/8AnAz7


  1. Intriguing! You have me hooked. Love the cover!

  2. Thanks, Donna. So glad you like the cover.


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